Senate debates

Thursday, 23 March 2023


Northern Territory Safe Measures Bill 2023; Second Reading

9:25 am

Photo of Kerrynne LiddleKerrynne Liddle (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak in support of the Northern Territory Safe Measures Bill 2023. What more proof do you need that the federal parliament, the taxpayers of Australia and the residents of Central Australia, Barkly and the Top End should not trust the Northern Territory government? Even the most vulnerable people in the NT surely have endured and experienced enough.

On a recent trip to Central Australia I heard a resounding and reverberating message. The message was of bringing to an end the failed service delivery and poor outcomes they've seen delivered by the NT government and by government, non-government and private service providers. They are not referring to all of them, but the names of the organisations and leaders are coming up often. It's time for some truth telling. The people of the Northern Territory will make their choice in an election in 2024, but what I'm talking about is the Commonwealth intervening and protecting its interests where it has the responsibility and ability to do so.

The Albanese Labor government was blinded by ideology and political posturing that saw it not intervene until the tide of public opinion left it with little choice. The media doggedly maintained its focus on the government's failure. What more proof do we need? It was the Northern Territory government that spectacularly sacrificed the right to safety, the right to live free from harm and the right to go about their everyday lives, to prioritise what the NT Attorney-General lauded as human rights, the consequences of which will be felt for some time. Some people will feel the consequences forever.

The end of Stronger Futures legislation and its alcohol restrictions, without an appropriate transition plan, prioritised the rights of addicts and abusers over the rights of residents: men, women and children who are the everyday Territorians just trying to go about their everyday lives. There was no accountability, no responsibility, no idea and, it seems, no consequences. The NT leadership is the same. The accountability sits with the same people who triggered the chaos. They remain in charge of the Treasury benches and the programs funded by the rivers of taxpayers' money to respond, in no small part, to an issue largely of their own making.

Despite the warning of what would happen, and despite immediate and confronting evidence of the consequences, it still took around seven months and federal intervention for a proper circuit breaker. The NT government presided over a jump of 54 per cent in alcohol-related assaults. House break-ins rose by 22.5 per cent, commercial break-ins increased by 55 per cent, motor vehicle theft was up by 31 per cent and property damage jumped by nearly 60 per cent. The cost of living hits regional areas hardest and remote areas hard, and the human, social and economic toll rose to dizzying heights for Territorians. Tourists stopped coming in the same numbers. Locals don't move around so freely, and many residents have simply packed up and left after experiencing or witnessing ongoing damage to property and/or person.

Doing what they did—allowing alcohol restrictions to lapse with no proper consultation and no transition plan and, worse, ignoring the pleas of key organisations—is what led to an escalation of community chaos in Central Australia. Even the Commonwealth agency whose purpose is to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples got it wrong when it supported an opt-in clause for those who wished alcohol restrictions to remain. Voices of several key organisations wanted an opt-out clause, but they were simply ignored. Nine organisations—key organisations who, for decades, have worked to improve the lives of Aboriginal people in the NT—wrote to the Albanese government pleading and warning of the catastrophe about to unfold. Those key organisations argued, in a Senate inquiry, that positive discrimination was an appropriate response to protect the most vulnerable and to stop the unravelling of hard-won gains that had been made to close the gap in important health indicators. You can't stand up and talk about closing the gap whilst not responding to issues that are widening the gap.

The NT government, in the face of consistent warning, precedence and overwhelming evidence, showed no foresight, had no consideration for the most vulnerable, and with no meaningful consultation or transition plan showed they had no idea. That's why it's not feasible, plausible or responsible to dismiss this bill outright without some serious checks and balances that it asks for. Sure, the NT government has put in place its own legislation, but that lacks detail and oversight—sounds like a familiar story. The bill introduced in the Northern Territory is the Liquor Act 2019. In its six pages it talks of who can make an order, how alcohol management plans will be agreed to and how views of specific stakeholders will be considered. The bill lacks detail. There's nothing that suggests how it will ensure that voices won't be silenced so that a 60 per cent majority endorsement can be obtained. It is with consultation—I repeat, consultation—with police, the government and the relevant local health organisations before approval is granted. I want to know exactly who is going to be consulted. They didn't listen to the most vulnerable or those who worked with the most vulnerable people. This doesn't go far enough to protect elders, leaders, men and women who would want to object to allowing alcohol in their communities and ensure their safety in the process.

This private senator's bill requires a review within one year by the Senate in relation to the effectiveness of these laws. It is not seeking to remove the ability for these communities to have alcohol management plans. What it does is describe in greater detail the framework for decision-making in much more detail than the Northern Territory legislation does. It deserves support.

I also raise my advocacy, and that of Senator Nampijinpa Price, to get a family with children and sick adults who had been homeless for almost two years, living on a cement slab in Alice Springs—exposed to the elements and the issues impacting the region—off that slab. The NT government had to be dragged into action by the Commonwealth, by the minister and by the local member to find them a safer place, a more reasonable place—permanent housing. But their job is not done yet. You can't take your eyes off the Northern Territory government. Need more proof about the common sense and the competency of that government and its agencies? Let me explain how it took 3½ weeks to get that family off the slab. When they take 3½ weeks to get a place for that family, how can they do the job now of fixing an entire region?

Guess what, when they were moved off the slab they said to me: 'You know what? They've told us we need to provide a tenancy reference.' Can you believe that? A tenancy reference. They were told they had to get a tenancy reference to trigger the process of securing a greater place of safety. It's disbelief. They have been neglected for years. Service providers, people who should have known they were there, drove past them, and now they want a tenancy reference. I'm talking about a young woman with advanced kidney disease, on dialysis three times a week. Up to nine children and their family were on that slab, enduring 40-degree heat in summer and below in winter. I invite anyone to do that out the front one night.

There was no running water, no sanitation, just beds made up neatly on a concrete slab each day while six of the nine children who were school aged went to school. I can say that because I wasn't 1,000 or 2,000 kilometres away; I saw it for myself. There was no running water, no sanitation. It's just unbelievable in the middle of Australia. They were non-drinking and non-gambling, and they still have to do mount a case of being a responsible family. Last night it continued. You can't take your eyes off the Northern Territory government, I say again. Instead of sending social workers, financial counsellors or the support they need to set themselves up for success and to build a better life for themselves—they don't need government to do that for them; they just need the things that allow them to do it for themselves—they were told that Centrelink was coming to bill them $500 a week for their stay.

Right from the very beginning, the only people who have been telling the truth about what's going on in the argy-bargy of negotiations between government and service providers about how to respond to these people are those people—Miranda, Bessie and Kate are their names. They are real people just trying to do their best. So why doesn't Centrelink say: 'Look, we're coming out to check that you're all on the right payments and that you're getting the right money to support your family.' Why isn't it giving them an update on a more permanent housing outcome and making sure that they don't go broke while they're in temporary housing? They wear the same clothes every day. They are coming from a slab trying to build a future for themselves, and now they're being asked to pay that kind of money while they transition and wait for the Northern Territory government and others to make sure that they follow through on what they said they were going do, which was to provide a better future for them.

I would say to Minister Burney, 'It's a backflip,' when I'm told their accommodation in a government statutory facility, Aboriginal Hostels Limited, will be covered until they are permanently housed. That gave me and them some comfort, and it should give all Australians some comfort, that at least the effort is being put in to find them a permanent place and that action is actually happening so that they can get on with improving their own lives. You can't take your eyes off this.

If you are serious about confirming greater safety for women in the Northern Territory then you have to give the women's domestic family violence services some comfort that their funding will continue. It's a little over 12 weeks before the end of the financial year, and they don't know whether—in the middle of a crisis for women, children and the elderly—they've got funding to continue their important work, or that they've got increased funding to continue their important work. Stop talking about it, stop putting those services and the people who rely on them at risk, and confirm their future funding.

These are the reasons it's not possible to support this bill, given the weight of evidence against leaving the Northern Territory government to get this right. These are real examples. They're not made up. I'm happy for people to challenge them and I'm happy to provide the evidence. You can't take your eyes off the Northern Territory government. You can't take eyes of these situations. And we can't take our eyes off the Albanese Labor government in doing the right thing and not just talking about it but making a difference—a real difference—to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. That's why I support this bill.


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