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

9:07 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise tonight to speak against the government's Stronger Futures legislation because it will undermine the future for Aboriginal people in Australia and, what is more, the government knows that absolutely. The government knows that Aboriginal people do not want this Stronger Futures legislation. Aboriginal people find it offensive that it is even entitled 'Stronger Futures' because it takes them way back to a time of extreme paternalism and it makes a mockery of the apology to the stolen generation.

People need to think very carefully about what is going on here. People were horrified with the Northern Territory intervention when it was conducted under the former Prime Minister, John Howard. It is shocking to me, after the complete failure of the Northern Territory intervention and the complete lack of evidence for any of the claims that the government is making about successes under the intervention, that we would now see this legislation before us.

I want to address a remark that was made earlier about a suggestion that the legislation is not being rushed through. We have spent the entire day today on the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012, talking about the treatment of asylum seekers and how what was being proposed stripped the legislation of any human rights protections and allowed the government to intercept asylum seekers and send them to any country that had signed the Bali process including Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Syria. It was appalling and any suggestion that it was anything other than a political take to try to take the heat off the parliament before the winter break is just an excuse. That is all it was. However, we now have a way to at least address that. The reason this is so shocking is that this is the last day of sitting before the long winter break. We have been debating other measures all day. This legislation was not even supposed to be coming on today. It was not even discussed in the meeting this morning about what would be on the agenda today in the parliament. It turned up here on the Notice Paper at about quarter past one this afternoon. The excuse the government has for bringing in this legislation, against the wishes of Australia's Aboriginal people, is that we have to get it through now because, unless it goes through now, there are programs that will lapse before we come back after the winter break. But that is not true. We have had a look at that, and 18 August is when the programs need to be renewed and this legislation needs to go through by. I raised this matter today with the Prime Minister.

It is appalling to me that we are here tonight with a virtually empty Senate chamber and that the parliament is not engaging on a matter which is of such great significance to Aboriginal people. You cannot imagine anything which has greater significance to them than this legislation. I would like to read you a statement regarding the Stronger Futures bills and Northern Territory policies. This is a statement from an Aboriginal spokesperson in the eastern region. It says:

To our brothers and sisters of eight nations in the Western, Central and East Arnhem Land areas of the Northern Territory: We say to you, we are with you and we will stand with you as one peoples against the Australian federal government’s Stronger Futures Bills and Northern Territory policies.

We call on the federal government to scrap the Stronger Futures laws and return to full consultation, negotiations and agreements with our leaders and custodians in the Eastern Alyawarr Region to discuss a way forward in partnership, and that our peoples be involved at all levels of government in setting policies, programs on health, education, employment and training.

We as the true custodians, landowners and leaders now demand that the federal, state and territory governments must respect all human rights, and recognise and acknowledge our peoples rights as first Australians to make all decisions to determine our own future directions, to work and walk with us towards a better future for our peoples.

                          I think as a parliament we should be taking that very seriously. I was honoured to be asked to accept and present to this parliament a petition signed by more than 40,000 people—that is why this parliament ought to be seriously engaging in this. This is a big issue. Those people sent in a petition to this effect:

                          We urge the Parliament of Australia not to pass the Stronger Futures legislation, and conjoined Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011.

                          We are opposed to the legislation because it extends many of the provisions of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act 2007 (NTER) and consolidates the top down, punitive approach that is already adversely impacting on the legal and human rights of Indigenous Australians.

                          We sincerely believe that informed and sustained dialogue with Indigenous communities is required on the issue.

                          We are deeply concerned that the legislation undermines legal rights across a range of areas of law, including administrative law; constitutional law; consumer law; criminal law; discrimination law; privacy law; property law and welfare rights.

                          We also believe that the policy underlying the legislation is in violation of fundamental principles of international law, such as the right to self-determination.

                          The policy also reflects the assimilationist and paternalistic views of government towards Aboriginal people from the 1890s to 1960s. Furthermore, the legislation seeks to deal with complex social and economic disadvantage through government regulation and the undermining of individual freedom.

                          Communities have not given their free, prior and informed consent to the measures proposed within the legislation. Although consultations were held with communities, these were not transcribed, and the consultations were not conducted in accordance with basic social science methodology.

                          Elders and community representatives have expressed that they are opposed to the legislation, which will further disempower their communities and entrench trauma and poverty.

                          We draw attention to comments made by Northern Territory elders about the legislation:

                          ‘We do not consent to these bills. We will not support policies that have not been negotiated, or negotiated with all elders of prescribed communities, and we will not support an extension of the Intervention, or Intervention under other names.’ ...

                          We thank you for your understanding and commitment to achieving lasting positive change for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

                          This bill works against lasting positive change for people in the Northern Territory. How is it possible that this parliament can be pretending that an extension of the Northern Territory intervention is anything other than a return to paternalism and undermining self-determination? It completely undermines self-determination. That was a point made very strongly.

                          Let me go to the evidence base. The disgraceful thing is that by the government's own measures intervention outcomes show an alarming worsening in many indicators of community and individual health and wellbeing. Unemployment and welfare dependence are escalating. More children are being hospitalised. School attendance remains low. Reported suicide and self-harm rates have doubled since the intervention's introduction in 2007. And yet we have Minister Macklin saying that Stronger Futures is evidence-based. It is not evidence based. It is not addressing the realities of what has occurred under this intervention policy.

                          How can we stand here and continue a policy that has led to increased unemployment and welfare dependence, in more children being put into hospitals and in higher suicide and self-harm rates? What are we thinking in this parliament? How can people just sit here and shrug their shoulders on the last evening before we go out for the winter break and just say, 'Well, okay; we'll just let the Greens talk this out and then we'll just vote for it, and away we'll go, and we'll forget about the fact that this undermines forever the self-determination of Aboriginal people'? This takes us right back to where we were years ago, in a paternalistic regime that undermines the capacity of individual Indigenous communities to determine their own future, their own health and wellbeing, and to participate in it.

                          As I listened to the Aboriginal people who were here for the press conference they told me about the complete failure of the consultation that had gone on. They said that most of the communities did not know what it actually meant. They were not properly consulted, especially a lot of the older people, and they still do not know what is going on. They do not know what these three pieces of legislation actually mean for them. They are being treated as if all that has to happen is that we take this top-down approach, we tell them what we are going to do, we go and do it and we take away any kind of hope they have that they will have control in the longer term over their own destiny. Residents of prescribed communities are becoming extremely dispirited as their local control is wrested away from them and their community institutions and programs are being dismantled in the name of modernisation. If that is not an attempt at assimilation I do not know what is.

                          On what possible basis can you take away and undermine local community institutions and programs? There are now unprecedented levels of surveillance by government agents. And, rather than the dentists or mental health workers that are desperately needed, it is police, truancy officers, housing construction crews and others who arrive, carrying out their activities under a coordinating government business manager who exercises supreme statutory powers.

                          But community resistance continues to grow in these communities, and you have to wonder how long Aboriginal people in Australia will put up with it. How long is it going to be before they just say, 'Enough is enough; we will not tolerate this in our communities anymore'? And that is the point to which we are driving people. Instead of taking a collaborative approach, a bottom-up approach of understanding and supporting Indigenous languages, of assisting people in community to do what they want to do and to use their own economic models and the like, we go in there with an intervention that has failed. I challenge the minister to show—any time, anywhere—where the evidence is to support her contention that the Northern Territory intervention has worked and that Stronger Futures will work any better than that. There is no evidence for it. What there is evidence for is, as I said, a doubling of reported suicide and self-harm rates since 2007, when the Northern Territory intervention was first introduced.

                          My colleague Senator Siewert has done a huge amount of work on this issue. She wrote a strong dissenting report to the committee's report on the legislation, of course saying that this bill should not be supported. In her dissenting report she quoted the experience of an elderly Aboriginal man with these consultations. I think we should be ashamed when we listen to this:

                          There were no consultations at his nearest community—the only one he has ever known and the one he grew up in. So here he is: an old man who is almost 80—he looks very well for his age—who has lived on the same country his whole life as a caretaker, who is a prominent elder in his community and who is the holder of stories of his country. Yet he does not know anything about the three bills being passed.…In my grandfather's community, for example, how they went about it is that a time and a place were booked for somebody to go out there, but a few days later a phone call was received to say it had been cancelled. The people in my grandfather's community were not consulted about the Stronger Futures. So they do not know. The only consultation that he had came from land council. If people are not going to have their say and their input into the Stronger Futures policy then how are you supposed to work in partnership and have genuine consultation with people? How are you going to find out what people's needs and wants are?

                          I would urge the Senate to think again, to actually go and look at and read what Aboriginal people are saying about the impact of the Northern Territory intervention on them and how disillusioned and angry they are that now this is going to be carried on again, with an extension of another 10 years. This is just unacceptable in modern Australia.

                          We stand up and talk about reconciliation with Aboriginal people, and now what this legislation means is that the reconciliation we have in mind is telling them how they will live, where they will live and the conditions in which they will run their communities—and that supposedly is reconciliation. I can tell you that people who marched around Australia for reconciliation do not believe the Northern Territory intervention had merit. There is no evidence to say that it had merit and there is no merit in Stronger Futures. We will oppose it and we will hound this government for the evidence that it says it has, because it does not exist; but we will make sure that the evidence is collected that demonstrates how destructive this policy is to Aboriginal people in Australia.

                          I hope it comes home to haunt the minister and the Prime Minister for pursuing this legislation in the way they have on this last day of this Senate sitting, when we could have debated it properly when we came back after the winter recess. It would have been good for people to go out and actually talk to Aboriginal people and have some reflection on the arrogance that is going on here with, once again, a predominantly well-educated, middle class community telling Aboriginal people, the traditional owners of the land, how they will live on their own land. It is a disgraceful piece of legislation.


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