Senate debates

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007; Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007; Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory National Emergency Response and Other Measures) Bill 2007

Referral to Committee

6:16 pm

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I, and also on behalf of Senator Siewert, move:

That the provisions of the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007 be referred to the Community Affairs Committee for inquiry and report by 10 September 2007, with particular reference to:
(a)   the likely effects of the new income management regime on the health and well-being of children in affected communities;
(b)   the demonstrable need to restrict the appeal rights of those on the new income management regime in affected communities;
(c)   the interaction of the bill with the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and the extent to which the provisions can be characterised as ‘special measures’; and
(d)   the effects of these measures on community governance and the development of remote communities.
That the provisions of the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007 and the Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory National Emergency Response and Other Measures) Bill 2007 be referred to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee for inquiry and report by 10 September 2007, with particular reference to:
(a)   the relevance of the acquisition of Aboriginal land and changes to the permit system to address the problems of child protection, health and development;
(b)   the possible impacts of the prohibition of alcohol on child safety;
(c)   the interaction of the bills with the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and the extent to which the provisions can be characterised as ‘special measures’; and
(d)   the effects of these measures on community governance and the development of remote communities.

These motions seek to refer the package of legislation regarding the Northern Territory situation, and some other measures relating to welfare payment quarantining but not to the Northern Territory situation, to Senate committees for proper examination. For the sake of resolving the question this evening, which I think would at least create total certainty for the relevant Senate committee or committees and the public, I recognise that it is desirable to have this debate finalised and voted on by 10 minutes to seven. That is only half an hour away, so I will keep my remarks brief.

To some extent, this issue was canvassed in other debates earlier today, but I believe it is important to make the point, to have the debate and to get the issue on the record here. The motions moved by Senator Siewert and me seek to refer the legislation to two separate committees. We seek to deal some of the legislation across to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs—particularly areas to do with the permit system, land acquisition, alcohol measures, pornography controls, changes to community stores and issues to do with governance. The separate legislation dealing with welfare quarantining, which is an amendment to matters relating to social security payments, we wish to send to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs, where such matters are usually dealt with.

The key issue for me and the Democrats is not so much which committee these bills go to or whether they go to two separate committees; the key issue is the need for sufficient time for the Senate to inform itself of the views of the people who are directly affected and those who have immense expertise in these areas—much more expertise than just about any of us in this chamber or on the government benches anyway. The proposal is for the bills to be sent to committees, to report back on the first sitting week in September. While that is still a fairly brief period, it would nonetheless allow a few weeks for senators to hear from a range of people, particularly from the Territory. That would be the week starting 10 September, which is just a month away.

I repeat what I have already said a number of times here today and elsewhere: if there is a single measure in any of these pieces of legislation that the government can point to and justify as being needed now to protect or save children at risk from harm that would not be able to be carried out if this legislation were not debated until next month, then I would appreciate it if they would single that out. We still have not had anybody from the government do that at any stage in this debate in either the Senate or the House of Representatives. That, to me, is a simple matter. It is an important matter. It is an urgent matter. Because it is important and urgent, we need to do it well. You do not rush into any emergency or disastrous or serious situation without first having a proper look at what you are going to do before you charge in. That is what the Senate is at risk of doing. This is an important thing for the sake of getting the legislation right.

I would also say that it is important for the sake of strengthening the confidence and trust of the people of the Northern Territory—particularly Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory and more widely—that there be at least some genuine attempt to listen, to do all we can to get it right, to do whatever is possible within the constraints of the situation and to minimise the mistakes and maximise the effectiveness of what we are trying to do here. Frankly, that is the Senate’s job. To suggest that we can do that job properly by doing what is proposed by the government—having a one-day hearing on Friday, about 40 hours from now, with a witness list still to be provided of a group of people who probably still do not know that they are going to be giving evidence—and to expect us to then produce any sort of coherent committee report to bring back to this chamber on Monday to continue the debate is ludicrous.

It is understandable, in one sense, that the government may wish to rush this through and get it all locked in before there is an opportunity for people with expertise to comment on and draw attention to problem areas. A natural response of government in any circumstance, particularly when they know they are making major changes that are likely to contain flaws, is to push it all through before people have a chance to draw attention to those flaws and before pressure builds to fix them. They can always say, ‘We’ll fix it up down the track if we need to.’ That is a common political tactic. As I have said already today, this issue is too important for politics. We have a particular responsibility to do all we can to get this issue right, rather than just playing with political positioning and dealing with the political situation.

The Labor Party would know, because they have experienced it with other major pieces of legislation, how ludicrous it is to have these one-day Friday hearings. I think this was done with the Telstra legislation—a major piece of legislation. It was presented as a matter of: ‘Are you for or against privatisation? If you are, you’ll vote for and if you aren’t, you’ll vote against.’ But there was a whole range of detail in it which went far beyond that proposition. That legislation was slammed into this chamber with a day’s notice. Before people had even had a chance to read it and absorb it, they had to give evidence to a Senate committee which then had to try to absorb all of that, comprehend it and report back to the Senate the following Monday, and we were all pushed to accept it all. As we have seen since, we have ended up with a debacle.

It is not a political statement to say that you will end up with mistakes in legislation if you do that; it is inevitable. Nobody is so omniscient; no group of parliamentary drafters, departmental officials, ministers or anybody is so all-knowing, so clever, so brilliant, so perfect in every respect that, when they follow a process like that, they can think they are going to get it right. They will get it wrong, and the Senate will get it wrong. These motions are about minimising the chances of the Senate getting it wrong.

It must be emphasised that one piece of legislation, the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007, which seeks to amend the Social Security Act, deals with Aboriginal people and communities in the Northern Territory. But significant parts of it deal not with the Northern Territory or with Aboriginal people at all but with the entire Australian community. According to the government briefing I have received, it deals with matters that will not come into operation until, at the very earliest, next year, and probably not until the year after that. So they are very significant changes. I am not even expressing a view about whether they would be good or bad. I can see merit in both sides of the argument, frankly. I think they are being pushed through without awareness by the public that they are likely to be affected. They will be put in place and become law. As we all know, it is much harder to change a law once it is in place than to get it right in the first place.

That is a reason why there is no particular urgency in this regard. I do not believe anybody from the government would credibly argue that waiting for a month before quarantining welfare payments for Aboriginal communities in the Territory is going to cause child assaults that otherwise would not have happened. Even if the government wants to make that point, the clear reality is that large parts of the legislation have nothing to do with the Northern Territory at all, with Indigenous communities or—in part at least—with child abuse. Part of the legislation does and part does not. The provisions are not going to come into force for a long period of time.

We, as a Senate and as a parliament, should not be passing major pieces of legislation which comprise dramatic shifts in public policy and in legislative operation—major intervention by a government in the daily lives of all Australians, potentially, in a very detailed, very interventionist way—without, firstly, at least making sure people are aware of the matter and we can get some feedback from them and, secondly, examining it properly ourselves. That is our job. It is not good enough to just refuse to do our job on the basis of putting up this general label and saying, ‘It’s an emergency,’ and running around with a banner over our heads saying, ‘Emergency, emergency!’ so that we do not need to actually do anything properly.

I would argue that, if it is an emergency, that is double the reason to do it properly and double the reason to scrutinise things properly. That does not mean there would be an excessive delay, as has often been alleged by the government. It means doing a bit of listening and a bit of thinking, rather than just a lot of talking. As some government speakers quite loudly proclaimed today, the time for talking is over. In part, I would agree with that, but the time for listening is certainly not over, and the time for thinking is never over. Frankly, there is not enough thinking, and certainly not enough listening, going on at the moment. You cannot make informed decisions in these sorts of circumstances.

I will make a final point. A whole range of people have made comments in reports over many years, leading up to and including the Little Children are sacred report, which was used as the catalyst for the Northern Territory intervention. I am referring to not just reports about what needs to happen but reports and reviews which have examined what has been done. The head of the Productivity Commission, who is not usually slagged off by government people as being a bleeding heart leftie, made quite clear what has worked and what has not worked. In the very valuable benchmarking work that the Productivity Commission has done, the key common factor in what works in trying to improve the situation for Indigenous people is working with people at a community level, building trust, confidence and capacity, and working with respect.

Whatever else you would say about the pros and cons of the government’s policy decisions in this area, they have certainly not done that in the last five or six weeks. They could have done it, and they should have done it; and they should start doing it now. They should do it not just because it is a feelgood thing or because it makes people feel nice to talk about working together but because the evidence shows that it works. The evidence also shows that when you don’t do it, you fail. So if we are about trying to maximise the chances of success then that is what we should do.

This very process that the Senate is engaging in at the moment of bulldozing legislation through, of failing to listen to people, of actually denying people the opportunity to be heard, of refusing to allow any credible consideration of the very significant issues that are contained in these bills, actually helps to reduce trust. That is a consequence, and you cannot dispute that. It may not be the intent but it is the consequence—that you increase suspicion, you increase resentment, you reduce trust and you also reduce empowerment. You do not strengthen the capacity of the community, who are already struggling with disempowerment, to deal with these issues by disempowering them further through these sorts of processes. And that is what is happening.

This very process that the government is trying to insist upon undermines the capacity to be effective. So even by refusing to agree to these motions in order to allow some degree of respect, of engagement, of listening, we are actually making the job harder. Regardless of what ends up being in the laws that are passed, we are making the implementation and therefore the chances of success much more difficult. There is a real opportunity here that the minister has presented through his commitment in this area, and I do acknowledge and praise him for that commitment. But opportunities can be lost, can be wasted and can go very sour. It takes more than just passion, lots of urgings and lots of emotion. We need to ensure that proper consideration occurs as well, and that is what these motions are about.

6:30 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I will keep my comments short because Senator Bartlett has covered a wide range of very important issues. The two motions to refer the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007 to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs and the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007 and other related bills to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs were made because we believe that these issues should be considered by both of those committees. The package of legislation is supposed to be about addressing child abuse, and those are issues that should be dealt with by the Community Affairs Committee. The welfare reform is very extensive. As Senator Bartlett outlined, it goes far beyond just the emergency response measures in the Northern Territory, and it needs to be carefully considered.

We are dealing with extremely complex issues that have no simple answers and require complex and complicated multifaceted responses. The Little children are sacred report had 97 recommendations. I believe that if we were truly doing our job properly, we should, for example, be auditing the government’s plan and legislation against those 97 recommendations. Not only that, we should also be auditing it against, for example, the Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory plan for addressing child abuse, and reviewing the many other reports that have been done over the years around how to tackle these issues. But, most importantly, we need to be hearing from the communities and groups that are affected by this legislation.

The government has now finally agreed to refer the package of bills to the legal and constitutional committee for a limited one-day hearing. It is simply farcical to think that we could adequately deal with issues in one day, let alone report back on the next day of business, which is Monday, and make a halfway decent and comprehensive analysis of this legislation—let alone that we are putting witnesses who are appearing and those who are writing submissions in the position of barely having received this legislation and having to do a comprehensive analysis of the legislation and get a submission in by Friday. Quite clearly, this will be an ineffective approach to looking at this legislation. We will not be able to do it justice.

As I said this morning, I believe that no senator in this place will be able to say that they have a comprehensive understanding of the full ramifications of this legislation. That is why I believe that this legislation should be referred with a reporting date of 10 September. At least that would allow what I think is the minimum amount of time needed to review the legislation, to hear from witnesses and also to allow enough hearing days for all of the organisations—the community organisations, government departments, academics and Aboriginal organisations as well as welfare organisations—to be able to comment on this legislation.

I would also like to quickly comment on the fact that a fuller inquiry would have allowed us to assess the mechanisms that the government is proposing to ensure that they are in fact special measures under the Racial Discrimination Act, that they do qualify as special measures and that they are truly advancing and for the benefit of Aboriginal people. We could have properly assessed the measures against the criteria that are established internationally for the determination of what special measures are. I doubt, in the limited time that we have available, that we will be able to do that.

There are certainly a whole range of people who I believe should be appearing on Friday but whom we will not have time to see. And it is a tragedy that we will not be able to adequately review this legislation and hear from all the people whom we should be hearing from about whether this legislation meets the requirements of what is needed to address child abuse. I am pleased that the government has agreed to a committee hearing, but I am extremely disappointed that it is limited to a day and has to report so quickly, and that we will miss an opportunity to properly review this legislation.

6:35 pm

Photo of Guy BarnettGuy Barnett (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move the following amendment:

Omit all words after ‘That’ in each of the motions, substitute ‘the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007 and four related bills be referred to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, at whatever stage the bills have reached at 12.45 pm on 9 August 2007, for inquiry and report by 13 August 2007.’

In speaking to the amendment, I wish to advise the Senate that the government has initiated a committee referral for the bills that have been discussed and debated this afternoon, the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007 and related bills. I have been advised, and Senator Siewert indicated in her closing comments, that that referral was resolved in the Selection of Bills Committee meeting earlier this afternoon.

I understand the sentiments of Senators Siewert and Bartlett, and the reasons they have stood to support the motions. They have spoken fervently in favour of the motions and their objectives. The amendment would obviously ensure a reporting date of 13 August—early next week—noting that there will be a hearing on Friday of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which I chair. There will be an opportunity to obtain submissions and advice from various witnesses to that particular committee.

It is deemed a priority for the reasons that have been outlined very fervently and passionately by the government and specifically by the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough. He has a real personal, dedicated and professional interest here to, on behalf of the government, ensure that the health and safety of our children, particularly in the Northern Territory, is a priority. He has made it a priority. It is a national emergency.

Things are already happening. There has already been a good deal of discussion and debate in the public arena with respect to the proposed legislation before us. Of course, there has been a great deal of debate over many months, not just in the last few months but over the last year even, of these matters. We have heard about the Little children are sacred report and we are obviously distressed to read the contents of it. That just added renewed vigour to the government’s will to ensure that something happens and it happens fast. Australia’s children, in the Northern Territory in particular, are at risk and we want to care for them. We want the interests of those children to be a top priority of this government, and that is why the government is proceeding with this inquiry and a reporting date of Monday next week.

Half-a-dozen or more of the speeches in the second reading debate have already been concluded this afternoon. No doubt there will be further debate and discussion of these bills. To further delay the reporting date to 10 September, as indicated by Senators Siewert and Bartlett, would be prejudicial to the priority of the government to ensure that the health and safety of our children is best protected. There was concern that it was just a one-day inquiry. This is a very important task and it is a top priority. One-day inquiries are not without precedent in this place. In fact, I can recall the Telstra inquiry and the National Water Commission inquiry. The copyright legislation that went to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee a couple of years ago had a one-day inquiry. We do Senate inquiries based on the papers from time to time where we do not have witnesses and there are no public hearings as such. So we have to be flexible in this place; we have to accept the priorities of the government, and the government sees it as a top priority to protect the health and safety of Australia’s children, particularly in the Northern Territory.

So I understand the sentiments of Senators Siewert and Bartlett, and I know where they are coming from. In a perfect world, obviously, things could be different; but it is an imperfect world. We want to act. On this side of the Senate chamber we want to act fast in the best interests of the children at risk.

6:41 pm

Photo of George CampbellGeorge Campbell (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I indicate that the opposition will be supporting the amendment that has been moved by Senator Barnett. As the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Senator Evans, indicated in his speech in the second reading debate, we accept that the legislation is emergency legislation, that there is an issue of concern about looking after children in some of these areas, and that that needs to be addressed, and addressed with some urgency. In that respect, the Opposition have indicated that we will facilitate the passage of the legislation through the parliament, despite the fact that we may have some reservations and concerns about certain aspects of the legislation.

I indicate that, whilst we have agreed to this amendment with respect to these bills, it should not be taken that our protests, which have been put on the record on a number of occasions, about the way the Senate committee processes have been truncated on a range of inquiries and hearings since the government got a majority in this place on 1 July 2005, have somehow melted away; they have not. Certainly, we recognise that this issue is important and that there is a degree of urgency about it. So we are prepared to facilitate the passage of the bills through the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Original question, as amended, agreed to.