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

7:39 pm

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I have some insight into the communities that are most affected by this legislation in that I was fortunate enough to have spent several years of my professional life in Tennant Creek working at the wonderful Anyinginyi Congress Aboriginal Medical Service, a medical organisation run with an Indigenous health board that was community controlled. There were some wonderful people there doing some wonderful work. I was also fortunate to spend some time working in the medical communities of Elcho Island and the Tiwi Islands. We all acknowledge that there are some difficulties in those communities. There are many complexities that need to be addressed. We need to work very hard to try and do what we can do bridge the gaps in health, education, employment and all the other critical indicators. We need to bridge those gaps to ensure that Indigenous people in this country are afforded the same life expectancy and life opportunities that we all are.

I have some very vivid memories of people who saw me as the result of alcohol fuelled violence, such as women who had been attacked with nulla-nullas. But I also have to say that I have some very warm memories of my time there. I spent time with Indigenous women learning about bush tucker. I took trips in the back of a troop carrier—and I think that I have mentioned this before—and I was sung to by the old Aboriginal women and was told that as a result of that song I would soon be married and have babies. As it turns out, they were right.

I do not deny that there are problems in Indigenous communities. But we also have to acknowledge that those sorts of problems are not limited to Indigenous communities—they are problems that exist right across the country. They sometimes occur out of sight but are certainly not out of mind.

When you are confronted with a package of legislation like this, you have to have some sort of framework or principle for determining how you are going to assess it. In my view, one of the abiding principles needs to be: what is the view of those people most affected? It is interesting that we are having this debate after we had a very moving debate on the issue of asylum seekers. I asked that question in that debate. It is all very well and good to be acting in what you believe are the best interests of another group within the community. But we need to ask them what they believe is in their best interests. That consultation is incredibly important.

The second thing that we need to be guided by is the evidence. If we are not guided by evidence for policies on health, social issues and education then we do not have much to go by; we are flying blind. On the issue of consultation, something has become very clear to me as a result of looking through some of the reports of the inquiries that have been done in response to this legislation. I pay tribute to Senator Rachel Siewert, who has worked tirelessly on this issue and was a very strong advocate for the Indigenous community, who were not consulted adequately.

The dissenting report of the inquiry looking at the Northern Territory intervention legislation made it very clear that from the very start of the inquiry the consultation process was totally inadequate. The vast majority of submissions to that inquiry indicated that there were very serious concerns about how consultation had been carried out and how comments made during that consultation process were interpreted. There were problems with the scheduling of meetings, with people being unable to attend. There was inadequate notice of some meetings. Meetings did not run long enough to address important issues. Comments were misreported.

Bodies like the Human Rights Commission brought their concerns about the inadequacy of the consultation process to the attention of government. We had those concerns reiterated by the Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Commission. We had members of the community saying that they were especially critical of the consultation process—that meetings were disorganised and rushed, and materials were not given out in time. For example, Mr Morrish, the CEO of Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation, said:

In relation to the consultation process, I want to bring a couple of points to the committee's attention. The discussion paper on Stronger Futures was actually handed to members of the community literally minutes before the Minister arrived for that consultation. I am not sure how many community members with low levels of numeracy and literacy, in some cases where English is a third or fourth language—

And I cannot stress that enough: English in many of these communities is their third or fourth language. How are they supposed to digest a 28-page document in a matter of minutes, in order to have an informed consultation and for the results of that consultation to be taken back and used in informing the Stronger Futures legislation?

We have the same sort of message from members of the Babbarra Women's Centre, where again they bemoan the lack of preparation and the lack of time for the community to digest, to think about and to discuss with their families what those policies actually mean. They said:

When the Minister and all her staff came in, it just went crazy. It was just so unorganised and everything branched off and everything was quick. People had not really even had time to consider the correlation between the policy and addressing it with the Minister. They didn't have the time to do that.

I was very fortunate to, only recently, be asked to launch the screening of a wonderful documentary about a project called Stand for Freedom. This initiative has the support of eminent Australians right around the country—traditional owners, church leaders, former judges, lawyers—and we now have a petition on that website, which over 30,000 citizens have signed and said that they believe that something needs to happen. I was fortunate enough to launch the documentary, where hundreds of people were crammed into cinemas right around the country—in this case it was in my home state of Victoria—and I was presented with this book, NT Consultations Report 2011: By Quotations.

At the screening of that documentary it was made very clear that the views of the Indigenous community were not represented in the deliberations by government. This is a book of quotations, taken independently because the people involved in this process did not believe that the views of the community members were in fact being faithfully recorded. So we have, for example, the quote from the Alice Springs public meeting, where we hear someone say:

The determinants of health is more than just housing. There is education, there is jobs. It is not just any job; it is actually having control over your workplace, getting paid a fair wage for a fair day's work. That's really important. The more individual and community control that person has in their life, the better their health.

This is something I have, again, said many times in this chamber: that having a decent job, having control over your work and having access to education and employment are as important as any other health intervention that we could muster. This person goes on to say:

These are all things that the intervention has suspended and dismantled. Issues of land and language and law. These are not talked about in these consultations. And they are really the key things that need to be changed.

That theme came through time and time again:

Until governments do recognise the local governance structures, and allow those structures, the elders and the landowners to control things then things aren't going to get better. I think the answer is recognising sovereignty.

We had more critical feedback on the nature of the intervention: 'It's been a total failure', said one person, going on to say:

Rather than closing the gap, the government's own statistics show the Indigenous imprisonment rates have increased by 35 per cent, putting more people in jail. That's the number one statistic. In a lot of other communities in the Northern Territory attendance rates at school have actually dropped, and in some places suicide and self-harm have increased.

It is very clear, through this consultation report—and I commend it to the Senate—that the Indigenous community, to a large degree, believe the intervention is unnecessary and, more importantly, unsuccessful.

When we move beyond the issue of consultation we then get to this question: what does the evidence actually show us? Backing up what we have just heard in that consultation report, perhaps one of the most damning findings is that in fact things have not improved and, in many cases, they have gone backwards. The ineffectiveness of the intervention in improving the wellbeing of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory is evident when you look at the Closing the Gap in the Northern Territory Monitoring Report. School attendance has declined since 2009. Child hospitalisation rates have increased. We have more incidents of personal harm and suicide. The intervention was supposed to improve lives, but instead things are going backwards.

We cannot ignore the evidence—the evidence is clear. It is clear we have an approach here which, as the report says, undermines and disempowers. What was very clear through the Senate inquiry was that the intervention caused the erosion of community governance and disempowerment of Aboriginal people. That has been made very clear. It has been made clear in the manner through which federal, state and territory governments engage with Aboriginal communities—the whole nature of the top-down and punitive approach. The parallel reforms of the CDEP Remote Delivery Service, housing, homelands and abolition of community councils are all issues which caused the undermining and disempowerment of people within the community. And what is very clear is that Stronger Futures carries on that tradition rather than departing from it. The government has made no attempt to address these major problems, as outlined in the Senate inquiry. AMSANT said that the Stronger Futures bill:

… in failing to abandon an intervention approach, will further undermine the control and empowerment of individuals and communities and will enhance factors associated with social exclusion and racial targeting.

AMSANT went on to say:

Such adverse outcomes can be expected in relation to, for example, the continuation of compulsory income management, the expansion of powers of the federal, state and territory authorities, continued blanket bans on alcohol and restricted materials.

And a number of other people said at that inquiry that in fact the intervention has been unsuccessful.

I want to take a minute to talk about the role of the intervention in tackling alcohol abuse. It is clear that we, the Greens, are very proactive in supporting measures to try to address the issues associated with alcohol abuse. In fact, in my time in this chamber I have spent many hours discussing the need to improve the way we price alcohol so that we price it according to the harms it causes rather than having the irrational system we have at the moment, which makes no sense to anybody—not least many people in the alcohol industry. We need to look at things like warning labels. But one thing is very clear. In the case of Indigenous communities we need to ensure that any measure that is adopted is owned and controlled by the Indigenous community.

There was one such intervention in Tennant Creek which was incredibly successful. It was an intervention known as 'Thirsty Thursday'. People could not get grog on Thursdays, which was traditionally payday. As a result of that intervention, people had more money to spend on essential grocery items, on feeding their kids, on health care and so on. Thirsty Thursday was very successful because it was led by the Indigenous community; it was driven by the Indigenous community. It was not a top-down approach. Many of the people in the region—Anyinginyi Congress and so on—led the charge to reform the way alcohol was made available on Thursdays. We saw a decline in hospitalisation rates. We saw a decline in the number of people being imprisoned. It was very successful. Unfortunately, one of the biggest opponents of Thirsty Thursday was the publican, who wanted the sale of alcohol to continue right through the week.

The Stronger Future legislation takes that control away from Indigenous communities. It says, 'We know best, and we're going to put a blanket ban on alcohol in your community so that you have no control over the way restrictions are implemented.' Of course we support locally developed alcohol management plans. But there are some real concerns here. Harsher penalties contained in the new legislation have the potential to increase rather than decrease the rate of imprisonment. And we note that there is nothing in this bill that talks about what is absolutely necessary, and that is reforming the way we price alcohol, such as a floor price or some form of tiered volumetric system. Unless we do that, the alcohol measure indicated in this report will fail.

Dr John Boffa from Alice Springs has been a tireless worker in this area. I pay tribute to Dr Boffa, who is the public health medical officer of the People's Alcohol Action Coalition. He says that it would be preferable to remove the reference to Aboriginal people in the provision: let's not make this about the Indigenous community; let's make this about everybody, and let's ask for an independent audit of the alcohol outlets in town; let's not make this a racial issue. He says he feels that we can amend the process so that any particular outlet that has been deemed to be causing excessive problems for the community, and not for Aboriginal people, can be remedied. It must not be made a racial issue. We know that non-Aboriginal people who are addicted to alcohol are just as likely to gravitate towards the cheapest forms of alcohol as Aboriginal people are. It is a rational decision. Dr Boffa says that there is nothing racially based about the message for alcohol reform that he proposes, but unfortunately that is not the message in the Stronger Futures legislation.

There is more in this bill around food security. Food security is absolutely critical. It is interesting that there were very few submissions to the inquiry, and even less evidence addressed, around store licensing provisions. That is one thing we need to take some very clear action on.

In summary, I—like my colleagues in this place—am very concerned about this piece of legislation. Unfortunately, this legislation cannot be described as anything but a racist piece of legislation. It has to be, by definition, because it has involved the suspension—through the intervention—of the Racial Discrimination Act. It can be described as nothing but a racist piece of legislation because it requires that action to be enforced. Instead, we need to look at other measures. We need to ensure that anything we do is owned and controlled by the Indigenous community. As I said earlier, I was very lucky to work at Anyinginyi Congress, where there was an Aboriginal controlled community health board with some very strong women in charge—women who made sure that people who needed help were helped. We trained Aboriginal health workers, who, again, were empowered to take control not just of their health but of the health of the local community.

We have to move away from this paternalistic notion that we will solve these problems with a top-down approach. The consultation through this process has indicated that in fact the Indigenous community have rejected this approach. They do not believe it is going to work. They have called it a total failure, and the evidence suggests that it has been a total failure, that we are not seeing a decline in the things that need to be addressed in Indigenous communities. We are not seeing a decline in child hospitalisation rates. We are not seeing a decline in personal harm and suicide. In fact, we are seeing an increase. We need to do better, but this is not the way to do it.


No comments