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

8:38 pm

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to give my first speech in this chamber on legislation, the government's Stronger Futures bills. Last night, in my first speech, I mentioned that I grew up in the Kimberley and in the Pilbara. I remember kicking the football around in Karratha as a little boy, in my first football games, with a number of my Aboriginal friends, who I went to primary school with. I also remember climbing over the rock paintings in the Kimberley when we went crabbing as kids. I remember working in the goldmines in Meekatharra and Wiluna with lots of good Aboriginal people. I have respect for their culture, and they are a proud people. I think part of the reason we are considering this legislation tonight is that many non-Indigenous Australians have not experienced Aboriginal communities. I feel there is a disconnect there.

So I am pleased to join with my Greens colleagues tonight and contribute to their longstanding work on putting forward positive proposals for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across this country. I note in particular Senator Rachel Siewert's extraordinarily hard work on Indigenous affairs here in the parliament and on the ground throughout Australia. As has been expressed several times today, we are very disappointed Senator Siewert cannot be here tonight.

Before I discuss the Stronger Futures legislation and the Northern Territory intervention laws that came before it, I want to begin by stating some stark facts that illustrate the health crisis for Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Indigenous men and women die up to 17 years earlier than other Australians. Indigenous children die at more than double the rate of non-Indigenous children. Many Indigenous people suffer from chronic diseases which are entirely preventable and have virtually been eliminated in the non-Indigenous population. Almost one in five Indigenous people reported that a member of the family had been sent to jail in the previous 12 months.

The 2004-05 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey found that Indigenous adults were twice as likely as non-Indigenous adults to feel high or very high levels of psychological distress. Indigenous people may have higher levels of such distress because they experience more stressors than non-Indigenous people. A social survey in 2008 found that almost eight out of 10 Indigenous people experienced one or more significant stressors in the 12 months before they were interviewed. The sorts of stressors those surveyed reported in interviews included the death of a family member or friend, alcohol or drug related problems, trouble with the police and being a witness to violence.

I turn my comments to the legislation before us. As my fellow senators will be aware, the Greens position on the Stronger Futures legislation is clear. We oppose the Northern Territory emergency response, what became known as the NT intervention, introduced by then Prime Minister John Howard. One of the most astonishing dimensions of the intervention was, of course, that it suspended the hard-won Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 as it related to the intervention and its associated measures. I recall being completely flabbergasted that in the 21st century, albeit under an extremely conservative government, there were moves to repeal racial discrimination laws.

The whole process, and the legislation that ensued, was an insult to Aboriginal people, acting as it did to marginalise them and effectively render them second-class citizens in what is, after all, their own country. Worse, all this was done here in Canberra in the name of being in the best interests of the children, and this is the disconnect that I mentioned earlier. At the time, asking questions about the intervention, let alone opposing it, was to risk the accusation that one did not care about the safety of children. I am proud of the work the Greens did then in asking those hard questions to point out the injustice and ineffectiveness of that emergency response.

Just a few years later, as the intervention wore on in the Territory, a new government was sworn in here in Canberra. I should think few Australians gathered here, in public squares and around televisions were unmoved by the apology to the stolen generations that the new Labor government delivered, finally. It was an electric moment, long overdue but entirely heartfelt. That was a big day in this nation's history. I as a farmer also remember feeling optimism that we might get some action on climate change as well, following that election. You could reasonably have imagined that, with the arrival of a Labor government, the Aboriginal communities of the Territory could have expected a different approach to dealing with their social problems—not so. The Rudd government opted to continue most of the worst features of the intervention, rather than go back to the communities on the ground and engage with them to determine a way forward. All that goodwill from the apology ground to a halt. What a lost opportunity.

Here, in 2012, this legislation now before us essentially extends the measures that were established under the intervention. Notwithstanding our opposition to Stronger Futures, my colleague Senator Ludlam will seek to amend this legislation in order to reduce the harm it will cause. Our amendments are consistent with the recommendations the Greens put to the recent Senate inquiry. Our opposition to Stronger Futures is based on the fact that, nearly five years on, there is no substantive evidence that the intervention is achieving real gains on the fundamental outcomes of health that it apparently set out to address. Instead, as Senator Siewert noted in the Australian Greens' dissenting report to the Senate committee that considered the Stronger Futures legislation earlier this year, many Aboriginal people, representative organisations and the community sector more broadly assert that the whole approach that the intervention began—and Stronger Futures would continue—undermines and disempowers Aboriginal people and communities in the Territory. It is at odds with international research that demonstrates that community-driven measures, not a top-down, punitive approach, will help communities make progress on health and economic development outcomes.

Before I speak in more detail on this legislation, I make the point that it is unfortunate that the government should have chosen to schedule discussion on this legislation today. It has been a long day for everyone, and it has especially been a long few days for the Greens. Of course, today, discussion in this chamber, and our thoughts as senators, have been focused on contending with the question of practical and immediate actions for creating safe pathways for refugees seeking asylum on our shores. With mere hours to go before we rise for the winter break, there simply will not be the time tonight to meaningfully contend with this Stronger Futures legislation. It is unseemly that the government should rush this legislation through while the nation is, quite rightly, transfixed on another matter.

Now that this legislation has been put on today's schedule, let me take this opportunity to set out the reasons for the Greens' position on it. Five years on since the intervention, there is enough time and enough evidence based research to tell us whether it is working. So far as the Greens go, there are strong relationships we have with Aboriginal communities, organisations and individuals in the Territory, who can tell us how well, or how poorly, the intervention has served their needs. As we all know, the intervention was announced and swiftly rolled out with no consultation. It was a shock for the affected communities on the ground, and I remember well the scenes of uniformed Army staff stepping off buses into the blazing sun of the Territory—there, as then Prime Minister Howard told us at the time, 'to help'.

Five years on from the intervention, it seems we are repeating the same mistake of not talking to the very people this legislation is supposed to be helping. Though I am new to this chamber I have read some of the submissions made to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry convened to look at the Stronger Futures legislation earlier in the year, and I note that many submissions made to the committee, and much of the evidence provided to the committee, expressed strong concerns about the inadequacy of the consultation process—how it was carried out, and also how these consultations were then interpreted within the consultation report.

People could not get to the consultation meetings due to the times they were held, and people had little time to even hear that the meetings were on. These meetings did not give enough time for issues to be properly discussed; people attending had their comments misreported; and, as so often occurs within consultation processes with Aboriginal people, many for whom English is a third or fourth language, insufficient interpretation services were provided. Lest anyone in the chamber tonight think that I am cherry-picking submissions to that committee process that align with the long-held views of the Greens, I take this opportunity to relay some of the key issues of concern that the Australian Human Rights Commission chose to highlight in their submission, which I shall read verbatim:

        The excellent report, Listening but not hearing by Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, from the University of Technology, Sydney, from earlier this year does not mince words about where the government is failing to plan and draw up this legislation. The authors declare:

        The Government's current policies have failed and they will continue to fail for so long as it continues to determine policies without the direct involvement of Aboriginal people in the decision-making process. As so many have pointed out, until Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory are allowed to gain ownership over their future, Government will fail to improve their overall circumstances and they will remain second class citizens of this country.

        This legislation would erode local governance arrangements and disempower communities. The intervention, with its punitive, top-down approach, along with a suite of parallel reforms—such as those in service delivery to remote communities, the abolition of community councils within local government reforms, housing and other matters—all combine to reduce community level involvement in decision-making, towards an ever-more centralised model, This is confirmed within the Australian Human Rights Commission submission to the committee's process for this legislation earlier in the year.

        It is for these reasons, and many more besides, that the Greens oppose the Stronger Futures package of legislation. The submission stated:

        The feelings of disempowerment affecting these communities are symptomatic of a lack of control over issues directly affecting groups.

        One extract from the dissenting report of the Greens really stuck out to me in reading it earlier this week. Our report quotes Dr Gondarra, a Yolngu man from East Anthem Land:

        If we want to see Aboriginal people better in education, better in jobs and better in any other area, we need to work together to build better legislation, because this particular legislation is not on. The Australian people should be asked to reject this legislation because it is racist. It is not helping our people. That is why we come before you and you are listening to us because we represent not stakeholders, not a department, not the service providers. We come here to represent people who are struggling, people who feel pain, people who are confused—what is going on?

        Madam Chair, we want you to take this message from us. It is eating us like a cancer. We are always going to be, from the fifties until today, 2012, a puppet on a string of somebody else. We are not a free people. We are supposed to be the first people, the first nation, of this country. You should be learning so much from us than we are learning something from you. This is very important for us.

        These reports from the ground could not be further from the stated objective of these bills, namely: a stronger future, grounded in a stronger relationship between government and Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory

        We must do better to ensure that the legislation we introduce and pass through this parliament actually achieves stated objectives. This is always true, but never more urgent than when we look at legislation concerned with tackling the great divide in health, education and just about every indicator you would care to mention between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

        Though I know something of the scale of the health challenges that Indigenous people in Australia face through the good work of the Closing the Gap campaign, and other wonderful community initiatives, I was nonetheless astonished to read one Aboriginal child health statistic in particular, provided by Dr Bath, the NT Children's Commissioner to the parliament earlier this year:

          That is an astonishing figure. When describing the experience of Indigenous children in the areas affected by the intervention, Dr Bath said to the committee:

          Their circumstances are perilous, even when compared to the circumstances of Indigenous children in other Australian jurisdictions. There is a mass of data supporting that contention. They have been documented widely.

          That figure alone requires us here in the nation's parliament to ensure the measures we enshrine in law in this place are effective. Many from the affected communities on the ground are telling us the intervention is not working. The experts looking at the evidence based research and agencies working in the community sector are telling us the same thing. We must listen to the chorus of voices and ensure that we focus on a different approach.

          Much of what I have spoken of so far have been areas of concern about the background leading up to this legislation and the reasons that the Greens oppose it. It is extremely important to note the opportunity costs of legislation such as this. I note that the ongoing cost of the intervention to date totals over $1 billion. Imagine what we could have achieved over the past five years had we genuinely worked with communities to design, develop and implement effective targeted programs. That is why the Greens are focused on listening to communities and working with them to develop effective measures to tackle alcohol abuse. As an example, we are on the record as supporting locally developed alcohol management plans. I note that some communities are worried about the bureaucratic layers that are being added to these plans. In practical terms, the real world consequences of harsher penalties and blanket bans on alcohol as set out in the Stronger Futures legislation may increase imprisonment rates. The Greens support a different approach, one that is led by the community.

          I refer to the submission of the Australian Human Rights Commission to the committee, which said on this issue:

          Evidence indicates that interventions imposed without community control or culturally appropriate adaption and which stigmatise alcohol users do not work and can be counterproductive.

          The commission goes on to talk about in the increase in alcohol related offences that has occurred since the intervention was established and the implication that the intervention may have led to increased rates of imprisonment among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The NTER evaluation report indicated that there was a clear increase in alcohol related offences. The commission therefore reiterated its standing concerns that the alcohol offences under the NTER and continued by the Stronger Futures legislation may result in increased imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

          It strikes me that this is a good example of how better some of that $1 billion could have been spent by recognising alcohol addiction as a health issue and providing additional resources to culturally appropriate alcohol counselling and rehabilitation services. The Northern Territory Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, who provide free legal advice and support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the top end, said in their submission:

          NTAAJA recognise the need to do more to stop the damage caused by alcohol abuse in our communities, but increasing the penalties for alcohol related offences is not the answer.

          Another lost opportunity in this package of legislation is that the government has chosen not to tackle the changes to the permit system of access to Aboriginal lands that occurred when the intervention was brought in. Although there was never any clear evidence to link abuse of the permit system to instances of child abuse and other matters of disadvantage, the Howard government saw fit to change the permit system that gave public access to certain Aboriginal lands.

          The Greens support the plea from many of the communities who have made a submission to the Senate committee for a new approach, one which supports communities to achieve their own independent objectives through proper consultation, local governance and cultural competency. I note in conclusion the comments from Indigenous leader Dr Gondarra— (Time expired)


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