Senate debates

Thursday, 23 March 2023


Northern Territory Safe Measures Bill 2023; Second Reading

9:53 am

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party, Shadow Minister for Water) Share this | Hansard source

I was not reflecting on any specific individual, just comments that have been made during the debate—but I will move on.

I want to congratulate my colleague Senator Nampijinpa Price on bringing this legislation to the Senate. I also want to commend my colleague Senator Liddle for her advocacy and for what she did for the family that were living on the concrete slab. Had Senator Liddle not raised this, not been there and taken a photo and put this before the Australian public, that family would still be on that slab, would still be under a tarpaulin and would still be being treated in a way that would be completely unacceptable anywhere else in the world. I applaud both of them, their tenacity, their commitment and their passion to deliver a better life for their community, a better life and a better future for all Northern Territorians. I want to make the point that this legislation is placed based, not race based. This private senators' bill is evidence of their commitment and their tenacity, and that's why we on this side are supporting it, because we support them in their efforts to make their communities a better place. We are listening to their voices.

Unlike claims from those on the other side of the chamber earlier in this debate when we first debated it a while ago, this work is not redundant; it is absolutely essential. Earlier, Senator Malarndirri McCarthy shared her story, a very moving story and a very important story, a story of breaking the cycle, of education and of support to show that there is a better way and there are options other than grog. But then Senator McCarthy said the Northern Territory government is best placed to manage the harm reduction policies—really? Ironically, she said that she had raised the sunsetting of the stronger futures legislation with the previous coalition government, who, in her words, did nothing. Yet, when they came into government, the Labor Party, still with time between being sworn in and the actual sunset, did nothing. Senator McCarthy said she and the member for Lingiari contacted the Northern Territory government way back in August last year, who, until February, when this issue hit the headlines, also did nothing. Now Senator McCarthy is saying: 'It's okay. The Northern Territory is alive to the issue. We can leave it in their hands.' I beg to differ.

We know the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill was introduced in 2012. It was also tied with a $3.4 billion commitment and a 10-year sunset clause. Some of that financial commitment was renegotiated midway through to extend the partnerships to ensure maximum potential for success. The aim of the legislation was to give the Northern Territory government enough time—10 years—to develop strategies to minimise harm, reduce alcohol dependence, and work with Aboriginal people and their communities to incite positive change. It sounds like a great plan.

Five years later, in 2017, the Northern Territory government commissioned the Alcohol Policies and Legislation Review to deliver a cohesive approach to alcohol harm reduction. Commonly known as the Riley review, the Hon. Justice Trevor Riley chaired the expert advisory panel, and the panel delivered their final report in October 2017—and a comprehensive report it was. It observed that a recurring theme throughout the review 'was that the lack of coordinated, long-term, appropriately resourced programs targeting alcohol harm reduction is a major contributor to the lack of reduction in alcohol statistics'. The report acknowledged that that the then regulatory framework for alcohol in the Northern Territory was not fit for purpose and that the Territory government needed to deliver a cohesive approach to alcohol harm minimisation for all Territorians.

The report, along with the 220 recommendations contained therein, was handed to the then Attorney-General in the Northern Territory, Minister Natasha Fyles. That's right—the current Territory Chief Minister was the Attorney-General at the time who accepted this report, who took 220 recommendations. But, to date, what has she done with them? To be fair, in 2018 she did rewrite the Northern Territory Liquor Act, as recommended. But it is very hard to see what has been done in communities to prepare for the end of stronger futures, which was always on the cards.

The chapter on harm prevention in the Riley report offered advice on pricing; on taxing of alcohol; on whether safe and vibrant entertainment precincts should be extended; on delivering better community policing patrols; on studies into alcohol treatment services, including identifying and relocating drinking away from roads, trialling residential managed alcohol programs, and providing sobering-up shelters where they're needed and would be used. As I said, the report was very detailed. That was in 2017.

As we know, cultural and alcohol issues in the Northern Territory have a long history, and a report is not a silver bullet. But, when it is such a comprehensive report, with so many recommendations, not to even look at implementing those recommendations, knowing that there is a sunset on the federal legislation that is providing a sense of safety and security, is absolutely remiss. The Northern Territory government should hang its head in shame. It is because of their inaction that we are here today debating a reintroduction of federal legislation to provide some safety, some stability and some certainty for our vulnerable Northern Territory communities.

As the stronger futures legislation was coming up to sunset, as I said, the new government did nothing. In fact, the new government was completely silent on the issue. But it was very active in other areas, like removing the cashless debit card for welfare recipients—something that many elders, particularly aunties in the vulnerable communities of the Northern Territory, asked them to not do. In fact, they warned them what the results would be if they took away the cashless debit card for welfare, if they put cash back into hands, allowing the practice of humbugging. When a person gets their welfare—gets their cash—and goes home, they actually get stood over. It's like the olden days. They get stood over and demanded that their cash be handed over. The cashless debit card prevented that from happening because you couldn't take the cash and go and buy your grog. You couldn't buy grog with the cashless debit card. You couldn't gamble that money away, but you could feed your family and you could buy clothes or books for school.

That warning was made loud and clear to this government, and they ignored it. They didn't listen to the voices of the people of the vulnerable communities of the Northern Territory and Western Australia and some of the communities in South Australia. The Northern Territory government introduced legislation that made provision for communities to opt in to alcohol restrictions, instead of opt out, so they flipped it on its head. They also said that communities would not be required to have any form of alcohol management plans in place before they chose to opt out. Chief Minister Fyles has said that to do otherwise would implement racist policies. Again, I point out that prohibitions are not race based; they're place based, to ensure the safety of our most vulnerable, regardless of what their heritage is or their background.

The blanket policy shift and the inaction of the federal Labor government has resulted in a devastating increase in both consumption and alcohol-related harm. This was what people warned the government about. Alice Springs had identified to the world amply just how serious the problem was and how much the federal and Territory governments have floundered in addressing the issues. They acted only after the issues made headlines, not just in Australia but internationally. People saw what was happening in Alice Springs when it became news headlines; people saw the number of kids roaming the streets in Alice Springs because it was safer to be on the streets than to go home. That alone is an indictment on what we have allowed to happen in those communities.

It was only when this made headlines that both the Northern Territory and the federal Labor ministers decided that they actually might have to show their faces. Of course, we know the five-minute visit by the Prime Minister to Alice Springs was not the cure-all. We know that it was actually a media opportunity. We know he had to race back to Melbourne for the Australian Open, after all.


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