Senate debates

Thursday, 23 March 2023


Northern Territory Safe Measures Bill 2023; Second Reading

9:38 am

Photo of Marielle SmithMarielle Smith (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

Fundamentally, this comes down to a question about whether federal legislation is required, whether federal intervention is required. In the Northern Territory we have seen significant steps being taken by the Northern Territory government. We've seen them step up and take responsibility legislating new alcohol restrictions, and I will come back to that point shortly. But there is always a challenge for us. And we have debates in this place, about matters as serious as this, between how we bring what are very difficult things and very challenging things into the light in order to get action, to drive the momentum, to get change, but also how we talk about communities and how we talk about the need to empower them too. Our communities aren't ever served by quick headlines and they're never served by becoming political footballs in here, and that's why I think the tone of this debate is really important. I have seen that happen in Ceduna. I have seen that community being used as a political football over the years and it is no good. People in the community tell me it's no good when they are used as a political football in this place.

We do need serious solutions to serious challenges. That work is always done, in my view, when the different levels of government work in partnership together—the Commonwealth working in partnership with the territory governments, working in partnership in different parts of Australia with local government. It's when the government works together well and when communities are engaged, consulted and brought into the solutions that we see the best policy.

I note the member for Lingiari, in the other place, has talked about the challenges before us, that this is beyond the political games that get played. She said, 'This is about people's lives. It is about Aboriginal women and children. There are many men who are not drinkers, but we forget about that because of the cheap politics.' She has called for a stop to the political games. I want to acknowledge her work and her advocacy in this place. She has been one of the loudest speakers for more support for Central Australia and for more support for some of these challenges. I have seen her work in the First Nations caucus committee and I want to acknowledge it here today.

As I said my opening remarks, there is no doubt of the genuine intention across the chamber here to improve the lives of women and children, particularly the Northern Territory. But this is about the component, the level and the degree of federal intervention. In the Northern Territory we have seen the introduction of the Northern Territory Liquor Amendment Act in 2023. The effect of this legislation is that across the NT town camps and communities have reverted to dry zones. My understanding is that through this legislation there are clear, robust opt-out process requiring the development of community alcohol plans.

I also note that the Chief Minister has announced other measures to address crime and antisocial behaviour in Alice Springs. I don't think anyone here doubts that these reforms, changes and measures were necessary. But we also need to be honest about why they were necessary. They came into place because the former government allowed the stronger futures legislation to sunset. When it did these restrictions sunsetted too. It is appropriate at that point for the Northern Territory to step-up and show leadership. Indeed, it was incumbent upon them to step-up, to show leadership, to legislate and to introduce policy for these changes, and that's what these changes that we have seen in the NT are all about.

I acknowledge I'm not on the ground in Alice Springs. I represent the state of South Australia. That's where I'm on the ground. That's where I travel. That's where I'm talking to people. I acknowledge that this is not my personal lived experience and I don't speak for these communities. But I have listened carefully to the contributions in this debate, listened carefully to the contributions of Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and listened carefully to the member for Lingiari in the other place, and I see, acknowledge and understand the challenges and the problems we have here. But the thing is, the Northern Territory government has the authority and the responsibility to act in this place. That's appropriate. Just like every other state and territory they are the ones who hold responsibility for alcohol policy and regulation.

We have seen what happens when the Commonwealth overrides the states and territories. Indeed, we have seen the Commonwealth make grave errors in overriding the responsibility of the territories before in legislation. Commonwealth interventions in the past have caused significant distress and disempowerment. On this matter it is the responsibility of the Territory government to legislate regarding the issues of alcohol and alcohol access. This power is contained within the Northern Territory Liquor Act 2019. That act governs the sale, provision, service, promotion and consumption of liquor with the purpose of minimising alcohol harm in the Northern Territory. That has been looked at in the parliament. A cross-party parliamentary committee has looked into this issue. The Joint Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, which has cross-party membership—representatives from Labor, the coalition and Independents—found earlier this year in its inquiry on community safety, support services and job opportunities in the NT:

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.

That's what a committee of this chamber, of this parliament, found, and I respect the views that they put forward after their inquiry and after their consultation.

Passing this bill would be supporting a federal intervention, and I appreciate that that is what a number of senators in this chamber want to see. But federal interventions like this have caused significant distress in the past, and the scars caused by the Howard government's federal intervention remain and live on in communities. The intervention stripped community and Territory government of capacity. I reflect on the words Senator McCarthy shared in September last year about the intervention when she spoke about the impact it had on her as a member of the Northern Territory parliament:

In 2016, when I entered the Senate, I spoke about what happened in the NT in July 2007, when the Northern Territory parliament, the Northern Territory people, were intervened on in such an incredibly dramatic way, without any input, without any view. It was certainly, when I was the member for Arnhem in 2007, standing in the parliament of the Northern Territory, the most disempowering moment, not just for me as the member for Arnhem but for all those constituents I was there to represent. I could say nothing; I could do nothing. The humiliation of people, the shame that people felt, all carried through with the Northern Territory intervention which saw the arrival of the BasicsCard.

Supporting this bill would be overriding the Territory's role in legislating for itself and legislating on the topics that it does have jurisdiction and capability to legislate on. But those considerations—this question that where there is a difference here around how an intervention should happen, about whether the federal government should intervene or not—are about a response and a solution. This is not a question about need—the needs of people living in Alice Springs and Central Australia. There is no doubt that they are doing it seriously, seriously tough. I do not undermine or devalue any of the stories that have been brought to this chamber today and on the other days when we've debated this topic and indeed whenever we have a debate on these matters. They are nothing short of shocking and distressing. But it is the government's position that overriding the powers of the Territory government and overriding their responsibilities through federal legislation disempowers local communities. That would be the opposite of what we're seeking to achieve.

Policy solutions always work best in partnership. They always work best when people take responsibility. And they always work best when they're co-designed, when they take the community seriously in designing and implementing the solutions they want and need to see for the problems they are living—far away from this building, far away from Canberra and indeed far away from where many of our offices are around Australia. That requires willingness to listen and to learn and willingness for engagement, and that is the focus of our government. Our Minister for Social Services, Amanda Rishworth, the member for Kingston, has said very clearly that co-design is one of her key priorities in the Social Services portfolio:

Our focus and our objective as a government remains clear: to empower people, empower communities, and provide individuals and communities with a range of supports that they can choose to use when and how it best suits them.

This is really important, and many of the challenges that we see in Central Australia are not unique to these communities. We've all read the latest Closing the gap report; the data is there, but we don't need the data. I'm sure all of us spend time in our states and communities talking to people. But that report did make for pretty harrowing reading on some of the indicators, and, while I think there is a strong degree of willingness, desire and motivation to improve on those, a whole lot of good intention has never been enough. There has been a lot of good intention in this building; I think there's a lot of good intention in this chamber today. But we aren't making enough progress in these issues—of course we're not.

I reaffirm that, in this debate, I don't think anyone is standing here diminishing the challenges before us, diminishing the motivation behind bringing these challenges to this chamber or diminishing the challenge ahead of us. This is a question around federal intervention and legislative need and whether this bill would have an impact on these issues when it steps into an area of authority and delegation which is held by the Northern Territory government and when we have seen, in recent weeks, a willingness by that government to take some responsibility and legislate to reintroduce alcohol restrictions.

These are not easy matters. None of the matters before us are easy matters. There are many things that we need to do and that we know we need to do, as a government, to improve on these issues. I know that Minister Burney takes these views very, very seriously. They are prioritised in cabinet and they are prioritised in government. They are prioritised in some of the programs we are funding. There will be more work to do, but I do note the Commonwealth government's investment in a $250 million plan for a better, safer future for Central Australia, and that plan is about job creation, better services, and improving community safety and cohesion through more youth engagement and diversion programs. It's also about preventing and addressing the issues caused by foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, including through responding better through the health and justice system. We are, as a Commonwealth, investing in families and in on-country learning. That investment—the $250 million program—is on top of the $48 million investment in community safety announced by the Australian government in January this year. The investment includes projects designed to have immediate impact on the safety of the community in Alice Springs.

Our government does take these issues seriously. I again want to acknowledge the contributions of senators in this chamber. I do not in any way diminish the motivations or the challenge before us. This is a question about an appropriate response and federal intervention. That is the debating point here.


No comments