Senate debates

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

Third Reading

10:56 am

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

I move:

That these bills be now read a third time.

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

The Greens are pleased that there is a massive new awakening by government to the needs of Indigenous Australians. After decades of neglect, indifference and failure at state, territory and national levels, these measures bring to the forefront of Australian political concern the need to bring justice in the administration of taxpayers’ money and the allocation of resources to First Australians. We are particularly behind moves in this legislation to bring the much-needed health care, education, housing and security to Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory that have been so wanting for so long. My question a moment ago about underspending in last year’s budget—and if it is not $560 million it is an enormous amount of money—shows how rapidly the failure of government can, for right or wrong reasons, turn into a much more positive outcome.

The Greens will not be supporting this legislation, because the representations to us from Indigenous Australians are that they are being left out of the consultation and presentation of this legislation. That of itself ought to have changed. The government should have adopted not just the report into the plight of children in Indigenous communities and its findings but also the recommendations. It should have consulted with Indigenous people. It should have taken into account their pivotal role in determining their future.

The change that has occurred here of course is that the resources and the wherewithal are being supplied. But the harm from setting Indigenous people aside—not considering them, not consulting them and not intending to do so in the way that they want—will be ongoing. We also deplore the unnecessary racism in the way in which this legislation has been presented to this national parliament. Setting aside the Racial Discrimination Act was not necessary; but it has been set aside, and comprehensively, in breach of international and domestic mores. That debate has been had. We have opposed that. These acts all set aside the Racial Discrimination Act so that the imposition of the government’s will, through appointed people in communities who have total control over what Indigenous people do, in pursuit of the aims of this legislation is going to cause ongoing harm.

In this brief presentation I cannot go beyond one of the racist factors that are so salient here—that is, the use of the coercive powers of the Australian Crime Commission to invade the community and domestic rights of Indigenous people but not non-Indigenous people. In plain language, the government has devised those coercive powers for international drug traffickers, white-slavers and triads. Now, for the first time, they will be used in these communities in Australia. This is unnecessary because good policing, which has been denied to these communities, would do this job. This particular racist approach says: ‘If you’re black and involved in crimes of violence or abuse then the coercive and intrusive powers of the Australian Crime Commission may be used against you, whether you are in Redfern, Brisbane, Perth, Launceston or indeed the Northern Territory. But if you’re white and involved in the abuse of children or violence against others then the ACC cannot be used against you.’ That is the most flagrantly racist approach, and it is so unnecessary.

It is heartening, however, that in the first 850 medical check-ups of children it has been discovered that they are suffering from a range of maladies which can now be fixed because the resources have been put there. The minister’s initial asseveration that check-ups were for discovering child sexual abuse has been sensibly put aside, because that would have been an illegal approach—which ought to have been known by the government at the outset. No sexual abuse of children has been discovered in these first 850 check-ups. What is so good about this is that those children who have been found to have high levels of dental, skin, ear, nose or throat infections or problems can now be fixed up early and have a chance to have the same life expectancy that the rest of us have.

We Greens will continue, as we have done over the last 10 years in this place, to fight for a fair go for Indigenous Australians. This legislation moves towards giving the resources that are required here, but what it does not do is give rights to Indigenous Australians. It provides extraordinary government powers and for government imposed overseers in communities throughout the Northern Territory to supervise the government’s intentions in a way that no non-Indigenous community would accept outside overseas countries which have autocracies or worse. I put on the record here today that the government, through the minister, has made this commitment, and I quote the minister:

... what is our plan? At the end of five years these communities should enjoy the same level of law and order, the same level of housing and the same level of amenity that the rest of Australia enjoys. Will the land be given back at the end of that period ... Absolutely.

That is a commitment from the Howard government that we Greens will be pursuing right through the next five years. I give this other commitment. We will also be pursuing, because you cannot divorce these things, the right of Indigenous Australians to run their affairs; the right of Indigenous Australians to be decisive about where their lives are going and where their communities are going; and the right of Indigenous Australians to their culture—to their 60,000-plus years of heritage in this country, to their bond with the land which this legislation threatens so palpably, and to their beliefs, their culture and their aspirations—which is an important thing which has been left completely off the agenda in this legislation. These are things which this legislation undercuts because it does not take them into account. Surely we must also pursue their right to their language. This government has defunded language programs for Indigenous Australians at the same time as this legislation is before this parliament. That must be rectified because there can be no greater assault on people’s culture and wellbeing than to deny them their language and turn a living language into a dying or extinct language. We should not be allowing that to happen in Australia in 2007.

There is a plurality of views in this place. The opposition supports the government in this legislation; we oppose it. It is not because we opposed the funding and the measures for better care for Indigenous Australians, as I have said, but because it need not have been put in this way. It need not have sidelined Indigenous consultation. It need not have been after 10 years of inaction. However, we will be supporting the good outcomes while tackling this government and its discriminatory attitude to Indigenous Australians in the months and years ahead. We take that charge seriously. If a Rudd government is elected in November, we will be no less diligent in doing the best we can in a parliament which has no Aboriginal voice to do, through the Aboriginal community, as the message stick presented to this Senate said: “Sit down and talk with us. Take us into account. Ensure you listen, when dealing with Indigenous issues, to the Indigenous people and do not dispossess us again. After 200-plus years, do not dispossess us again.’ And there is too much dispossession in this legislation which was unnecessary.

It was a difficult decision whether to support or not support this legislation. In a government dominated Senate and with opposition support, the outcome will not be different. Call it symbolic if you will, but we strongly support the notion that, if we are going to debate issues this important to the First Australians, they should be taken into account all the way down the line. They have been dispossessed of their right to a voice in this process over the last two months or so. Our objection to that is very deep and very great and it will not go away.

11:09 am

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

It is important to note at the outset that throughout all of this debate, and indeed debate in the other place, there has been no Aboriginal voice present to be able to contribute. That remains a core problem for our parliament. Obviously none of us here can do anything about that at the moment. We need Indigenous voices present and playing a fundamental and key role in the debates that we have in this place when we are all talking about what needs to be done for them. Their not being able to have their voice present in this debate is a serious problem and something we still need to do a lot more about to tackle.

That makes it doubly disappointing that the one process that would have provided a genuine opportunity for the input of Indigenous voices—the Senate committee process—ended up being such a farcical and truncated process. We obviously did hear from a few Aboriginal representatives—nowhere near enough and for nowhere near long enough. Nonetheless, the Senate has at least through its debate here this week played a useful role in exploring some of the many, many issues—some of them quite complex—that are contained within this legislation.

There are five bills before us. I would indicate that the Democrats will support the two appropriation bills and I would ask that they be put separately when the final vote is taken. We do need more resources, of course. I am not convinced that all of the resources in those appropriation bills will be wisely spent, but certainly we are not going to in any way be standing in the way of those resources going into those communities. Of course, it must be emphasised that many things are happening, and many more things need to happen completely outside the specifics of the details of the other legislation we are dealing with here today and through this week.

However, the Democrats cannot support the other three pieces of legislation. We have tried to improve them throughout the week and make them workable, but we have not been successful. We did support them at the second reading stage because we wanted to genuinely engage with the process and see if we could make them workable, but we have not succeeded in that. I am not surprised we have not succeeded, but I think it was important to make the effort. Consequently, we cannot support them at this final stage. They each contain some measures that are completely unacceptable to the Democrats. The key reason why they are unacceptable is that we do not believe that they will work and I certainly have serious concerns, at least about some of them, that they could well cause further harm.

I am certainly happy to give plaudits when they are due to a politician from any party. I think my record shows that. I am quite prepared to acknowledge the priority and focus which the current minister for Indigenous affairs has given the area. I have for a long time called for all of us to give greater priority to the issues affecting Indigenous Australians. I would hope that this debate is not the start and finish of that—that we do maintain that priority for Indigenous peoples across Australia and on all of the issues of concern to them.

As one of a small number of senators—another is my Democrat colleague Senator Andrew Murray—I have called repeatedly in the Senate for much greater priority to be given to the protection of children. I also welcome the fact that the Indigenous affairs minister is seeking to do that. But, whilst it is important to welcome and acknowledge a determination to act, one cannot be expected to give plaudits to actions that I do not believe will work. Good intentions are not good enough. Ideological frolics or narrowly focused obsessions are no substitute for practical results and evidence based measures. Frankly, we still have not seen a lot of that. We have seen a lot of assertions but not a lot of evidence to demonstrate that these things will work. There is a lot of evidence around to detail why many of these things will not work, because a lot of these things are not new and have been tried before. Certainly we know the enormous damage that has been done in years gone by when governments have basically taken total control over the lives of Indigenous people, often with the best of intentions. I have great fear that the same will happen again.

Also disappointing is the attitude that is prevalent with Minister Brough in particular of that total certainty that he is 100 per cent right about everything and his complete inability, it appears, to listen to or even acknowledge other views. I certainly do not suggest that I or the Democrats have it all right; that is why it is all the more important that you seek to work together. Last night I mentioned the positive results that have been achieved by people working together on the issue of petrol sniffing, for example. We have not seen that here.

Again I draw the Senate’s attention to the very clear cut and quite specific comments made by people like Noel Pearson who are seen as being strong supporters of the government’s actions. He has said that this legislation ‘needs to be decisively improved in some crucial respects’, and that has not happened. He has said that it would be a ‘grave mistake’ for the federal government to be intransigent to amendments to this legislation—well, they have been. They have made a grave mistake and, unfortunately, the consequences of that grave mistake could mean quite a lot more significant harm to Indigenous Australians. I hope that does not happen. I hope that very quickly there will be recognition of the serious flaws here and that amendments will be made. I have no doubt that we will be back amending some of this legislation, possibly quite soon. I certainly hope amendments do come through to improve it, because that desperately needs to happen. But it has not happened here.

One thing I think Mr Brough was right in saying at the Press Club the other day was that if you actually do not think this will work then you should not support it. I understand why the Labor Party are taking the position they are taking, but I think it is a serious problem. There is no doubt that many in the Labor Party have serious concerns about the workability of this package, and so they should. At the end of the day you have to take a stand on what you think is right and whether the legislation will work or not. I do not think this will work. I think it is dangerous and damaging, and for those reasons I cannot support it. But I and the Democrats will continue to give priority to Indigenous issues, to follow through on what is happening here, to try and provide an avenue for voices to be heard and to encourage the government to listen.

I must mention the example of Minister Brough in the Press Club the other day, where he made comments when talking about the Little children are sacred report that I just find horrendously insulting. There was this continual suggestion that nobody else has done anything and that nobody else cares but him. He asked whether, come the Monday morning after the report was released and the parliament sat, he had heard any questions on this issue asked by the Democrats, the Greens or the opposition. ‘No,’ he said. I know he is in the House of Representatives and we are in the Senate—I think he has probably figured that out—but, as the minister here, Minister Scullion, would know, we quite specifically asked him a direct question. I made a very long late night adjournment speech on the issue and raised it in another speech. My colleagues also put out statements about it and any number of Indigenous and other groups around the country put out statements. I cannot speak for the other parties on that.

When you are getting that sort of slur in front of the entire press gallery at a Press Club function, saying that none of us even raised a peep when we were here directly asking the government ‘what are you going to do about it’ in parliament, apart from it really getting up my nose, understandably—that is neither here nor there; you get used to that stuff in this place—it is a suggestion that no-one is even hearing a word of. There is no recognition that anyone is even saying anything, even when you are asking questions directly in the parliament. To me that is an indication of just how incapable the minister is—certainly that minister; I am not reflecting on the minister in the chamber at the moment—of even knowing what other people are saying. That is the frustration. I said this in my opening comments. This is an issue where there is actually so much common ground. There is so much agreement about the need to do so much more and there is so much potential for people to work together. For the government to take an approach where they actually shun that and put big bazookas right in the middle of the common ground until they can blow it all away and people are stuck on either side of a great canyon is just such a tragedy and almost guarantees it will be a missed opportunity.

It makes it quite hard to sit in the middle ground when you have people firing bazookas from either side of the canyon, because you tend to cop them from everywhere, but I see that as a key part of our role—to continue to rebuild the common ground that is there and that desire that is there amongst Indigenous people. They are the ones who have been calling out for so long for strong action, priority, extra resources and support. The moment that you respond to their calls is not the moment when you should stop listening to them. Simply too much of that has happened. I see it as of key importance from here on in to make sure that that stops happening.

It is also a very unfortunate indication that there is a lot of politics being played here. Again I am talking about Minister Brough’s approach. In passing, I would note that Minister Scullion’s approach throughout this debate has actually been quite a positive one, I think, given the constraints within which we are all having to operate; I am not passing these comments at him. But it just shows how much politics is being played when—again looking at the minister’s Press Club address this week—so much of it is about attacking everybody else; attacking all the other political parties; attacking all of civil society. Everybody else has failed and he is the saviour. As I said at the start, I welcome the fact that he is giving priority to this, and I think there is still potential to do a lot of good for that reason. You can have all the best policies in the world, but if you are not actually giving it priority nothing will work. You will be distracted, and you have to follow through on something like this because it is an issue where the hard yards are part of what is necessary.

It is an issue in which the inevitable consequence of playing politics is that everybody else ends up having to do the same thing, because it is the only way to engage if that is the way the debate is run. Particularly when we are talking about Indigenous issues and particularly when we are talking about children, it is too important for that. I certainly urge Minister Brough and those within the government who have some influence on these things to seek to change the approach. It is not just about the black letter of what is in the laws that we are about to pass; it is the approach that is taken that is pivotal.

If there is not that respect, that cooperation, then your chances of success are minimised. For example, in September last year the Senate passed a motion unanimously expressing support for child protection to be made a national priority. When I initially put that motion forward, it was voted against by coalition senators because that was what they were told to do by the minister. The minister wanted me to amend the motion to make it beat up on the states more. I was not going to do that, because the motion was about all of us acknowledging that we all need to give it priority.

To their credit, once coalition senators realised what they were voting against, they got on the phone and asked: ‘What the hell are you doing? Why are we voting against this?’ People got in touch and asked: ‘Can we redo that and amend the motion a little bit?’ I could have just said no, jumped up and down and said, ‘All of the coalition senators have just voted against giving priority to child protection.’ It would have made a good press release, frankly, and it would have been something I could have used repeatedly to beat them over the head with. But I did not do that, because my aim is to try and get shared commitment to giving priority to it.

So I recommitted the motion with a few very minor amendments to help people save face, and that is what is on the record. I think it is much better that that is on the record, because I can continually point to the fact that the Senate unanimously expressed support for child protection to be made a national priority. And, frankly, we still have not done enough to enact that across the board. That, to me, is what needs to happen in the approach that is taken, and there simply has not been much of that in the way this whole legislative process has occurred.

I remind the Senate that the call was made by the Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory for this legislation to be deferred just to the next sitting week in September—only for a month. That would have enabled senators and the Senate committee to get out to the Territory, to hear from people directly and to not just have to rely on second-hand anecdotes or five minutes of questioning before a committee hearing here in Canberra. Frankly, I think it is a real insult to the people of the Territory as a whole, as well as to Indigenous people, that the Senate did not provide them with that respect. This legislation will have enormous impacts on everybody in the Territory, and it does go beyond the Territory as well, of course, in some respects.

To deliberately shun the opportunity of hearing from people in the Territory and of going there is totally unacceptable. At no stage has anything been pointed to in this legislation that means that, by passing it tomorrow, a child would be saved the next day. They are important measures, and we are certainly not wanting to hold them up. Neither were the Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory. That is why they suggested September, and that is why the Democrats did not support the second reading amendment of the Greens that sought to put it off to October and rerun the whole second reading debate.

It is important to get on with it. I do not want to be falsely accused of deliberately trying to hold this up, because we are not. But we want to do it properly, and we should do it in consultation. It is particularly bizarre—and I know that people have made this point, but it does need to be reinforced—that we have had the Prime Minister making huge amounts of play, quite rightly, on the failure of the Queensland government to engage in any consultation with Queenslanders about what is happening with their local councils. We have had the Prime Minister saying things like, ‘It is a total travesty of democracy to refuse to consult people about what you are going to do that is going to affect them.’

Whatever people might think about what is happening with local councils in Queensland, it is nothing compared to what is going to be done to Aboriginal communities, whole towns, throughout the Northern Territory. It is going to affect them in an enormous way. I hope that effect is positive. I am sure it will be a mixture. There will be some things done that will be positive and there will be some that I am very concerned will be negative. But you cannot have that double standard of saying that it is absolutely crucial that people be consulted about what you are going to do that is going to affect them about amalgamating local councils, with all due respect to them, and then have government moving in and taking over virtually every aspect of people’s lives in entire townships and saying, ‘There is no time to consult.’

As was pointed out in the debate yesterday by Senator Siewert, when emergency intervention relief teams go into places in an international setting, one of the first things that they do is consult with people about how to go about things and when to put the first bricks in place. That has not been done and you cannot just say, ‘We cannot do it because it is an emergency.’ If you genuinely believe that you cannot do it because it is an emergency then you do not know what you are doing, frankly.

The other point that has to be made is that this debate has categorically demonstrated that the government have dismissed the Little children are sacred report. They used the failure of the Northern Territory government to respond to it as their justification for intervention—and I am certainly not defending the Northern Territory government, let me tell you that. One of the most consistent messages I heard from people, whether they were for or against what the federal government was doing, was that none of them had a kind word for the Northern Territory government’s actions to date. I am not precious about state rights at all; I am precious about getting results.

Overriding the Northern Territory government does not bother me if it is going to be for good, but the federal government used the fact that the Northern Territory government had not responded to the Little children are sacred report as their justification for all of this. Now the federal government have not responded; they have dismissed the whole thing. But they continue to hide behind it as a justification. Minister Brough did it again at the Press Club, referring to it a number of times. He again referred to the first recommendation, saying, ‘This is why we had to do this: the first recommendation said it was a national emergency.’ He again ignored the second sentence of the first recommendation, which talked about doing it in consultation and partnership, and the government have basically dismissed all of the others.

We had the travesty of the Senate committee charged with an extremely brief inquiry into this legislation not even being able to hear from the authors of the report. It is not that the report is perfect but, if nothing else, those people have spent the last year talking to Aboriginal people all around the Territory about precisely this issue of child protection, and to think that they had nothing worthwhile to say to us about this is ludicrous.

In summary, there are measures in the bills that the Democrats do support—measures to do with alcohol, pornography, policing measures, community stores and some aspects to do with governance—but there are fatal flaws within each of them. For that reason, we cannot support them. We are very concerned that they will not work and will do more harm, but we will keep working with the issue and we will seek to try to continue to work together with people wherever possible, because all of us still need to continue to give this priority. We all need to follow through on all of the words that we have been saying this week, and that particularly includes that this has to be an issue for the long haul.

11:29 am

Photo of Trish CrossinTrish Crossin (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to say a few things in summing up the debate about these five bills before us today. I know it has been a long week for people. For some people, it has been a long fortnight. For some of us, it has been a long couple of months. It is going to get even longer still once we leave this place and hit the bush first thing in the morning. I think this presents an opportunity for everybody to start to turn things around. I outlined on Tuesday night what I feel about this legislation. My feelings certainly have not changed. I have major reservations about how this legislation is going to be implemented and the implications of it for some Indigenous people. I concur with what Senator Bartlett has said. I think that for this government to hide behind the major recommendations in the Little children are sacred report, to not attempt to engage Indigenous people in this major change and to not wait until the Northern Territory government have released their response to this report—which I understand they will do next Tuesday—has been to act in haste and in some ways has meant that people have had the impression that this whole exercise has been politicised.

We are here to appropriate $587 million. Some of us are wondering if that money is the underspend from last year and, if so, whether we are just spending underspent money rather than new money—but let us not go there at this time of the debate. If we are looking at quite a large amount of money for 70 communities in the Northern Territory, then let us make sure that it is spent properly and appropriately. I noticed yesterday that ABC news had the headline: ‘Task force identifies policing, housing needs for NT communities.’ I looked at that and thought: ‘Oh, yeah? Like some of us didn’t know that 20 years ago?’ I have been to all of the 70 communities that have been identified in this legislation and I have known for decades that all those communities wanted more housing, policing where it was needed, youth programs and family support programs. I am not sure why we are seeking to reinvent the wheel. It might have come as a surprise to some people who read the newspaper article claiming that Major General Chalmers has now released one of his further reports after visiting 66 communities. The article said:

He says they have found common issues across the Territory including the need for more policing, youth activities and housing improvements.

Gee, that is not new. For those of us who live and work with these people, who call them friends and, in some instances, family, this is nothing new. If you picked up the phone and made 70 phone calls you would find that CEOs of most of those community councils would have audit information and be able to tell you exactly which houses need repairs or demolishing. Let us hope that we are not going to waste money by reinventing the wheel.

Major General Chalmers went on to say that, at a meeting in Alice Springs, he was disappointed to find that there were people either deliberately or inadvertently spreading some misinformation. I believe that was because there is still a chronic lack of information out there on the ground about what exactly this all means. Some of that can be displaced by a better communication strategy from this government. The sooner that is up and running, the better.

I have raised concerns about the Elliott community not being amongst the 70 communities. I got a response from the minister about that. In the meantime, I have had further correspondence regarding that community from someone who said: ‘I can’t believe that Elliott is not on the list. Of the 45 communities that were visited during the inquiry, Elliott was the worst as far as alcohol and sexual abuse of children were concerned. This was due to its proximity to the highway. Elliott has an incestual abuse history dating back to the 1960s. In recent times it has been the hunting ground of at least two non-Aboriginal paedophiles who abused numerous children.’ The question I was asked by this person was, ‘Was it stupidity or fear of failure that led to this community being excluded?’ If we want to hold up the Little children are sacred report and say that we are doing this to prevent further abuse of children and because we want all kids to be safe, I put to this government that Elliott should be included on this list as soon as possible. I am not sure what other evidence I need to give you to convince you to do this if not by close of business today then first thing on Monday.

The other concern I have is about the stories that are now starting to come out about this intervention. Robinson River is one of the 70 communities. I understand that at Robinson River there are women who have been undertaking a fencing project. They actually know how to fence out there. Senator Nash can probably relate to this. They completed a fencing contract last week, I understand. The Aboriginal corporation out there was planning to purchase materials so that they could continue with other houses around the community. A couple of things have happened that I have heard about. I understand that Territory Housing, which look after the three staff houses for the education department and the health department, are about to bring in an outside, non-Indigenous contractor to erect new fences around the three houses they control. If the federal government has now taken over the running of the Robinson River community, I would urge them to pick up the phone and say to Territory Housing: ‘Stop that. What are you doing?’

If this is an intervention strategy about empowering Indigenous people then can’t you make sure that the Northern Territory government uses people on the ground to do the work? Why is Territory Housing bringing in an outside, non-Indigenous contractor to erect a fence when there are women in the community who can do it and who could be paid for it? If we are going to have an intervention strategy, let us get serious about this and let us start picking up the phone and saying to other governments and other departments, ‘If there are local Indigenous people who can do the job then get them to do it.’

The accountant out there has shown me a disturbing document that has equally bad ramifications. The federal government, through FaCSIA, has a tender document on the government tender website calling for contractors to come in and repair the houses at Robinson River. Looks like our resident Indigenous carpenter and his gang are also about to get the chop. What is going on out there, seven weeks into this intervention, when we have Indigenous fencers and Indigenous carpenters at Robinson River who are capable of repairing houses but we have FaCSIA with a tender on its website calling for contractors to come in and do it?

I would have thought that this would be the start of turning this around. I would have thought that this intervention would stop this stuff happening. I would have thought that people in FaCSIA would be alerted to this and would use some positive discrimination to ensure that, where there were Indigenous people on the ground who could do the job, they would be given the job and encouraged to do it. I would have thought that their capacity to undertake work such as this would be encouraged. Isn’t that what this intervention is about? If that is not what it is about then I think the government will have missed the opportunity that they say is going to turn around the lives of people in this community. So there are a couple of examples already, in the seven weeks, where, unless the government take a very proactive, interventionist role in what is happening in communities, we will not see a significant change; in fact, we will see a significant turnaround.

In the Northern Territory News yesterday concerns came to light about non-Indigenous public servants who think it is a great challenge to get out there in the bush but, once they get out there, find that things are very different. In his column, Barry Doyle writes:

Philosophies and intent aside, there are already whispered reports of problems with the planned logistics of the operation.

He goes on to say:

For instance, some federal public servants who are earmarked to join the incoming team have expressed disquiet about accommodation. The fact that they will be going to some areas where housing is substandard or non-existent for the residents seems not to have registered that it may also apply to them.

Suggestions of tents have not gone down well with some.

That is going to be a fact of life for people who volunteer to get out there and help, and somehow this government is going to need to manage that. It is not easy out bush. There is a significant lack of accommodation. If, as I have seen in the papers, demountables are placed at Imanpa for people to live in, it might be fine for a couple of days or a couple of weeks, but it will be pretty hard going for people if they are going to sustain that over many months. I think that also is a concern that this government will need to monitor.

Even though this legislation releases money to be spent on people, I have concerns about whether the children who need further follow-up will get it. In the Senate inquiry, we heard from Major General Chalmers that the names of those kids who needed additional follow-up had been given to NT Health. People in NT Health tell me that those names have been on a list for 11 months. They stay on that list because NT Health need the additional money and resources to bring specialists and outreach services to town. I have not yet heard from the government that this money is going to be spent in that way. If this money is going to be spent health-checking kids and putting them on a list which just sits there—if kids never get off that list because they are not getting the further operations or other treatment that they need—then this government has missed and wasted this opportunity.

I know that the task force went into Yirrkala sometime in the last week and got short shrift, because one of the problems with this strategy is that it does not recognise good communities. It treats all of the communities the same. It has not sought, first and foremost, to intervene in those communities that need help the most and it has not looked at the way in which it can strengthen existing communities without intervening. Perhaps there needs to be a two-pronged approach to this, but there is not; there is a one-size-fits-all approach. Senator Bartlett is right: that is what you get under this minister. It is his way or no way.

I have heard no mention in the last fortnight of the new Community Schools Partnership agreement that has been signed at Yirrkala between the Yirrkala school and the Northern Territory government. That will see an injection of an additional $5 million from the Northern Territory government over five years, which means that they will get their assistant teacher position allocated to them, even though they are not entitled to it under the staffing formula. It will see two cultural officers and school attendance officers placed at that school, as well as additional resources. In return for that, the school has agreed to attendance targets. It is my understanding that it aims to increase the attendance by 40 per cent over the next three to five years. That is a way in which the Northern Territory government has engaged the Yirrkala community in tackling the nonattendance at that school in a positive way, not in a punitive way by targeting their welfare payments.

It is about engaging parents and the community in being part of the school and realising the value of education, and about getting them involved. I have heard nothing from this government to suggest that that is their philosophy, that they will be seeking to work with the Northern Territory government to roll out 69 more community partnership agreements across the Territory. I have heard no recognition at all from this government that that is a model that they would want to get on board with and duplicate.

Yirrkala is a community that is operating efficiently and effectively. It is a strong community and always has been. I think that the task force going there not knowing that background and not knowing that the partnership had been signed just two weeks before is another flaw in the system as this intervention package is rolled out. There are other communities that are also doing pretty well, like Galiwinku and Maningrida. I think this government needs to say: ‘Perhaps in some of these communities we need to change tack a bit, back off and start to engage people here and recognise that there are some good things happening. We need to seek to build on those rather than destroy them and start from scratch.’

The abolition of CDEP is a very big concern for me, because I do not believe that this government has recognised the strength that exists in Aboriginal CDEP organisations. I have major concerns for the Laynhapuy association and for places like Bowanunga, which I think will struggle to survive after the one year unless there is a recognition from this government that the resources and assets that they have bought as a result of their own business acumen need to be kept with them and enhanced and improved. I have not yet seen this government find a way through the impact the abolition of CDEP will have on organisations and the flow-through that will happen, particularly to outstations. I think that is a gaping hole in this policy of intervention.

I want to reiterate what I said yesterday about the permit system. I gave a number of examples of where I believe that giving the power to traditional owners to issue a permit without having any way in which that permit can be revoked other than by that traditional owner is a fundamental step backwards. I say that only because there have been examples in the Northern Territory where traditional owners and Indigenous people have exploited their ability to provide permits to people; I think the land councils, and even the minister in this case, not having the power to revoke permits so there are some checks and balances over that is a fundamental flaw in the system.

I have not been convinced that all of this package matches the rhetoric of this government. They say that this is about children being safer and happier and about building communities. In some aspects I can see that. If we can limit the amount of alcohol, lift the quality in community stores—and, having been to those 70 communities, I have to say there is some quality to be lifted out there—and change that and turn some of that around, that will be a good thing. But I think there are some fundamental aspects of this policy that the government needs to rethink. I think a sign of the maturity of a government is where a couple of months after they laid down a policy they might say, ‘Maybe we need to revise aspects of this and do it differently.’ If you do not engage Indigenous people in where you want to go in some of these communities, I think it will be a fundamental failure.

In concluding, I want to provide a quote from an Aboriginal person who has identified himself as a ‘concerned Australian’. Senator Scullion will know this person; it is Eddie Cubillo, a long-time Darwin Indigenous man. He has now relocated out of the Territory. He wrote to all of us. He has a law degree and he has kids who are studying at university. He is a very well-educated person. He says in his letter to me:

If there is anything to come out of this ... other than what the Government proposes I would like to make a recommendation ... that an ongoing fully funded public awareness campaign on Indigenous peoples and their issues in this country. This would assist the wider public to have an understanding of Indigenous peoples issues. This would also ensure that in the future that our Indigenous kids aren’t used as political footballs and their rights eroded even further in the process of democracy in this country.

11:50 am

Photo of Lyn AllisonLyn Allison (Victoria, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to first of all acknowledge the work of my colleagues in this place on this debate and you, Senator Crossin, in particular, given that this legislation is all about your constituents. We value your opinion and know that you know your communities like perhaps nobody else sitting around here. My colleague Senator Andrew Bartlett has in a very short time been able to express our concerns in an articulate way in this chamber.

However, my deep regret is that the government has not listened to any of the wise words that have been said in this place or in submissions, and so these bills will go through unamended. I think that is an indictment of this government’s arrogance and refusal to listen to what seemed to me to be very sensible proposals and amendments in the very short time available to those who care deeply about this issue and are deeply worried about the implications. We have all heard about how complex and contentious this legislation is. The recommendations of the inquiry on which it was based have been ignored. This has been a process of ignoring other people, and I think that is what worries us most, along with its short-term nature.

We all welcome the intervention. Nobody wants to see Aboriginal children abused in any way at all. We want to see healthy communities and good economies that suit Indigenous communities, and for that reason we applaud the fact that there has been action. But the government has not listened to the complaints about that action and the fact that it may do more harm than good. It is the long term that we are interested in. What will happen when the police, the short-term medical checks, the health workers and so on depart these communities? Will we leave them in a worse situation than they were in before?

One thing that worries me about this—and I have not heard it much in this debate; I hope because it is an aberration and not really what the government has in mind—is a reported comment made by the minister who said that the time had come for some honesty in some of the smaller communities, that they may not be viable, and that perhaps government services and support should be withdrawn from those communities, forcing people to find other places in which to live. We know that a lot of people have moved from bigger centres to the more remote outstations, as they are often called, because of the abuse. They are escaping from alcohol abuse and very difficult, violent environments. The last thing we want to see is this being used as a big stick to force people out of those communities when they may well not be ready and may not want to—we know how important the land is to Indigenous Australians.

I thought, because we are still dealing with the appropriations bill, that it would be useful to pick up on a comment I made last night which generated an email that arrived in my in box at 12.36 am from a teacher who says:

I have been listening on and off all day to the Senate debate and discussion today. This is not my normal habit but I have a vested interest today. I am a school teacher. For the past 8 years I have lived and worked in Central Australia, four and a half of those on a remote Aboriginal Community North East of Alice Springs. It’s probably not one you’ve heard of because life there is pretty peaceful. The leadership is strong, kids go to school everyday and if they’re not at school I’m always told why. Parents look after their children and the kids I know are full of joy. They literally run to school when they see my car arrive each morning.

People at this community spend their baby bonus on cars because they want to have a reliable vehicle if the baby gets sick—that seems to me to be responsible parenting.

People at this community are welfare dependent because, apart from the school and the health clinic, there are no other jobs for them to do. Their only other source of income is through painting and even then they are at the mercy of unregulated art dealers.

Up until 3 years ago the 40-50 students who attended school were all crammed into a small two room classroom. We now have a bigger space but even still we are at capacity, and we still don’t have air conditioners that work properly or water that runs everyday.

I have a class full of ‘Seniors’, a dozen students, all Secondary age who go to school everyday because they love learning and it breaks my heart because I have a sense of what they could achieve if an appropriate form of Secondary school was offered—one where leaving home wasn’t mandatory.

At the moment I am on Study leave, doing research into various aspects of Indigenous Education in the hope that when I return I will have some good ideas about how to work with the Community to continue to improve educational outcomes for their children.

But after listening today I know that next year at least my time will be spent accounting for absences and ringing Centrelink on behalf of adults confused about the letter they cannot read and not understanding why half their money has been cut off or angry that the car they wanted to buy when their baby was born is not an option for them any more.

There is no Centrelink fieldworker in our area, despite my repeated requests for one.

So I will go back next year and I will do all of this because after 4 and a half years I care about those people. They are family to me.

…            …            …

Long after the Parliament has moved on to some other issue, this legislation will continue to affect that the lives of everyday Aboriginal people and it will in directly affect people like me and will prevent me from doing the kind of work that might have actually made a difference out there.

Mostly I feel very sad and angry at what has happened in Canberra this week ...

That is both a sad and a positive note for me to end  my small contribution to this debate. As one who has travelled with committees to a number of communities—nowhere as many as other people in this chamber—we have seen some fantastic Indigenous communities which work well. So it can be done. The big question is whether this intervention is the right way to achieve that for all communities. We will be watching what happens, to the extent that we can some in these remote communities. I know that there is not going to be much of a media presence in each of them. There are big questions about whether or not we will know what is going on, but we will certainly be keeping it up to the government.

Another area which has been missing from the government response is questions around rehabilitation and detoxification. It struck me that, when we talk about drinking and, indeed, pornography, no-one is talking about addiction. We do not expect people to just stop drinking in our society because we think it is good for them to do so. People need to have a will to kick an addiction. It takes much more than closing down grog supplies to communities and expecting that that will do the trick. We need to treat Indigenous people as we would treat ourselves in this respect and I do not see that happening.

I am sorry; I should have introduced that earlier. I wanted to end on a positive note because it is our hope that this works and the children will be protected. We will be doing whatever we can to keep the government to its word; that is what this is about.

11:58 am

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

I am not going to go over all the issues that the Greens oppose because by now people are very clear about our deep concerns with this legislation. I want to reiterate what Senator Brown and I have said on a number of occasions. We think that government intervention and government interest in the issues of child abuse, violence and disadvantage in the Northern Territory is absolutely essential. We disagree fundamentally with the way the government is going about it. We do not believe that the government is implementing the findings of the Little children are sacred report and, as became clear here, it does not intend to implement the findings and recommendations of the report. However, I will go over recommendation 1:

That Aboriginal child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory be designated as an issue of urgent national significance—

‘urgent national significance’, not emergency response; in my opinion, they are two very different things—

and both governments immediately establish a collaborative partnership with a Memorandum of Understanding to specifically address the protection of Aboriginal children from sexual abuse. It is critical that both governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities.

The No. 1 recommendation does not say ‘emergency response’; it says ‘urgent national significance’. If you are following that recommendation, follow all of it and implement the whole thing.

It is specifically important, when you talk about the nature of the intervention that is occurring, that it is exempting itself from the Racial Discrimination Act, and that the specific understanding of what ‘special measures’ are requires consultation—and you can do that in emergency situations. As I said, the Greens welcome, finally, the government’s interest and involvement in the Northern Territory, as do many people. The government is right when it said that there has been an overwhelming response from the community, because there has been. Every email I have had says, ‘It’s fantastic the government’s getting involved, but we have deep concerns.’

When I first heard it reported in the West that Fred Chaney was supportive of the government’s initiative, I was thinking, ‘I find that a little bit strange,’ because I think there are some real issues with the nature of the intervention. But I think he was expressing the concern and the support that most Australians were feeling—that is, yes, it is really good the government has finally taken this on board. I would like to quote an excerpt—I do not have time to quote the whole thing—from the Vincent Lingiari lecture that Fred Chaney gave:

As one who has in the past asked for a comprehensive national response to the evils of child abuse, and who strongly supports urgent intervention, I am giving this lecture with the living hope that there is a moral compass giving direction to the federal intervention here in the Northern Territory.

I am making what might be seen as heroic assumptions about the goodwill and bona fides of the Government and the Opposition in what they are respectively doing and supporting. I realise many Aboriginal people and many in this audience will find it difficult, if not impossible, to make that same assumption.

But let me make my own feelings on the matter clear. I am shocked at the extent to which the legislation, rushed through the Parliament this week, is contemptuous of Aboriginal property rights and of the principle of non-discrimination; authorises an absurd and unattainable level of micro-management of Aboriginal lives far beyond the capacity of the federal bureaucracy that would permit the notorious protector, Mr Neville, to ride again; provides for desert dwellers to be forced into towns, as they were once emptied out of the cattle stations in the 1960s with devastating social effects; and could see successful communities and families returned to dependence, crushing the engagement that is essential to making progress.

He further talks through his concerns. He says:

Everything I say tonight is predicated on my hope that, away from the hysteria of the election campaign, in a calmer post-election atmosphere, whoever is in government will not use this legislation to create a new regime of injustice and inevitable failure. The legislation would allow that to happen. It must not happen.

I agree with Mr Chaney’s comments. That should not be allowed to happen. In the debate that we have had over the last couple of days we have been talking about five bills that give the government and in particular the minister extraordinary powers. Mr Chaney compares those bills to the notorious Mr Neville of Western Australia. It is undoubted that they represent extraordinary powers. Because of the complexity and detail of the legislation, I believe we still have not gone through all of the detail, but the legislation does give the government extraordinary powers. Some of those powers became evident in discussion that we had; for example, there is the ability of the government to acquire assets from community service entities that provide services in the Northern Territory.

I think the non-government organisations and Aboriginal organisations are actually becoming quite distressed and alerted to the fact that this legislation provides the government with what I think would be unprecedented powers. It gives them power to put observers—some people call them spies—onto the boards of these organisations that provide services. It gives them power to give those observers every right of a board member except to vote; in other words, they can talk at and participate in the meetings and they are entitled to get all the papers. This is most extraordinary when you are talking about non-government organisations. They can also effectively seize their assets and direct them to be used in the provision of services. It is the same with the infrastructure. Despite the government assuring us that businesses and entities that a community does not want in there will not be allowed in there, throughout our discussion yesterday it became evident that they will in fact be allowed to come into those areas.

The welfare changes are not able to be adequately justified. There is not the evidence that indicates that they will provide the outcomes that government is talking about. We have not been provided with the amount of resources that are going to be used for the rollout of the welfare reforms, particularly outside the Northern Territory. We do not know how much it is going to cost, we do not know how it is going to happen and we do not know who is going to do it. These are all issues that we believe are absolutely essential and that we should have known about, and they only add to our very deep concern about this legislation. We do not think it is going to provide and result in the outcomes the government wants. I think what is going to happen is that it will further disempower communities; it will lead to more people coming off income support and having no income support. It will not lead to the engagement of Aboriginal people.

I am desperately hoping that there will be a continuation of the roll-in of funds to start addressing some of these issues and that the government will engage with organisations like the Northern Territory combined Aboriginal organisations, who have some very clearly worked out plans about where we can go in the future to address child abuse. So, as Senator Brown has said, the Greens will continue to monitor this legislation very closely and will engage with communities to see how it is rolling out.

Just before finishing, I would like to express my thanks to the minister. We have asked some very difficult questions, but we have managed to keep a civil dialogue virtually throughout the whole debate. I appreciate the minister taking the time to answer the questions that we put to him. I think it helped the debate progress significantly. It does not get me over the fact that I do not like the legislation. But the answers did help us to drill down into some of it, which is what I think the role of committees is. If we had had a longer committee inquiry, I think we would have been able to do some of this then but, because of the complexity of the legislation, we were not able to do that.

The Greens cannot support this legislation. The information that we have found through this process makes us even more sceptical about it producing the outcomes that I think the government genuinely wants. I know the government wants to address these issues. The Greens are fundamentally disagreeing with the way it is going about trying to get these outcomes.

12:07 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise at the conclusion of the debate to express my grave concern about the government’s decision to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act as it pertains to the areas in the Northern Territory that have been designated by this legislation. Mick Dodson said in 2006:

There are abundant statistics that speak to the desperate living conditions endured in so many remote Indigenous communities. We are convinced of the need for real, sustainable economic development, access to clean water, sewage, roads, housing, education, medical care, and all of the basic human rights that most other Australians are able to take for granted.

But he went on to say:

It is salutary to remember in this context the findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody which concluded that:

dispossession and removal of Aboriginal people from their land has had the most profound impact on Aboriginal society and continues to determine the economic and cultural wellbeing of Aboriginal people.

That is what is so fundamentally wrong with the government’s approach to this legislation. The Greens have argued for more than a decade—for years!—that we should be putting a lot more financial assistance into Indigenous health and Indigenous education. We certainly support the maintenance of Indigenous culture and language. We do not share the view that was expressed by former Minister Vanstone, when she talked about remote communities being cultural museums.

We believe in the maintenance of Indigenous language and Indigenous culture. The problem with this legislation is that it has come at the end of a decade of dismantling Indigenous culture and Indigenous land rights. We all know that land, language and culture are intertwined in a way that is absolutely fundamental to the maintenance of Indigenous culture and community, and Indigenous people’s wellbeing. As a nation, we are failing to recognise that in 1996 the Howard government first took $400 million out of Indigenous programs and has systematically since that time dismantled land rights.

As I mentioned, the former Senator Vanstone talked about a quiet revolution and a total reshaping of Indigenous communities, and she went about doing that in an administrative way, particularly undermining the Aboriginal land rights act. Now we have an end to what people have campaigned for decades for—Aboriginal land rights, self-determination for Aboriginal communities and reconciliation. That is why this is such a profoundly sad moment for people in Australia.

Absolutely nobody wants to see child abuse continue. No-one wants to see the levels of homelessness, poverty, illness and so on continue in Indigenous communities, but we do not have to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act in order to spend money on those programs—on sewerage and so on. We can do all of that without getting rid of Aboriginal self-determination and respect by virtue of the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act.

This is treating the symptoms whilst worsening the underlying cause of the illness, because the underlying cause of the illness is the profound sadness and dislocation of Indigenous people at having their culture so seriously undermined. If you take away their land, culture, dignity and self-respect you will leave them as people with a lost identity. The journalist Nicolas Rothwell said recently:

Many of the observers of this other Australia—

referring to the remote communities—

have come to the conclusion that its problems lie much deeper than economics and education, and relate more to loss of hope and purpose, to an almost subterranean ailment of the spirit that besets many small cultures overwhelmed by the outside world; an affliction that may require as much care and compassion as administrative guidance and financial transfusion.

The government is rushing in at the last minute before an election, having taken away funding for so many years, and putting a huge amount of money in, but without looking at the other side. You cannot come rushing in with money to deal with education and health if you do not consult with Indigenous people, because you need the consultation and collaborative work.

As Senator Crossin said earlier in relation to education, rather than having a punitive taking away of people’s social security we should be injecting into schools the capacity for cultural officers to be there and for maintenance of language. Those are the things that will increase attendance, not punitively forcing people into schools which are not providing what Indigenous people value—that is, language and culture. It is an entirely different way of looking at things. If you take away the connection between Indigenous people and their land—their country—then no amount of money for health or education is going to heal the spirit.

That is the problem here. If anyone goes to a doctor and they just get treatment for the symptoms, they will have to keep going back. It is the underlying cause that is the problem, and that is why so many of us committed so strongly to reconciliation with Indigenous people and self-determination for Indigenous people. That is why we did it. That is why we so strongly adhere to the principle that there is no place for racial discrimination in Australia and no reason to suspend the Racial Discrimination Act in order to treat Indigenous people in this way.

That is why at the heart of the Little children are sacred report the very first recommendation said you have to consult with Indigenous people, you have to do this with Indigenous people, you do not do it to and impose it upon individual people and their communities. I would argue that it is the lack of respect by this legislation for culture, land rights and language that is hurting Indigenous people so much. As Senator Bartlett said earlier, it is so unnecessary. If you had come in here with a budget bill to allocate $560 million or whatever the specific figure is to Indigenous communities for health, education and so on in collaboration and consultation with those communities, everyone would have been delighted. But the fact is you have come in here arguing it is about child abuse whilst at the same time undermining land rights and undermining the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act. That is what will also devastate Indigenous communities. They have a right, like all the rest of us, to clean water, sanitation, education and health. They have that right; they do not have to give up things. Which other Australian community is forced to give up any of its cultural context in order to have things that everybody else gets as of right? It is ethically and morally wrong to undermine a culture, to go in and say: ‘We know what’s good for you and you are going to have it imposed on you. By the way, the cost to you is something fundamental to who you are as people and who you are in terms of your identity.’

That is what I feel is so gravely wrong about this. That is why I feel so profoundly sad when I see someone like Mick Dodson, who has spent his whole life on this, saying: ‘I’m at a loss as to what to do. I’ve been fighting racial discrimination all my life. I’ve run out of ideas.’ I would be devastated if I had done that to somebody who had given their life to improve the situation of Indigenous people in Australia. You need to listen to what Indigenous people say. As you know yourself, if you feel good about yourself and if you feel good about your culture—so if you feel strongly about those things—then you can address other things. But if your identity is taken away and if you have this ailment of the spirit, then no amount of medicine is going to fix that. It is about self-respect and identify. It is about cultural integrity and the continuance of that Indigenous culture.

Whilst this is an assault on land rights, self-determination and reconciliation, I do not believe that we cannot get back on track once this government leaves office, when, hopefully, we can spend the money in those communities but get rid of the draconian aspects of this bill. I hope that this will be the last time ever we see the Racial Discrimination Act in Australia suspended and gotten around in the way that this government has done, because there is no place and there is no justification for that. You can never set aside the principle that is entrenched here and you have to recognise that it is an absolute basic principle of the rule of law—and I for one will be campaigning for a bill of rights, as I have for a long time. Central to that bill of rights of Australia will be that you cannot discriminate against people on the basis of race. It is to Australia’s enduring shame that we still do not have that. We need to have that entrenched in our Constitution. I conclude by saying that we have not really come very far from the time 40 years ago when WEH Stanner said:

There are immense pressures of expediency we all understand. But they do not answer the ethical questions. The principles are clear. Is this use of power arbitrary? Is the decision just? And is it good neighbourly? Rigorously asked, and candidly answered, (the answers) will leave many people feeling uncomfortable ... There are positive requirements which compel the Aborigine to give up his own choice of life in order to gain things otherwise conceded to be his of right. The ethics of the policy thus seem very dubious.

That is why we do not support what the government is doing with this legislation.

Photo of Michael ForshawMichael Forshaw (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the bills be now read a third time. At the request of Senator Bartlett, the question will be put separately in respect of the appropriation bills and then in respect of the remaining bills. So the question is that the Appropriation (Northern Territory National Emergency Response) Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008 and the Appropriation (Northern Territory National Emergency Response) Bill (No. 2) 2007-2008 be now read a third time.

Question agreed to.

Bills read a third time.

The Acting Deputy President:

The question now is that the remaining bills be now read a third time.

Bills read a third time.