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

8:58 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | Hansard source

In rising to speak to the legislation before us, I would like to make reference to the Greens' repeated comments tonight about it being rushed through. There is no guillotine tonight. Every single member of the Greens party who has wanted to speak on this piece of legislation, other than Senator Siewert, who is not here for other reasons—and I appreciate the work that she does in and the particularly passion she has for this area—has been able to. That is unlike coalition senators who have lined up over the last fortnight to have their say on many pieces of legislation and to put the concerns of their constituencies on the table and to make them part of the debate. The Greens assisted the government in guillotining everyone. So their complaints are a bit rich, and I would like that on the record. I am going to keep my comments short, not because of a guillotine but because I am conscious of the time. I am impressed to see that the Labor government has finally realised that the coalition's emergency response measures designed to enforce the rule of law, to get kids to school and to create economies in remote communities were real, were targeted and would have worked if only Labor had not wasted four years in inaction. Big problems remain in the Northern Territory five years on from the intervention: school attendance, alcohol related crime and assault, and health related issues. No economic opportunities remain where the coalition left off after the 2007 election. We still require measures such as those proposed by the Gillard government tonight.

I am a member of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, which conducted an inquiry into this piece of legislation when it was still part of what was called the Stronger Futures legislation, a package that repeals the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007 and related legislation but retains policy elements from that legislation in eight key areas, including: school attendance and educational achievement, economic development and employment, tackling alcohol abuse, community safety and the protection of children, health, food security, housing and governance.

Unfortunately, the Labor government struggles so often with its legislation and its policy agenda once it gets to the table and gets it through the parliament. There is always a bit of a problem with implementation. The education aspects of this bill were more focused on collecting data than talking to parents about how to get their young people to school. Under Labor, only seven parents were spoken to while education attendance in the Territory under this particular policy remained at 50 per cent. That is unacceptable. We all know what a difference education can make to young Australians—Indigenous or not—and particularly for these communities, as a means of building aspiration and skills. There has been nearly five years of federal investment in the Northern Territory. We should be way past the emergency stage and moving to a stage at which Indigenous people are leading the reforms.

In relation to the detail of the legislation, I am pleased to see that the government has agreed to the opposition's call for the Stronger Futures legislation to clarify the power of the federal minister in relation to the alcohol measures. I also want to mention the coalition's issues with the legislation. They go to something that the Greens mentioned before: concerns that the legislation specifies and is only applicable to Aboriginal people. That is why we have these amendments before us tonight that substitute 'Aboriginal people' with 'the community'. The coalition senators are concerned that excessive alcohol consumption leading to alcohol related harm is not just confined to Aboriginal people but is an issue that affects the whole community. Clause 15 of division five of the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2012 states that alcohol sales must be restricted where harm may be caused to Aboriginal people. This clause ignores the fact that the entire community suffers directly or indirectly from the consequences of alcohol abuse. Coalition senators said that this amendment removes 'any race based reference and stigma and clearly identifies that excessive alcohol consumption and alcohol abuse has community wide consequences and requires a whole of community commitment to ameliorate.' That shows that we have a holistic and a community led approach to dealing with this particular issue.

I now return to the government's lack of focus on a genuine engagement with families around their children attending education institutions. When we are looking at those who are not empowered, those who are not attending school as we would like them to, it is essential for all Australian children, particularly Indigenous children, that we focus less on the minutiae and more on the relationships, ensuring genuine engagement and building a course for real change and empowerment. This is something education can bring..

Another key area of concern for the coalition is a lack of the right to appeal an income-management referral from the state or territory. The right of appeal is a fundamental right and it is something that we would like to see addressed. Finally, the coalition is concerned that the Stronger Futures bill has no interim targets. How typical it is of this government to bring before us things which will be difficult to evaluate and which will not be assessed so that they are unable to refine what they are doing, where they are going and how to make things better in the future. Assessing the impact and effectiveness of a policy initiative such as this when we are dealing with the issues of child abuse, rape, childhood school attendance, building economic capacity in communities that have been disadvantaged for so long is essential. This particular piece of policy will be reviewed in seven years. We believe that it should be reviewed around the three-year period. Human Rights Council evidence said that three years is enough time to take a look at these measures to see where we can improve them. We would like to see that happen. As we know, implementation under this government will be an issue and so restricting and narrowing the opportunity for ongoing incompetence particularly in a policy area as important as this is important.

It is time the government focused more attention and action on achieving positive change for Northern Territory communities and stopped failing to deliver. I am confident of a stronger future for the Northern Territory and its citizens. There is hope yet in the government's promises and it is our job in the coalition to hold them to account—something I look forward to doing.


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