Senate debates

Thursday, 9 March 2023


Northern Territory Safe Measures Bill 2023; Second Reading

7:17 pm

Photo of David PocockDavid Pocock (ACT, Independent) Share this | Hansard source

What is unfolding in Alice Springs is devastating. I would like to acknowledge Senator Nampijinpa Price for her ongoing work and advocacy in raising issues in Alice Springs and elsewhere in the Northern Territory.

I'm new to this place, and what I've seen in the news and read about this issue, over time, is largely from when I was not a politician. It seems to me we have a long history of the federal government intervening in times of crisis. This has been happening for decades now, where the federal government—politicians in this place—are imposing things on communities across the country.

As Senator McDonald pointed out, alcohol abuse is a huge issue. This is something that we should be facing up to as a country. As she rightly pointed out, it's not just in Alice Springs; it's also elsewhere in the country that this drug is causing a lot of harm. But we have to remember that alcohol abuse is a complex, multifaceted issue. As experts have pointed out, substance abuse, wherever we see it, is people's way of coping. For those people, this is a solution to their problems. This is their way of coping with things that feel out of control. It takes an understanding of the underlying problems and it takes finding ways to empower people to deal with them over the long term to actually deal with this issue. Yes, bandaids are necessary at times, but we must be looking at the underlying issues.

The Central Australia Regional Controller, Dorrelle Anderson, pointed out in her report to the NT and Australian governments that all of these issues are 'closely related to the disproportionate disadvantage that Aboriginal people face at every level in our society and are visible on essentially every social index'. Clearly, what we've been doing for a long time now is not working. Communities affected know about the issues that they are facing. They are living them. With support and the right resources, they will develop solutions better than those developed by anyone in this building. We need communities to be deeply consulted if we are actually going to come up with long-term solutions and move beyond this constant cycle of interventions. This is why I believe it's so important that Australia moves forward and implements a voice to parliament. It is for this reason that I accept the generous offer in the Uluru Statement from the Heart to rethink and change the way that decisions are made that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country—a process in which community voices are heard and Australia's First Peoples are advising on what is best for their communities. When First Nations people are advising what they need in order to improve health and wellbeing, then we can listen and respond.

We've seen so many of these interventions by the federal government, responding in crisis, but these crises don't happen overnight. There's often a slow build-up, and we need a structure like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to allow these issues to be raised before they become a crisis where we have private senators' bills introduced seeking to impose intervention-like legislation on communities. As well as recognition of First Nations people and of the longest continuing cultures in the world—something that we rightly celebrate and should recognise in our Constitution—the Voice could facilitate this level of consultation. To politicians who are criticising the Voice and the level of detail, I say that parliament will design what that looks like, and I hope parliament will improve it over time if it's not working. There is a way to improve it. I really don't think it's a radical proposition to recognise a land's first peoples in the constitution that now governs that land and to set up a formal process that allows consultation and voices from across the country to be heard.

I applaud Senator Thorpe, Senator Dodson and many others for pushing the implementation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Only a fraction of the 339 recommendations released in 1991 have been implemented. This is a national disgrace, and there is no excuse for it. Within these recommendations, Nos 188 to 204 speak to the path to self-determination and the call for deeper consultation and to consider constituting a body. Recommendation 188 states:

That governments negotiate with appropriate Aboriginal organisations and communities to determine guidelines as to the procedures and processes which should be followed to ensure that the self-determination principle is applied in the design and implementation of any policy or program or the substantial modification of any policy or program which will particularly affect Aboriginal people.

The final recommendation, which is on the process of reconciliation, states:

That all political leaders and their parties recognise that reconciliation between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities in Australia must be achieved if community division, discord and injustice to Aboriginal people are to be avoided. To this end the Commission recommends that political leaders use their best endeavours to ensure bi-partisan public support for the process of reconciliation and that the urgency and necessity of the process be acknowledged.

Despite this from a report that was commissioned before I was born, we're still seeing deaths in custody and we're still seeing calls for interventions. In 2023 we have many Australians concerned and dismayed that an offer to the Australian people, not an offer to politicians, is being obstructed by politicians. We have an opportunity to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—people who live in remote communities across the country, people whom we talk about a lot but know little about—have a voice. We have an opportunity to ensure that these communities have input and can be consulted on legislation that affects them.

I have real concerns with this bill when it comes to territory rights. Federal government overriding local laws rather than working with territory governments to solve these complex issues is something that I don't agree with. As someone from the ACT, I really believe that people need to be putting pressure on their local parliament to deal with these issues. I respectfully disagree that the way to avoid having an ad hoc approach is through legislation like this that overrides the territories. It is my understanding that the NT are dealing with this in a similar way through their legislative assembly, and there has been much commentary about whether this has happened fast enough. Clearly it seems to be something that should have been dealt with early, but my understanding is that the legislative assembly is now dealing with it.

For me, this clearly points to the need for structural change in the way that we make decisions. We need to embrace a new way of making decisions that affect First Nations people and deal with the root causes of problems in communities. We've seen decades and decades of bandaids. We need to start dealing with root causes. That takes more time. It's not as politically sexy as selling a program that's going to solve something in a few years. This is long, hard work that we all need to be committed to.

To return to the Voice, I'd like to finish by quoting two powerful women who have been pushing for this change for many years now. Professor Megan Davis says:

You need to suspend your disbelief that the nation can't change. You need to suspend your disbelief that Australia won't understand what you're trying to say. And we need you to imagine that the world can be a better place.

Aunty Pat Anderson AO adds:

Imagine an Australia without these ugly fights about Aboriginal affairs. Why are we the football in politics, far too often with no result? This is why we need the Voice—to take the politics out of good policy design.

Again, whilst I acknowledge Senator Nampijinpa Price's passion for this issue and her continued advocacy, I will not be supporting this bill.


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