Thursday, 16 August 2007
Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007; Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007; Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory National Emergency Response and Other Measures) Bill 2007; Appropriation (Northern Territory National Emergency Response) Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008; Appropriation (Northern Territory National Emergency Response) Bill (No. 2) 2007-2008
FAMILIES, COMMUNITY SERVICES AND INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS AND OTHER LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (NORTHERN TERRITORY NATIONAL EMERGENCY RESPONSE AND OTHER MEASURES) BILL 2007
In addition to my request to the minister, are there any details of how much this issue has been a problem given that he has just tabled that response? Is there any sign of any response to the rather more detailed and problematic issues raised in the report of the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills?
The Greens oppose schedules 2 to 5 in the following terms:
This relates to schedules 2 to 5. We have had the substantive discussion on nearly all of these sections other than the infrastructure section and I would like to clarify a few points with the minister. This is an even more complicated part of the bill than some of the other parts so I would just like to clarify a few bits, please.
My understanding is that part of this series of clauses is about ensuring the Commonwealth has ongoing involvement in the infrastructure after the five years. I understand that the provisions go to areas beyond just those that are covered in the emergency response areas but that particularly in emergency response areas there is a requirement for negotiation with the land council before any leases are granted.
In response to your first question, yes, it does go beyond the prescribed areas. In fact it is for the entire Northern Territory. The requirement for consent not only applies but it also applies throughout the areas in my first answer.
That is correct. If we are going to build particular long-term infrastructure, we have to have consent. That is not unlike the way it is now. It is a fairly informal arrangement. With the problematic issues about leasing, if you want to build a house, you get the consent of the landowner to be able to build the infrastructure. That was the way it was done and I suppose we have formalised the informal arrangements there in the absence of easily definable leasing arrangements. If we are going to put some infrastructure there, then we simply reflect the convention at the time, which was to seek consent to put the infrastructure up. That is what is reflected in that particular area.
I understand that the funding bodies are the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth authority or the Northern Territory. The funding body has statutory rights provided under these provisions. Those statutory rights, however, may be exercised by another person under clause 20Y. That other person does not then have those rights but can exercise the statutory rights.
Those statutory rights may be transferred to another person. I would like to know the range of other persons or bodies. Secondly, to transfer those rights, or for somebody else to be able to exercise those rights, does the funding body need to get the permission of the land council?
The only body they are referring to in terms of transfer is a government or a government authority. This does not refer to natural persons; this is referring only to a government or a government authority with the intent, of course, that the Northern Territory government may wish to take over some particular types of infrastructure.
That is the transfer of statutory rights; I understand that. But part 20Y says: ‘Rights holder may permit others to exercise the statutory rights’. I am asking: is that separate? I am not talking about the transfer, which I understand is only to another government body, but about the person who can exercise the rights. I understand they are not being transferred. I understand they are only being exercised.
That is what I thought. Can I interpret this to mean that the government goes in and builds some infrastructure or a service? I understand infrastructure includes service but, for the intent of this discussion, it is infrastructure on a lease that the Commonwealth now has. If they go in and build something, and then pass the exercising of their rights to another person or body—it could be a service provision organisation or a business—do they then not need the permission of the land council to do that?
Can I then clarify how long that transfer lasts, because I understand the intent of this is that the Commonwealth maintains its interests in this infrastructure and services after the five-year sunset clause has gone. You do not need the permission of the land council to exercise the powers. It means that potentially you have someone going in there who can then exercise and use that lease beyond the sunset clause. Yesterday we were told that that was not possible.
I understand that, after they have been passed on, the rights holder may permit others to exercise those statutory rights. The holder of the rights then would be able to exercise those rights for as long as the original holder of the rights—which would be us—wished that to happen. So, if the question is whether—as a lot of the questions have been—it is to the end of the five-year lease, no, that is not the case.
In other words, what you told us yesterday does not in fact apply. I asked specifically yesterday—and I think other people had been asking too—whether a government could go in when they are acquiring land and then take something over five years. We were told that that was not going to happen. As I understand this, if the interpretation we have just worked out is correct, somebody can in fact come in and acquire control over land, through this process, beyond the five-year sunset clause, and the land council can do nothing about it.
I do not see that, because yesterday we were told that this would be five years under Commonwealth control and that would be it. Now, in these specific areas, another entity that the Commonwealth is allowing to exercise their rights can come in and do that—beyond the five years. I appreciate that we are now talking about leases; we are not talking about the whole town. But the fact is that that is the question we were asking yesterday about businesses. You may remember we did have a discussion—or it could have been this morning—when I was asking that specific question about businesses coming in that the community does not really want in there and does not necessarily agree with. I do no want to revisit the argument about what is good. They probably do want most of them in there but there may be some who do not. You know as well as I do that there are some businesses that communities specifically do not want in their community. To me, this provision, if I am correct—and from what we have just worked out, I think I am correct—means that they can go in there and they will not be out after five years.
That is correct. I think the reason I said it was consistent is that we are now discussing a completely different provision. This provision talks about the nature of the issues beyond the five-year period we were discussing either this morning or yesterday.
I want to clarify it. Just then we were talking about areas that are in the prescribed areas within the NT emergency response areas. What happens for the areas that are not under the prescribed areas? These provisions still apply, don’t they, but there is not the five-year sunset clause on them? Is that basically the only difference?
I have another question and that relates to the fact that the argument for the acquisition of land and the emergency powers is that it is so that government can go in to get things happening quickly with the provision of infrastructure. You are saying that it then needs to be negotiated with the land council. The argument that the government has been putting is that we need to do this because we do not have the time to negotiate. That is why I asked that question before about land councils and what would happen if they say no, because what you are saying is that the government does not have any other powers under these provisions to say, ‘You’ll do it anyway.’ You do have a provision that says ‘must commence to negotiate’. It may be that I am interpreting that differently or putting the emphasis in the wrong place, but does ‘must commence to negotiate’ mean ‘You have to talk to us’?
Someone is shaking their head and I am probably going to get in strife for this. As I read it, if you did not have consent, you would not expect to retain any interest in that after the five-year period. You would not be able to retain any interest in the infrastructure—that is, if you could do that. But that is not our intent. You would not seek to do that, so we would always seek consent. It is not part of the debate, but I appreciate the complexity of these issues. With our powers, we are running different provisions. If you require a brief on this matter, I will undertake to provide that to you.
All the areas in the act are complicated. I acknowledge that we did have a briefing and I appreciate that, but these provisions continually reference back to each other and they are even more complicated than a lot of the other ones. The specific concern we have with this is around this issue of the Commonwealth, as the funding body and the holder of the statutory rights, then being able to hand over the rights to another person and it is not specified who that person could be. My understanding from these provisions is that it is completely left open. I understand that the Commonwealth retains ownership of the infrastructure but it can hand it over for use under this provision and that does not have to be with the agreement of the land council. That is of concern.
I have another question, which may be technical. If it is going to be too technical, I would appreciate the briefing. In subdivision D, on page 30, it says:
(1) If a person has the statutory rights under 20W and 20X—
which are the two sections we were just talking about—
the person may, by writing, determine that the buildings or infrastructure is no longer required by the person.
Is that the person deciding they do not want it anymore and just saying, ‘We don’t want it anymore?’ or is this another person determining that you cannot use it anymore?
I am advised that the statutory rights will end when a government or a government authority determine that they no longer require the buildings or infrastructure. The relevant land council must be advised of the termination of those rights and may require the former statutory rights holders to remove some of the infrastructure—they cannot just leave it there. This is going to ensure that the land is not encumbered by disused buildings or unwanted infrastructure.
I want to ask some questions about the pornography section, which is the only schedule not being proposed to be excluded here. I do not really mind if we dispose of this question first or if I ask my questions now. It is a bit academic.
I also have one question about the law enforcement provisions to do with the ACC. This question has probably been answered, so I am sorry if I have missed it. People ask me questions about this all the time, so it is helpful if I can be accurate. Are they subject to a sunset clause or are they continuing? That was the only clarification I wanted around that schedule.
I also want to clarify some items in schedule 1 to do with prohibited material—that is, pornography. Not being familiar with the fine print of the different classifications in respect of pornographic material and the like, the material that is classified as level 1 prohibited material basically seems to be material that is classified as X—in that sort of sphere of things. My understanding of all that is that any possession of X-rated material anywhere in prescribed areas in Aboriginal communities in the Territory would be prohibited and subject to a penalty.
Under the section to do with supplying material into prescribed areas it says that the person commits an offence which is subject to a penalty of 200 penalty units or imprisonment for two years or both. It says the material consists of five or more items of prohibited material. The way that reads to me is that if somebody had five DVDs or five magazines, for example, with them they would breach that section. Would that be accurate?
I have a final question on this, which is probably similar to some of the questions you were asked about alcohol yesterday, about the education provisions or information provisions regarding pornography. This might have been touched on a bit yesterday. You are talking about there being information and education first, before the enforcement stuff kicks in, so that people have a bit of time to adjust. I want to ask about the mechanisms for that and, while we are at it, for the alcohol issue. I am thinking of retailers as well, because, whatever people may or may not think of this material, it is legally available. As we all know, there is more of it around the corner down the road in Canberra than pretty much anywhere else in the country. But I am thinking of people in the Territory and perhaps people coming from outside and going to communities who may have some material on them. How widespread will the information campaigns be and what will be the nature of the campaigns? I can foresee people being inadvertently caught up in this sort of thing, and more so for people coming from outside, when we are dealing with material that is legal everywhere else. Certainly category 1 material, as I understand it, is legal everywhere else; category 2 material is not. So there would need to be a reasonable amount of education.
I think people are somewhat more likely to be aware of the concept of the prohibition on alcohol going into Aboriginal communities, but they are probably not so familiar with the concept of prohibition on this sort of material. I would like some indication of the type of information and education campaigns there are likely to be for this, perhaps alongside the alcohol area, which does have its complexity as well. I think that was touched on yesterday, in terms of how you determine what 350 millilitres is and how people are likely to know those sorts of things.
I think it was yesterday. I reiterate that throughout these processes we are going to need very much for the community to have a clear understanding. I have some sympathy: 350 millilitres—how much is that? I haven’t got a clue! I am old enough to remember that a 40-pounder is a 40-ounce bottle; now it is in millilitres. The communities will need to have a very clear understanding of that. As the senator indicates, sometimes the alcohol could be the easiest side of that. It is a very complex area. But an education program will be rolled out. We are working with the Northern Territory government and seeking advice from the NT government. We are also working with the Eros Foundation, which is the industry foundation. They have been very supportive and very helpful. So I think with that partnership I have a high level of confidence that the education program will be very effective.
I understand the classifications are very similar. I will have to seek some advice on that. The classifications deal with violence as well as sexually explicit material, as you are no doubt aware, Senator, but I will have to seek some advice on the nature of the classifications because they can sometimes occur simultaneously. My very basic understanding of the censorship process is that they are taking it into consideration in terms of the classifications, but I will seek a more fulsome answer to that question on notice, if I could.
I would like to know what information the government was working on when it decided that pornographic material was to be prohibited but not violent material. There have been no public statements regarding violent material, but there is a lot of literature and studies to show that that can be extremely influential on people in non-Indigenous communities. So far as I know, none of the statements by Minister Brough or Prime Minister Howard have canvassed the culture of violence that is abroad at the moment. A lot of it is imported from America. We see on our television sets people being dismembered, tortured—terrible things happening to human beings—in the name of entertainment. I wondered what impact that has on communities and what measurement of that impact the government has and why it has not acted on that. I presume, and the minister can tell me if I am wrong, that there has been an assessment of the impact of pornographic sexually explicit material. I am just wondering why the government has been quiet on violent material but very, very loud indeed on pornographic material.
The senator’s presumption that we had not dealt with the violent aspect was incorrect. My assumption that the categories in fact did include the depiction of violence is correct. Both category 1 and category 2 have a depiction of violence as well as sexual activity to put them into those categories. So if it is just violent—there is no sexual activity; it is just something that depicts violence—it will be prohibited as a category 1 or a category 2. So that has been taken into consideration.
With regard to your second question, there has been a lot of discussion. I am not sure about what empirical science you draw on, but certainly a lot of the evidence has been given around the place. The concern about pornography was principally about the grooming of young people. Again, I do not have the capacity or the knowledge to go into any more than what grooming means generally, or preparing or encouraging. I am not sure how you would prepare, but the term used is ‘grooming’ young people to make them more vulnerable to sexual predators.
So the pornographic material was the very first concern. Violence is obviously of concern, and the government have very ably dealt with that. But our first and principal concern was to act in those areas that have been reported. That is why much of the discussion was focused on the sexually explicit material rather than the violent material. The violent material has been comprehensively dealt with in the provision.
Violence is an enormous problem in the community. I am not going to draw the minister further on this, because it will not get me anywhere, but the point I make is that there is an attitude of accommodation for gratuitous violence that goes way beyond that which goes to non-violent sexually explicit material. That is a cultural thing. That is a Western and American cultural thing. It makes violence an entertainment. It makes huge amounts of money for some people. Whatever the classification system here is, the public presentation of the need for this legislation has been all about pornography and not about violence when it comes to the material that is to be classified and prohibited. I think the government should look at that again. I am concerned about the impact of gratuitously violent material, masquerading as entertainment, on the whole of the nation, and the lack of restraint by government on explicitly violent material as against explicitly sexual material.
by leave—I move opposition amendments (1) and (2):
(1) Clause 4, page 2 (lines 21 to 28), omit subclauses (2) and (3), substitute:
(2) To the extent that this subsection applies, the provisions referred to in paragraph (1)(a), and any acts referred to in paragraph (1)(b), are, for the purposes of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, special measures and are consistent with Part 2 of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.
(3) To the extent that this subsection applies, the provisions referred to in paragraph (1)(a), and any acts referred to in paragraph (1)(b), are not laws as described by subsection 10(3) of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.
(2) Clause 6, page 4 (line 33) to page 5 (line 2), omit subclauses 6(2) and 6(3), substitute:
(2) Any such implementation, or other acts, are, for the purposes of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, special measures and are consistent with Part 2 of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.
(3) Any such implementation, or other acts, are not laws as described by subsection 10(3) of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.
These amendments relate to the Racial Discrimination Act and Labor’s attempt to provide for this legislation to invoke and encompass the RDA rather than seek to exclude the provisions of the RDA from this legislative package. We had this debate much earlier today. The government is not willing to look at ways of accommodating that view, therefore these amendments will be lost again, so I will not waste the time of the Senate other than to formally move them.
The Democrats oppose clauses 4 to 6 in the following terms:
Likewise, this was debated in some detail earlier on. It is the same issue: the Democrats believe that there should not be any exemption from the Racial Discrimination Act—in some ways, particularly in this area. Whatever merit there is or is not in encouraging more responsible behaviour or better protection of children through the quarantining of welfare payments, I do not see how that can justifiably be applied on a racial basis. In effect, that is what this legislation as a whole does. It provides welfare-quarantining mechanisms in a whole lot of different capacities, but, with regard to Aboriginal people in prescribed communities in the Northern Territory, it affects them universally. It is a pretty clear example of where, to your average person looking at it, it sure looks like tougher rules for the blackfellas than for the whitefellas. Unless there are extremely good reasons, and it can be clearly demonstrated that it is positive discrimination for the blackfellas to get that type of so-called special treatment, then it is an extremely dangerous and potentially quite destructive thing to do.
I note that a number of people, again who have been broadly supportive of the government’s approach, have nonetheless called for the same sort of non-blanket approach to be taken in the Territory communities with regard to Aboriginal people as is being taken with the more selective application, such as that being proposed in the Cape York trials, for example, where it is only going to apply to people who are deemed to have been incapable of meeting certain criteria or demonstrating ‘irresponsible behaviour’—which I think is the more general, catch-all phrase—rather than catching everybody, including those who are responsible. So it is only in the Territory and in designated Aboriginal communities where that distinction between those who are responsible and those who are not is not being made, where it is being applied universally. It sure looks like racial discrimination to me. Obviously, the Racial Discrimination Act does allow that to occur, where it is positive discrimination or what are labelled ‘special measures’. I find it pretty hard to see how this is a special measure that is a positive discrimination. It is no secret that this whole model of quarantining is influenced fairly heavily, at least in terms of the public presentation of the debate, by what has been considered over a period of time and developed in Cape York, with the welfare trials that are close to being started up there.
Noel Pearson is a key driver of that, and he has also said a number of times that the same principle needs to be applied in the Territory—that there needs to be a distinction between responsible and irresponsible people and that you need to reward positive behaviour. Almost regardless of that debate, if you are looking at the justification for saying that these are special measures and therefore are positively beneficial to Aboriginal people, and you have one of the key Aboriginal defenders of the government’s approach saying, ‘No, this is the wrong way to go; it’s not going to be the best for them,’ then you really have to wonder how solid the government’s assertion is that this is a positively discriminatory or special measure. That highlights the problem with trying to use this catch-all loophole in the Racial Discrimination Act. In some ways this measure looks particularly stark and problematic, and I have not heard any justification to date—unless the minister before us has an absolutely fabulous, rip-snorting justification that he is about to unleash on us—for that type of exemption. I should state again that that is a very fundamental principle. We have pretty much had this debate already, so I shall not talk further. But I do not want that to be taken as any suggestion that we are treating this issue as a run-of-the-mill thing. The Racial Discrimination Act is fundamental. That point needs to be made as often as possible.
The Greens oppose clauses 4 to 7 in the following terms:
This is a similar amendment to that of the Democrats; however, ours goes a little further to specifically relate to clause 7, which excludes the Northern Territory laws. We have been through the debate on the issues as they relate to racial discrimination. We are particularly concerned with the so-called welfare reforms that the government is introducing through this bill. As has been outlined, a separate set of rules will apply to those in the Northern Territory. Not only do we think that this will not work but also we think that these specific clauses are discriminatory and they treat people in the Northern Territory as a different set of citizens. The reforms apply to everybody in the prescribed areas, whether they are exemplary parents or not. We will go into the details of the shortcomings of this bill shortly, but we are specifically here to do deal with the issues as they relate to racial discrimination.
I would like to do that. The discrimination involved in this is absolutely disgraceful and it is an intended discrimination—it is overt and in-your-face racism. It will have not just the effect of flagging to Indigenous people that they are treated as inferior to the non-Indigenous population by this government, and by everybody who votes to support these clauses, but it will have untoward and perhaps unintended effects, although I do not think that the government has taken any time to look at what the effects will be. I draw the government’s attention, for example, to an article which appeared on page 15 in the Australian of last Friday, entitled ‘Bar humbug’, which states:
On one visit to Docker River in the far southwest corner of the NT, federal Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough noticed the aged-care facility had bars on the windows. When he asked why there were bars on a facility for the elderly, a carer said it was not to keep the residents in but to keep the relatives out.
The humbug system is deeply ingrained in Aboriginal communities and there are concerns the federal Government’s changes to indigenous welfare payments may increase the family humbug—
as it is called—
particularly against the elderly whose pensions remain the same.
Grandmother Mildred Inkamala from Hermannsburg, one hour’s drive west of Alice Springs, says older women in her community live in fear of when the federal Government’s welfare quarantines come into effect.
And that is because they will then become the focus of attention of those deprived of payments who need to sustain themselves. I do not know what the government is going to do about that. But, whatever the case, this discrimination to take away the rights of Indigenous people—rights which belong to the rest of the community—is just not acceptable, not under Australian law and not under international law, as the Law Council of Australia has pointed out to the government, the opposition and anybody else who had an interest in this matter. The Greens cannot support the overt discrimination and racism which is involved in this; hence the amendments.
That clauses 4 to 7 stand as printed.
Mr Temporary Chairman, I must admit that the fact that we actually started to move backwards was of some concern to me. I knew we were not moving forward quickly, but that we actually managed to go backwards was a surprise and was of concern to me. I also notice that the minister has even more advisers than he started with—and that does not augur well either. I move opposition amendment (3) on sheet 5351:
(3) Page 6 (after line 27), after clause 7, insert:
The Minister must cause to be conducted, as soon as practicable after the first anniversary of the day on which this Act receives the Royal Assent, a review of the provisions of Part 3B of the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999 regarding the application of income management to persons by reason of their being persons in a relevant Northern Territory area.
This amendment seeks to include a clause which provides a review. The amendment requires the minister to cause to be conducted a review on the first anniversary of the act receiving royal assent—the review to be of part 3B of the Social Security (Administration) Act 1999, regarding the application of income management to persons by reason of their being persons in a relevant Northern Territory area.
The logic of this is quite simple. As we know, there is a five-year sunset clause, but the minister has the capacity, as I understand, to annually revisit the question of the income management provisions and the areas to which they will apply. We think it is important that the minister formally review the success of the scheme after 12 months. We are going into uncharted waters in terms of income management and applying these measures in communities. It is important that we look as soon as possible at the effectiveness of the measures taken. I think it is important that the parliament gets the opportunity to debate the measures—not just have the government say that it has some sort of internal review—and gets the chance to have a look at whether or not these measures are working and, if they are not, see why not and have some assessment of all these changes. For example, there are a range of initiatives relating to school attendance, and we would want to know whether the measures have had any impact on school attendance—rather than just press on on the basis that we hoped they might and we continued to hold that hope.
It is important that we assess these things. It is, as I say, a major change in arrangements. There are concerns that whole communities are being required to comply with these changes. People are not being assessed according to their own individual behaviour when it comes to these measures; they are actually being required to comply with the system. One of my concerns with the approach is: where is it that we reward positive behaviour? Where are the mechanisms that allow those who do the right thing to be rewarded? Where is that encouragement for personal responsibility in the long term? But that is a more general point.
We believe that the bill ought to contain a formal review after 12 months. I know the minister has given some general undertakings about reviews, but we would much prefer that there be a legislative review after 12 months of the welfare reform and the income management system specific to the Northern Territory.
The measures are not all rolled out at the same time in all the communities; they are being rolled out community by community. So any appreciation of the results at one particular arbitrary point in time, say in a 12-month review, will not necessarily provide the evidentiary process you require. The minister has the capacity, on the basis of the time he rolls them out, to examine how the programs are working on a community-by-community basis.
The proposed opposition amendment would impose an obligation to review the income management and land acquisition arrangements some 12 months after the act receives royal assent. We are committed to ongoing monitoring and reporting on the Northern Territory emergency response. Therefore, we will not be supporting this amendment.
I really do not think that is good enough—though I know that will not make any difference. Quite frankly, that is the sort of assurance we got for the COAG trials. People said: ‘It would be too early to tell,’ ‘We’re waiting on the formal review,’ ‘We’ve got mixed results,’ and ‘We think things are going well in some areas.’ We got all the double-speak. It took us years to find out that the trials had been a total and utter failure, that we had totally failed the people who were subject to the trials and that we had made a complete hash of it. I got reassurances for a long period of time—’It is too early,’ ‘We need to have a formal assessment.’ There were plenty of reassuring words, but money was going down the tube, Indigenous people were not getting the services they deserved and the grand experiment—the ‘quiet revolution’ was the title for that one—was proving to be an abject failure. The revolution was a squib and the people who suffered as a result of the failure of the revolution were the Indigenous people upon whom we were conducting that particular experiment.
As this approach is experimental and quite radical, we ought to be much more focused on review. We ought to be focused on KPIs. I would like to see the KPIs contained in the legislation. We talk the language inside the Public Service, but we do not put it into the bills. I would like to know who is accountable for this stuff and who is going to lose their job if it does not happen as planned. I do not want to have a crack at the FaCSIA officials, but no politician and no departmental official is responsible when failure occurs. We are being asked again to take it on trust. I hope it works; I really hope it works. But it is another experiment; it is another stab in the dark. This government has had three or four; we had a few when we were in government. None of them worked; none of them made a fundamental difference to the lives of the people in these communities.
I do not want to give you a blank cheque. I do not think that the parliament ought to give you a blank cheque. The parliament ought to force the minister and the government, of whatever persuasion, back into this place to say, ‘Yes, it has worked in terms of alcohol control, but school attendances have not improved,’ or whatever the outcome is and explain what is working, what is not working and why not. We should not just give you a blank cheque so that someone can quietly drop a report that the opposition spokesperson has to find by nefarious means, that says that the whole thing was a disaster and that for the last year or two people have been skating around admitting that it was a disaster. That is not good enough. It is not good enough in terms of public administration, but it is also not good enough for the Indigenous people.
I think that this is an important amendment. I am not reassured by the minister. It would be a huge blue to not demand accountability for the measures that we take. We need key performance indicators and a real sense of accountability from the policymakers and those delivering the service. We say that these measures are going to improve Aboriginal people’s lives. Let us prove it; let us hold ourselves accountable. The minister’s response reeks as being the sort of response we have had for every other experiment: things are allowed to quietly slip away as the political attention and the circus moves on and no-one is held accountable for the fact that we did not deliver to Indigenous people what we promised. I think that this is the most important clause that should be in the bill, but I know that it will not get carried. I and others will be much more assiduous about ensuring that there is proper reporting and measurement than perhaps we have been in the past.
While my body says that I should just keep sitting, I think that I should give respect to your amendment—particularly because it almost parallels the legislation. While I am not saying that there is any mischief in it, I do not think that it quite represents our position. If you have a review 12 months from the day of assent, you are not really giving practical appreciation to the fact that we are rolling these measures out in a staggered sense over two months or three months.
Hang on. Indeed, but the minister will be making a decision on the basis of a review. There will be a review of circumstances. On the basis of those circumstances, he will decide whether or not to continue the program. That is in fact a review, Senator Evans. I am not being picky; I am just saying that I do not think that we are that far apart on this. We are practically reflecting the timing of the implementation of the programs. Thank you for the support.
As you can expect, the Greens have a number of questions relating to these amendments and very deep concerns about the impact that they are going to have and about the fact that they are not going to be effective. Unfortunately, during the short time that we had during the committee process, we did not get to ask many questions on this quite far-reaching legislation. Not only that, the answers to the questions that we put on notice—with all due respect to whoever wrote them—provided us with little additional information. So, unfortunately, I am going to have to ask them again—and take the opportunity to ask some much more detailed questions.
There are provisions that apply specifically to the Northern Territory and there are provisions that apply to the broader community. These are then broken down to apply to children that are not regularly attending school, to children who are at risk, to income management areas in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory and Queensland and to remote communities. So there are some quite specific issues that we would like to address.
The first issue that I would like to address is about people who are covered in section 123U(b)—persons who are subject to the income management regime in the relevant Northern Territory area. As I understand it, that is anybody who is in the area physically from 21 June to when their last payment period was. That is correct, I think. If you were there at that time, the provision catches you unless you have an exemption from the minister. You could be travelling in the area and have to get an exemption from the minister not to be caught up in this if you are getting the various forms of income support that are covered by these provisions.
As I understand it, 123UB(2) applies to a person or a person’s partner if the person or person’s partner is entitled to be paid FTB under the family assistance act. Does that only apply if you are also getting category A welfare payments or does it apply if you are not getting category A welfare payments—in other words, you are just getting FTB?
In relation to your previous question, physical presence in the area can be tested in a number of ways, not only in the nature of an address—for example, if your Centrelink address said you are not present, obviously your presence in the area will not attract the provisions. But in a more general sense it is about your presence physically in the area.
I am still waiting for an answer to my second question. While I am on feet—through you, Chair—I understand what you are saying about presence in the area. It says overnight in the area and it says other than if you are exempt. It says the secretary determines who is exempt. Then it goes through a series of things to determine who is exempt, but it seems to me you have to apply to be exempt.
The bill, as the senator indicated, provides that a person may be exempt from income management in respect of either a specific Northern Territory area or from all relevant areas. Those provisions mean that, where it is clear that the person has little connection to a community, they can be excluded from the application of the income management at the time that it in fact applied to that community.
I think we have the opposition amendment before us about a review. For the record, I thought I should speak to the actual amendment. I had a couple of question about the schedules but I thought I would leave that until the final amendment. I want to indicate my support for the amendment. I think review of these provisions is important and, again, if the problem is 12 months I could cope with its being two years, but these are very far-reaching provisions, particularly the Territory ones and in the absence of any other outline already being in place for benchmarks, assessment criteria and those sorts of things. It would give much more confidence to a lot of people if there were something in the legislation that required an open and independent review. The Democrats support this amendment.
I move Democrat amendment (2) on sheet 5342.
(2) Schedule 1, item 17, page 27 (after line 33), at the end of section 123UA, add:
(2) Notwithstanding any other provisions of this Division 2, a person subject to the income management regime is entitled to access the appeal mechanisms of this Act relating to income management devices.
This simply seeks to ensure that a person subject to the income management regime is entitled to access the appeal mechanisms of this act relating to income management devices. This is a fairly clear principle and it was also a fairly straightforward concern that was expressed to the Senate committee. The Senate committee process, as we know, was only a single day. Witnesses had less than two days notice to prepare submissions and only three days at best to read the actual legislation. There was seriously limited time to be able to explore all of these issues. I think the total amount of time I got to question officials from the government about the entire package of legislation was about eight minutes, so one can understand that there is a range of other issues one might have wanted to have raised.
Similarly, the vast majority of community organisations did not get to appear at all but those that did understandably focused a lot on the issues that we dealt with earlier tonight. Comparatively, there was very little about the whole income management regime. Given how major the change is, that is very unfortunate. That is not to say that I am 100 per cent opposed to at least exploring some of the principles here, although I am quite concerned with how they are being implemented, particularly with regard to the Territory.
I have said on record a few times that I think there is merit in exploring the approach that is being trialled in Cape York, which is also covered in this legislation. I am not 100 per cent convinced it will work but, as the name implies, it is a trial. It has been done after a fair bit of consultation. There are differing views about the totality of that consultation but there has been a fair bit of it. One of the key aspects of it is to engage people at the local level to make decisions that relate to when people become subject to welfare quarantining. None of that is present in the Northern Territory. It is automatic, it is blanket. As we have already stated, it has no bearing on whether somebody is a responsible parent or not.
On top of that, as this amendment relates, there is no appeal mechanism. At one level you could say, ‘It’s automatic; your welfare is going to be quarantined, so what is there to be appealed?’ but there is a whole range of powers given under this legislation to government officials and Centrelink officers to make decisions about pretty fine details in people’s individual lives. I believe that there needs to be the same scope for an independent merits review of those sorts of decisions. Through this legislation we are giving brand-new powers to Centrelink officers to intervene in the very fine detail of people’s lives. People should not forget that.
Particularly in the Northern Territory, as I said, there is no linkage to whether people are being responsible or not—exemplary or not. That is an extra factor: people will be subject to this whether they like it or not and whether there is any justification for it other than where they live, which is in an Aboriginal community in the Territory. I do not think it is stretching things too far to imagine some people might get a little bit peeved about that. The potential is certainly there for people to get peeved if they are having decisions made about how they run their lives and they do not agree with those decisions. They may think the decisions are not fairly based or based on mistakes or misunderstandings of what people have said. Let us not forget that, in many cases, we are dealing with communities and people whose first language is not English and whose cultural understandings of things is very different to that of many other people. There is any amount of material about the difficulties of communication, even when people’s English is perfect, because there are different interpretations of cultural expression.
There is ample opportunity for misunderstanding, even with the best will in the world. When the detail of how you live your day-to-day life is going to be controlled by somebody else and there is a prospect of them making decisions about what you are allowed to do and what you are not allowed to do, including defining what is an essential and what is not an essential, that is difficult and groundbreaking enough, but to then say that there is no scope for independent review is a really serious problem. It is a problem because of the potential for injustice; that is why you have independent reviews. It is a problem because having the independent review can be a real safety valve for people. So even when the decision was right, if a person has been able to appeal to someone else—even though that person has said, ‘No, that’s right’—they are more likely to say, ‘Okay, someone else has verified that.’ It can be of assistance.
Speaking as someone who used to work in what was the Department of Social Security, and who made decisions that were appealed, I can say that if you do not have a bad attitude to things—if you have the right approach—it can be very helpful to know that there is someone else there who will review your decisions independently and who will tell you if you have got it wrong. You can learn from that. That is particularly the case when you are dealing with a brand-new area. The people in the Territory are going to be the first people subjected to this, perhaps alongside the people in Cape York, although I do not think that will be up and running—the minister can correct me if I am wrong—as quickly as the Territory. Maybe Cape York will be next—and under very different circumstances—and then possibly, some time later, other people in the mainstream community will be subjected to it, but only those who are deemed to breach particular criteria regarding school attendance or child protection issues.
When you give a whole brand-new set of powers to Centrelink officers—and they are pretty far-reaching intervening powers—and allow those powers to be exercised in a way that has no external merits review, I think you make a bigger problem in developing a better understanding of how to use those powers well. There is, I know, the scope for internal departmental review, but frankly that is just not good enough. To say that people can take things to court is frankly insulting, particularly with regard to the sorts of decisions that people are likely to want to appeal.
I do not like always drawing parallels to my experiences with this government’s activities in the migration and detention area but it has some echoes for me because we had immigration officials making decisions about people’s cases outside the normal mechanism and, when people were unhappy with the decisions, the only appeal they got was to someone else within the department. I know there is only so far you can go with this parallel but I think there is a valid comparison. If there is a mistake made by an officer, whether through a misunderstanding, incorrect information, sloppiness, shoddiness, overwork or whatever, internal reviews are not sufficient, particularly when the person doing the internal review knows that that is it. If you are doing a review and you know there is an independent person watching over your shoulder, you are much more likely to do a better job. I am not casting aspersions at public servants, but it is just human nature. If you like, I am casting aspersions at human nature; I can do that in great detail if I am in the right mood. It is human nature that, if you know someone is able to appeal your decision to someone who is independent, you will do your job a lot better than if you think: ‘I’ll just do this here; no-one else is going to ever look at it. Near enough is good enough.’
This is a really important issue. It was singled out for special concern by a number of submitters to the inquiry, so, particularly because this is new area, it needs to have those appeal rights. I do not see how any talk about this being an emergency somehow is sufficient to justify jettisoning people’s rights to independent appeal about decisions that really affect pretty fundamental aspects of their day-to-day lives. That is particularly given that, in the way the government have designed this package and this measure, there is no automatic linkage between the income quarantining and anything to do with child protection. It is universal. You say it is some emergency measure to do with protecting children, but there is no linkage to people’s behaviour; it is just where they live. In that context, it is pretty serious to take away this appeal right. Let’s not forget this is people’s money. It might be being paid under a welfare entitlement but it is their money. It is an entitlement, and it is called that for quite a genuine reason. If you have someone else coming in and telling you what you can and cannot spend your money on, which is enormous intervention in people’s lives, then the least you can do is give them some right to appeal if they do not agree with the decisions that are being made on their behalf.
I want to ask the minister if he can clarify some issues in relation to subdivision C, which is the additional provisions relating to school enrolment and attendance. Given the significance of this measure and the implications that it has for the income management system that you are putting in place, could you, first of all, tell me: has the government determined what constitutes acceptable school attendance?
There are two parts to the answer. The first is that there are five unexplained absences in a term. But the definition of ‘unexplained absence’ differs slightly from place to place, and we are accepting the current definitions of ‘unexplained absence’ as they vary throughout the schools. They would be the provisions that are in existence now in each of those schools.
For clarification, can you tell me how the government intends to collect the data that will determine whether a child has unsatisfactory school attendance and therefore the parents invoke additional income management penalties?
As you are no doubt aware, Senator, the states and territories are responsible for the education system generally, and we would be relying on them. We are currently in discussions and will be in consultation with each of the jurisdictions about tapping into their existing reporting systems and assessing the reporting systems to ensure that they can provide the data that will give us the objectivity that underpinned your previous question.
So under normal circumstances state or territory departments of education would, if a child was absent and the school was advised that the child was sick, and there was unsatisfactory attendance, ask for some evidence. Is it the intention that if children are not attending in a satisfactory pattern and the explanation is illness parents will be required to provide a doctor’s certificate?
As I indicated in my first answer, there are some existing provisions in each of the jurisdictions that provide for the term ‘unexplained absence’. That is the reason principally behind it—that each jurisdiction will have a different rationale. Some might say, ‘If you don’t have a letter from a doctor then it is an unexplained absence.’ Some may have some other process of establishing whether an absence was an unexplained absence or otherwise. We would, again, rely on that jurisdiction for that advice.
Thank you. I appreciate that general point, but it is quite significant if this regime is being put into place in the Northern Territory, where perhaps it is quite difficult for families to meet some of those requirements. Can I ask another related question: is it an expectation of the government that schools will be required to be notified of an intended absence from school?
How is the government going to manage the issue of children who may be absent from school because of a bereavement—they have a family funeral and go back to country? How is that going to be managed?
I think it is a very important question because this is one of the reasons that many children have spent six months away from school—on the basis of some cultural business. In fact, it is unacceptable that any child should be away for that period of time. That is why we have said that it will be up to the jurisdiction, and it will be five days away without an explanation.
Okay. We can see where the problem might be there, can’t we? We would have many parents who might not be able to understand the implicit threat that is in such a formal warning. Do you intend to develop some other culturally appropriate ways in which that message can be conveyed?
Perhaps I should have been a bit fuller in my response. It has to be in writing and it will be personally handed over. Obviously there are some language and translation difficulties so it will be provided in writing in an interview situation. This ensures that they have actually got it. We appreciate all of those things.
I want to go to a separate issue, which I could make no sense of. It is in relation to Subdivision C—Miscellaneous about the payment of credit balance of income management account accounts when a person ceases to be subject to the income management regime. I will walk through my understanding of the process. Someone subject to the income management regime who receives a baby bonus will receive that bonus in monthly instalments. Am I to understand that the monthly instalments of the baby bonus will also be subject to the 50 per cent quarantining process?
I will provide a scenario. A parent who has been subject to the income management regime has received the baby bonus and now has a significant credit balance in their income management account. Section 123WJ(7) relates to the repayment of the residual amount in the income credit to account. If a person moves out of the income management regime and is eligible for reimbursement, the secretary may determine that the ‘whole or a part of the residual amount is to be paid to the first person as a single lump sum’. But then in (9) it says:
The Secretary must not make a determination under subsection (7) unless:
(a) the lump sum is $200 or less.
Someone, having moved out of the regime, may have had their 100 per cent of the baby bonus quarantined, and may decide to save the baby bonus so that there is a substantial amount. Am I correct in reading that the lump sum must be $200 or less and that the rest will be paid in some kind of instalments?
Are you telling me that a person who has had 100 per cent of the baby bonus quarantined for a period of time and has not used it is then not going to be able to access that baby bonus if they escape the income management regime?
I understand that, if they can demonstrate that they have a large expense or something that they have saved towards, then there is some discretion to provide that amount against a lump sum, but the lump sum would reflect a particular amount or an expense that they have.
I understand that we are dealing under Subdivision C—Miscellaneous, 123WJ, and on page 43, subsection (9) where it says:
The Secretary must not make a determination under subsection (7) unless:
(a) the lump sum is $200 or less.
It goes on:
(b) the Secretary is satisfied that there are special circumstances—
for example, a large expense—
that warrant the making of the determination.
I find it quite extraordinary that, if a person has been able to move out of the regime because they are acting responsibly and caring appropriately for their children, they can continue to be caught in the regime at the behest of the minister. Can the minister advise what other special circumstances might warrant the making of the determination?
Again, the intention within these provisions is to recognise that the individual, whilst moving out of a particular regime, still occupies a place in a particular community. Generally the intent of these provisions is to lessen the amount of disposable income in the community generally and to ensure that the processes in terms of disposable income we know have been demonstrated are a part of the challenge. That is certainly the intent of the legislation.
Are you telling me, then, that this part of the legislation relates only to the Northern Territory and the identified communities? Does this not relate to the broader application of the welfare reforms?
So then you are telling me that there is a much broader application of this provision, and the excuse that humbugging perhaps might ensue might relate to the Northern Territory and the designated communities. But we are capturing an extraordinary number of people in this provision, and it seems to me that that is quite an unfair determination for those people who prove that they are capable and caring parents.
I understand that there is some period of time during which, whilst those people may be able to demonstrate they are out of the system, because of the challenges that often that demographic have in managing lump sums of that nature it is important that those provisions continue to apply for some time after the people move out of their crisis.
There are a couple of points coming from that. Firstly, the minister mentioned that children are sometimes absent for a long period of time for cultural reasons. I ask the minister: if there are no cultural reasons that would warrant a five-day absence, would that be acceptable to the government? Secondly, there is the business of exemptions. Am I right to assume that these exemptions are particularly aimed at excluding non-Indigenous people from the reach of these penalties rather than Indigenous people?
One of the reasons we are relying upon the jurisdiction is that the jurisdiction can reflect the needs, particularly the cultural needs within the community. For example, the current Northern Territory government policy and procedures indicate that acceptable reasons for absence include but are not limited to work experience, excursions, school or non-school cultural activities, sickness—which is a standard; sickness is notified by a caregiver or a guardian—and funerals. Those provisions may not be the same right around Australia, but they reflect the circumstances in that particular part of Australia. Could you perhaps ask the second question again?
On the exemptions, are these not particularly aimed at giving advantage to non-Indigenous people—for example, those who travel a lot outside their own region—as against Indigenous people in escaping the penalty clauses that this bill has?
The reasons that are laid out in these provisions clearly indicate that those persons for whom exemptions would be granted would be those people who were not necessarily a part of that community. They may well be travelling, for whatever reason. That is the nature of that discretion. It is not designed to select people by their ethnicity; it is just a decision. It is really based on where they live. We have gone into some of that in previous questions.
In previous inquiries into Indigenous education, it has been found that there is quite a lot of travel by families and that children will often present at different schools during any given year. One of the problems that arose from this was that schools did not share enrolment data. Presumably we are talking about South Australia, Western Australia and Queensland here. Are you satisfied that sharing of data is now available and that students are known when they turn up at one school and where their principal enrolment is? How does that fit with this regime?
You raise a very important and a very good point. It is for that reason, and follows that acknowledgement, that we are committed to working with the state and territory jurisdictions to assess, first of all, the current recording mechanism and to ensure that, with any mechanism for recording or capacity to comply, we work with the state and territory governments to ensure that that capacity actually exists.
How long is it anticipated that will take? It is now probably three or four years since we did that inquiry, and they were struggling at that point to achieve this. What is going to make the situation suddenly doable? Is the Commonwealth funding a special task force or agency to undertake this work? What is the time frame?
I am able to provide you with a broad framework of what the strategy will include. Obviously, as I have just pointed out, the assistance of states and territories and the non-government schools sector will be called on. Arrangements for the provision of information from schools and education authorities will be the subject of those consultations and there will be assistance from the non-government education authorities in that regard. The particular consultation strategy that is under development at the moment is expected to include Australian government ministers consulting with state and territory education ministers; information provided to the Australian Education Systems Official Committee—and I understand the next meeting is scheduled for 24 August; ongoing consultations with state and territory governments and non-government education authorities; and Centrelink dealing with individual education authorities and schools as required.
I understand this does not apply to the Northern Territory because that is a blanket income management scheme, but presumably the government has some objectives about increases in attendance and enrolment in schools. Are there any projections? Is there a time frame within which we can expect school attendance to be improved and just what is that objective?
I think it would be the vision of all in this place that it should be 100 per cent. That is the goal, and it would be foolish of us to have any lesser target. We will be rolling this out community by community. It will not be that the Northern Territory has X number of people who should be of enrolment age and are not attending; it will be done community by community. Both benchmarks and goals will be set within the community construct. We have a fair idea of how many people should be at school and are not enrolled, and we have an idea of how many people are enrolled and are not at school. With those statistics, we should have a pretty good idea of who is not attending. We will continue to use and build on those statistics. I think we all have to acknowledge that attendance records may not be consistent across the board, but certainly the intervention gives us this opportunity to ensure that the attendance records are taken in a way that can assist us in that matter.
Minister, you would be aware that the Northern Territory funds students on an average attendance basis. If we are to expect 100 per cent attendance and enrolment in schools in the Northern Territory, it is commonly understood that most schools could not cope. What do you have in place with regard to funding for capital works, for more schools and for more teachers? Have you reached agreement with the Northern Territory government that they will adopt a more appropriate form of funding so that the resources are there in schools to accommodate not the average but the total number of students that should be in school? Obviously this is not going to happen overnight, and it would be useful to know what mechanisms you have in mind and have negotiated with the Northern Territory in this respect.
We are approaching negotiations with the Northern Territory government on this issue. The Northern Territory government have undertaken to ensure that they take care of the teachers. They will be in a position to assist in the matter of infrastructure—tables, desks and those sorts of things. We have also put in some funding for capital and infrastructure and those sorts of arrangements. Again, we will not be in an ideal position to know exactly what sort of expansion in infrastructure is needed until those assessments are made. We already acknowledge that in circumstances like those at Wadeye, where a lot more people suddenly turn up for school, we do need to have those pieces of infrastructure in place. Again, a fundamental part of our answer is in the partnership approach with the Northern Territory. We are discussing the circumstances with the Northern Territory, because they are responsible for providing those materials, and they have said that they will supply those materials. We will stand there and be ready to increase our contribution, but we have already made an offer and a contribution in terms of infrastructure.
That is a question I might have to take on notice. I am not really sure. That is obviously a policy decision. I am not aware that the decision about how they would go about funding the schools has been relayed back to us from the Northern Territory government—whether it is the average census or how this changes that—but I am happy to take that on notice and try to get back to you very shortly.
This has been an ongoing problem, Minister. It was identified in those inquiries that I have mentioned already that the Senate has undertaken. It has been brought to the attention of the Commonwealth for at least six years. I think that was the first year in which we did an inquiry into Indigenous education, so it has been a well-understood problem. I am surprised that it has not been at the forefront of your negotiations with the Northern Territory minister.
There are many places in the Northern Territory that have primary schools but do not have secondary schools anywhere near those communities. I know you have in the appropriations bills some money for boarding schools, but it would appear that this is not going to be an option for all students of secondary school age. Can you give the committee a guarantee that there will be a secondary school available to all students where there is currently a primary school?
Perhaps I could start with the last question first. No, I am not in a position to guarantee that. You would be aware of the arrangements between the Commonwealth and the states and territories with regard to the funding of schools. The Commonwealth assists, not through my department or the minister’s department but through the Department of Education, Science and Training. We would see that those arrangements would continue. But, no, I am not a position to guarantee that wherever there is a primary school we are going to build a high school.
On the question I took on notice, we would see enrolment rather than attendance as a basis for the provision of funding for the schools. I think we would all accept that that is going to be a lot fairer, certainly on the schools in terms of some of the planning. At least with the enrolment we know we can plan and budget rather than relying on fluctuating attendance levels. There was one other question and I have been informed that the answer to it is yes, but, frankly, I think it would be better if you could repeat the question.
I would, Minister, just repeat the urgency of dealing with this question of secondary schools because there are many quite large communities where there is a full and functioning primary school but when students reached secondary school level there is nowhere for them to go. I have been into schools where 14- and 15-year-olds are in classrooms with primary school students because they want to keep learning but there is no option for them to go to a secondary school. I am surprised that this is not central to what you are doing. You appear to be very concerned about those young people who are not employed and have no occupation and not a very good education. One of the reasons they do not have a good education is that there is no education facility for them. There may be a primary school but, as I said, in many communities I have been into there is quite a large community of secondary school age students but no provision whatsoever for educating them. If this whole approach is going to work and we are going to improve the economies of Aboriginal communities then it seems to me this is fundamentally important. I am surprised you do not have a grasp of the extent of the problem, and some sort of solution to fix it.
I acknowledge that the circumstances you describe exist, Senator. As you would be aware, the provision of schooling in the Northern Territory is the responsibility of the Northern Territory government. We are aware that this intervention may put more pressure on those processes and we will continue to be in discussions with the Northern Territory about how they are dealing with their responsibilities in the provision of secondary schooling for Territorians.
I just make the point that, just as the Little children are sacred report did not reveal for first time the extent of the abuse in Aboriginal communities, it has been well known for the whole of the 11 years of this government, and no doubt for the governments before that, that the Northern Territory has not been providing adequate education for Indigenous students—not even remotely adequate education. The Commonwealth and the states reach agreement over funding for schools, and it shocks, amazes and disappoints me that so little has been done to deal with this problem. The usual excuse that is trotted out is that this is a state and territory issue and it is not something the Commonwealth has jurisdiction over. Well, we know the Commonwealth can intervene in whatever it likes. It funds schools and, in my view, it should have used its leverage of funding to extract from state and territory governments a decent education system for Indigenous students.
It is entirely the responsibility of governments, in my view, that education is so poor in Aboriginal communities. It is because there are no resources there. It is because schools are equipped for a much smaller number of kids than should be there. In the case of secondary school, it just is not available in so many areas. I do not know so much about Western Australia but I do know a bit about Queensland and the Northern Territory. It is a national disgrace that the Commonwealth can have a role to oversee education and ignore this problem, as it has done for decades.
I think a response to that will require the minister to give the numbers that he alluded to earlier that are in the government’s knowledge—the number of children who are not attending schools who should be there and how many places will need to be created in schools in the Northern Territory to facilitate full attendance by the full population of school aged children in the Territory, both at primary and secondary level, right through to the end of secondary education age. I ask the minister if he can provide those and, if he cannot now, to get those figures overnight. Also, I ask if he can give an indication of the size of the program needed to provide those schools, what the cost will be and what the time line is for the government to meet the responsibility it is taking on here to ensure that every child has a place in a properly equipped classroom with numbers commensurate with those in other states and jurisdictions so that their education cannot be anything short of the education being given to children elsewhere in the country. This is now the Commonwealth responsibility. Senator Allison has talked about the long knowledge the government has had of the failure to provide proper education facilities for Indigenous people in the Northern Territory. The government has now taken that aboard. We have to say this is a good thing that this provision is being made. But let us have the numbers, the cost and the time line.
Finally, on a matter that was canvassed a little earlier about the unsatisfactory school attendance situation and a formal warning being given to people which will lead to financial penalty: will that be given in their first language?
On the second question first, I understand that is the reason that Centrelink provide a personal interview situation for that. They ensure that they are able to provide it in a language that is understood.
That is not always the language of choice. It is the language that the individual uses. I am not trying to get around it but I am not sure about the term ‘first language’. But it is the language that person is most familiar with this—yes, that is clearly the intent, Senator.
I do not have to take the other question on notice. The Northern Territory government have told us that 2,500 are not attending school and 2,000 are not enrolled in school. They go on to say that it is not only their responsibility, and not the Commonwealth’s responsibility, but that they believe they are in a position to be able to fulfil the requirements of 2,500 people now attending and 2,000 enrolling and then attending. They say that they are in a position to meet that demand.
Sitting suspended from midnight to 9.30 am
The Greens will not be opposing that motion, but there has been a move to suspend the committee and I want to take the opportunity here to say that if we are going to have a sitting on a Friday then it is important that we be able to deal with the issues of the day—and one that is very important and that we ought to be discussing is the Prime Minister’s move overnight for an arrangement with the Indian government to export Australia’s uranium to that country, which has not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. We ought to have in this circumstance the ability to move an amendment to that motion, and I am considering that, to discuss just that matter. What we have is the Prime Minister of this country flaunting international law to export Australian uranium to India, which frees up Indian uranium to be put into nuclear weapons. They have rockets which shortly will be able to reach Australia. This is the Prime Minister who is going to export uranium to China, which has rockets which can reach Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. This is the Prime Minister who next month will sign an agreement with President Putin, of all people, to sell Australian uranium to that autocracy—which in turn is selling nuclear equipment to Iran and possibly Burma.
We are debating the motion that the committee sit at a later hour. What I am saying is that with the change being mooted here—the motion that the committee sit later—we should take the opportunity to discuss the Prime Minister’s move overnight to breach international law and to make this world a less-safe place in terms of the future of this country and indeed the whole planet. President Putin has mooted the exchange of nuclear technology with Iran, of all places, and the military junta of Burma. John Howard is feeding uranium into that process. He wants 25 nuclear power stations in Australia. I note that he is not having referenda on those. But, to make some money for some of his mates in the mining industry, he is prepared to put the safety of Australia—and, indeed, this very fraught planet—on the line.
I remind the Senate of Professor Ian Lowe’s calculation that, even with the increased price of uranium, uranium exports from Australia will bring us less income than cheese exports. But the outcome can be much more dangerous—the outcome is that we will be facilitating the building of nuclear weapons in India. We free up their uranium for that. We will be facilitating the increasing arsenal—already standing at 200 nuclear weapons—of China. We free up their uranium for that. We will be facilitating the spread of nuclear technology from Russia. That is what President Putin is committed to doing. So we have this Prime Minister going into an arrangement with an increasingly dangerous suite of nuclear states. What is he going to do next? Will he be exporting uranium to Pakistan? They have requested it. This is a Prime Minister who takes his cue from President Bush every time. President Bush says, ‘I’ll sell $5 billion worth of nuclear technology to India.’ President Bush says, ‘And it’s okay for you, John Howard, to export uranium.’ There you go.
We have an interjection about the communists. Yes, John Howard is trading with the communists. We say, ‘Don’t do it.’ He is saying, ‘Beijing, here we come with Australian uranium.’ Who is to say what the political outcome will be later this century?
This is a Prime Minister who has lost his sense of long-term commitment to the wellbeing of this nation of Australia. This is a Prime Minister who has a greater connection with the big end of town than he has with the younger generation of Australians who are going to have to live with the results of this. This is a Prime Minister who has failed to make us the environmentally advanced country that we should be, with the renewable energy technology that we should have, exporting that safely to the rest of the world, which wants to substitute the climate change fraught energy options with those which are safe.
As we go into this break, we not only have the Prime Minister taking over the Northern Territory communities without consultation with the Indigenous people but have him taking his cue from George Bush on putting uranium into an unsafe world. We object to that. We do not agree with that. If he is going to find one supporter in this country in this matter of increased exports of uranium, he will find it in Kevin Rudd. Kevin Rudd says, ‘Thank goodness, not with India, because it has not signed the non-proliferation treaty, but yes, we’ll tick off on China and we’ll tick off on Russia.’ The Greens say: we want a safer world than that. We think there are values other than money for a few uranium miners—and that includes the future safety of this planet and this country.
Question agreed to.
SOCIAL SECURITY AND OTHER LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (WELFARE PAYMENT REFORM) BILL 2007
I would like to ask a few questions, if I may, around this specific provision as it relates to appeals. I know limiting people’s appeal rights to an internal review under part 3B of the Social Security (Administration) Act limits the rights of those people that are under the income management regime in the Northern Territory. Does that mean all their rights of appeal as they relate to anything that happens to their income support are covered under this clause? Does that mean they do not have the same appeal rights if they are breached and get an eight-week non-payment period?
As I understand it—just for completeness—whilst it is the same regime, one regime deals with the management in terms of attendance and the other is in terms of the child or neglect, where somebody has identified an issue from a social worker. The appeal processes are separate. In the first there is simply a Centrelink officer at officer level. They are able then to seek review by the Federal Court under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977. I understand that in the second case—in the case concerning the child protection income management regime—a person would be able to appeal the decision under the new part 3B to an authorised review officer, then the Social Security Appeals Tribunal and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. That is the difference between the two schemes.
So limiting those appeal rights to internal review only applies to those who are on the income management regime in the Northern Territory—in the prescribed areas? Can I take it from your answer that it just applies if it relates to child neglect and school attendance? I thought the NT stuff applied to anybody in those prescribed areas.
As everybody is under income management in the prescribed areas, it therefore surely applies to everybody in those prescribed areas. Therefore, if you are in those areas and subject to an income management regime—other than if you are exempt; I appreciate that—surely it applies to all those areas. So, if you have been breached for whatever reason, do you still get your full suite of appeal rights?
The Greens oppose schedules 1 to 3 as follows:
This essentially covers all of the substantive areas of the bill. I have some questions for the minister around a number of the provisions that we have not explored yet. Regarding CDEP, I think we have established fairly well, both in the chamber and in the inquiry process, that, though the numbers vary, there are about 7,000 people on Community Development Employment Projects who will be moved to income support or Work for the Dole. As I understand it, and there is some dispute over the figures, there are around 2,000 to 2,500 real jobs. I want to know what will be done to assist those approximately 4,000 to 5,000 people who are moving from CDEP to income support not only to find jobs but also to address the gap in income, because, as we identified during the inquiry, there will be a decrease by approximately $76 million in CDEP from the DEWR budget. According to an answer to a question I asked on notice, around $46.9 million is being put into income support. That is a difference of around $30 million that is coming directly out of the pockets of Aboriginal people in these areas. I would like to know how that issue is being addressed, because that is a fairly substantial amount of money.
Senators will no doubt be aware that there are a number of CDEP positions in many of these communities that I think everybody acknowledges are full-time positions—and those people should not be there. So we are moving those people. If it is a Commonwealth position and it should be paid for by the Commonwealth, it needs to be a full-time position, not a CDEP training position with top-up. In the last budget the Commonwealth committed significant sums of money to pay for that. We would expect it will be the same for those people being paid for local government positions—and for the Northern Territory government, which has people in those communities. Those people who are employed on CDEP to do a job that should be full time will be transferred to those jobs.
The remaining cohort will move from CDEP to income support, with the provision of employment services. There will be literacy training and job preparation and training, as well as access to the STEP program, which in effect is how CDEP was originally intended. That is the suite of options that people will have, but, principally, much of that cohort will move to income support and employment service providers, with a whole suite of training initiatives to ensure that they can move into employment.
I understand that. We are talking about the 2,000 real jobs. Are the 2,000 real jobs that we are talking about the ones that have been identified by the Commonwealth as the currently CDEP funded jobs that should be properly funded?
I am not sure; I may be able to seek some further advice on it. I am not entirely sure whether the 2,000 includes the three jurisdictions of local government, Northern Territory government and Commonwealth government or whether that is just the Commonwealth number. Perhaps I will take that on notice.
I would appreciate that; thank you. There are also jobs in the community funded under CDEP that in fact are not Commonwealth. They may not be classed as local government jobs but they are jobs in communities—for example, art centres that are funded by communities but only function because they are receiving CDEP. A lot of communities, as you know, depend on those jobs for some key services. How is it envisaged that those jobs will be funded from now on? I have received a number of letters, and I am sure you have as well, from communities expressing concern that, once CDEP goes, they will not be able to fund those positions any longer—and they are not necessarily Commonwealth positions. How do you intend dealing with those positions?
I think it is all about organisations taking responsibility for their employees, from whom they gain either a great deal of service or a range of profitability, as in any business. Yes, a number of art centres have enjoyed subsidised workers—I think it is reasonable to say that that is the case, Senator. But, most importantly, those are training positions and there is a reasonable expectation that, after 12 months access to a subsidised training position, the employer, which would be an arts centre, would have a plan to move that individual from a training position to a full-time position.
I know we are all tired, so I will try not to get too frustrated about this. But, Minister, as you know—and I am sure many other people know—the rhetoric is all very well but there is in fact not the money to do that. It became plain through the Senate committee inquiry on arts and craft, which we have been talking about throughout this debate, that the arts centres provide many services beyond what would be classed as running as an arts centre. Essentially, they are multifunctional centres. They provide community support, they provide a broad range of training, they support artists—they do all sorts of things beyond just administering the arts centres. That is very well known. So it is all very well for the rhetoric to say that they should be moving on, but the fact is that the money is not there to do that at the moment.
I am using arts centres as an example. There are other services that communities provide based on CDEP as well, and you know as well as I do that it is all very well to say that they should be profitable et cetera, but the fact is that, at the moment, they are not and it is very difficult for them to get there. So communities are going to suffer when the CDEP money goes from those organisations if there is not something to help there. I am glad that the Commonwealth has identified those 2,000 jobs, and, while I am on my feet, I ask: are all the Commonwealth positions that are currently supported by CDEP going to be replaced by full-time positions?
I will answer your last question first, Senator. That is correct. All of the jobs will be replaced with full-time jobs, and we would encourage the other jurisdictions to provide the same leadership. Before I go towards giving you some comfort about those circumstances that I know you are very aware of, Senator, it is important to note that one of the reasons that there is not a bigger capacity in places like arts centres and all those sorts of things is that they are very comfortable where they are because they have this access. They do need to start thinking about their responsibility to move people forward. That is something that is clearly signalled and that we all need to think about.
Despite that, there are going to be a large number of Work for the Dole programs. So, in terms of having an increased capacity to continue to deliver a range of services, the Work for the Dole programs will be available and they will be vastly increased. It should also be noted that there is a net increase in the total services funding of $23.3 million. In terms of the employment programs, there will be a significant impact on ensuring people get that upskilling and a general support network within those communities. But we recognise the importance of the circumstances in the communities with regard to the CDEPs. We do need some sort of a Work for the Dole program, and the Work for the Dole programs will be vastly expanded.
To follow up on that, is the $23.3 million for service funding meant for the STEP program and those sorts of funding programs? Thank you: I can see somebody nodding. My next question goes back to an issue that we identified during the arts inquiry—and I am using arts centres as an example because it is one that we have just been dealing with—which is that some arts centres, because of their area, the access to the artists and all sorts of things, are much more able to cope with moving down to a profitable outcome, and some—because of their areas et cetera—cannot. If I remember correctly without having the recommendations in front of me, we recommended, and certainly discussed, funding being made available to identify centres that are able to make that jump more quickly. Is that something that the government would consider to help identify organisations that need some extra support to be able to become profitable, to be self-supporting and to do exactly what you have been talking about?
You have basically encapsulated in your question exactly what we are doing. There are a number of organisations that may be on the cusp of becoming profitable. We want to ensure that those supported businesses become real businesses. When I say ‘real businesses’ I mean that they employ people on real wages. There is an expectation that the employee will be able to supply a whole suite of products, like reliability, certainty of outcome and productivity around those things that I know they will have to supply to be in a real business. So the whole nature of that relationship will have to change. But there are many businesses in Indigenous communities, particularly in the arts area, that are at that stage, and we are determined to ensure that they can move to being real businesses. Many people on CDEP have not actually been in training; they are just there or at work. So we will be providing structured training through the STEP program. And, as I have said, there will be an expansion of Work for the Dole.
I am trying not to drag this out, and I thank you for your answers, Minister. I want to go back to the difference between the money that is coming out of CDEP and the money that is now going into income support. On my calculations, it is a difference of $30 million, and that is coming directly out of the pockets of people in the communities. To me, that seems like an awful lot of money. Is that really what is happening? How is the government making up the difference between income support for people and CDEP?
I understand that we have a transition payment. I think that is the best way to look at how we will provide for that gap. In getting some details with regard to the transition payment, I was informed that for a 12-month period we will be ensuring that the gap, or the difference, between what they would have got on CDEP and the training wage will be filled. So, effectively, there will not be a change for a 12-month period. That is to ensure that we maintain income support for that transitional period of around 12 months.
I want to ask the minister: seeing as this is a national emergency that is being dealt with and that there is to be this massive restructuring of the opportunities available to people who do not have work, what is the reskilling regime to be for those people? Work for the Dole has the connotation of taking people to do work that does not involve reskilling. That would be a lost opportunity because a lot of these people will be young and facing a lifetime ahead. They have lost opportunities through the education system up to now. What is the emergency opportunity being given to all people who are being taken off the CDEP to be reskilled to go into a worthwhile job that actually capitalises on their potential?
I think we all need to recognise that opportunities do exist in communities at the moment. We have identified a whole suite of jobs as part of this process and said: ‘This is a job here. This is needed. Why don’t we have someone here?’ There are opportunities in communities. We have identified some 3,000 job positions that are required. As I mentioned earlier, we have a net increase in the total services funding for Job Network providers of some $23.3 million for 2007-08. The Work for the Dole program is not simply about working for the dole; there are circumstances around that—particularly on-the-job training opportunities, competency based learning opportunities and preparation to understand the requirements of the workplace. Work for the Dole is not just leaning on a shovel and tapping your foot. If it is structured and supervised, it can be a very positive time that prepares people for the workplace in a whole range of ways. It might be on occupational health and safety or language. There are a whole range of ways in which people can be prepared for the workplace. There are jobs available in communities and we have a suite of funding deliverables and training initiatives that we have put in place to ensure that we can put people into those jobs.
Indeed. We have a literacy and numeracy package of some $5 million. It is targeted at both literacy and numeracy because they are both essential in the workplace. We have $1.3 million specifically for the English language.
Yes, but the question is: will all the people being taken off the CDEP be given access to the $5 million program that you just spoke about? There is a disjunction between those two things. I want to know that they are going to meet up wherever a person who has been taken off the CDEP is and that they are going to be able to gain that literacy and numeracy in their own community and not just be put into a job where the prospect of being able to do something better to tap into their potential is not available because they will not be given the catch-up that is required because of lost educational opportunities.
As the senator would appreciate, you cannot just throw a one-sized net across a challenge and fix it all. We need to respect that each individual will have different needs. Some have high literacy and numeracy skills. Each individual will be assessed against a range of benchmarks that will give us an indication of exactly what sort of training they require. It will be done on an individual basis. Anybody who needs literacy and numeracy training will receive it.
I just wonder if, at the other end of the spectrum, the government is looking at the opportunities available in Western Australia and elsewhere where there is a skills shortage to give those people who do have literacy and numeracy skills the ability to skill-up to go to very high paying jobs where their skills will be very much in demand. Has the government looked at that opportunity?
We are working with a number of industries and we have mobility programs to ensure that people can move to where some jobs are—particularly in the mining industry. Just so we do not confuse people who have not been in the debate, this is about the Northern Territory. The CDEP arrangements are in the Northern Territory and not outside of it, so the changes we are talking about will simply be in the Northern Territory.
I think the bulk of people will not want to move, but there may be some who want to take up the opportunity of lucrative vacancies that are available, for example, in Western Australia. Components of this legislation are about the Northern Territory. Other components, such as household surveillance and the draconian coercive powers of the Australian Crime Commission, intrude into Aboriginal communities right across Australia—from Tasmania to Broome—so the government should not be too precious about that. There are estimates of 5,000 to 10,000 people being taken off CDEP and put elsewhere. The point is that that is a one-size-fits-all move. The government is saying, ‘We are going to make a big move on that.’ And so the government has a responsibility to make sure that people move to something better, more productive and—I would say—more lucrative for the work that they produce as a result of it. The CDEP move has the hallmarks of being punitive. It ought not to be. It ought to be aimed at making sure that the individuals involved end up better off.
I would like to ask a few questions about how the payments under the income management regime will work. I put a few questions on notice and got some very short answers. My understanding is that at the moment a decision has not been made by the government on exactly how the income support regime is going to work. I asked whether or not there was going to be a voucher system and you still had not worked out the answer, although I think that one of the answers I got said that the community store would have a voucher system. Given the mobility of people in the Northern Territory, how is it envisaged that the voucher system will work at the community store if people are moving around—when people are visiting other people, for example?
The senator is correct when she asserts in her question that the voucher system will be available in the communities. Because the facilities in each community are going to be different, we are going to have to tailor this program around the differences in those communities. In terms of mobility, we are looking at a suite of issues. We are speaking with the finance sector and with the retail sector, and, with the assistance of Mr Corbett and others who have a great deal of expertise in this area, we are formulating processes so that people will have access that reflects the mobility of people on the program. We will be ensuring that the program will reflect, in the different range of stores that the voucher system will be provided for, the mobility and flexibility needed.
How long will it take to work out that process? I appreciate that, as I understand it, you are rolling these out into areas on a progressive basis. When do you envisage it happening, and what level of consultation will be carried out to ensure that the system is actually going to work? There is evidence from overseas that it has not worked. I am aware that it took the Tangentyere Council in Alice Springs quite a while to get the Centrepay system that they currently operate there to work. When they first got it running they found that it was very difficult to operate it with the major retail chains. Do you intend to enter into some sort of relationship with some of the major retail chains as well, and are you considering going to a private operator to operate this sort of system?
There are discussions underway at the moment, particularly with some of the large stores in Alice Springs, but I am informed that the timing, in terms of the preparation, will be two to three weeks. We have reflected on the existing arrangements that you mentioned and other arrangements and we have a great deal of benefit from hindsight. I am sure that will be reflected in the rollout of the current arrangements.
I would still like to address the issue of consultation. From your answer, I take it that you are talking to retail chains. Are you talking to communities to get an idea of how they think this sort of system will best work and what they need to make it work?
I have touched on the fact that we are dealing with this individual community by individual community. We are not going to be rolling this out in any community until these arrangements are in place. We are speaking and consulting with the communities as to how best to achieve that. It is going to be an ongoing rollout. I think the most important thing to say is that we do not want to say, ‘Right, this program is now in place,’ and find that the financial aspects are not there. The commitment is that we will not be moving to the program in a community until those arrangements are effective, in place and well understood.
My understanding from the committee inquiry is that running this system will cost $88 million in the first year. How did you come to that figure, and, as it is anticipated that that is for the first 12 months, how much is it likely to cost into the future if the minister decides to extend it?
Those costings are based on the normal costing processes, but the costing process revolves around the costs for the operation including the Centrelink staff, the interview process—all the processes that hang off that. I understand that that is how the figure of $88 million was arrived at.
I must admit I have been focusing just on theNT component of this. The $88 million is purely for the rollout of this in the NT. The rest of the income management regime, as it extends beyond the Northern Territory, will be rolled out in 2008. Has the government done any costing of the rollout into communities beyond the Northern Territory, because that means rolling out across Australia?
The $88 million will pay for all of the interviews in the Northern Territory, for the period of 12 months. In terms of approximations of costings beyond that, we are working on those matters at the moment, as you would understand. The first 12 months and the rollout in the Northern Territory are our priority.
Sorry; I may have misheard you. So the $88 million covers the cost of the interviews for the first 12 months and it includes the Centrelink staff, the cost of the interviews and setting up the system. Would that be a correct assumption?
I want to explore very briefly the process for extending this beyond the Northern Territory. The questions I was asking you before were dealing specifically with the Northern Territory. Now I want to explore how it is going to roll out across the rest of Australia. Is it anticipated that, because it is obviously different in the rest of Australia, you would have a relationship with some major retail stores to facilitate the voucher system or the process? Would people have to go and shop in specific shops—or whatever system you come up with—to be able to use the money that is in their account that has been quarantined?
Whilst there have been some discussions with major retailers over a suite of issues, this is just in the exploration stage. We are having discussions and planning and developing strategies to deal with that. That is the stage we are up to at the moment and I am unable to provide any further details.
Obviously, the reason I am asking this is that this is a very significant change to our welfare system in Australia. I have certainly been presented with information that indicates that there is no information to prove that these types of programs are successful. I have had great doubt expressed to me about, for example, the provisions as they relate to school attendance. I have seen some compelling evidence that shows that this is a fairly blunt instrument to encourage kids to go to school, for a variety of reasons. I am surprised, therefore, that you cannot yet tell us how this system is going to operate and how you are going to make sure it is refined enough, because it is a fairly blunt instrument, to achieve your ends. I have been told that there is little evidence to suggest that making school attendance a condition of receipt of income support has improved school attendance. In fact, as I understand it, the trial that was done in Halls Creek was not particularly successful. We are very concerned that these are blunt instruments that are not going to be successful. To my mind there is a lack of evidence to demonstrate that they are going to achieve their aims, and there is a gross lack of detail about how these are going to operate. You can appreciate that there are a lot of people out there that are extremely concerned about how these systems are going to operate and concerned that they will have a negative impact in many of the communities. I went through some of those impacts yesterday when I went through the impact of the special measures and what HREOC was saying. You will be aware, Senator, that many of the social justice and welfare organisations in this country are very concerned about this program—I think, quite rightly—and are asking a whole lot of questions about how it is going to be implemented, what your benchmarks are and where the evidence is to say this is going to work.
As I indicated, this is still part of the construction phase, but we have had numerous organisations and individuals come to us with suggestions and sophisticated potential solutions. We think that we can provide an appropriate system. We have a high level of confidence that the system will provide the outcomes that we require. Some of the larger retailers, certainly Coles and Woolworths, have offered their assistance with the sorts of systems that will ensure that the strategy that we do adopt will be successful.
Can I go back to a question I asked earlier. I apologise; I may have missed your answer with all the other answers you have been giving me. Is it envisaged that you would go into a relationship with somebody to administer this program or is it the government’s intention for it to remain administered by Centrelink?
In the construct of these future programs, we are not setting aside any options or possibilities. As I said, we have a whole suite of options. Some of them are reflected in other jurisdictions and some are from private enterprise. There are a whole suite of things, and I do not think it is appropriate to say we are certainly not going to do this or that. We have an open mind on these matters and I think that is appropriate for this stage of consideration.
So at the moment we do not know how the rollout of the income regime across the rest of Australia is going to be implemented, and we do not know what it is going to cost, because the only costing that we have at the moment is the $88 million for the first year. We do not know how much it is going to cost to roll it out, who is going to operate it or how it is going to operate. This place is being asked to approve this and tick it off to say, ‘Yeah, this is a really good way of reforming our welfare system,’ when we do not know how much it is going to cost, what its impact will be, who is providing it or how it is going to be provided.
To assist generally with the information, the Australian government has indicated that approved non-government service providers may be used to assist with case managing those who are subject to the national income management regimes.
I appreciate that I am not going to get much further on this one. I want to backtrack just a little—I promise it will be for only a very short time. I want to ask about the appeal, where you said to me that people on the eight-week breach regime will not be caught up by the no-appeal system. Could somebody point out to me where that is in the legislation? I have spent time going through it and I apologise that I cannot find it. If somebody could point it out, I would really appreciate it.
... a decision under Part 3B of this Act that relates to a person who is subject to the income management regime undersection 123UB.
That is the part I have been reading. If you turn to 113UB, which sets out who comes under the income management regime, can you explain how it does not include people who have been breached and incurred a non-payment period?
For clarity, I am seeking more information, but again, if the issues are associated with income management, then it is a Centrelink officer with the appeal through the Federal Court; if it is any other regime, you have the full suite of appeals including the Social Security Appeals Tribunal and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
It may sound as though I am being pedantic but it is a really important point. There are 1,644 people who have been breached and incurred eight weeks non-payment period in the last 12 months. It has gone up by 250 per cent and we know that Aboriginal people already are having trouble accessing their appeals. There is a special support appeals process for Aboriginal people. From anecdotal evidence in some of the answers to questions I asked earlier, I know that they are not accessing that appeals process for a variety of reasons. Given that there is a such a significant increase under Welfare to Work of the number of Aboriginal people being breached, this is a really important point. If people cannot appeal when they have been breached, that has a very serious, detrimental impact on them, their families and their community. That is why I am being so particular about trying to find out about this. The way I read it is that, if you are under an income management regime, I cannot see why you are not breached. That is why I want to make sure it is really clear that people absolutely can appeal if they are breached and incur a non-payment period.
I would like to take the opportunity here, because there is not one elsewhere, to ask the minister about a report by Ashleigh Wilson and Patricia Karvelas in today’s Australian which says that:
... 850 indigenous children have received health checks across—
20 communities in—
The operational commander of the taskforce, Major General David Chalmers, revealed yesterday that the checks had uncovered a range of medical concerns, including high levels of dental problems and skin, ear, nose and throat infections.
But Major General Chalmers said he was not aware of health workers notifying authorities of any cases of child sexual assault.
No allegations of abuse have been passed to Territory police since the intervention began.
When Mr Brough announced this national emergency, it was on the basis of the threat to children. That is a real threat and the figures used in this debate point to that. I quote from his press release of 21 June 2007:
The emergency measures to protect children being announced today are a first step that will provide immediate mitigation and stabilising impacts in communities that will be prescribed ... The measures include:
… … …
Introducing compulsory health checks for all Aboriginal children to identify and treat health problems and any effects of abuse.
Not discounting the devastating impact of child abuse in all communities in Australia—it happens in Canberra, in Sydney and in the Northern Territory—wasn’t the minister, on a racial basis, making a point of child abuse, which he overdid, to facilitate the argument for his intervention? As a result, the whole Indigenous community in Australia has suffered. He said that the point here was to have compulsory health checks. These were held up as an immediate need. We had pictures of doctors with stethoscopes going to the Northern Territory to check children ‘to identify any effects of abuse’—to quote the minister. And the first 850 checks have found zero effects of abuse.
Having been a doctor myself, I understand that, if it does not turn up in the history, you are unlikely to find the abuse, because you are not going to look for it. But on the day this announcement was made I also made it clear that it would be a breach of medical ethics and of the law to compulsorily examine children—those were the terms being used—for sexual abuse. Has the minister had time to review the overstatement and the abuse of Indigenous people right across the country that came out of those statements to proceed with this measure that the government wanted to proceed with, and all the things we have been talking about in this parliament going ahead anyway because the government has got the numbers to do it?
I ask the minister: didn’t his colleague Mal Brough make a very unfortunate mistake in the up-front assertion that there was an urgent need for compulsory health checks of all Aboriginal children—not others, but Aboriginal children—to identify any effects of sexual abuse? In fact, those checks have not discovered sexual abuse. Other means, like policing, are required to discover that. What appalled me about this process was the language used and the implications in the language used to brand Indigenous Australians in this way. I think it was reprehensible and regrettable. It was not needed. The government has the outcome.
The point here was that for the first time the Commonwealth moved to put an enormous amount of money compared to past times—not enough yet—into giving the health services, the education facilities, the community services and the upgrading of housing that are required to help Indigenous people to overcome the enormous disadvantage of neglect by governments at territory, state and federal level over decades. We agree with the government putting the resources at last where they are needed.
What I disagreed with from the outset was Minister Brough using the matter of sexual abuse, which has to be attacked wherever it is—in non-Indigenous or Indigenous communities. I give those figures again of 34,000 reportable cases of child abuse in the last year for which there are statistics, some 6,000 relating to Indigenous communities. That is a disproportionate amount, but nevertheless we are in the situation where the laws here are going to allow the invasion of people’s homes and the surveillance of Indigenous people but not of white people. Sexual abuse of children, wherever it occurs, has the same destructive impact on people’s lives. I think it was enormously unfortunate that Mr Brough and the Prime Minister used that one measurement of distress in Indigenous communities to try and win over the political support that was required for the measures that are going through this parliament today—regrettable and unnecessary. A real concern for Indigenous Australians would not have allowed it to be pitched that way.
I have not read the Australian this morning. It is terrific to see—if the indications of the health checks are as you say—that perhaps things are not as bad as the Little children are sacred report indicated. We would all hope that is the case, though I suspect it is not. Senator Brown, you are a doctor and I am not, so again you may be across the indicators of neglect and abuse. This is a necessary process to have a benchmark for the health of young Australians. The parents have welcomed that. Australia welcomes that. The suite of initiatives that this government is providing through these provisions is going to make the lives of Australians in those communities much better. Just living under the veil of safety; feeling happy, safe and comfortable in your own home; and actually having a home that you do not have to share with so many people—the infrastructure issues—are all very positive aspects that are supported by all Australians.
I do not want to get into a bunfight with you about your philosophies. We accept you have made it very clear that you accept we should be doing most of the things we are doing, except in this place every amendment you have collapses and scuttles the bills completely. I have a difficulty and I am sure Australia has a difficulty in understanding how you can stand in this place and say: ‘Senator Scullion, I support everything this government is doing. We think they’re good things. We think they’re overdue. But every amendment we put forward completely scuttles everything, with the exception of the alcohol restriction and a couple of other minor areas.’ Effectively, the provisions that you seek to wipe from this bill wipe out any real impact. I have a bit of cynicism, Senator, that you are fair dinkum about this. Any glance at or scrutiny of the amendments you have put forward shows your attempts to scuttle the bill. I find that a little inconsistent.
You are newer in this place than I am, Senator Scullion. You have to understand that when a sledgehammer is brought in you have a choice of going with it or going against it. This is sledgehammer legislation but there are good components to it. We are making it very clear that long before you came to this place we supported and were calling for the services that should be given to Indigenous Australians—for example, the half a billion dollars a year that is required to help close that 17-year gap in life expectancy that advantages non-Indigenous Australians over Indigenous Australians. To close that longevity gap would cost approximately half a billion dollars according the AMA, and there is a move in that direction but it is not in this legislation.
Let me go back to the point I was making. We absolutely support children having medical checkups as part of that program. As the task force commander, Major General Chalmers, revealed yesterday, the checks have uncovered a range of medical concerns including high levels of dental problems and skin, ear, nose and throat infections. It is long past time that the medical services that would fix those illnesses were available in these communities—for example, there are extraordinary statistics in relation to the loss of hearing because of ear infections in Indigenous communities. They largely come out of the failure to provide adequate medical advice—primary health care—and then treatment when the problems arise.
We have heard about the failure to provide adequate education facilities. There are thousands more places needed at schools if there are going to be the same attendance figures at these schools that we have elsewhere. But the point I am making here is that it would have been much better for the honourable Minister Brough to announce that he was going in to attack the dreadful statistics for Indigenous Australians dying young, not just in the Northern Territory but right across this country. You only have to look at the statistics in Redfern to see an example of that, fantastic though the medical services provided by the Indigenous community there are. Minister Brough did not use those statistics; he chose to pick on the equally appalling statistics of child sexual abuse—and so did the Prime Minister—as a fulcrum for this move.
All I am saying, because it needs to be put on the record, is that that was an extraordinarily damaging way to go about it. It was advantageous to the government but devastating for Indigenous communities. It was surely a political advantage for the government but a very great disadvantage for Indigenous Australians, who have enough to put up with in terms of the way in which they are publicly presented. I am glad that the medical interventions occurred, and I am glad that the high levels of health problems suffered by Indigenous children have been uncovered and will be fixed up. That is how it should have been decades ago, but now at last it is happening because the money and resources are being put in there. We did not need calumny about the Indigenous people to get this action going; that is my point. We cannot undo that now, but thinking about how Indigenous people are portrayed and their need for pride in self—the same need that all of us have—would have been a better way to go, from the outset. There is good coming out of this. I agree with Senator Scullion about that, and I congratulate the government for that, but it was most unfortunate the way that Minister Brough went about it and I hope he does not do that again.
I will briefly respond. I thank you for acknowledging that this is a good program and for recognising the work that the government is doing. I recognise that you also have problems with it. Senator Brown, this government and Minister Brough responded very responsibly in the discussions about why they were moving into the communities. They were responding to an independent report that indicated that there was widespread sexual abuse of children in the Northern Territory—I respect the issues that you have been talking about—and that is why it was declared a national emergency and we moved on it. Nobody is in disagreement about the circumstances that are there. As I said, I do not want to drag this matter on but I do not think I can leave the record unclarified. This was a response to sexual abuse of our most vulnerable First Australians. I am very proud of the government’s intervention in this matter.
It is harrowingly frustrating, given the fact that Indigenous Australians are dying 17 years younger than all other Australians due to a lack of medical care and facilities, proper housing and good education, that that was not seen as a national emergency a decade ago and that it took one of a number of reports on the plight of Indigenous children to trigger this. Mind you, the recommendations of the report on the plight of the children have been ignored in this process—the one on consultation with Indigenous people in particular—and too much of a political point has been made of the distress. We have yet to see how the government is going to handle that particular problem. Let me reiterate this: there are no facilities—zip—in Northern Territory jails, which currently house 900 people, a number of them for sexual offences, to help people overcome the problems which have put them into those jails. I hope the government is looking at that very difficult end of the process. Locking people up without helping them to take a different path into the future is a very wasteful exercise for society as a whole.
Bill agreed to.
Bills—by leave—taken together and as a whole.
I just have one question for the minister. I have many, but I will keep it to one; some of my questions were asked on notice in the Senate committee hearing. I want to get on the record whether the appropriation bills before us include funding for the extra Centrelink staff that will be required to do all the income quarantine management that we talked about earlier this morning and last night. How many extra staff are anticipated to be required for that role?
The extra Centrelink staff will come from the $88 million, as I indicated earlier. I do not have the numbers but I know that the anticipated number has been covered by the $88 million.
I am not able to validate whether your assertion is correct at this moment nor am I able to provide you with how much we spent on Indigenous affairs last year. It is a comprehensive question and I will have to take it on notice. I would also like to take the opportunity to correct a submission I made in reference to an earlier question. I want to clarify that the CDEP transition payment will continue until 30 June 2008, not, as I incorrectly stated, for 12 months.
Bills agreed to.
Bills reported without amendment; report adopted.