Senate debates

Thursday, 9 March 2023


Northern Territory Safe Measures Bill 2023; Second Reading

9:02 am

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party, Shadow Minister for Resources) Share this | Hansard source

I have to begin my comments regarding the Northern Territory Safe Measures Bill 2023 by reflecting on the huge body of work that's been done by my colleague Senator Nampijinpa Price. The work she has done in consulting broadly and deeply within the Northern Territory community is a perfect example of what it is to be a member of this place—to take the responsibilities and actions of being in government. As outlined by Senator Price, she has taken a huge amount of time to consult with a range of different people and with her colleagues, and has been forced to take action on this matter by the lack of action by the Albanese government.

When a government's action or inaction results in harm, it is a moral imperative to stop that harm. There is no moral high ground in demonising and then rejecting alcohol restrictions in the Northern Territory. It was the height of misplaced paternalistic inaction. Furthermore, defending this harmful stance in the face of extraordinary and alarming evidence was beyond the pale and had to be rectified.

It was in July last year that we had a sunset on the previous legislation. After three months of being in government, with all the incoming ministerial briefs that would have been provided to the incoming government, when that legislation lapsed, somehow this lack of action became the problem of the coalition, yet it was clearly understood by the community that action needed to be taken.

This bill would allow for greater federal oversight of bans in the Northern Territory. It would be similar to the powers granted to the Commonwealth by those expired intervention laws. The Northern Territory government, with federal funding, has recently again prohibited takeaway alcohol not only in town camps but, more importantly, across the entire community. This legislation is designed to go across all vulnerable communities, across anyone who is subject to harm from additional alcohol in the community.

New restrictions on the sale of alcohol came into effect at the end of January, following a flying visit from the FIFO Prime Minister to the town. Takeaway-alcohol-free days were introduced on Mondays and Tuesdays; bottle shops were restricted to 3 pm, and to 7 pm on other days; and a limit of one transaction per person per day was implemented. This took months to finally be enacted by the Territory government, after complete inaction by the federal government, because there had been a massive spike in home invasions, robberies, domestic violence and assaults. Many people have clearly attributed that to the end of the alcohol restrictions in July.

We know that there is a direct correlation because of the new data that came out following the introduction of those new measures from the Territory government. It is reported in the Daily Telegraph that youth disturbances declined by 36.36 per cent in February, compared to January; there were 235 unlawful entries across Alice Springs between 2 January and 30 January, which dropped 45.96 per cent to 127 incidents in the following month; alcohol as a factor in domestic violence was down 27.7 per cent over the month; and in the first week in January, when crime was at a crisis level, alcohol was deemed a factor in 76 per cent of the 167 domestic violence incidents and that had decreased by the week of 20 February when alcohol was deemed a factor in 47 per cent of the 92 domestic violence incidents. There is a clear correlation between the lifting of alcohol restrictions and the reintroduction of those restrictions in January after crime spiralled out of control.

What is not reported in that data is the number of other family members affected, such as older children being forced to care for younger siblings and young people being forced out on the streets because of alcohol abuse at home. Care is often at the expense of the young people's own studies or jobs, and the cycle continues. This is repeated right across northern Australia. It destroys lives and futures. Northern Territory lives are the responsibility of all of us, as is the need for kids in particular to go to school and be able to sleep soundly at night, with full tummies and no fear of violence and abuse.

We know that Alice Springs businesses had been impacted. People were afraid to go out at night. Children were roaming the streets and the police couldn't keep up. We see similar effects in Katherine and Tennant Creek. Because of flooding in Western Australia, people have been displaced from remote communities and have ended up in town. Unless there are alcohol restrictions in those places, alcohol related crime soars there too. We see the same issues in Mount Isa.

Alcohol abuse is the enemy of advancement of vulnerable people. Restricting access is a circuit breaker to multigenerational dysfunction where violence, abuse and hopelessness are all that those people have to see each day. We have had significant research and studies of alcohol management plans, like the study of the Cape York alcohol management plan conducted in 2018. That saw a greater reduction in violence against women in the communities that entered prohibition compared with the communities that did not; a decrease in assault injury presentations, especially those linked with alcohol; a decrease in female victims of a police charge of violence against a person; and a perceived reduction in violence against women reported by community members.

There is a moral imperative at play that overrides political philosophy—something that Labor shamefully ignored when allowing these laws to lapse and then taking no action, instead, leaving it to those local communities to demand change. Again, Senator Nampijinpa Price and her colleagues, her Labor colleagues, in the Northern Territory were only too aware of the devastating impacts that the lifting of alcohol restrictions was having in those communities. The Prime Minister promised to be a prime minister of action, and he has been—on lots of planes overseas. He spent four hours in Alice Springs and couldn't get out fast enough. He was carefully shown the clean and tidy streets, but he didn't listen to those community members who were desperate for protection.

This must be the most important thing that a government can do—to protect its people and protect the most vulnerable in our communities. I don't know of any other task we have that is more important, whether it be the economy or border protection. In this very clear case, the need for alcohol restrictions to prevent harm to vulnerable people could not have been more urgent, yet we watched as the harm continued in those communities, whether it was crime against individuals, with assaults and domestic violence, or attacks on businesses. But what really keeps me awake at night is the thought of those children and vulnerable women who are left unprotected. I think it was extraordinary that we were left waiting for a private senator's bill like this one to provide the tools to extend a policy that was in place and was working well. Of course, we now have documented evidence of the impact of the lifting of alcohol restrictions on people's lives, on people's property and on their future.

I reflect on the many people who were left without protection, and I encourage this federal government to once again turn its mind to supporting this legislation, because these are issues that are seen not just in the Northern Territory. This is a northern Australia issue. Alcohol abuse is something that we struggle with in so many communities. I've touched on Katherine, but, outside of the Northern Territory, in places such as Mount Isa in my own community, we see people coming across the border to places that don't have alcohol restrictions, and we see the subsequent impact that that's having on those communities and, worse, on those people who are vulnerable to alcohol.

It is a terrible scourge. We have rules around other prohibited drugs. We have rules around putting safety notices on food depending on its health level. We try to alert people to the impacts on them of imbibing something which is going to be bad, but we don't have those sorts of restrictions and alerts for alcohol. I think that this is a terrible oversight from all levels of government. Having seen it in Alice Springs, having seen the impact of the immediate lifting of restrictions, having seen the damage and the terror of people living in those communities, I think that this was a shocking waste of months of inaction from this government.

We saw in December that they were happy to walk into the parliament and introduce legislation for what they saw as an urgent need to intervene in the gas and coal markets. They did that with very little notice: we saw the legislation only hours before we came into this place to debate it. But they have not been willing to take the same sort of urgent intervention when there are children as young as five who are walking around on the streets, unprotected, because they were not safe at home; when we saw a spike in assaults and crimes; when young people who should have been preparing for school the next day are unable to be safe in their own homes; when elderly people were being assaulted.

This was and is a national emergency, and yet this government did nothing. And it wasn't because they didn't know. They were alerted to this by Senator Nampijinpa Price. They would have heard the same things from the members of parliament from the Northern Territory, as well as the other senator from the Northern Territory. This is a shocking indictment of the Albanese government. They talk about the requirement for a Voice, and yet they do not listen to voices on the ground in regional Australia.

I commend this legislation. I think that it is incredibly brave and well researched and thought through. I think that the ability of individual senators and members to recognise urgent and important issues in their community is something that we must never lose sight of. We are a long way away in Canberra, and, if we do not remember the impact of legislation or the sunsetting of legislation in places like the Northern Territory, then we have failed. We have failed those who rely on us to protect and preserve their way of life. I think that it has been a shocking missed opportunity for this government, which has done absolutely nothing.

So I'm very proud of this private senator's bill from Senator Nampijinpa Price. I support it in every way and I hope that the government will consider supporting it to provide them with some tools to continue the protection and oversight of communities where the most vulnerable people have been affected by alcohol violence and by alcohol abuse. I commend this legislation to this place.


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