Senate debates

Thursday, 9 March 2023


Northern Territory Safe Measures Bill 2023; Second Reading

9:58 am

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I too rise to speak on the Northern Territory Safe Measures Bill 2023. I thank Senator Nampijinpa Price for her long advocacy for the women and children of the Territory. Our government is committed to bringing communities and governments together. We know that the challenges in the Territory are real and that families and communities need support from all levels of government. We know that one level of government alone just can't address this. What we need is partnerships, not a top-down approach. That is why I am speaking against this bill today.

I was honoured to be in the chamber in the last sitting week for the speech by Senator Malarndirri McCarthy on this bill. I know that she's not here with us this week, because she is doing an incredible job of leading Australia's delegation to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York. As always, she is a fierce advocate for the rights of women and, importantly, the rights of First Nations women. She is taking that to the global stage right now, and I'm so proud to see her there. Senator McCarthy's speech was personal and it was powerful. It addressed the challenges for Aboriginal women head-on and was also full of heart. She told her own family's story and she did it with absolute courage and grace. It's always an honour to sit in this place and hear from Senator McCarthy and all First Nations senators on both sides of the chamber not just about their long-term advocacy for their communities but also how they personally know the challenges all too well.

This place is one of the most important places to hear these stories—stories that far too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families have. No-one should ever feel unsafe in their own home, and no-one should ever have to go through what these communities have suffered not just in the last six months but for decades. Senator McCarthy addressed how important it is for us to work together and the importance of consultation. She talked about disempowerment, and that is something in her speech that really stuck with me, because, as Senator McCarthy said, we've got to always keep trying to get it right and to empower people at every level. She said that we need to allow local, state and territory, and federal governments to work together. This bill would make the Commonwealth minister responsible for approving alcohol management plans that the community develop, and that would mean that the ultimate decision-making for alcohol management plans for communities in the Territory would be made right here in Canberra. That, to me, seems to go right to the heart of disempowerment.

Senator McCarthy implored the Senate to see that there's a better way than the bill before us, and I support her in that. We know that these are long-term problems. They require not just words but long-term solutions and actions. We need to allow the Northern Territory government to take legislative action themselves, which they have done, but we also need to support them in long-term solutions and work with them in partnership. We are a government that focuses on outcomes. While alcohol restrictions are part of the solution, they are only part of what is needed. We also need to work on the social and economic drivers of community unrest, and that's why we're investing $250 million into a plan for a better, safer future for Central Australia. This funding will go towards addressing the fundamental, underlying structural causes of disadvantage.

The plan focuses on improved community safety and cohesion through more youth engagement and diversion programs; job creation, particularly in the communities that surround Alice Springs, including urgent changes as part of replacing the completely failed Community Development Program; better services because, by improving services in surrounding communities, particularly health services, there will be less pressure in Alice Springs as a result; preventing and addressing the issues caused by fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, including better responding through the health and justice systems; investing in families, including by better supporting elders and parents and boosting domestic violence services; and on-country learning, which will improve school attendance and completion through caring for culture and country and provide accessible opportunities for children to get an education. This is in addition to the investment in community safety announced by the government in January this year.

This funding is based on recommendations from the Central Australian Regional Controller, Dorrelle Anderson, and it's investment that will be delivered in partnership with the local community because, again, we know that the most effective solutions come from the local community. We know that what is really needed comes back to two things: empowerment and consultation. Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory have been calling for self-determination for a very long time. The stronger futures legislation deliberately denied this, and, as my colleague Senator Pat Dodson put it so well, were legislative means of structurally disempowering remote Aboriginal communities in the NT. Senator Dodson notes, in his words:

… these policy regimes … destabilised, disempowered, and disoriented Aboriginal communities … have taken away community power and instead made them dependent on government for survival …

The Joint Standing on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, of which Senator Pat Dodson is chair, looked at all of these issues in February. This joint standing committee has membership from Labor, from the coalition and from the crossbench and Independents as well. Its inquiry into community safety, support services and job opportunities in the Northern Territory found that top-down approaches like this bill fail.

Witnesses to the inquiry emphasised that governments need to invest in and value community led solutions. In discussing community safety and alcohol management, the report from the inquiry notes that through the Stronger Futures legislation there was 'little investment in harm reduction', and witnesses noted that these problems are bigger than just alcohol and that long-term solutions will only come when governments also look at housing, meaningful employment, education and, as the Alice Springs Hospital put it so very well in their submission to the inquiry, hope and despair. The report led by Senator Dodson specifically states:

It is clear to the Committee that the NT Government has sufficient legislative means to manage alcohol-related harm within its jurisdiction where there is the will to do so. This has been demonstrated by its recent legislative amendments to the Liquor Act 2019 (NT). It is the view of the Committee that this is the appropriate role of the NT Government (informed by the views of community), rather than the Commonwealth.

With all the work of witnesses sharing their stories in this inquiry, it is clear that what we should do is listen to those voices, and those voices are telling us that this work needs to be done in consultation, in partnership and without further disempowering local communities. There really is no place for a top-down approach when what is really needed is partnership and consultation.

The problem of family balance that Senator Nampijinpa Price is so genuinely passionate about, along with so many senators in this place, is a national problem. Everywhere in our country, First Nations women are at the greatest risk, including in my home state of Victoria. On Friday, I had the opportunity, along with Senator Stewart, to bring the Minister for Social Services, Minister Rishworth, to Victoria to meet with some of our incredible family violence organisations and hear about the real challenges that they face on the ground and the amazing work that they're doing. This was a roundtable where several First Nations advocates gave up their time to talk with us about what is happening here in Victoria, my home state, and the work that they've done over decades to prevent and respond to family violence. Again I can say that what came through unequivocally and clearly is the importance of ground-up solutions of community empowerment, listening and partnership. Aboriginal controlled family violence services talked about the success of investment in self-determination, allowing Aboriginal communities to partner with government to help and family violence. So, rather than intervention or a top-down approach, a real partnership that is about consultation and working together is what I heard was needed.

I had the opportunity to hear from an amazing woman, Daphne Yarram from Gippsland, who has dedicated her entire life to the safety of women and children in her community. For 24 years she's been working to address family violence. Daphne talked about the importance of community led approaches. She talked about how we can only stop family violence at the start by working with community and ensuring that our family violence system is culturally safe and trauma-informed.

Antoinette Braybrook from Djirra and Muriel Bamblett from the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency highlighted really effective work that we can draw some lessons from in Victoria, such as the Dhelk Dja Partnership Forum. Muriel spoke about the increased risk that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women face, and they noted that that is, of course, often at the hands of white people. Dhelk Dja is an Aboriginal led agreement to address family violence. It's a partnership with the Victorian government. It reflects the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Victoria. It requires government to do the two most important things the government can do in this space: listen and act. Darren Lovett from the Dhelk Dja action group was there to share how this works on the ground. I also want to note the personal contribution from Simon Flagg of Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative, who told his story about family violence at the roundtable, again with real grace and real courage.

Listening to these voices, hearing their stories and respecting the work that they've done for many years really emphasised to me the importance of a community led approach. These people that I met with are the real experts in their fields. I wouldn't seek to tell them how things should work in their community or how to fix problems that they know about much better than I do. I was there then on Friday, and I'm here today to listen and take the advice of First Nations communities to take—


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