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
First of all, I thank all senators for their contributions to the debate. I have had a bit of a difficult time in the last few hours of listening to this debate. I was actually agreeing with Ron Boswell for part of that speech and I think that is probably only the first or second time that has happened, so it has been a bit disconcerting. I find myself at great odds with some of the contributions from the Greens, which is not as unusual but it is also not common.
These bills form part of the government's next steps in the Northern Territory to tackle the unacceptable levels of disadvantage still experienced by too many Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. It is about trying to take these steps forward in partnership with Indigenous people, but it continues to recognise the fact—and I think this is where perhaps the government and the Greens differ—that you have to do more than just give people rights. We have learnt that. I am one of the great supporters of the first Native Title Act. I spoke about native title rights and Indigenous rights in my first speech, an issue which has been very dear to me for a very long time—giving proper recognition to Indigenous people. I was one of those who were very proud when the parliament, through Prime Minister Rudd, made the apology. But over the years I have also come to recognise that you cannot just talk about rights; you have to help Indigenous communities address the symptoms and the manifestation of the social issues confronting them.
When I first became opposition Indigenous affairs spokesman, I had to come to terms with talking about alcohol, family break-up and violence against women. I could not pretend that these things did not occur; I could not pretend that we could only talk about rights. We had to focus on those issues that were destroying families, destroying lives, and we had to help those communities tackle those very serious social problems. I think some of the debate today has reflected that discomfort.
The Greens continue to focus on those well-meaning principles, but seem reluctant to get in and deal with the reality of Indigenous people on the ground. That is not for lack of knowledge. It is a shame Senator Siewert is not here—no-one has put more effort into these issues in the parliament than her, and I recognise her contribution. But I do think the Greens have been misleading tonight on this question of process. Senator Ludlam knows that for weeks I have told him that this bill would be dealt with in this session. Some claims made by the Greens today suggest that they did not know about until this morning—they ought to read the red. Senator Hanson-Young and Senator Milne said this was all a great shock to people. That is not true. Everyone has known for weeks that we would be seeking to get this bill through in this session, because the sunset clause in the current legislation takes effect in the middle of August.
What we did do is agree to defer the legislation until this week in the hope that Senator Siewert would be with us again and able to contribute to the debate. But I also made it very clear that, if she was not, we would continue with the legislation, because of the sunset clause in the current legislation. So, I will not cop some of the claims that have been made by Greens senators today. They are not true. This has been on the Notice Paper and on the red; they knew that it was coming. I remind people that this bill was introduced into the parliament last November, so this supposed unholy rush is actually seven months in process. We have had a full Senate inquiry into the bill, in which Greens senators and others participated. To suggest that somehow this has been rushed or that people did not know it was coming is nonsense.
It is true to say that it has come on at the end of a session and that there has been a lot on this week, but we have always indicated that we would be dealing with it and that we needed to deal with it because of the sunset clause in the existing legislation. It is also the case that the Greens have made it quite clear that they do not want to deal with it. They have been very frank with me that they did not want to deal with this legislation in this session, but no-one can claim that they did not know, that it was not on the red, that it was not on the Notice Paper or that we have not had time to prepare for this legislation to come on. I do apologise that Senator Siewert is not here and I think everyone understands the circumstances involved, but the government is faced with the situation that the existing legislation has a sunset clause—it falls over in the middle of August—and we have to deal with this matter now. I want to put that on the record, because I think people might have been misled by some of the commentary.
We do think this is important legislation and we have made a real attempt to work with Indigenous people to make sure it is understood and supported. We think this bill is much fairer than the initiative that was taken by the Howard government. It removes a number of the measures that we thought were punitive but seeks to maintain the measures that were strengths in the original legislation and extends some of those provisions. I look forward to the committee debate and hope that we can constructively move through the amendments. The government will be moving a set of amendments, and at the commencement of the committee stage I will table some explanatory memoranda relating to those amendments.