Senate debates

Thursday, 28 June 2012


Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011, Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2012, Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2011; Second Reading

7:19 pm

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

These three Stronger Futures bills will undermine the human rights of Indigenous communities. It really does defy understanding why they have been brought forward in this form. Anything that is positive in the package will be rendered meaningless because they are so deeply discriminatory.

The Stronger Futures bills actually betray Labor's own actions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Labor's misnamed Stronger Futures bills I do believe are actually an insult to Labor's history in this area. There was the famous day when former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam met with Aboriginal elders in the Northern Territory, one of them being Vincent Lingiari. It was 1975 and there is that famous photo where they let the red sand run through their hands in a most important ceremony and handover of land. Then, in 1992, we had the historic Redfern speech by former Prime Minister Paul Keating. Again, it was a most historic day. So many people quote that speech to me, and not just in the context of Aboriginal affairs but as a fantastic speech that inspired them to stand up for social justice not just for Aboriginal people but for people across the board. I can clearly understand why Labor members would be proud of it, and many people in Australia would see it as most significant.

In 2008, we had that most moving day when former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spoke at Sorry Day. I think many of us can remember where we were and how deeply moved we were. I am not saying Labor's own Indigenous history and their response is perfect—far from it—but there is so much to be proud of. But, when we look at this Stronger Futures package, that history really has been trashed. The Stronger Futures package actually continues the intervention. I want to take some time for us to remind ourselves, because it is so relevant to this debate, what was involved in the intervention and why it was introduced. As we know, the intervention was initiated by former Prime Minister John Howard, with the support of his then Indigenous affairs minister, Mr Mal Brough. Unfortunately, and I think sadly, it was continued by the Rudd government and then the Gillard government. The intervention was officially known as the Northern Territory National Emergency Response. It was a package of welfare changes, law enforcement and land takeovers. It was introduced, as I said, by the federal government. It was at a time when there were these very distressing and extraordinary claims of sexual and other types of abuse.

Let's firstly deal with the issue of sexual abuse, because it still comes up in these debates. I do not know anybody who would deny there is a problem with sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities, and I understand that in many areas the rate of abuse is high. However, the government review of the intervention that was released at the end of last year found that the conviction rate stayed steady at about 11 per year. There were not all these arrests and all these results from the intervention. We had the extraordinary situation—and it still shocks me that this occurred in my own country, in my lifetime—of the intervention into Aboriginal communities by the Army. I know they were instructed to go in there by the government—it was government policy—but it was certainly deeply wrong.

The other thing that is relevant to how necessary this intervention was is the Territory government's publication Little children are sacred. Of the report's 97 recommendations, only two were implemented. That clearly shows how problematic the way in which that whole era was conducted. But the important point that I want to make here is that, when that intervention occurred, we were just months out from a federal election and it really looked like the coalition could lose it. That intervention was electorally motivated. Right from the time the intervention was first initiated, the then opposition leader, Mr Kevin Rudd, should have ruled it out. There was no need for Labor to incorporate it into their policy. That they did so and continued it when they were in government is quite disgraceful.

The Northern Territory intervention has eroded local governance and disempowered communities. It has also done nothing to improve the safety and wellbeing of children in the Northern Territory. There is a continuing lack of health and wellbeing support, which is clearly a key issue. And then there are the costs. The Northern Territory intervention costs are climbing above $1 billion. I am sure that many of us, not just the Greens, can only imagine what better outcomes would have been achieved if this money had been spent on properly targeted community directed programs. You have heard the earlier Greens speakers, my colleagues Senator Ludlam and Senator Waters, give great emphasis to this theme of community involvement.

There is another very telling aspect of how this intervention was rolled out, and that is the extraordinary situation whereby the Racial Discrimination Act had to be suspended in order for the intervention legislation to be passed. Obviously, that was deeply shameful. I think many people are aware that the intervention was actually condemned by the United Nations for its racial discrimination against Aboriginal people and their cultures. I remember this was really getting traction. It was starting to penetrate into some of the east coast areas, where obviously this story needed to be emphasised because this was where it was so important to help influence decision makers as more people were understanding the situation. I really do believe that a great effort was made by the Rudd government to remove this criticism, which was continually coming up. So what did we see happen? The Racial Discrimination Act was reinstated, but it was reinstated in a way that I think was quite disgraceful. The Rudd government expanded the scheme to apply to all people in the Northern Territory based on their age and how long they had been in receipt of Centrelink payments. We saw there that the Racial Discrimination Act was reinstated but not in the way that it should have been, because the discrimination was still there, well and truly.

One point before I go on to some more detail about the Stronger Futures bills is to acknowledge what we lost when the intervention came in. There were certainly serious problems in the Northern Territory. However, as happens sometimes in life, when something changes you realise that you have lost a great deal. I am referring here to some of the programs that were in place prior to the intervention. The intervention did result in further dispossession of Aboriginal communities. There was closure of the Community Development Employment Projects. These were run by Aboriginal organisations, often the community council, and it meant that the direction of the development and employment arrangements were guided by Aboriginal priorities. This was really critical. Many of the people whom I knew worked in the Territory at the time often explained to me that many Aboriginal people were able to get employment under this scheme. When it went, one of the main sources of employment, and therefore dignity, livelihood and interaction with one's community, was stripped away. The other thing that was lost with the intervention was the Aboriginal community government councils. I did want to put that on the record. As I say, I think many of us would have spoken prior to 2007 about the great inadequacies in government policy for Aboriginal communities. But when those were lost to Aboriginal communities, they really were enormously disadvantaged.

We have the three Stronger Futures bills before us. There is enormous criticism of them by Aboriginal communities right across the country. Many supporters and many Aboriginal communities are deeply concerned about how this legislation will play out. I would like to share with you some comments that I have received. Nicole Watson, writing in Arena No. 118, stated:

To say that the Stronger Futures legislation is difficult to comprehend is an understatement.

Together with the Explanatory Memoranda, the three Bills run to over three hundred pages. Even for lawyers, unravelling the legislation is an onerous task because it requires reference to earlier legislation. It beggars belief that the general consultations conducted between June and August could have resulted in such a detailed legislative result.

There is an important point in that last sentence. The consultation that has been undertaken here is really what many people these days call 'tick in a box' consultation. It is not real, it is not meaningful and it is not really gauging people's opinion. It is about allowing the ministers to say that the consultation has been done so that the media releases can be put out.

These three pieces of legislation have been developed without the informed consent of Aboriginal communities. The legislation delivers the government 10 years of control. That is bad enough, but when you think of this framework of 10 years it is quite extraordinary. After meeting many people from the Northern Territory and from the Bankstown area, which is going to be one of the trial areas—and I will speak about that later—I am certainly picking up how these bills are causing distress, uncertainty and anger among many communities. Aboriginal elders, community leaders and Aboriginal organisations clearly have a right to control their own futures. We might have the word 'futures' in this bill, but it is certainly not giving control to Aboriginal communities.

Labor, with the support of the coalition, is pushing for more top-down policy making. We really do need to recognise this. No matter how it is dressed up, that will be the outcome when these three complex pieces of legislation are pushed through to control and determine how so much of Aboriginal life will operate for the next 10 years.

Since the Northern Territory intervention started, in 2007, there have been various developments that highlight the huge inadequacy in the approach the government has come forward with. The incarceration of Aboriginal people has increased by 41 per cent. Attempted suicide and self-harm amongst young Aboriginal people has doubled. Aboriginal life expectancy continues to be the lowest of any indigenous group in the world. These are from the government's review of the intervention. When you look at those basic benchmark figures you can see that the situation for Aboriginal people has deteriorated.

When we consider this legislation there has been no clear justification from the Labor government based on meaningful, evidence based research. The legislation gives the federal government the power to determine that any state and territory is a jurisdiction in which income management may operate. Once the bill has passed, the government will be able to extend income management wherever it determines, without having to pass further legislation.

It is the issue of income management that I want to give attention to. In one suburb of Sydney, where I come from, it has certainly been motivating many people. I have had the opportunity to meet with a number of members of Aboriginal groups in the area as well as various small business people, people from Muslim organisations and various other community organisations. Bankstown is one of five areas that have been identified by the government where trials will be held under the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011. They are Bankstown, Logan in Queensland, Rockhampton in Queensland, Playford in South Australia and Shepparton in Victoria. The Bankstown community, although they are doing it tough and they are very distressed about this, are certainly very well organised and are being very effective in how they are getting their voice heard.

On the issue of how this system of income management will work, between 50 to 70 per cent of the income support payments are quarantined as credit on a BasicsCard, which can then be used as an EFTPOS card to buy groceries et cetera from approved stores. There are only certain things that can be bought, only at approved stores, and the total has to be over $5. That is one of the issues that some business people in Bankstown have taken up. They have been concerned they are going to lose business. So, again, you see the degree to which the government is bringing in a policy that just does not work and is certainly a negative for many sections of our community.

The nominated payments, in terms of a BasicsCard, can affect Newstart, youth allowance, parenting payment, sickness benefit and special benefit. People assessed as vulnerable, and that mainly refers to victims of domestic violence, and others, are at risk of having someone else control their money, when it is not in their interest. A Centrelink social worker is the one who will be assessing this vulnerability. Already I can tell you that people who fear they will be targeted are feeling very vulnerable. They are not confident in terms of how these decisions will be made.

I acknowledge that I have seen interviews with some people who say that they welcome having their income managed, but it should not be imposed on people. That is one of the aspects that is so deeply wrong. I have heard some very sad stories of elderly couples in the Northern Territory who are on the pension and have lived together for a long time and have managed their own income. They lose half their income and have a card that they feel discriminates against them and singles them out in their own community in a destructive way.

The Australian Council of Social Service have made some very useful assessments of these developments. They have a real concern about how the research methodology has been undertaken. The government has relied on the reports from the Northern Territory Emergency Response, and they feel that that has not been adequate. They have also identified that even with careful budgeting it will not be possible to live decently on payments such as the $231 per week you get under Newstart allowance. When you have some of that being managed on the BasicsCard it will be even harder. Then there are those who may have drug or alcohol problems. They believe that is not going to solve those problems as people can find their way around a BasicsCard. What the government should be looking at is targeted intensive support to overcome these addictions and assist people who are in that situation.

Something that comes up regularly when debating this issue is the methodology that the government has used. There are some other useful studies that should be considered. A Menzies School of Health Research report using quantitative data found that income management in the Northern Territory had no beneficial effect on tobacco, cigarette, soft drink or fruit and vegetable sales. Probably many of you have seen the minister doing spot visits and then saying how she saw fruit and vegetables being consumed by people and how that shows that the program has been a success. But, as the Menzies School of Health Research has identified, when you look at the quantitative data the story is quite different.

There are considerable problems with how this legislation is playing out. I want to share with you a comment from Shane Duffy, the national chairperson of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services. He said:

The idea that the quarantining of welfare payments can address the root causes of what is most commonly inter-generational disadvantage is simplistic and naïve.

Addressing entrenched social disadvantage requires sustained investment into community-driven initiatives that promote self-determination and autonomy, rather than programs based on control and punishment.

He went on to say:

If passed, this legislation will be yet another missed opportunity for the Government to step away from failed past policies based on control and punishment, and move towards effective, evidence-based policies that empower communities, promote self-determination and embrace the idea of locally developed and owned solutions.

The Australian Greens acknowledge that there are complex problems facing Indigenous communities that require considered and calm responses. The starting point must be consultation with Aboriginal people. Policy determined by cooperation and consultation is what we need. But that has not happened. The intervention and now the Stronger Futures program have established a 21st century form of the discredited Aboriginal Welfare Board. I will give the final word to some of the Aboriginal elders who I have spoken to. They said that they feel like it is the return of parole officers.


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