Senate debates

Tuesday, 14 August 2007


Second Reading

Debate resumed from 13 August, on motion by Senator Scullion:

That these bills be now read a second time.

upon which Senator Chris Evans moved in respect of the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007, 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 by way of amendment:

At the end of the motion, add:

                 “but the Senate notes that:

             (a)    the protection of children from harm and abuse is of paramount concern to all Australians;

             (b)    the documented instances of child abuse within Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory are of such gravity as to require an urgent and comprehensive response to make  children and the communities they live in, safe;

             (c)    these legislative measures taken together represent a major challenge for Territorians and a change to current arrangements;

             (d)    we will not succeed in our goal of protecting children without the support and leadership of Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory; the Commonwealth must gain their trust, engage them and respect them throughout this emergency and beyond;

             (e)    the work of strong and effective Indigenous community members and organisations must continue to be supported during this emergency;

              (f)    it is important that temporary measures are replaced in time with permanent reforms that have the confidence and support of Territorians, and short term measures aimed at ensuring the safety of children grow into long term responses that create stronger communities that are free of violence and abuse;

             (g)    In the case of town camps effective partnerships with lessors and negotiated outcomes should obviate the need for compulsory acquisition;

             (h)    this includes stimulating economic development and more private sector partnerships to secure greater self-reliance;

              (i)    both levels of Government must work in partnership; there must be political accountability at the highest level – with the Prime Minister  and Federal Minister  for Indigenous Affairs;

              (j)    program funding must hit the ground through evidence-based delivery; there must be relentless focus on best-practice and rigorous evaluation by all parties set within specific timeframes;

             (k)    practical measures must include;

                   (i)    police to keep every community in the Territory safe, particularly children, women and elders;

                  (ii)    safe houses that provide a safe place for women and children escaping family violence or abuse built using the direction and leadership of local Indigenous women;

                 (iii)    night patrols that provide important protection;

                 (iv)    community law and justice groups that play an important role in the effective administration of justice;

                  (v)    appropriate background checks for all people providing services in communities who work in proximity to children;

                 (vi)    comprehensive coverage of child and maternal health services are essential to give children the best start comprehensive coverage of parenting and early development services for Indigenous parents and their babies;

                (vii)    an effective child protection system in the Northern Territory;

               (viii)    all children enrolled and attending school and Governments to deliver teachers, classrooms, teacher housing and support services (eg Indigenous teacher assistants);

                  (ix)    investment in housing construction and maintenance to reduce the shortfall in Indigenous homes and infrastructure; and

                   (x)    reform of the Community Development and Employment Program, including transitioning participants who are employed in public sector work into proper public sector jobs and ensuring participants are not left without sufficient income or participation opportunities”.

3:58 pm

Photo of Linda KirkLinda Kirk (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In my speech on the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007 and related bills last night, I was talking about the assurance that the government has given to Labor and to the Senate that these measures that are being introduced amount to special measures and therefore are consistent with the requirements of the Racial Discrimination Act. I said last night that the absence of consultation with Indigenous communities by the government certainly casts some doubt on whether these measures would be regarded as special measures pursuant to the Racial Discrimination Act. In the time that I have remaining today, I want to make mention of the fact that it is also of concern that the legislation does not require decision makers to exercise their discretion consistently with the purported beneficial purpose. This is another thing which indicates that these matters may not in fact be special measures.

In view of these concerns, it is essential that there now be extensive consultation with Indigenous communities. Even at this late stage, it is essential that the government explains these measures and the object of the legislation. As the President of HREOC, Mr John von Doussa, said in his evidence to the Senate hearing on Friday, it is not too late to consult with Indigenous communities in order to ensure that the administration of the legislation is designed and implemented in a way that advances the aims of the legislation and meets the aspirations of Indigenous communities. In this context, consultation is better late than never. Finally, it is essential that there be effective monitoring and review of the implementation of these measures. Labor supports the two recommendations made by the Senate inquiry, recommendations No. 1 and No. 3, that ensure that there will be review. (Time expired)

4:00 pm

Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

The Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007 and the four associated bills are lengthy, radical, complex and far reaching. Contrary to the hype, there is no urgency for three of the five bills. The administrators, Army, police, health and other officials have moved in or are on their way. The much-needed emergency intervention is already happening. The only urgent need is for money to pay for it all. The two appropriation bills need to be passed at once. For the other three bills covering policy matters there is no reason whatsoever that a proper Senate inquiry and some decent consultation could not have occurred to report by the next sitting on 11 September, when the bills could pass. Instead, we have this manufactured urgency and have had the disgraceful sham of a one-day inquiry to examine five bills and 500 pages—yet another gross abuse of the coalition’s Senate control. We all know that rushed legislation produces mistakes. It is not as if there is any danger of the three policy bills not passing. The Liberal legislative lemmings will see to that.

In my own mind, I have separated the ambit of the bills into four broad areas: those measures that seek to significantly reduce the crimes of sexual assault of children and domestic violence; those measures that seek to improve social conduct and compliance affecting parenting, alcohol consumption, the regulation of pornography and school attendance; those measures addressing welfare, service delivery and welfare to work; and, lastly, those measures addressing land use.

This entire new policy edifice is built on a powerful emotional reaction to widespread child abuse and child sexual assault in Indigenous communities—finally, after reports stretching over not just decades but generations. Child abuse is the hook on which all this other policy hangs. I have my own prejudices here. I loathe those who abuse and assault children, and I have had much to say on that subject for my entire time in the Senate. So I am keen to see policies that end it. However, I struggle to see how changing land use leases and the permit system have anything remotely to contribute to ending the sexual assault of children. I have my prejudices on land issues too. Based on my knowledge of Soviet and colonial African practices, I have an instinctive reaction against the apartheid language of homelands and separate development, against permits and passes, and against systems which prevent freehold private land ownership—particularly in settled areas.

If you want to know whether the coalition or any government has my full support for ending the abuse and physical and sexual assault of children, for ending domestic violence, regulating pornography, regulating drinking and policing socially disruptive behaviour anywhere in Australia, yes, they do. These are not just Northern Territory issues. While the coalition is right to act in the Northern Territory, much more has to be done by them in every other state and territory. In many respects the coalition are acting and leading years too late.

Much has been said about the motives of this coalition government. When I watch and listen to Mal Brough, I see genuine belief and commitment. I see a man whose beliefs, determination and self-certainty may lead him into mistakes, perhaps grievous ones, but they will be mistakes borne of a genuine desire to make Indigenous communities better. When I listen to and look at the Prime Minister and many of his party, I am not as sure of their motives. There are people in the Liberal Party who are and have been active in trying to do something about Indigenous and non-Indigenous child abuse, child sexual assault and living conditions. However, in some—not all—of the Liberal leadership group’s reaction I suspect the influence of the coming election at work, with them trying to wedge Kevin Rudd and Labor and trying to get voter kudos, plus using this opportunity to bring on difficult policy agendas.

People question Liberal motives because it is an election year and because of the coalition’s long record of doing little to address this issue of the sexual assault of children past and present, of strenuously resisting having a royal commission into such matters and of refusing to introduce compensation, reparation or remedial measures to those harmed as children. It is easy to do a Hansard search to see if this is all sudden and new. Just check if those now engaged on this Northern Territory issue have ever before spoken about paedophilia, child abuse or child sexual assault, especially when those matters concerned ‘us whites’ not ‘them blacks’ or when the deviant practices of some churches or charities were exposed by the Senate inquiries into institutional care.

In speaking to these bills, I cannot cover all their content. I will leave that to our portfolio holder, Senator Bartlett. I will focus on what the intervention intends to achieve, that being the admirable task of protecting Aboriginal children in the Territory from sexual assault, abuse and neglect. Understand this: if there is no follow-up for the longer term, if local communities are not brought onside and if there is no sustained commitment, then these initiatives are doomed to failure.

Pleased as I was to hear the Prime Minister’s welcome announcement that the federal government would make a well-resourced emergency response to the circumstances described in the Little children are sacred report, I had mixed feelings. I was thrilled that finally national leadership in child protection was on the agenda. However, I was concerned that it was largely geographically and demographically quarantined. I was concerned that there was still no Commonwealth leadership on child sexual assault and abuse across the whole of Australia. This is urgently needed because the crimes of domestic violence, child sexual assault and other forms of child abuse are also happening—and have happened in the past—in cities, towns, villages and suburbs throughout Australia. Numerous media, government and other reports exist that attest to this, both in a contemporary and historical context.

For years, I have urged the federal government to show leadership. It has been a frustrating experience. Although we do have politicians who loudly proclaim their concern for families and children, when it comes to the dark and depressing issue of child sexual assault, too many remained silent. I have given numerous speeches and have circulated papers, with little result either politically or in the media. My campaign has largely been given form by the two Senate community affairs inquiries I initiated and was a member of—the child migrant inquiry and the children in institutional care inquiry. These inquiries generated the 2001 Lost innocents: righting the record report, the 2004 Forgotten Australians report and the 2005 Protecting vulnerable children: a national challenge report.

The most overwhelming and tragic finding of these reports is this: if you harm a child, you will, more likely than not, get a harmed adult and the consequences can run for decades and are often generational. Very few actually understand this. Most still think that the sexual and physical assault of a child is a crime, when it is a sentence. When hundreds of thousands of children are harmed, the long-term individual, intergenerational social and economic costs are massive. There is no sign that the government, as a whole, understands this. In the Northern Territory, all the young people and adults already harmed will need decades of remedial action, therapy, health care and support, not necessarily constantly but certainly whenever the demons rise up. What happened to the half million in care is directly relevant to this Northern Territory problem. Many children raised in care, then and now, suffered tragic childhoods, were born into families where poverty and welfare dependency was common, where alcohol-fuelled domestic violence and drug abuse were daily occurrences, where physical and sexual assault could be experienced and where abuse and neglect were common. Taken into care by the authorities, children suffer attachment disorders through the loss of the love and nurturing essential to their development. They suffer numerous placements, loss of identity, loss of self-esteem and confidence, and perform poorly at school. Some become the unfortunate victims of continuing assaults.

The evidence received by the Senate inquiries about the assaults suffered while in care was most disturbing. Here are a few quotes:

During my time at this home my sister and myself experienced directly and also witnessed many acts of cruelty, deprivation, sexual abuse, premeditated physical and emotional torture.

Another stated:

I have been flogged. I have scars all over my body inflicted on me by those bastards.

And another stated:

My brothers were sentenced to the care of monsters. They witnessed and endured terrible unspeakable brutality.

The Forgotten Australians report, at page 141, best sums up the cruelty inflicted on children in care by their carers, the religious sisters, the brothers, the priests and lay workers. I quote:

When do the oft-documented beltings and floggings become criminal assault? When did the ‘standards of the time’ change that condoned the perpetration of neglect, cruelty, psychological abuse, sadism, rape and sodomy?

Needless to say, when these kids left care their futures were often bleak. One wrote:

When I entered the boys’ home, the child that I was ceased to exist. When I left ... the man I had a right to become, would never eventuate.


What was to follow was a life of violent youth drinking and drugging which landed both my brother and myself into the lockup.

And another quote:

No person can come out of these experiences unscathed and many of the girls from the home have had horrible lives. I saw more than one as street walkers and was told about attempts at suicide and destructive relationships. Others have learned to rely on alcohol and other drugs. None have realised their potential both emotionally and intellectually.

The litany of abuse and neglect suffered by these survivors has endured well into their adult years. Just like war veterans, they suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and other general health problems. Here are some more quotes:

My mum spent years in psychiatric institutions due to the atrocious abuse that herself and her sister endured for many years at the cruel hands of the so-called carers.


I can’t get some of the terrible things he did to me out of my head, they loom in the shadows of my life and haunt me. This carer took my virginity, my innocence, my development, my potential.

Another wrote:

I’m spending the second half of my life sorting out the first half. The cumulative effect is so pervasive that today I’m 52 years old and still a state ward.

And finally, one 70-year-old woman wrote of the lasting effects in the following way:

Every now and then a door opens in the memory bank and the ghosts escape to make us lonely children again.

The point of quoting these excerpts from the ‘stolen generation’ and the Children in institutional care reports is to illustrate that if you harm a child you get a harmed adult. That has a direct relationship to the children that have been harmed in the Northern Territory. These quotes illustrate a huge societal problem. Together with the ‘stolen generation’ inquiry, the trilogy of Senate inquiries conservatively revealed that more than 500,000 children were removed from their families and placed in out-of-home care last century in Australia. A minimum of 20,000 of these were Aboriginal children—possibly even double that figure; the records are very poor. The rest of the 500,000 were child migrants and non-Indigenous, non-child migrant Australian children. Anyone who fails to understand that taking those Indigenous children from their mothers contributed to the present evils just does not get it.

The enduring legacy of child sexual and physical assault—indeed, the current and ongoing crisis of child abuse in Aboriginal communities—is directly linked to the effects of the ‘stolen generation’. The intergenerational effects of the trauma from the forced removal of children and of degraded family life are now being played out in Indigenous communities: substance abuse, welfare dependency, mental and other health problems, suicides, poor parenting skills, child abuse and neglect, social disruption and, sadly, the sexual assault of vulnerable kids. It is important to realise that the trilogy of Senate inquiries I have referred to are only a portion of a myriad of other inquiries dating back decades. And they continue to this day. One current inquiry nearing completion in South Australia has revealed extraordinary levels of sexual assault amongst the state ward population there. Since November 2004, Commissioner Mullighan, who is heading the SA Children in State Care inquiry, has interviewed over 2,000 people and unearthed hundreds of appalling examples of sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children in state care. Bearing in mind that the vast majority of adults sexually assaulted as children will never come forward, the possible numbers are frightening. And one problem of sexual assault of children is that, in a minority, it leads to them, in turn, becoming assaulters as adults.

I gave an adjournment speech on this phenomenon in 2002, and those of you who are interested can look it up. Briefly, here is how numbers can multiply. In the United States, Richard Sipe, an impressively qualified former monk, revealed in his Sipe report that five to seven per cent of US Catholic priests have molested children. If six per cent of 50,000 Catholic priests in the United States sexually assaulted an average of 100 children over a 50-year life span, you would be talking about 300,000 victims.

There is no research to tell us what the Australian percentage might be of abusers and how many victims that would translate to, whether the abusers are Indigenous or not. This is why the Democrats and many others from many parties have called for a royal commission to assess the scale and effects of sexual assault against children in Australia. All the evidence points to the fact that the long-term consequences of sexually assaulted children do not just impact on the individual; they also impact on their families, often for generations, and on society at large. Our prisons are full of those abused and assaulted as children. Our homeless population has a high percentage of former state wards or kids fleeing from abusive families. Psychiatrists and psychologists attest to the high incidence of mental health problems emanating from abusive childhoods.

All of this comes at an enormous drain on budgetary expenditures estimated to be costing taxpayers $5 billion annually. This was calculated in a historic national report on the cost of child abuse and neglect by the Kids First Foundation back in 2003. Has there been any serious political understanding and acknowledgement that a lifetime of pain and alienation comes from being abused as a child, that a huge aggregated social and economic cost results? Not really. Has there been any political will to seriously address this by the Commonwealth? Territory intervention aside, no. Has the Commonwealth agreed to the longstanding call for a royal commission into child sexual assault and abuse? No. Did the Commonwealth agree to the establishment of a national commissioner for children and young people, as recommended by the Protecting vulnerable children Senate report? No. Did the Commonwealth agree to the recommendation of the Forgotten Australians report to establish and manage a national reparations fund for the survivors of institutional abuse and other care settings? No.

Time and again in its response to the unanimous recommendations of the Senate inquiry reports—note I said ‘unanimous’: all parties—the Commonwealth deferred to the states on constitutional grounds. There was no national leadership taken whatsoever. Not only were these reports about delivering some sense of justice and a fair go for the hundreds of thousands directly affected last century; they were also about the legions of children in need of child protection in the future. Now we finally do have the Commonwealth showing some leadership. I welcome it, but it is needed more than in the Northern Territory, and it is needed more than in Indigenous communities in the other states and territories. It is also needed in the non-Indigenous community.

The situation is not new. Many reports previous to the Little children are sacred report have made similar and shocking findings that are also about non-Aboriginal people and children. In his address to the Sydney Institute on 25 June, the Prime Minister stated in relation to the Northern Territory emergency response:

... the full power and resources of the Commonwealth will be directed to making lasting change, where we can, in the daily lives and future prospects of the most vulnerable fellow citizens in our nation.

That is a very admirable statement. But he does not mean that meaningful action will follow for all children of every colour at risk across Australia, because if he did mean that he would be doing something to show that he means that.

The Prime Minister is now on the record as stating that where there is an obvious gap in the delivery of services the Commonwealth should assume an ‘overwatch’ role and that, where the Commonwealth can make a difference, arguably it should. If the eyes are going to be picked out of federal-state relations then the weeping eye of child protection must be targeted by the Commonwealth.

The principles and strategies for effective action are known and the evidence for what will work is available. It is the absence of responsibility, of political will, of resources and of the commitment to long-term policies and budgets that impedes addressing child sexual assault and abuse effectively across all the states and territories of our nation. The grave issue of child sexual assault in all of Australia and its long-term consequences is a matter of national concern and deserves national leadership. The abused children who become adults who were abused need specific attention. Those who have been abused in the past need as much attention from this government as those it is trying to save from being abused in the future.

Lastly, I want to talk about alcohol. Here is another area where Commonwealth leadership is weak. Australians are alarmed at youth binge drinking, nightclub assaults, the fact they cannot walk the streets safely, domestic violence and mayhem on the roads. I know there is the National Alcohol Strategy, but it is weak. What is needed is to inquire, with particular regard to significantly reducing alcohol abuse in Australia, especially in geographic or demographic ‘hot spots’, into what the Commonwealth, states and territories should separately and jointly do with respect to the pricing of alcohol, including taxation; the marketing of alcohol; and regulating the distribution, availability and consumption of alcohol. The inquiry must take into account economic as well as social issues; alcohol rehabilitation and education; the need for a flexible, adaptable regulatory regime; and the need for a consistent, harmonised approach.

The coalition will not do it. Just today they voted against doing it. They think it is easier just to concentrate on the Northern Territory. That is not enough. I say to the coalition: it is to your shame that you will not do something positive about these matters.

Photo of Ross LightfootRoss Lightfoot (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Murray, do you wish to seek leave to incorporate a speech by Senator Stott Despoja?

Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

I am glad you were concentrating, Mr Acting Deputy President. I had forgotten.

The Acting Deputy President:

I always concentrate when you are speaking, Senator Murray.

Photo of Andrew MurrayAndrew Murray (WA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

I appreciate that, Mr Acting Deputy President. I will remark to those listening: Senator Lightfoot is one of my colleagues from Western Australia and, I might say, a very good colleague. Having flattered you accordingly, Mr Acting Deputy President, I seek leave to incorporate Senator Stott Despoja’s speech.

Leave granted.

4:21 pm

Photo of Natasha Stott DespojaNatasha Stott Despoja (SA, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

The incorporated speech read as follows—

This is defining legislation. It is defining because it has the potential to be the impetus in addressing an issue in our nation’s history that has been neglected and unresolved for decades. It also has the potential to do irreparable damage and cause a set back for hard fought rights achieved over those decades for Indigenous Australians. It could draw together non-partisan and cooperative community support in giving critical attention and resources to resolve the detrimental imbalance of life experienced by thousands of Indigenous Australians. It also has the disturbing potential to polarise our society and perpetuate discrimination and ignorance.

We all hope that we can progress the search for solutions to the problems facing our Indigenous communities, despite the fact that we are today to debate such momentous legislation with so little opportunity to scrutinise the Government’s proposals and to meaningfully contribute to measures and outcomes that all Australians can support.

In 1967, 91% of Australians voted `Yes’ to the fundamental value of equality for all Australians. That we are having this debate now, some 40 years on, demonstrates forcefully that the potential of the 1967 Referendum has not been realised and highlights the failure of successive Governments to address fundamental issues of inequality for Indigenous communities.

The abuse of children in any society is intolerable. Their protection is a priority, particularly where children live in communities lacking basic health, education and support services. Immediate attention is needed to address issues of abuse committed against women and children in Indigenous communities. The urgency and the priority of this matter cannot be overstated and is acknowledged by all Australians.

On 21 June, the Prime Minister publicly reacted to the ‘Little children are sacred’ report and labelled the situation a National Emergency.

It is worth reflecting that the sickening and horrifying abuse to which the Prime Minister referred in his announcement has been present and prevalent throughout his entire term as Prime Minister. It is a prolonged and complex problem that has been largely ignored by this Government, despite the consistent pleas of the Democrats for the Government to make a responsible and appropriate response to domestic violence and child sexual abuse, not only in the Northern Territory, but Australia wide.

According to Professor Peter Botsman’s ‘Putting Indigenous Child Abuse in Perspective’, there is clear evidence that Indigenous child abuse is occurring at significant levels in other states. Indeed, the NT has the second lowest instance of child abuse substantiations on a per capita basis. Clearly, this is a national problem and requires a responsible federal response; not the Government flexing its constitutional muscle to give the appearance of addressing a problem it has in fact neglected. The answer is not in brandishing a few perpetrators as political trophies and declaring the job is done.

Many are also questioning the Government’s credibility and qualifications to take the actions they have instigated and are now following up with this legislation. It is once again acting in a non-consultative, ignorant and simplistic fashion—an ‘all guns blazing’ approach that this Government has adopted on so many issues in the past. There are ramifications for privacy, self-determination, civil rights and culture. It would seem this Government is comfortable with the concept of ‘collateral damage’.

In the appallingly brief time available to scrutinise this raft of legislation, the Australian Democrats have been able to identify a number of specific concerns:

  • the powers conferred on police in respect of alcohol restrictions are extraordinary. An officer is entitled to enter into private property—as if it were a public space—and take a person into custody if the officer believes that the person is intoxicated;
  • the requirements in respect of public computers mean that a failure to develop a computer policy is a criminal offence, and privacy rights will almost certainly be infringed;
  • the creation of compulsory leases will suppress Native Title rights, almost certainly contrary to s.10 of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975;
  • the conferral of exclusive possession and quiet enjoyment rights onto the Commonwealth means that many indigenous people with an existing interest in the land may be left without enforceable rights to remain, and may be excluded at the whim of the Commonwealth;
  • while the Commonwealth will enjoy exclusive possession, and can displace an Indigenous owner of the land, the Commonwealth will not be liable for any damage to persons or property ‘as a result of the condition... of buildings or infrastructure on the land’;
  • the ability of the Indigenous owner of the land to terminate the lease is removed, regardless of whether the Commonwealth discharges its obligations as a tenant;
  • In relation to the compulsory acquisition provisions dealing with town camp areas, the Minister is conferred with a remarkable general power to specify that an existing Commonwealth law has no effect if it would regulate or hinder the doing of an act in relation to the land that is compulsorily acquired. This power could be used to exclude, for example, the provisions of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999;
  • Compensation for compulsory acquisition is not guaranteed unconditionally. The compensation provisions have been carefully worded in a clear reflection of availability of compensation in the Territories in light of the decision in the Kakadu case (Newcrest Mining (WA) Ltd v Commonwealth (1997) 190 CLR 513). It may foreshadow that the Commonwealth may force compensation claimants to the High Court in an effort to re-litigate that case.

Now, some of these concerns may be capable of resolution—but clearly not if the parliament is not allowed a reasonable opportunity to scrutinise and amend the legislation. Regardless how well intended the legislation may be, the process is paramount. But enough has already been said about that by my Senate colleagues.

Turning back to the intent of the legislation, I thoroughly commend the medical staff and community workers who are giving their time and expertise. However, I would emphasise that a short-term tour of duty cannot alleviate the entrenched deficiencies in the provision of health services in these communities and the disparity in sustainable health services between remote and urban Australia.

The UN recently provided a telling statistic that Australians are among the longest living people in the world. Australian women, in particular, are ranked third and have a life expectancy of 84 years. Yet ABS information as at 2001 indicates that the average life expectancy of an Indigenous Australian female was estimated to be 17 years behind the Australian average, and on a par with countries that have been deprived of basic public services through fragile governments, struggling economies and civil conflict.

In 2001-02, expenditure per Indigenous person on primary health care, including that paid through the Medicare Benefits Scheme, was less than half the expenditure per non-Indigenous person. In 2004-2005, the hospitalisation rate for Indigenous people with potentially preventable chronic condition was 8.2 times the rate for non-Indigenous people. For Type 2 diabetes, the Indigenous hospitalisation rate was 6.5 times the rate for non-Indigenous people.

This is a tragic and embarrassing reflection on a Government that takes credit for our recent national economic prosperity, yet may not be so quick to face up to its failure to include remote communities in this prosperity and to provide basic services, infrastructure and resources to Indigenous communities.

I am glad that the Minister for Health and Ageing has toned down the intrusive and compulsory nature of the medical examinations that were planned for children in the Northern Territory, and is now offering immunisations, family medical history checks, and routine developmental checks. But after all, is what the Minister is now proposing not precisely what should have been available as a matter of course in any developed country?

The relationship between doctor and patient is personal and delicate at the best of times. The relationship between a child and doctor requires added tact and insight. This is even more vital for health professionals entering Indigenous communities who have additional hurdles of culture, isolation and language to overcome. Any proposal to intervene in Indigenous communities will need to ensure that women and children are not further traumatised.

And, what about ongoing care and support? What guarantees do we have that the required resourcing to promote social, emotional and spiritual healing on both individual and community levels will be forthcoming? The Government has so far articulated only a very narrow response to a complex range of interrelated social issues. We struggle to address the social dysfunction, child abuse and break down in family relations in a culture we know. How prepared is the government to pursue the complex socio-emotional issues of shame, violation, abuse and community dysfunction in Indigenous communities across Australia?

This intervention may, however, provide us with an opportunity to assess educational opportunities and outcomes for Indigenous Australians—not only to remote Indigenous communities, but to urban non-Indigenous Australian as well. As in the area of Health, there will be no quick-fixes but rather an obvious need to build long-term capacity and accessibility.

  • In 2006, 21 percent of 15 year old Indigenous people were not participating in school education. Only 5 per cent of non Indigenous 15 year olds were not participating in school education.
  • In 2006 Indigenous students were half as likely as non-Indigenous students to continue to year 12, and it was a similar picture for post-secondary qualification completions.

Participation rates at all educational levels for Indigenous students must be addressed with strategies that will overcome geographical, economic, cultural and linguistic barriers, and promote full participation in education and training.

Maybe bridging the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia is even more about education for non-Indigenous Australians. There is an obvious need for schools in both the public and private sectors to offer Australian Indigenous language and cultural studies, and while this kind of proposal may superficially seem idealistic and expensive, such measures and initiatives are necessary to break down the narrow community perceptions that underpin the Government’s actions.

I would also question the Government’s approach to maximising participation in education for Indigenous children—clearly this must be built on strong community support and cooperation. But the penalties for non-attendance at school are a little scary. Effectively, the legislation links family assistance payments to school attendance for all people living on Aboriginal land.

This raises a number of further questions:

Will the new universal obligations tying social security benefits to school attendance be enforced differentially? Will remote communities come under especial scrutiny as opposed to the larger urban centres? Do these measures breach the Racial Discrimination Act?

And just suppose all children were to show up for school, meeting their obligatory welfare requirements, would we have the classrooms and teaching staff required to meet this need?

This enforcement proposal may be consistent with this government’s approach on most issues, but it will not address complexity of service delivery to Indigenous communities.

Clearly, some core issues have been neglected in this legislation and some key voices are not being heard. The Combined Aboriginal Organisation (CAO), representing over 40 community and Indigenous organisations in the Territory, has asserted that on the face of details explained so far, the emergency measures lack insight into effective child protection interventions needed to address the crisis. Olga Havnen expressed that the main concern with the current approach by the Government has been a failure to understand that there are some really deep-seated, underlying structural issues that need to be addressed. She said that principal amongst those will absolutely be the need for adequate housing. She goes on to say while an increased police presence and health checks are welcomed by the CAO, in the longer term it’s actually about having better access to a whole range of services which are currently not there.

The reality is there is a critical lack of resources in education and primary health care. There is a distinct lack of training and personnel in the provision of these services to Indigenous communities. We need long-term commitment to perpetuate training opportunities among both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It must be funded, it must be staffed and it must provide the necessary infrastructure.

Further, as legislators, we hold that those who violate the rule of law are subject to the consequences of breaking the law. There is no room for perpetrators of these hideous offences to think their crime is acceptable. But policing is as much about building trust and cooperation in the local community as it is about force and coercion. Women and children in these communities must be able to feel safe and empowered to report offences where they occur. Recent arrests and prosecutions in SA and WA reflect the effective place of community liaison and education.

We must now, more than ever, highlight the work of many service providers in remote areas and the contribution of Indigenous communities and individuals, such as the Apunipima Cape York Health Council’s (ACYHC) Family Well Being program: this is a prime example of Indigenous communities working effectively to make a positive contribution to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Let’s imagine for a moment that the Government has the best of motives and intentions in resuming control of NT land and abolishing the permit system. Many Indigenous people perceive this as a threat to hard fought land rights and as a backward step for traditional custodianship of the land. This Government has been spectacularly lacking in legitimate steps toward Reconciliation, and this move will do little to bridge the gap that currently exists between remote Indigenous and urban communities.

Ten years on from the Bringing Them Home report and still with no formal apology on behalf of the Australian Government for the Stolen Generation, any suggestion of protective removal of children from families and or communities will be greeted with suspicion and inevitably rekindle community memory of disempowerment, dislocation and trauma.

Indeed, the recent ruling in SA awarding $525,000 to Bruce Trevorrow highlights that it is now well overdue to adopt a national comprehensive compensation package for victims of the Stolen Generation and for us to finally say sorry and address the trauma caused by the removal of many thousands of indigenous people from their families as children.

I commenced my remarks by noting the significance of this legislation in Australia’s history. I do so because it takes us to the core of Reconciliation, and what it means for Indigenous people to have a sense of equality, self-determination and empowerment as Australians. Now is the time to listen, not to lecture, and to promote Indigenous voices—in all levels of Government. I particularly look forward to the first Indigenous female Member of Federal Parliament. These are voices that need to be heard.

Photo of Judith AdamsJudith Adams (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to add my support for the government’s intervention in this very serious matter. As a number of my colleagues have spoken about the five bills comprising the legislative package for the Australian government’s response to the national emergency relating to the welfare of Indigenous children in the Northern Territory—the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007 and related bills—I intend to speak about the progress being made in addressing these issues. The package of legislative changes and policies that we are debating today are the most important Indigenous affairs initiatives seen in decades. The government has acted quickly to protect children and stabilise communities and, in the longer term, will support them to a position where they can become functional and provide employment opportunities for their residents.

The Little children are sacred report highlighted horrific abuse of children in remote communities and it is a tragedy that the Northern Territory government did not take action earlier to try and rectify this situation. The Australian government’s actions are not a response to this report; rather, the government is acting in response to the significant reports of abuse and potential neglect of children.

I think it is hard for most people in Australia who are enjoying benefits of an economically prosperous nation to understand the appalling conditions that communities in the Northern Territory and the Kimberley area of my state of Western Australia are experiencing, and the feeling of despair amongst the people. The coordinator of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre, Mr Wes Morris said:

There’s absolute despair in the community. There’s so many families within the community who have been affected in such a deep and personal way.

Even more incidents of abuse have been revealed since the emergency response began, including 138 recent charges for child sex offences in the Kimberley. The financial commitment in excess of $580 million made by the government in 2007-08 is an indication of how seriously it views the situation in the Northern Territory. However, the commitment does not end in financial terms. The government has appointed a task force and a task force operational group to advise and coordinate the on-ground effort to address this emergency. The operational group reports to the task force and provides day-to-day professional administrative and coordinating support.

Magistrate Dr Sue Gordon is the chairperson of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Taskforce and Major General David Chalmers is the operational commander. Both task force members were witnesses at the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee inquiry into the Northern Territory national emergency response legislation held here last Friday. Major General Chalmers informed the Senate committee of progress to date and the way in which the emergency response aims to protect children and to stabilise communities in the crisis area.

A three-phase operation is being undertaken, with the first phase being called stabilisation. This will last for approximately one year and will involve increased policing, gathering information via survey teams and child health check activities, and establishing government business managers in most communities to oversee and improve the delivery of government services. The second phase, the normalisation phase, will involve longer-term measures which will improve health standards, education outcomes, and employment and welfare management. This phase will last for two to five years. The exit phase will involve handing over responsibility for ongoing coordination and management to the relevant Commonwealth and territory government agencies.

Now we ask: what has happened so far? The task force operational group, led by Major General Chalmers, is based in Alice Springs and in seven weeks has achieved an enormous result. By week 6, all 73 identified communities had been visited by either an advanced communication team or a survey team. Eighteen additional police have been placed in seven communities and another 11 communities have been identified as policing priorities. The Northern Territory Emergency Response Taskforce is working closely with the Northern Territory Police to have an additional police presence in place in these communities by mid-September. This represents a 100 per cent increase in the policing of remote communities achieved in less than three months.

Four government business managers are in place and have begun to manage the delivery of government services in nine communities. Another two managers are undertaking induction training. Further government business managers are being selected from a remarkable response of 272 applications received from public servants. Health assessment teams have been deployed to a total of 17 communities so far, and over 705 child health checks had been performed up to 9 August. An estimated 17,000 children under the age of 16 in the Northern Territory will receive a child health check. These are to be completed by 30 June 2008. Amoonguna, Mutitjulu, and Titjikala, with the support of community brokers in each community, are undertaking Work for the Dole activities, and this is starting to work very well. So far there are six community brokers in place, supporting 10 communities.

Over the next few months the task force will continue the expansion of the police presence, finish the surveys and child health checks, and roll out the teams assisting communities with changes to welfare provision and employment opportunities. It is very encouraging to see the response by professional volunteers and public servants who have offered their services and gotten involved in this program, as well as the 520 health professionals, teachers, community and social workers who have also registered their interest.

The task force headed up by Dr Sue Gordon has met with the broader community—and mainly women, in particular—reassuring them and informing them of what the government is achieving in its further aims and objectives. I read in the West Australian today that women elders in Fitzroy Crossing are now calling for a 12-month ban on takeaway alcohol as they feel this is one of their biggest problems. As a member of the Senate Community Affairs Committee inquiry into petrol sniffing in remote Aboriginal communities, and the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts national parks and marine parks inquiry, I travelled extensively through the Northern Territory and the northern parts of Western Australia and had opportunities to speak with a number of the women elders in these communities. Even though that was last year, they really were happy to have someone to talk to about all the problems that have evolved in the communities as well as the petrol sniffing.

Having worked as a nurse in the northern part of Western Australia and having had the opportunity recently to visit all of these communities, I feel that I have a really good understanding of what is going on. I say to Dr Sue Gordon that she is certainly working on the right people, because I believe that women will lead the communities out of the problems that they have, so long as they have support to do that.

Once again, it was evident, with some of the initiatives, that the younger girls, some of them only 15 years old with small babies, were being given help to raise their children, to learn to cook, and to do all of the home services that perhaps they did not learn because their mothers were not present. I think that the women have really got it together and I support them in every endeavour to get programs up that they will be able to continue with to be able to help in this issue.

At the inquiry on Friday, the government was criticised quite strongly for trying to push this legislation through. During the committee hearing into this package of legislation, I asked Dr Gordon how delaying the introduction of the proposed measures would reduce the incidence of violence and abuse. She answered:

Every day there is a delay means there is another child at risk one way or another. That could be health-wise or it could be abuse or something like that. I do not know why we need to delay any further. I have pointed out to you to the best of my ability and under the premise that I work, which is in the protection of children—

Dr Gordon is a very distinguished woman who has worked as a magistrate in the Western Australian children’s court for 18 years, so she certainly is a very worthy chairperson of the task force. And she went on to say:

We are signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and we really have to start putting them first.

So I congratulate her and her task force on the way they have started and I hope they will be able to continue and truly make a difference.

The permit system was something that was raised by many of our witnesses on Friday. I would like to spend some time discussing how changes to the permit system are linked to child sexual abuse, as there has been a lot of misinformation about what the government is doing. In her opening address to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee inquiry into the Northern Territory national emergency response legislation, the task force chairperson, Dr Sue Gordon, quoted from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, article 19.1, which states:

State Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.

Dr Gordon went on to say:

The permit system as it stands has not had this effect. Most abusers are known to the victim. The permit system as it stands has protected the offenders. The legislation before the parliament addresses this.

During the recent review, the government consulted widely, listening to concerns, and decided to modify the permit system, not to abolish it. It is important to note that 99.8 per cent of Aboriginal land will not be affected.

There are three very important things about the changes. Firstly, the changes do not apply to sacred sites, private land or to the vast majority of Aboriginal land. Permits will not be required to access common areas, townships, road corridors, barge landings or airstrips on Aboriginal land, which is the Northern Territory act land. The current system has not stopped crime, child abuse, drug running or violence. Only the restoration of law and order will enable these communities to stabilise to a secure environment. The current system sets these communities up as somehow different. It encourages the people who live in these communities to have different expectations and aspirations, to think that they are different, and to think that they do not need to worry about having a job or about sending their children to school.

Secondly, the government recognises that there may be situations where flexibility is needed. The changes provide that, even in these towns, permits can still be granted to restrict access to the town if there are special occasions or ceremonies.

Thirdly, a piece of paper that determines who can come into a community cannot replace an adequate police presence. The removal of the permit system in communities will be backed by a strong police presence to prevent inflows of undesirable people, and the police will certainly know who these people are. A proper police presence will also let people report abuse, without fearing retribution. Removal of the permit system will promote strong, safe communities, because people throughout Australia should have access to the same opportunities and experiences.

A strong argument would be required to shut particular people off from the rest of the community—that has not been made here. Having closed communities can allow bullies to dominate and stand over people. For example, closed communities have limited services and economic opportunities. Those who control these resources can use access to them to bully others. And we know that, in some cases, this has meant that some people have been bullied and abused, and others have been intimidated into not reporting abuse.

Closed communities have also meant less public scrutiny. Normally, where situations as grave and terrible as those in the Northern Territory come to light, solutions are pursued relentlessly by the media, which often leads to investigations and legal and policy changes. While journalists do not directly instigate prosecutions, they can help to create a groundswell so the community can say, ‘No more’. Closed communities make it easier for abuse to stay hidden. And closed communities also prevent the free flow of visitors and tourists that can help to stimulate economic opportunity and job creation. The Northern Territory report tells us that some girls have seen their only life option as becoming someone’s wife. Job and economic opportunities allow people to imagine a life of economic independence, and to see meaning and education.

The question is often asked: why are we removing the permit systems in these towns? But a more pertinent question is: why would you have such a system in the first place? Why set up Indigenous people living in towns as different and prevent them from having access to normal experiences that see most Australian communities prosper and thrive? It would be easier to understand why some people argue so strongly for the permit system if these towns were well-functioning havens, but the Little children are sacred report clearly tells that this is not the case. The permit system has been one of the culprits in hiding an ever-worsening situation of child abuse from the public gaze.

I will quickly speak about a visit to Balgo, where I was able to go down to the senior women’s law and cultural centre and spend several hours with them talking about a program that they were funded for. It is called Kapululangu and it is a ‘circles of cultural learning’ project. It was established by the Wirrimanu senior law women in 1999, but the history dates back to 1983. It is about trying to ensure that the younger people in the community are able to learn about their culture through cultural camps, workshops for young women and children, hunting trips, ceremonies, cultural support for men and boys and cultural exchange with other Indigenous people. The Kapululangu women elders believe that the law and culture must be vital elements of any strategy for the youth in their community. Half the population is under 25 years of age. They have many challenges facing them, and now these challenges need to be met. Dr Zohl de Ishtar, who was a coordinator of the Kapululangu, said:

We are not pretending that Kapululangu is the only answer to the problems facing Wirrimanu’s residents. These problems are multidimensional and have many causes and thus need to be tackled on all fronts at the same time by all of Wirrimanu’s agencies working in unison ... The elders are not calling for a nostalgic return to the past ... They are keenly interested in the future of the people. They know that unless the foundation of law and culture is strong all the bricks of education, health, employment and housing will continue to fall down.

We are not rushing this legislation through. I think it is very important that it backs up the work that is being done and will continue to be done. I commend the government on what it is doing and will do everything I can, and I know that there is a very strong will in the community, to support this action and to protect children, which is what this legislation is all about.

4:39 pm

Photo of Ruth WebberRuth Webber (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Here we are debating the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007 and related legislation, which was announced not long before we rose for the winter recess with much fanfare by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. Indeed, they almost declared a state of emergency and hinted that parliament would be recalled to consider the legislative reform, as they saw it, as quickly as possible. I can only presume, by the fact that we are considering it now and were not recalled, that it was in the drafting of this legislation that the government perhaps came to realise how complex and how difficult some of these matters are to deal with. These issues are much more difficult to deal with than putting out the press releases declaring them to be an emergency.

It was heartening to discover that the Prime Minister of 11 years had realised that there are children in danger who desperately require our assistance and our intervention in remote and regional communities. Let us not forget that Mr Howard has been the Prime Minister of this nation since 1996, but it has taken until 2007 for him to put this issue on the table and to try to come up with his own framework and his supposed remedy.

In 2002 the then Premier of Western Australia, Geoff Gallop, and Magistrate Sue Gordon attempted to draw the Prime Minister’s attention to this issue. The issue was raised not long after Dr Gallop formed government in Western Australia, when there were concerns about some of the communities in my home state. In order to assess the full range of the issues that needed to be addressed and to consult about the strategies that governments could use to address those issues, the Gallop Labor government established the Gordon inquiry—so these issues are not new to Magistrate Gordon either. They established the Gordon inquiry into domestic violence and child abuse in Aboriginal communities in January of that year. When that inquiry reported in 2002, the then Premier sent a copy of the Gordon report to Mr Howard. The then Premier not only wrote and sent that report to Mr Howard but also told state parliament that the human tragedy that the report revealed demanded a national response as well. For five years we got nothing. For five years Mr Howard could not even give the Western Australian government the courtesy of a response or a discussion on the issue, and all of a sudden he has declared a national emergency. He then wonders why some people are a little cynical about his approach to these issues.

Six years ago a former member of this chamber and the other place, Fred Chaney, raised these issues in his work with the Native Title Tribunal and with Reconciliation Australia. Six years ago he put on the national agenda the need to urgently intervene and address the issues of child abuse. That was six years ago. Geoff Gallop put these issues on the agenda five years ago, and now, suddenly, the Prime Minister has discovered the need to take action—and what action it is. In justifying that action some opposite talk about the issues of crime, drug abuse and violence in Indigenous communities and about how the current system is not working. Indeed there are significant issues of crime, drug abuse and violence, but you will find them in any part of our community. Many other parts of the Australian community have significant issues to do with crime, drug abuse and violence. Perhaps we should declare a non-racial national emergency in addressing those issues. That is not sufficient justification.

I have lived in many parts of Australia, but the two parts that have particularly coloured my experience when dealing with issues concerning Indigenous communities is Darwin, which is where I spent my early childhood, and Western Australia, which is where I have lived for many years. Perhaps unlike those who are based in Victoria or New South Wales, I understand some of the issues connected with the remoteness, the isolation and the vulnerability of a lot of the communities that we are discussing. I would hazard a guess that, unlike the Prime Minister, I have actually visited quite a few of those communities and physically know where they are—as I am sure you do too, Mr Acting Deputy President Lightfoot.

If we are to be serious in addressing what is a human tragedy—because the sexual abuse of any child is a human tragedy—we need a commitment to long-term policy and resource changes, not just to change that is based around a personality. We need to ensure that there is a long-term commitment to the recognition, reconciliation and viability of our Indigenous communities, no matter which side of this chamber we happen to sit on. We need a commitment to policies and resourcing that ensures the hard questions, not just the politically expedient ones, are addressed. We need to look at, learn from and listen to all of those communities, not just the most forceful personalities who come up with solutions based around their own particular issues.

Anyone who knows me might be quite surprised to hear that I want to place on the record my concern about the use of the military. This is not because I have any doubt about its commitment. I absolutely respect and value the contribution that it makes, not just its defence role in securing our nation but also its role in dealing with natural disasters. But what I have real concerns about is that it is becoming the approach of this government, or more particularly of this Prime Minister, to send in the Army every time there is a challenge that requires people. This is his solution. The Army has to be one of our most precious resources. It should not be extended above and beyond its capacity to deliver or above and beyond its capacity to look after the safety of its personnel. It is not like a magic pudding. You cannot keep pulling people and resources out of it and hope to have a sustainable military force. We need to make a long-term commitment to sensibly address the issues concerning Aboriginal communities—issues which the government has finally put on the table and claims that it is concerned about.

Last week, while I was watching a current affairs program on television, I saw Minister Brough proclaiming that the government’s intervention in the Northern Territory had been a great success because some of the perpetrators of crimes of sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities had been arrested. He wanted to assure us that more arrests were to come. I am sure that there are more to come, but what I will not countenance is any attempt by Minister Brough or anyone else to claim credit for arrests or prosecutions of people who have perpetrated similar crimes in my home state. Where was this government when the Gallop and then the Carpenter governments intervened in Kalumbaru, in Halls Creek and even in the Swan Valley camp? Nowhere to be found. The most significant interventions have taken place in those communities. Those interventions, which have been long lasting and will continue to be so, have not received one scrap of support from anyone opposite. So I will not in any way cop Mr Brough, in this place or on television, trying to imply that his efforts have anything to do with every success everywhere.

When I have spoken about these issues with the Western Australian Police Union and Western Australia Police, they have conceded that it has taken them a long time to get it right. What you need to have to address these issues in communities, particularly in Aboriginal communities, is trust, the right personalities and a long-term commitment—all of which are sadly lacking in those opposite.

To do something more pleasurable than listening to what can be a very distressing and emotional debate on these issues, last week I attended a photo exhibition—the Close the Gap campaign—that Oxfam has been running to help provide solutions to the Indigenous health crisis facing Australia. It was very nice to see some of the lovely pictures of the health services in Port Hedland and even those offered in East Perth. It was nice to see that there are some good, positive things happening. You could be forgiven for thinking, particularly after a state of emergency has been declared, that nothing is happening out there, that no good is coming of anything. But people are out there working hard. We are making progress. We need to value those people and not just wash over them in our rush to be seen to be doing something.

The crisis in Indigenous communities is a very difficult issue for many of us to deal with. I am sure that all of us have been inundated—as I have—with responses from the community, particularly by way of email, letting us know in no uncertain terms what they think of the legislation that parliament is currently dealing with. I have received far too many emails to be able to respond to all of them, so I want to place on the record now that I appreciate the endeavours that people have taken to contact me on this issue.

Although this legislation is controversial and difficult, to my mind it has actually been quite heartening to know that there are that many people in the wider Australian community who care enough to have a view about this debate—because, in some parts, particularly in my home state, there are not enough people who care, frankly. So that has been particularly heartening.

I particularly want to place on the record my thanks to Bob Howard from Albany, who went to the trouble of ringing my office to let me know of his views and his distress at this package of legislation. I want to let him know that I have heard loud and clear what he has had to say. I also appreciated a letter that I received from Fred Chaney. It was actually in response to something that happened earlier this year, but he was writing to me at the time that the government introduced its 500 pages of legislation. So his comments were particularly thoughtful, about the difficulties that we all face in dealing with very complex and emotional issues like this in an election year.

If we are to address this issue it needs to be a long-term commitment, a non-partisan or bipartisan commitment. And to my mind it needs to take its leadership from the women of those communities that we are talking about, because, as we find with almost everything in our lives, when there is something difficult and long-term to be done, it is the women who tend to find the way through and the solution. So I think we need to look to the women in those communities. They will point the way in the long term.

I find this legislation difficult, but I will not allow my personal difficulties to stand in the way of making children safe. Therefore, I am compelled to support it. However, as I said, I do find it difficult. With that, I seek leave, with Senator Nash’s agreement, to incorporate the remarks of Senator Ludwig in this debate.

Leave granted.

4:54 pm

Photo of Joe LudwigJoe Ludwig (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

The incorporated speech read as follows—

I wish to make some comments on the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bills that have now been before the Senate Committee. I just wish to say a few words on a few issues which surround this Bill, and bring the attention of the Senate to some aspects of these Bills which possibly require further and closer attention—in particular, the aspects regarding the Racial Discrimination Act and the acquisition of property on ‘just terms’.

The Bills themselves were referred for a one day Inquiry. Notwithstanding the shortness of the inquiry, the committee received a range of submissions to assist it in its deliberations.

The Bills flowed from an announcement by the Howard Government said to be a response to the Report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse, 2007 —the Anderson/Wilde Report.

It is difficult to reconcile the 97 recommendations made in that report with these Bills.

Having said that, there are two considerations that have been argued strongly from my perspective. Firstly, that consultation is of critically importance in designing initiatives for aboriginal communities, whether these are in remote, regional or urban settings.

The second is the federal government’s desire to take a quick proactive step to address the instances of child abuse in indigenous communities. Indeed, I would like to note at this point some of the views expressed by the Senate Committee looking into this Bill:

The committee welcomes the policy changes contained in this suite of bills as a genuine and enduring commitment from the Australian Government to tackle critical issues in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. These issues include high unemployment, alcohol and drug dependency, poor health and education outcomes, inadequate housing and child abuse. In saying this, the committee acknowledges that many of the issues that the bills seek to address are complex and entrenched; however, this is no excuse for failure or neglect.

I would also note that the submission of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity (HREOC) welcomed the recognition by the government of the “serious, broad ranging social an economic disadvantage in many indigenous communities”.

HREOC went on to stress that the Bills must seek to achieve their goals consistently with the fundamental right to racial equality. However, there is another area of HREOC’s submission—and it is a concern generally—which I want to touch on.

That is that HREOC does not support the Northern Territory Emergency Response measure being exempt from the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), as contained in the proposed s132 of the Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory National Emergency Response and Other Measures) Bill 2007. In short, HREOC submitted that the measures contained within the bill must be justifiable as a “special measure” taken for the advancement of indigenous peoples.

The concern expressed by HREOC is that the measures potentially have significant negative impacts. Much will turn on the language of the Bill but it will also turn on how the government has undertaken consultation with the relevant communities, what consultation it has in place now with the relevant communities and how it implements the measures in the bill and legislative instruments under it.

The starting point is of course whether the legislative package is a “special measure” for the purposes of the RDA. Article 1 (4) of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination provide for what a special measure is. They are generally regarded as measures which can be categorised as positive discrimination.

HREOC raised a wide range of issues, not all of which I will canvas here. But I think an important one it raised which I agree with is the need for the legislation to be reviewed after 12 months of implementation.

“Given the complexity and breadth of the many novel measures proposed by the legislative framework, as the NTNER measures are implemented it is likely that unforseen issues will arise.”

HREOC went on to say it is critical to the long term success of the measures that inter alia a public review be undertaken. I would just like to bring this to the attention of the Senate.

As I said at the start, in the time available, I wanted to touch on only a few short points regarding the package of bills, so I will not dwell on this one. These have been singled out not because of their greater importance but because they represent areas where challenges might arise to the legislation which I have a special interest in.

One such area I have already touched upon is to the extent that the legislation is consistent with the RDA and our international obligations under the RDA. Section 132 of the National Emergency Response Bill provides

“132 Racial Discrimination Act

The provisions of this Act, and any acts done under or for the purposes of those provisions, are, for the purposes of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, special measures.
The provisions of this Act, and any acts done under or for the purposes of those provisions, are excluded from the operation of Part II of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.
In this section, a reference to any acts done includes a reference to any failure to do an act.”

The Family and Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Welfare Reform Bills contain similar provisions. The effect is to firstly say that the provisions of the Bill are—for the purposes of the RDA—special measures. However, the clause then goes on to say that any acts done under or for the purposes of those provisions are, for the purposes of those provisions, excluded from the operation of Part II of the RDA.

Labor believes that this approach is fraught with danger. It is a step too far to remove the effect of Part II of the RDA. The package can survive if the government’s first position is right. That is, that these are “special measures”. Australian courts—for instance, in the 1985 case of Gerhardy v Brown—have determined that Article 1(4) of the International Convention I mentioned earlier contains four elements—

  • A special measure must confer a benefit on some or all members of a class
  • The membership of the class must be based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin
  • A special measure must be for the sole purpose of the beneficiaries in order that they may enjoy and exercise equally with others human rights and freedoms
  • Must provide protection and must not be continued with after the objectives have been met.

So, if the position of the government is correct, it would appear that the package can survive if they are ‘special measures’, and not simply on the back of the exclusion of the RDA. However, Labor’s amendments make sure of this without invalidating Part II of the Act holus-bolus, thus elegantly achieving with precision what the Government proposes by blind blunt force.

The next important issue relates to the issue which is generally referred to as ‘just terms’. Broadly the issue here is whether or not the government is obliged to offer just terms in support of its acquisition of property under the legislation.

The 1946 case of Grace Bros v the Commonwealth provides some insight on what can be defined as just terms:

The Inquiry must rather be whether the law amounts to a true attempt to provide fair and just standards of compensating or rehabilitating the individual considered as an owner of property”.

It can contain adequate procedures for determining it; see the Tasmanian Dam Case which did not. We need to now turn to the section 51(xxxi) of the Constitution, which gives the Commonwealth the power to make laws regarding the acquisition of property on ‘just terms’, known colloquially as the ‘just terms’ section of the Constitution.

Now, the application of that section would seem to be simple enough, but it is complicated somewhat by the fact that another section of the Constitution—122—also provides that the Commonwealth may make laws for Australian territories—the ‘Territories power’.

There is some authority which looks at which of these sections prevail in a case where the Commonwealth is making a law which rests ostensibly on both sections.

The case of Teori Tau was authority that s51(xxxi) of the Constitution (acquisition of property on ‘just terms’) has no application to acquisitions of property in the Northern Territory. Instead, the federal government is able to rely on its Territories power.

In submissions to the Inquiry, the Law Council indicated that it appears as though the government may be relying on that authority. However, I would also note that a subsequent case, Newcrest Mining (WA) Ltd v The Commonwealth, substantially limited the scope of that case and found that ‘just terms’ could apply in the Northern Territory in certain cases.

So it appears to me the law is at least unsettled and arguable that s51 (xxxi) could apply to this legislation.

This means, if the acquisition is otherwise than on just terms, the Commonwealth may be liable to pay a ‘reasonable amount’ of compensation.

However, I would also note s60 of the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill provides for adequate compensation for acquisitions between the person affected and the Commonwealth, and s60(3) provides that, if an agreement cannot be reached, the person may institute proceedings in a court of competent jurisdiction.

The Commonwealth has provided its view on these matters. However, if it is incorrect or others take a different view, it is likely to mean that litigation might occur over the issue of compensation.

This provision is also further confused by s61 which suggests that the Court is to take into account like improvements to the land funded by the Commonwealth, when determining what is ‘reasonable compensation’ but does not avoid the phrase ‘just terms’.

This problem may be avoided by leaving s50(2) of the Self Government Act alone.

In light of the above analysis, s134 would appear to suggest that it is the intention of the Commonwealth for ‘reasonable’ compensation to be paid—as distinct from ‘just terms’. The precise difference between the two is likely to be the subject of litigation, legal and academic debate, but suffice to say, in our view it is incumbent upon the Government to provide compensation on just terms—as a matter of ethics and morality.

Mr President, I am conscious of the time constraints in debating this Bill, and I do not wish to take up any more of the Senate’s time. I trust that this contribution has assisted in the debate, in raising and hopefully clarifying some legal issues which exist with the Bill.

Before I finish, I would like to quickly reiterate some of the points made in the additional comments to the report by the Labor Senators.

  • Firstly, that we welcome the increased expenditure by the government on services, infrastructure and economic development in remote Indigenous communities;
  • Secondly, we note that any longer term plan to improve conditions in these communities must be within the framework of a partnership between the Commonwealth government, the Northern Territory government and the Indigenous communities themselves, to achieve the recommendations of the Little children are sacred report;
  • Thirdly, it is fundamental to the acquisition of any property by the Commonwealth government that just terms’ compensation be paid to those affected, and noted that the majority report called on the government to clarify the position in the proposed legislation;
  • Fourthly, the integrity of the Racial Discrimination Act must be maintained.

There were a range of other matters addressed in Labor’s additional comments, which I will leave it for my fellow Labor Senators to comment on.

Finally, I would to take the opportunity to thank the Committee Secretariat for producing the high quality report on the range of Bills, under such a short time constraint from the government. I commend them on their excellent efforts.

Photo of Bill HeffernanBill Heffernan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It takes a lot to get me up in this place, but I could speak for a couple of days on this issue. I am offended to think that anyone would suggest that anyone on this side of the chamber does not care. Anyhow, I will get on with it. Just to get my credentials right, the first time I stood up in parliament for my maiden speech—or first speech, or whatever they call it these days—in the first words I uttered in parliament I said:

Equal is the challenge in our towns and cities, where much of suburbia is filled with a generation of unemployed parents and children, isolated by poverty, with low self-esteem and a lifestyle where drugs and suicide are an everyday expectation and work is a faded Bob Hawke promise. These people need real jobs, not retraining for non-existent jobs.

I then said:

No less is the challenge imposed on this generation of Australians by the centuries of misunderstanding and neglect of our indigenous people. We must provide for the return to our indigenous people of their self-esteem: built up over thousands of years by their majestic mastery of traditional living, land custodial skills and timeless culture; broken down in 200 years by the inevitable exploratory nature of man, the intrusiveness of his machines, the enticement of his money and the destructive onslaught of his social habits.

A paradigm shift is required and will only occur when provision is made for our indigenous people to progress, even in remote areas, from communal benefit to individual benefit—

Noel Pearson agrees with me on that—

when access for all Australians to health, education and employment is not distorted by location or station in life; and when, regardless of race, creed and colour, we purge those leaders who believe all should be equal except the equalisers and who see the often generous funds of government as the opportunity for a feast on which to fatten their personal circumstances while neglecting the famine. Unfortunately, when these predators of the public purse turn on, Australians who would normally be concerned and supportive turn off.

Thank God Australians have turned on again.

In the Australian on Saturday Noel Pearson wrote:

In the 1960s, the 13 clan groups represented by the then Yirrkala Aboriginal council made application for a general purpose lease to the Commonwealth of Australia for an area of 2500 square miles ... on the Gove Peninsula

which they could make use of. To cut a long story short, no lease was ever issued to them. In the early 1970s the Yolngu leader at Yirrkala worked to try and stop the establishment of the Walkabout Hotel in the bauxite mining town of Nhulunbuy. And they failed. So in 200 years we have completely failed. In the last 30 years we have compounded and accelerated that failure. The grog problems of the Yolngu people started to grow, to the point that Woolworths, which was established in this mining town, decided they would get into the business of takeaway grog because there was a quid in it. Now, in a town like that, the Indigenous people do not like to go to Woolworths, because there is too much commotion from the grog sales from the takeaway. They go to the IGA. A lot of the stuff at the IGA costs double the money, but they go there because they cannot put up with the takeaway.

Self-determination, for a lot of people, has turned to self-destruction. And we should not be blaming somebody on the other side of the chamber, in the gallery or down the street. Every Australian should hang their head in shame: we are all to blame. After I made that maiden speech in 1996 I commissioned some work by Lyla Coorey, who won the university medal at the University of Sydney for her master’s on domestic violence. She did a study, which I wrote the foreword to, called Child sexual abuse in rural and remote Australian indigenous communities.

With great difficulty, during the ATSIC inquiry I tried to table that study and I recall who the people were—I will not name them because we are all to blame—that did not want it tabled because they said it would distract and disturb people and lose the focus from the ATSIC shutdown inquiry. In that inquiry, I came across a 22-month-old girl who was vaginally and anally pack raped and who had to be surgically repaired. I rang her grandmother last week—the girl is now 12 years-old—and I said, ‘Do you think we’re doing the wrong thing here?’ She said: ‘No, Senator. You are doing the right thing, because we are frightened of our men.’ So do not give me this garbage that someone else is to blame.

Unlike a lot of people in this place, I have spent more of my time in the bush than in town. I know what it is like to put in a firebreak to stop a fire, because I have done it. It takes a lot of courage because, if the firebreak gets away from you, you are the biggest mug in the world. And, if you stop the fire, you are a hero. Sometimes in putting in a firebreak, you have to burn someone out, and I have done that. What is happening here, what Mal Brough is doing and what a lot of good sensible Australians are concerned about, is ending this destruction and, hopefully, we will all be heroes if it works. And we will all be the greatest mugs if it fails. Every human endeavour has some human failure and I am happy that there is going to be a recommendation for a two-year review. We need to talk to the landowners. These people need schools, they need to be job ready and they need economic benefit. For years and years we have been driven by process. There have been some tiny outcomes but, generally, there have been no bloody outcomes.

I will take the Senate on my journeys over the last year or two around the bush. In Alice Springs, a relative of mine drives a bus—she just got that job. She takes an Aboriginal woman with her in this bus for the OLSH school in Alice Springs. They drive around and pick up the little kids that they are trying to get to school. The Indigenous woman’s job is to go into the houses and find these kids, who are often under the bed or asleep in a corner. They pick up the little kids from these so called ‘camps’, and in some of these camps the landowners are up in arms at the prospect of losing their property. They pick the kids up and take them into the preschool, give them a shower, put the school uniform on them and then they give them a meal. They give them another meal at lunchtime and, when school is ended, they take them out of the school uniform, hang that up in the school and then put them in their other clothes and take them home. Is that any way to run a community?

Last September, I went to Wadeye and I could not believe it. I met some OLSH nuns there that were from my era. The nuns were 93 and 87 years old. They knew me from when I was in what I used to think was a dreadful place: boarding school. On that day, last September, for the first time ever at the primary school where 300 kids attend out of 700 that should be at school, they had awards for achievement. Previously, they only had awards for attendance. At that stage there were 300-odd kids in Wadeye who were among the 4,000 to 7,000 kids in the Northern Territory who have no access to bloody high schools. I do not want to blame anyone, because we are all to blame, but some of it has something to do with the responsibilities of the states and the Territory. These kids were determined and pleased that they were being recognised for achievement, rather than for just turning up.

I went to Yuendumu and discovered within 20 minutes of being there who was running the drugs at the school. I went to Mount Theo, which is the removal camp for the petrol sniffers and, within an hour, I discovered that one of the key managers there was having sex with all the kids. When I came back to Canberra, I rang the policeman at Yuendumu and said that I had been there for a day, told him what was going on in the town, and described all of these dreadful bloody things that were going on there. I said, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ He said, ‘I just want to get out of here, Senator.’ He was not interested.

At Wadeye, the police and teachers are in razor wire compounds. One of the good things that happened when I went there was that a policeman, with his family, was backing his ute out of the razor wire compound and I said to him, ‘What did you say to your wife when you told her that you had been posted to Wadeye?’ His answer was the best thing I heard all the time I was there—he said, ‘Senator, I wanted to come here.’ While I was there, I discovered that the Centrelink office is just a hole in the wall, like one of those camera holes. There was a line-up of women, like you would see at the football at half-time, trying to get on the bloody phone to Darwin. It was one of the push-button phones that drive you mad. I am pleased to say that, after a lot of effort, there is now a person on the ground there.

I think that the government is to be applauded for what we are on about here today. I do not want to know that anyone is going to be a political winner—I could not give two hoots. This is the same as putting in a firebreak—you do it because you have to. I do not want to know why we did not do it five years ago and I do not want to know why no-one took any notice of the inquiry that I did. I took Melva Kennedy, Pam Greer and some other people in Sydney who helped me with the inquiry to the Olympic box for the day, to see the Olympics, to thank them for the work that they did.

Over an 18-month period a person helped with the review. They interviewed every new prisoner in Long Bay prison, in Sydney, and found that 65 per cent of them were abused kids. So, yes, abuse does occur in all communities, but we are wasting our time unless, as Noel Pearson said, we give up the idea that everything has to be ‘sit-down’ country and ‘sit-down’ money. As Galarrwuy Yunupingu said, a lot of Indigenous people do not want to be free riders. If you do not know what ‘free riders’ are, I will tell you: free riders are people in these communities who do nothing but who get as much benefit as the people who do the work. There are a lot of things wrong, and there is a lot of human failure, but there can be no more gross an example of human failure than the half a million dollars that was sent out to Wadeye last year. They spent it on things such as four-wheel drives and booking themselves into the casino in Darwin. These people need better management. I am privileged to be the Chairman of the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce. I think the task force’s work fits in perfectly with this legislation. The Indigenous people of the Northern Territory own 50 per cent of the Northern Territory, and I am determined that they will get the benefit.

Let me give a quick snapshot of someone owning 50 per cent of the land but having nothing to show for it. I was out at a place recently—and I had better not say when, or I might give it away—and I came across a whitefella who had 17,000 cattle on Indigenous country. I asked what the Indigenous people got out of it and, among other things, he said, ‘Maybe once or twice a year we give them $10,000 to get on the grog.’ The task force met a young family at Mataranka a few weeks ago—Kane and Marie Younghusband. They are white people. Kane came from Gilgandra, in New South Wales, and he met his wife in Kununurra. They were courageous enough to go 450 kilometres down the road from Alice Springs and buy 2,000 acres in amongst the scrub. It had the right soil type and the right water under it. In the first year, they pulled a caravan into the corner of the paddock—way out in the middle of nowhere—and cleared 100 acres. Now 1,600 acres has been cleared and they plant a new crop of watermelons every seven days. Last year they cleared $1 million, and I think the land cost them $10 an acre.

The task force went to Elsie Station, from We of the Never-Never fame, and I asked the people there what would happen if a young blackfella wanted to do what Mr Younghusband had done next door. I wanted to know how a young blackfella would go about pegging out a bit of country for himself and making a quid for himself. They said, ‘We might give him a lease.’ I asked what would happen if he were killed by a tractor and his wife wanted to go back to Darwin, Alice Springs or somewhere. They said they would take the lease back. I asked whether they would let him sell the lease. They said, ‘No, we would take it back,’ to which I responded that no bank would ever bank the deal. You have to get to the stage where you have a tradeable lease. I said to John Daly, from the Northern Land Council—who I am privileged to have on my task force, along with Joey Ross and Noel Pearson—that he had to get back to the Northern Land Council and meet with the lawyers to talk about leasing country and trading it, and they have done so. That is what needs to happen.

There is a lot of goodwill out there, and there is some success. Mistake Creek Station, in the Northern Territory, is a wonderful success. The Larrakia Development Corporation, which has traded native title for development in Palmerston, in Darwin, is a success. You can make it work. We should not go around blaming everyone. People want to improve their lot for the next generation. They want to improve their lot for their children. They want to leave something in their will for the next generation. I think everyone wants to do that, and these people are no different. For years and years we have been flying in and saying, ‘Isn’t it terrible?’ We come back here with a lot of process and debate, but we do nothing. Everyone is to blame. The time for talking is over. These people want to make a go of it, and I am determined that they will. I am disgusted that anyone would say that we do not care and that somehow it is a political game. For God’s sake; it is disgusting!

What hope do you have if you are one of the thousands of kids in the Northern Territory who do not have a high school? I do not want to know the bloody reason, but what chance do they have? These kids need to get out of bed—like at that Alice Springs operation—and be fed. People need to understand that why you go to bed at night—preferably tired—and why you get up in the morning is what life is all about. The difficulty in a place like Yuendumu—when we were there a few years ago—was that half the adult population slept all day and drank all night. And they wonder why the kids were sniffing petrol. It is time we all pulled together. It is time we pulled our heads in, because we are all to blame. It does not matter how flash the language; for 200 or so years we have failed these people. Fifty years ago a lot of these people were better off than they are now. The generation of 30 or 40 years ago is better educated than the people there today. I do not know what that says about modern society, but I do know it is time we forgot about the politics in all of this. I am going up to have a yarn with Galarrwuy shortly. You hear all these stories. There is a lot of goodwill there and we have to tap into it and stop trying to get a political point or two out. I do not care about the political persuasions of the Western Australian and Northern Territory governments; let us just get on with it! I am about to run out of time, although I would dearly love to have an extension. Nevertheless, I applaud the government for its courage in doing something about the problem and I deplore its being made political. (Time expired)

5:14 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to speak today on the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007 and the associated legislation. This issue has sparked quite a bit of interest—and, yes, we have been flooded with emails—but, unfortunately, I do not think we have had enough interest in this issue for a very long time. It is a very emotional issue. There are many aspects of these bills that I have concerns about, but I would like to speak about some of the things that Labor would like to do and will be doing and some of the benefits of this legislation.

Labor believes that the safety of children is paramount and has given in-principle, bipartisan support to this initiative. Throughout the last six or so weeks Labor has used a simple test when assessing the government’s proposal: will it improve the safety and security of our children in a practical way? We have applied that test and, on balance, Labor will support these bills. I believe that addressing child abuse and neglect in the Aboriginal community is rightly designated as an issue of urgent national significance. I believe that federal, state and territory governments have obligations to take both immediate and sustained action to improve the lives of all children, especially those in Aboriginal communities.

In essence, the protection of children must be paramount when their vulnerability has been laid bare. The Anderson-Wild inquiry stated that ‘sexual abuse of Aboriginal children is common, widespread and grossly underreported’. We have heard countless reports that our Indigenous communities are fraught with problems—alcoholism, petrol sniffing, child abuse—and I agree with the previous speaker, Senator Heffernan, that we, the community, are all to blame for the lack of action on these issues. However, the reality is that the Howard government have shown no leadership on these issues for the 11½ long years that they have been in government. They have now chosen to act because we are on the eve of an election.

I am pleased that additional funding will be allocated to boost the number of child protection workers, which will increase their capacity to enforce legislation and to protect children. However, I must say that giving parliamentarians just a few days to examine some 500 pages of complex legislation is very poor form indeed—and something that, since I have been in this chamber, for the last two years, I have come to expect from this out-of-touch and arrogant government. Federal Labor believes that we need both an urgent and long-term approach to secure the safety and wellbeing of children at risk. We have to back positive community leadership and put in place the building blocks for a more sustainable future in remote areas.

Labor supports the provision of additional police officers in the Northern Territory intervention and thanks the states that have seconded officers. It must be stressed, however, that we need a long-term strategy to train more police officers and to put them in place in these communities permanently. On the very few visits to the outback that I have made and in the hearings that I have participated in I have noted that one of the concerns of these communities is that many of the doctors and the police are only in the community for a short period of time and, with that turnover, there is a loss of the connection, the understanding of what is happening and the trust that they build up with these people. That is why Labor has committed to recruiting an extra 500 Australian Federal Police officers. I also support the measures designed to clean up publicly funded computers, to get rid of internet pornography and to use filters to keep it out. In addition, I support the new controls on supply and possession of pornographic material in prescribed areas.

Federal Labor has already made a number of commitments to long-term initiatives to improve the lives of our Indigenous Australians: to close the Indigenous life expectancy gap in a generation and halve the Indigenous child mortality gap in 10 years; $261 million for comprehensive coverage of Indigenous child and maternal health, parenting support, early learning and intensive support for literacy and numeracy; $30 million to provide an extra 200 teachers for the at least 2,000 Aboriginal children who are not enrolled in school—at all—in remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory; to rapidly recruit more Indigenous officers in the Australian Federal Police under a $200 million Australian federal policing plan; and $15.7 million towards social and emotional wellbeing through more Bringing Them Home counsellors and Link-Up services, particularly in remote areas. I believe these positive, long-term measures are good, solid foundations for protecting the interests of the Indigenous community.

Labor believes early childhood intervention is one of the best means of providing a pathway out of disadvantage for many Indigenous children. In cooperation with the states and territories, and in consultation with Indigenous communities, a Labor government will implement a comprehensive early childhood strategy for Indigenous children, including initiatives that start well before preschool. Indigenous communities—urban, regional and remote—will be priority areas for the expansion of early childhood services, particularly with respect to Labor’s commitment to universal access for four-year-olds to early learning programs. Labor acknowledges the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the child protection system. Preventative and proactive measures focused on early childhood development and family strengthening are most effective in reducing this overrepresentation.

Labor strongly supports the principle that, where a child has to be removed, every effort is made to place that child with relatives, kin or another Indigenous family. After all, the paramount priority in a child’s placement is the safety and wellbeing of the child. Labor recognises the gravity and extent of substance and alcohol abuse, family violence, child abuse, and sexual assault in some Indigenous communities. Labor believes that these issues should be seen as health issues as well as law and order issues. Labor will provide ongoing support to community initiatives to ensure strong interventions are put in place that break the cycles of abuse, rehabilitate individuals and families and strengthen social norms.

Protecting children requires all of us to take responsibility, to act. Responsibility has to be taken by individuals to take positive action for themselves, for their communities and especially for their children. Responsibility also lies with governments to provide community safety, health services, education and, most importantly, employment and economic development. All of these things are necessary to enable Indigenous children to grow up healthy and happy. Governments require a long-term vision for the protection of children and a plan which therefore has some basis of long-term success. Therefore, once we have dealt with the immediate task of protecting children, we must turn our minds to the reforms and investments required to provide long-term hope for these children and the wider Indigenous community. We need hope and they need hope. We need leadership and we need the Australian community to look at this issue with their hearts and with the capacity to put the economic resources that are needed into these communities.

5:23 pm

Photo of Sue BoyceSue Boyce (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I do not have the depth or breadth of experience of Indigenous issues that some of our speakers this afternoon have, but I do have a lot of experience with vulnerable people and with doing my best to help protect them. It is on that basis that I rise to support the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007 and related legislation this afternoon. Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the bravery and patience of the 65 submitters and the more than 200 people who attended meetings to give evidence for the Anderson-Wild report. Some of the comments made during those hearings included a man from Gunbalanya who said, ‘We have a 20-year history of six-month programs.’ An elder said, ‘We have been piloting pilots for long enough.’ It is not just the bravery and the patience of the people who contributed to the Anderson-Wild report that we should acknowledge, but we should also acknowledge those who have contributed in the past to the reports done by Bonnie Robertson and others. We have had dozens and dozens of reports. We have had dozens and dozens of pilots, and yet the issues have got worse rather than better.

When I first looked at the Anderson-Wild report I treated it with some hope and enthusiasm that it was going to be the report that changed things, despite the fact that its release by the Northern Territory government was rather late. One of its key recommendations was that education is one of the solutions to the problems—the endemic child abuse, the endemic violence, the endemic hopelessness. There is no way you could disagree with the idea that education is a key to answering these problems. But one of the key reasons it gave for education being a big positive was that children could not be sexually abused while they were at school. My blood ran cold at the idea that this is a reason for education. What on earth has happened to the social norms in a community where one of the big reasons for going to school is that you are safe from sexual abuse whilst you are there? This is not a situation that can be fixed in any normal way or with any normal measures. I believe, in keeping with Noel Pearson and the comments made earlier by Senator Heffernan, that we have to take some extraordinary measures to try and reinstate social norms in some of those areas, and I would like to acknowledge the initiatives of my Queensland colleague Minister Brough in getting this program up and happening.

I would also like to talk briefly about some of the comments that have been made around suggested changes to the permit system. People have suggested that this is the wrong way to go. I have spoken in other contexts about special places where we put special people—institutions, in fact. Any time that you have closed doors, a permit system or closed communities you encourage and you allow vulnerable people to continue to be exploited and abused. The history of reports into institutions very much reflects the sorts of reports that we are getting and that we have seen one after another into the problems in Indigenous communities. It was only when we bit the bullet and said that there is no way that any institution can be a good institution and that the only way anyone can be safe is to open up what happens to them to scrutiny and accountability that the lives of people who had previously been abused, exploited, terrified and treated as less than human in institutions began to improve. I applaud the idea of changing the permit system to at least allow open access to common areas because this is one of the few ways that we can see some sustainability in reducing abuse and violence and getting some long-term benefit.

5:28 pm

Photo of Dana WortleyDana Wortley (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to participate in the debate on the package of bills that relate to the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007. The welfare of all children, whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous, is indeed sacred. The innocence of childhood should be an unquestioned right that is defended vigorously and rigorously by any civilised, humane society. Children are vulnerable, they are precious, they are the future and they deserve to have a childhood where they are nurtured and where their trust in adults and the adult world provides a sound basis for them to grow into adulthood. In all communities, not only Indigenous communities, this should be the way it is, but sadly this is not the case. It is not the reality.

Serious child abuse is limited neither to Aboriginal rural communities nor to Aboriginal people but is present within the Australian community as a whole, and it is an issue that must be addressed. For too long it has not received the attention required to address the problem and its consequences. Neglect in Aboriginal communities is rightly designated as an issue of urgent national significance. The situation in the Northern Territory is urgent and the goal of safer communities for Indigenous children paramount. But this has not just become apparent. The Anderson-Wild report Little children are sacred follows numerous reports which have looked at issues facing Australia’s Indigenous people. Some of these have dealt with the issue of child abuse, but to date not a lot has been done.

We have had only the three main bills—bills that comprise 480 pages—since Monday of last week and the appropriation bills since Tuesday. The Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007 includes issues to do with township and town camp leases, government purchased computers, pornography management, alcohol, business managers, licensing for community stores, customary laws and exclusion of the Racial Discrimination Act. The Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory National Emergency Response and Other Measures) Bill 2007 deals with permits, pornography, infrastructure management and Australian Crime Commission powers. The Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007 contains changes to the national welfare payment, quarantining measures for parents, the Northern Territory welfare payment, quarantining measures for all income support recipients, the welfare payment quarantining measures for parents in Cape York and the CDEP changes.

While it is far from ideal to have such little time to consider such complex legislation, we acknowledge that with the passing of time young lives are being devastated. We owe these children a better future. It should not just be a quick fix, timetabled late in an election cycle. Solutions must be lasting. They must be altruistic, not conceived to soothe the chafed consciences of their architects. This is simply too important. We must ensure the measures undertaken are not racist, patronising or paternalistic. Our aim should be to achieve a brighter tomorrow both for and with Australia’s Indigenous people. We also must do our best to make sure any action taken does not heighten the apprehension and suspicion already rife in Indigenous communities regarding the government’s proposals, methods and motives.

The government’s emergency plan does not detail long-term strategies required to lift Indigenous communities out of their current situation. Authors of the report Little children are sacred, Pat Anderson and Rex Wild, put forward 97 recommendations and have placed the protection of children at the centre of government responsibilities. But many of their recommendations go unacknowledged. In their report, their first recommendation states:

... we have specifically referred to the critical importance of governments committing genuine consultation with Aboriginal communities whether these be in remote, regional or urban settings. We have been conscious throughout our enquiries of the need for that consultation and for Aboriginal people to be involved.

It is clear that the long-term strategies needed must be born out of consultation and cooperation with the leaders of the Aboriginal communities they will affect. The strong attachment Indigenous Australians hold with their land must be genuinely considered. And the integrity of the Racial Discrimination Act must be upheld. To be effective and beneficial, long-term strategies must be forged out of a climate of trust and mutual respect, not one of fear and mistrust.

There is ample room for improvement in these bills and there are elements of the bills before us that we do not fully agree with. The acceptance by the government of the second reading amendment moved by the Leader of the Australian Labor Party in the Senate, Senator Evans, would go some way towards this, as would the adoption of the recommendations detailed in the report of the one-day Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs inquiry into the legislation, including: that the operation of the measures implemented by the bills be continuously monitored and publicly reported on annually through the overcoming Indigenous disadvantage reporting framework; that the operation of the measures implemented by the bills be the subject of a review two years after their commencement, particularly to ascertain the impact of the measures on the welfare of Indigenous children in the Northern Territory and that a report on this review be tabled in the parliament; and that the Australian government examine the need for additional drug and alcohol rehabilitation services in the Northern Territory, and provide, if necessary, additional funding.

Also worthy of a hearing are the additional comments to the report by Labor senators, which include the following:

These aims cannot be achieved unless the Commonwealth, after dialogue and genuine consultation with affected Aboriginal communities, sets out a comprehensive long term plan.

…            …            …

Any longer term plan should establish a framework for the achievement, in partnership with the Northern Territory Government and Indigenous communities, of the recommendations set out in the Little Children are Sacred report.

Adopting additional recommendations from Labor senators would also be an improvement to the legislation. These recommendations included: opposing the blanket removal of the permit system on roads, community common areas and other places as specified in schedule 4 of the Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory National Emergency Response and Other Measures) Bill 2007; supporting access without a permit for agents of the Commonwealth or Northern Territory government, such as doctors and other health workers, to facilitate service delivery; facilitating greater public scrutiny of Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory by allowing access to roads and common town areas, without a permit, by journalists acting in their professional capacity, subject to the restrictions relating to the protection of the privacy of cultural events—such as sorry business—as proposed in schedule 4 of the Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory National Emergency Response and Other Measures) Bill 2007; conducting an independent review of the effectiveness of the measures taken under part 4 of the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007 after 12 months; conducting a review after 12 months of the operation of the welfare reform and income management system specific to the Northern Territory; opposing the provisions in the bills suspending the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act; and making two additional amendments, one to ensure that just terms compensation is paid in instances of land acquisition and one to enable access for traditional purposes to land acquired through the five-year township leasing plans.

There are obligations on government—federal, state and territory—to act on the findings of the report generated by this inquiry and on the Little children are sacred report and to take action, both immediate and sustained, to help improve the lives of children in these Indigenous communities.

A short-term reactive response to a particular crisis is not a substitute for long-term policies aimed at resolving the underlying cause of the crisis. The measures taken to secure the long-term safety and wellbeing of the children who have been abused and those at risk, from childhood through to adulthood, needs to be immediate. But it must not end there. We also need long-term, ongoing measures—measures that include real consultation with community leaders; measures to address health issues, alcohol and drug abuse; measures that address the life expectancy and infant mortality rates of the Indigenous population; measures to address education and access to education; and measures to address housing and infrastructure. And the list goes on.

Labor’s future-minded initiatives will address many and varied issues, including: the life expectancy and infant mortality rate gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians; the 17-year difference between the life expectancy of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians; and the fact that, in their first year, Indigenous babies are more than three times more likely to die than non-Indigenous infants. These figures are simply unacceptable. Labor recognises the relationship in Aboriginal communities between education, health, employment, economic development, policing and housing and such problems as violence and alcohol and substance abuse. These areas are significant and require our attention.

We must not just pass legislation, implement it and then wipe our hands of the matter. Open dialogue with Indigenous community leaders and the Northern Territory government is crucial, and stringent reviews of the reforms are essential to ensure that they are achieving their aims. The work of strong and effective Indigenous community members and organisations must be encouraged and supported. Government must deliver teachers, classrooms, teacher housing and support services, including Indigenous teacher assistants. Every effort must be made to ensure schools are accessible to children in all communities. Temporary measures must be reviewed and, where they are not delivering the desired outcome, be replaced with reforms which have the confidence and support of those on whom they impact. Short-term measures aimed at ensuring the safety of children must grow into long-term responses which create stronger communities that are free of violence and abuse. Labor will work with states, territories and Indigenous Australia towards achieving a better, safer and healthier future for our nation’s children. That is sacrosanct to us.

5:40 pm

Photo of Nigel ScullionNigel Scullion (NT, Country Liberal Party, Minister for Community Services) Share this | | Hansard source

The Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007 and four associated bills underpin the Australian government’s program of further reform of the Australian welfare system, as well as the national emergency response aimed at improving the safety and wellbeing of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory. The income support system in Australia provides the community with a strong and much valued safety net. Whilst the majority of welfare recipients spend their payments responsibly to support themselves and their families, some people have a pattern of inappropriate expenditure, such as substance abuse and gambling. It is particularly alarming that this behaviour, which is unacceptable to the community at large, ends up depriving children of the care, education and development which they are entitled to.

The welfare payment reform measures in one of the bills in this package are designed to reinforce responsible behaviour with regard to spending welfare payments. The measures are a further development of the mutual obligation and re-engagement framework already in place through programs such as Work for the Dole for longer term welfare recipients. Most notably, these welfare payment reform measures introduce new arrangements, which will apply nationwide, to link the receipt of income support to the prevention of child abuse, neglect and the encouragement of proper attendance at school. State and territory child welfare authorities will be able to tap into the new arrangements to help identify, report and tackle problem cases.

The measures essentially establish an income management framework for families not currently doing the right thing in spending their welfare payments on appropriate things or those not ensuring that their children get proper schooling. This means that certain portions of the income support and related payments to those families will be directed towards priority needs, such as food, clothing, housing, health, child care and development, education and training, and employment and transport. The Australian government is committed to meeting the expectations of the broader community that taxpayer funded welfare payments be spent on things they are intended for. The welfare payment reform measures in this package are in line with that commitment.

The new principal legislation is given particular application in relation to new income management mechanisms established for some remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. This element is part of the government’s emergency response to be dealt with: the crisis confronting the safety and wellbeing of children in those communities. The emergency response in the Northern Territory includes changes, as announced, to the Community Development Employment Projects—that is, the CDEP program—as part of trying to put the troubled communities back together. Through this package, the Cape York welfare reform trial, announced recently, will be able to proceed in line with the comprehensive plan, as developed in partnership with Mr Noel Pearson’s Cape York Institute.

Two other substantive bills in the package provide new principal legislation and amending legislation to secure the government’s national emergency response in the Northern Territory. The Little children are sacred report, commissioned by the Northern Territory government, was a sobering and abundantly clear statement of the serious, widespread and often unreported incidence of sexual abuse amongst Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory and, notably, the fact that the undisputed association between alcohol abuse and sexual abuse of children has to be tackled.

The new legislative measures in the emergency response will help us to achieve comprehensive and meaningful change in this area of national concern. Under this legislation package, the flow of alcohol will be stemmed, as will the prevalence of damaging pornography, including pornography currently accessed through publicly funded computers. The extra police presence that will help stabilise the affected communities and restore law and order will be supported by appropriate amendments to the relevant law enforcement legislation.

There will be provision for the immediate and later acquisition of five-year leases over certain Aboriginal townships in the Northern Territory for the purposes of the emergency response. These leases will enable the Australian government to make the changes urgently needed to improve the living conditions in the communities. The leases will give the government unconditional access to the land so that the buildings and infrastructure can be constructed and repaired as efficiently as possible. Many of the communities are in a poor state. Intervention by government is essential to bring them up to a basic, acceptable standard. There is no land grab. The leases are strictly time limited and cover a tiny proportion of the Aboriginal land estate in the Northern Territory, and control of the land will be returned to the traditional owners at the end of the lease.

Under further measures in the package, powers will be established to assist government to allocate resources flexibly, including government funds and the assets used to provide services, and to deal with bodies required to deliver those services. Customary law or cultural practice will no longer be permitted to lessen or to aggravate the seriousness of criminal behaviour of offenders and alleged offenders. There will be a new licensing regime applied to people who operate community stores in Indigenous communities. Provision will be made for governments to retain an interest in buildings and infrastructure constructed or upgraded on Aboriginal land in the future where they fund the construction or the major upgrade.

There will be changes to the provisions governing access to Aboriginal land to increase interaction with the wider community and to promote economic activity. The current access provisions have not prevented child abuse, violence and alcohol running. They have created closed communities which hide problems from public scrutiny. We do not want women and children to be scared to report violence and abuse. More open communities and a proper police presence will give people the confidence to report inappropriate behaviour. We also want to open up these communities to normal interaction with other Australians. This will promote tourism and economic growth and give people confidence to deal with the outside world. There has been a review of the permit system, and the government has listened to the views expressed. The permit system opens up townships but will continue to apply to the vast bulk of Aboriginal land.

The package also includes two supplementary estimates bills which ensure that the Commonwealth agencies can support the government’s national emergency response to protect Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory. The measures in the emergency response aim to protect and stabilise communities in the crisis areas and are the first stage in a longer term approach to improve the welfare of Aboriginal children and their families in the Northern Territory prescribed communities. The appropriation bills are required to ensure timely implementation of the emergency response initiatives in 2007-08. The total appropriation being sought through the appropriation bills is around $587 million, with around $501.99 million being sought in bill No. 1 and $85.3 million in bill No. 2. Funding is being provided to a number of agencies, including the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, the Department of Defence, the Department of Education, Science and Training, the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Crime Commission and Indigenous Business Australia.

Key initiatives covered by the appropriation bills include: providing additional police to provide safer communities for Indigenous children and their families; health checks for all Aboriginal children and the establishment of teams of drug and alcohol workers to provide outreach support to families and communities affected by the withdrawal of alcohol; expediting the removal of all remote area exemptions across the Northern Territory by 31 December 2007, providing unemployed people in the Northern Territory with greater capacity to participate in the workforce; progressively replacing the CDEP program with jobs, training and mainstream employment services across the Northern Territory; welfare payments reform to ensure income is spent on key family needs, and an expanded network of outback stores as well as support for existing community stores in conjunction with welfare payments reform; additional services for families and children, including additional child protection workers and funding for safe places for families escaping violence; land surveying and upgrades to essential utilities services; the provision of legal services and night patrols; and a breakfast and lunch program for school-age children. I commend the legislation to the Senate.

Question put:

That the amendment (Senator Chris Evans’s) be agreed to.

5:56 pm

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move my second reading amendment in respect of the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007, 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:

          Omit all words after “That”, substitute:

(a)      For the reasons set out in paragraph (c), further consideration of the bills be postponed and be made an order of the day for the first day of sitting in October 2007;

(b)      Senators who have spoken to the motion “that this bill be now read a second time” may speak again to that motion for up to 20 minutes each when the bill is again called on;

(c)      The reasons referred to in paragraph (a) are as follows:

          (i)            the Northern Territory Government is reviewing the impact of the bills and will provide its legislative response;

          (ii)           the need to delay further consideration of the bills pending a fuller understanding of their operation and effect is in accordance with the wishes of the Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory and the New South Wales Aboriginal Council”.

5:58 pm

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

I move the following amendment to Senator Brown’s proposed amendment:

Paragraph (a), Omit “October”, substituting “September”.

Omit Paragraph (b).

Subparagraph (c)(ii), omit:

“is in accordance with the wishes of the Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory and the New South Wales Aboriginal Council”.

I do not want to hold up the chamber but I think I need to put on record the reasons. The amendment moved by Senator Brown would defer the bill to the first day of sitting in October. I do not believe, and the Democrats do not believe, that that is desirable. The advertisement in the newspaper today, promoting views of Aboriginal organisations, called for the legislation to be deferred until September. There is quite a possibility that we will not be sitting in October because of an election but there is no reason why we should not be sitting in September to consider it. The Democrats do not believe that we need to allow a redoing of the entire second reading debate, valuable though it was. We also believe that a further amendment singling out any individual organisations is not necessary. We want to consider the views of everybody, not just particular groups. The Democrats have made it clear throughout this debate that we are trying to engage constructively with the legislation. We have significant problems with the content of the legislation. We will vote for the second reading stage because we support the stated intent and we are doing everything possible to constructively engage with the process.

As many people across the spectrum have said, there needs to be more listening and more improvement of this legislation, and that is what the committee stage is for. The Democrats amendment would enable us to do that consideration adequately by reconsidering the legislation on the first sitting day in September. That would still ensure that it was passed at that time, ideally in an amended form, but it would not run the risk of it not being passed at all because an election was called before the first sitting day in October. Frankly, I think that if we had the second reading debate all over again we would be at risk of being accused of deliberately holding it up. That attack from some people, saying that any attempt to properly consider this legislation and consider amendments is just deliberately trying to stop it, is false, certainly with regard to the Democrats’ approach. We are trying to engage constructively with it, but if we put it off until October and have the second reading debate all over again it would give some validity to the criticism that it is a delaying tactic.

I do not want to delay action. I just want to make sure that that action is effective. Rushing through without properly scrutinising the legislation, without properly understanding what we are doing and without listening to the people who have the expertise and will be directly affected makes it much more likely that the action will not be effective. So we do not want to rush into this without having a full understanding of the issue and without properly consulting and hearing from the expertise that we have not had the opportunity to hear to date. But we also do not want to defer it for a prolonged period of time. We would like to engage with it in an informed way and proceed with it as soon as possible.

I think that the Democrats amendment that I have moved does that in a more balanced way than Senator Brown’s amendment, with respect, and I take this opportunity to indicate the reasons why the Democrats will vote in support of the second reading. We believe that it is worth making every attempt to engage constructively with the stated intent of properly assisting Aboriginal people in the Territory with regard to family violence and child protection. But clearly we would be doing so in the hope that there would be significant amendments made in the committee stage. That will be a big test of whether the government is prepared to listen to some of the suggestions that are put forward and, indeed, some of the comments that have been made by many in the wider community, including Indigenous leaders across the spectrum, who have called on the government to not show the intransigence towards improvements that they have accused others of showing by raising concerns.

6:02 pm

Photo of Gary HumphriesGary Humphries (ACT, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek leave to incorporate a speech in the second reading stage of this debate.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—


I want to contribute to this debate as chair of the Senate’s standing committee with responsibility for indigenous affairs. Although the Community Affairs Committee did not conduct the inquiry held into this package of bills it did manage to travel to the NT during July—as part of another inquiry—to make contact briefly with some of the people involved with and affected by these momentous changes.

As such I wish to indicate my support for this landmark legislation, though in doing so I acknowledge that no-one involved in this issue would pretend that these bills embody the complete or final answer to the endemic and tragic problems facing vulnerable communities in the NT. Rather, it is fair to see the legislation as a beachhead in a new and better-resourced attack on the appalling conditions facing many indigenous Australians. In particular it seeks to place a cordon of protection around a class of indigenous children who have hitherto been essentially without protection against the most horrific forms of physical, social and sexual abuse.

That is the context in which the legislation, and the truncated process in the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee used to examine it, should be considered. That process has not been as comprehensive and thorough as the Senate would view as customary; but the extent of the emergency this legislation responds to does not permit any more comprehensive or thorough approach.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child contains, in my view, a number of obligations which it is the Australian community’s duty to uphold. That convention imposes the obligation to protect children against abuse and exploitation and to ensure their survival and security. In many ways—generally more by omission than by commission—we Australians have failed to honour that obligation in the case of indigenous communities in remote parts of this nation. This package is an attempt to reverse that failing, however imperfect or incomplete that attempt may at this time be.

The package pushes aside or suspends some conventions with respect to the conduct of indigenous policy in this country. I regret that, but I do not apologise for it. It is a necessary and measured response to a real emergency.

I note the recommendations the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee makes in respect of this package. I regard these recommendations as sensible and supportable, and they go some way to ensuring that the detailed consideration of the long term impacts of these changes which some in this debate have called for actually occurs. What is clear to me, however, is that this consideration should not be a pretext for delayed action on these issues. Such delay, when so much compelling evidence of a failure of policy has been presented, would be a breach of our duty to a group of extremely vulnerable Australians.

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

We do not accept the Democrats minor amendment to this very important amendment to the second reading. We believe that a six-week delay in this legislation is absolutely what the nation wants, in particular the First Australians. The amendment is to allow that delay so that we can look at the Northern Territory’s legislated response and at the enormous faults, some of them constitutional, some of them infringements of international—

Honourable Senators:

Honourable senators interjecting

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! There is too much noise in the chamber!

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

If Senator Abetz is prepared to support this legislation, he is prepared to flout the rules of debate in this chamber. The point to be made here is that the Greens do not support this legislation—

Honourable Senators:

Honourable senators interjecting

The Acting Deputy President:

Order! Those senators that are interjecting ought not do so from the positions they are sitting in at present—even though interjections are disorderly in any event. I would ask the chamber to remain silent while Senator Brown finishes his contribution to this question.

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

It is an important opportunity to give the nation the scrutiny of this legislation, which has been denied by the government and the opposition to this date. It sounds like the Democrats may be joining that, but the Greens will not. We believe that it should be seen after the response from the Northern Territory and after there has been due consultation and feedback from the Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory and Indigenous people right across this country, all of whom are impacted upon, as against the white community, by this legislation.

We are totally in support of measures to protect children. As we know, the federal government has taken extraordinary measures without this legislation and will continue to do so. This legislation is not required for that purpose but we believe that it is such monumentally bad legislation, legislation infringing the rights of Australians, in particular First Australians, that it should be reconsidered in the way that this amendment outlines. Therefore we do not accept the amendment to the amendment.

Photo of Gavin MarshallGavin Marshall (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that Senator Bartlett’s amendments to Senator Brown’s proposed amendment be agreed to.

Question negatived.

Question put:

That the amendment (Senator Bob Brown’s) be agreed to.

Original question put:

That these bills be now read a second time.

Bills read a second time.