Monday, 21 June 2010
Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009
Debate resumed from 25 February, on motion by Senator Ludwig:
That this bill be now read a second time.
I rise today to speak on the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009. This bill will see income management extended across the whole of the Northern Territory. I want to be clear at the outset: the coalition support income management. Indeed, the coalition introduced the income management arrangements currently in operation, which have been highly successful and highly effective. The welfare-quarantining system introduced by the coalition as part of the range of measures that formed the Northern Territory Emergency Response immediately restored economic certainty and security to families and formed part of our direct response to violence against women and children, child poverty and child abuse. Our measures delivered substantial benefit.
Whilst this bill seeks to extend income management across the Territory, it limits the circumstances of its application. The bill in its current form does not broaden income management, as the government is saying, but is in fact a watering down of the measures currently in place. Whilst expanding the geographical area, the specific categories of welfare recipients that can be included, even with the opt-in option, will see income management in practice be applied in more limited circumstances than at present. It will limit income management for those aged 15 to 24 in receipt of youth allowance, Newstart allowance, special benefits or parenting payments if they have been in receipt of a payment for more than 13 weeks in the last 26 weeks; for those aged 25 and above but below pension age who have been in receipt of welfare payments as previously mentioned for more than 52 weeks in the last 104 weeks; and for those people assessed by social workers or Northern Territory child protection workers for reasons including a vulnerability to financial crisis, domestic violence or economic abuse.
The bill does provide some exemptions for the identified welfare recipients, namely where they can demonstrate a record of responsible parenting or participation in employment. But the ability for social workers to adequately service the whole of the Northern Territory and for each individual to be assessed on a case-by-case basis raises a number of questions. This is aside from this approach being more costly and less efficient than the universal approach. Neighbours in receipt of the same payments could now find themselves categorised differently. One neighbour could be found at risk and another exempt. This could lead to a number of unintended consequences. Such distinct differences within a community are likely to see an increase in humbugging occurrences.
Vulnerability in many instances will be determined by social workers and child protection workers. While child protection is generally a state and territory matter, the experience of the states and territories suggests that this is an inadequate system, with such workers being overly cautious because of legal ramifications. Moreover, the bill retreats from the clear evidence of widespread vulnerability of women and children.
The coalition deplores the government’s watering down of protections for Indigenous communities. The watering down of current arrangements will jeopardise the economic security of women and children who are currently benefiting from financial stability. Humbugging will return. The impact on the people of those communities will be real.
When the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs inquired into this bill, many of the witnesses that gave evidence to the Senate committee opposed any form of income management. But there was one issue that they broadly agreed on—that a legal challenge to the entire framework was indeed a real possibility. Suzan Cox QC, Director of the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission, also thought a legal challenge was possible. She said:
If the RDA is reinstated, a lot of the laws remaining are discriminatory—for example, prohibitions on alcohol and other materials in particular areas. So we have those sorts of issues.
The Law Society of the Northern Territory also suggested a challenge was likely, noting in their submission that:
We are not sure that the measures will in fact comply with the Racial Discrimination Act if they continue, as they are likely to constitute indirect discrimination at the very least if they have a disproportionate impact on Indigenous people.
Indeed, I could go on, drawing upon evidence from expert after expert. But the message is the same: this bill may be challenged. If a legal challenge is successful, the legislative arrangements that both sides of this chamber agree are efficient and effective will be undone and could be entirely undermined.
The government have finally woken up to the fact that income management is sensible and prudent and that it is good policy. But this bill is dominated by a style of thinking which is always more prevalent the closer you are to capital city GPOs. On one hand, the government want to water down the current arrangements but, on the other, they want to be able to roll out a national welfare-quarantining system. The bill will provide a future framework for income management to be applied in other parts of Australia. Schemes and programs of this nature should be constantly monitored and evaluated so that, where necessary, improvements can be made and where there are successes we can build upon them. Given the proven effectiveness and success of the income management system we introduced when in government, the coalition recognises the importance of introducing welfare quarantining beyond the Northern Territory.
I will turn for a moment to the government’s disappointing delay in having this legislation debated in seeking to have it pass through the Senate. On 15 March this year the coalition announced that it would support the bill and since then, despite being listed on several occasions, this bill has not been brought on by the government for debate. The government has been sitting on its hands on a very important piece of legislation. But that did not stop the Prime Minister last week. He decided to hold a press conference and to tell the Senate, in effect, to get out of the way. I quote the Prime Minister from his press conference with Jenny Macklin on the 16th:
But from 1 July this year, depending on the deliberations of the Senate, these welfare reforms will commence in the Northern Territory and across the entire community within the Northern Territory.
Therefore the challenge is pretty simple. We’re either going to be fair dinkum about welfare reform in this country, which means the Senate passing this legislation this fortnight so it can come into effect as of the first of July. No delays, no stuffing around, get on with it.
Them’s fighting words—if the Senate were actually the obstacle, but the obstacle to getting this legislation passed was not the coalition, it was not the opposition and it was not the Senate. It was the government, for not listing this legislation in a position where it could be debated. We had a spate of press conferences last week where every problem under the sun, every problem in the universe, was the fault of the Senate, such as the paid parental leave legislation. The only problem is that the Senate was not opposing it. Indeed, the Senate passed it, and the same is true of the welfare quarantining legislation. The Senate has been sitting here ready, willing and able to address it. It is another case of Mr Rudd saying, ‘Don’t look at me—look over there,’ but in fact there was nothing to be seen over there. But we know why the Prime Minister does this: because he does not want the public focusing on his government. I will not go through the many backflips, the many failures or the many bungles, because I think that at this time of night it would be a little too tedious for you, Madam Acting Deputy President, so I will spare you from that.
But the Prime Minister was not on his own. The member for Jagajaga could not help herself, and even today in an opinion piece in the Australian she tries to draw an inference that Labor have in some way fought long and hard for this reform. Ms Macklin has little credibility in this area and, rather than attempting to mislead those who read the opinion piece in the Australian, she should work harder to fix the problems associated with Indigenous housing, which is in her portfolio. But I digress.
The coalition opposed this bill in the House, but it did so because of some real concerns that it held at that time. Since then the coalition has also seen concerns aired in the Senate inquiry. This bill is far from perfect. It gives rise to some cause for concern and may indeed lead to a successful legal challenge, but the coalition will not oppose a bill that will enshrine a framework for a national system of income management. Therefore, as the government has known since 15 March—and indeed as the government had confirmed through the Leader of the Opposition’s chief of staff in the days prior to the PM’s press conference last week—the coalition has decided on balance to support this bill in the Senate.
The Greens oppose the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009. We opposed the Northern Territory Emergency Response. We opposed that process and we oppose this flawed bill. There is no proof that income management works. There is no hard evidence at all. To claim that this is implementing successful policy is absolute nonsense. The only hard evidence that is there is that income management does not work. There is evidence from the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association that shows the negative emotional and social impacts that it has on communities. There is statement after statement from local people in the Northern Territory about the negative impact of income quarantining.
There is the report from the Menzies School of Health Research—and, by the way, if the government had paid as much attention when going through the details of their own evaluation process as they did when nitpicking the Menzies School of Health Research report, or had put in place a proper evaluation process in the Northern Territory intervention, we would not be standing here debating this bill right now because they would know their legislation is flawed. They would know there is no evidence to show that income management works. The government’s own six-month progress report shows that. The intervention has been in place three years today, and yet the government’s own report, released last Saturday, the 19th, shows this. For the second report in a row—that is 12 months, folks—child malnutrition is up, despite 88 licensed stores and 16,695 income management customers. This was supposed to be about the children. How come malnutrition is up?
On crime, we have increases in sexual assault reportage, convictions and reports of child abuse.
All personal harm incidents, besides armed person and sexual assault, are up with some, such as attempted suicide/self harm and mentally ill person, increasing quite markedly …
I am quoting from a report on the progress report released today by Jon Altman on crikey.com.au. It goes on:
It is emphasised (page 52) that increases in reported crime are likely to be associated with increases in police numbers and may be associated with improvements in community safety. This may be the case, but for attempted suicide and mental illness?
Why are those up when we are supposed to be addressing underlying causes of disadvantage in these communities? It is not working and I can give you quote after quote from people who talk about the way it has disempowered them. In the words of an Aboriginal community member:
It is taking away our self-management and autonomy, disempowering us. People are feeling pain in their hearts. There seems to be nowhere to go and all the road seem to be blocked no matter which way we turn.
I have quote after quote after quote. These bills do not fully restore the application of the RDA to the Northern Territory Emergency Response, which took away the coalition’s only real reservation about this legislation—they did not want the RDA fully restored, but do not worry: the legislation does not do that.
The bills present a fundamental and unacceptable shift in social security policy in this country. There is no hard evidence to support extending income management to vulnerable communities across Australia. The government have not consulted properly in the Northern Territory despite their claims that they have. It was a flawed process and you have only to read the reports from there to see it was a flawed process. There was no fully informed prior consent to any of this from those communities in the Northern Territory.
The Rudd government do not have a mandate for these sweeping social security reforms, which are in direct contradiction to the policies that they took to the last federal election. They took to the Australian community a policy about social inclusion. This is the very opposite—it excludes people. As for the farcical claim that this increases people’s dignity, please! Have you spoken to any members of the Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory? Have you spoken to them about how having control of their finances taken away, queuing in a separate queue and having to turn up at Centrelink to get permission to spend their money on, say, a washing machine or a fridge infringes their dignity? Have you heard them talk about the shame they feel about income management? Have you heard them talk about going back to the ration days? No, probably not. The minister trots out claims that, ‘It reduces humbug—I’ve spoken to women that say they like it.’ Good—they can use voluntary income management. I have no problem with that. I do have a problem with their taking a failed experiment in 73 communities in the Northern Territory that is discriminatory by its very nature—and we know that because the previous government had to exclude it from the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act—and then all of a sudden making it acceptable because they are going to roll it out across the rest of the Northern Territory and then across the rest of Australia. That is simply increasing discrimination. We have had advice from human rights lawyers that laws based on a law that is initially discriminatory make that law discriminatory.
That takes me to the farce that we are restoring the Racial Discrimination Act. For a start, the government is claiming that the intervention measures that will still be in place are suddenly special measures. For them to be special measures, for a start you need fully informed prior consent. They do not have that—strike one. There is supposed to be positive discrimination—these are not positive measures, they are discriminatory measures. They still take people’s land from them, they still put alcohol restrictions in place and they still carry out all the other functions that are listed under the Northern Territory intervention. So, for a start, they do not meet the requirements of ‘special measures’.
Then, of course, the NTER is newer legislation and if it comes to a conflict with the older legislation, the RDA, then the new legislation overrides the old legislation because there is no ‘notwithstanding clause’. Again, the RDA is not fully restored. So what had the opposition temporarily quaking in their boots because the RDA was going to be restored is nonsense, because it is not going to be restored. The committee had advice after advice after advice to say that. So that is that argument out of the way.
On the claim of its having a positive social agenda and being aimed at inclusion, it is the most socially exclusionist policy and legislation that this government could have come up with. Again, that is absolute nonsense. The minister claims that it has community support and she can name about three organisations. When I looked the representatives of the Brotherhood of St Laurence in the eye at the community affairs committee inquiry into this and asked: ‘Do you support compulsory income quarantining?’ they said: ‘No, we couldn’t go that far, Senator.’ No community based social justice organisations support this legislation—for instance, the Australian Council of Social Services do not. By the way, apparently I have scared them all into thinking that this is bad legislation. They all think this because the Greens say so. Give every single peak organisation in this country some credit for the years of work they have spent in these communities and other communities around Australia.
The minister conveniently nearly always talks about the Northern Territory when talking about this legislation and says I was scaremongering when I talked to West Australians about this legislation, as if this legislation will never affect them. For a start, we already have a form of income management in WA, so why would the community not think the government may bring in other forms of income management to WA? Secondly, this legislation is Australia-wide legislation, a punitive, discriminatory approach to broad classes of people because they happen to live in disadvantaged areas.
Most Australians do not know this yet, because the government have framed this debate around removing the discrimination in the Northern Territory. It does not just do that. It expands the discriminatory approach, first off to the Northern Territory, where it may be in place for two years and where the government will put in an evaluation process—which, by the way, they have not quite done yet and which they have not managed to do for three years. Their evaluation process is this: ‘Let’s ask the people who are already subject to income quarantining whether they think their kids have put on weight or are eating more.’ When half of the 76 people they have asked—of the over 15½ thousand people who are quarantined—say yes, they say that that means that income management is working. And when you ask the people whether they have reduced their gambling and whether this was because of the intervention, and they think, ‘They are saying we gambled too much, so of course I’m going to say I have reduced my gambling,’ then that is another tick for income management. There is no quantitative data whatsoever.
Then the government comes out and runs the line that the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare approves this and says income management works. Oh no, they do not. In fact, when I asked in estimates, the institute said that it refused to be involved in the first part of the evaluation because its ethics committee said not to. Yet that is suddenly a claim that income management works. But, to get back to the story about rolling this out across Australia, we supposedly have this evaluation process in two years time—which is not in the legislation, by the way—and then we will think about where else we are going to roll it out across Australia. This legislation applies to everybody, potentially—to all regions across Australia. If there is a change of heart by the government, or if there is a change of government, they can apply this any time. It could be coming to your neighbourhood any time following the passing of this legislation.
Australians will then know what their parliament has done. They will know that the parliament has agreed that, if you are a single parent under 25 who has been on income support for a period of time and you live in an area that has been designated as a declared area, you will be subject to income management whether you are a good parent or not. If you are over 25, it is a slightly longer period, but you will still be subject to income management whether you are a good parent or not. If you have been on Newstart, you will be subject to income management regardless of whether you meet all your participation requirements or activities. And why is that? Because your sole crime is that you are unemployed or you are on income support—and if you are on youth allowance it is the same thing—and you live in that area.
The government knew that they could not extend it to age pensioners as well, so they invented another class called ‘vulnerable’. So, if you are vulnerable, Centrelink can put you on income management. This is a nice little catch-all, by the way, to go back to the Northern Territory. If you are on the age pension in the Northern Territory and you are in the 73 prescribed communities, the government do not really want you to come off, so you will be described as vulnerable because you might be subject to humbugging or you cannot manage your financial affairs. To find out who will be vulnerable, you just have to look at the list that the government has put out in the exposure draft of the guidelines. It is a catch-all for anybody that they want to class as vulnerable and can put on income management. It includes things for which you would normally go to Centrelink for advice. If you are having trouble paying a bill or having a bit of trouble with financial management, you put up your hand to Centrelink to get some advice and ping! You are income quarantined because you have sought advice from Centrelink. You are classed as vulnerable.
A declared community can be a postcode, a suburb, a town, a region, a territory like the Northern Territory, a state or, in theory, anywhere. All it has to do is go through a regulation through this chamber. And, with the coalition and the government supporting it, do you think anyone is ever going to say, ‘No, that poor area’? That is what they will pick on: ‘That poor area can be income managed.’ So, as I said, just because you live there and you are on income support, you will be subject to income management. Income management has not been proved to work at all. It has been proved that it has negative impacts. It has been proved that it has poor social and emotional outcomes. It has not been proved to increase the purchase of fresh fruit and vegetables, because they did not have any baseline data in the NT. I will acknowledge that there is now more fresh fruit and vegetables in stores in communities—but that could have been brought about in a far better way than bringing in a Northern Territory Emergency Response that takes away people’s rights and is a discriminatory, top-down, punitive approach. And did I mention it is paternalistic? But the government does not have any baseline data to show whether it is income management or whether actually stocking fresh fruit and vegetables means that people can purchase them. My experience in community is that, if they have fresh fruit and vegetables in the stores, people will buy them.
You have only to go to the website to look at the submissions to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs’ inquiry into this bill to see the number of organisations who oppose this legislation. They oppose it because it is top down and it is not proved to work. It takes away people’s decision making by not including community in the decision making. The Australian Council of Social Services says:
The primary and proper role of the social security system is to reduce poverty by providing adequate payments and supporting people into work. Appropriate activity requirements to assist people into employment are consistent with this objective. Compulsory income management which does not increase payment levels and removes individual autonomy does not further this objective. Rather, it locks people into long-term dependence on others to make financial decisions for them without enabling them to manage their finances independently.
Catholic Social Services also agree. They believe that:
Adequate income support is an entitlement. It should not be a tool for governments or public sector managers to grant, withhold or modify in an effort to achieve ‘outcomes’. Increasingly, it seems policy makers regard the right to income support as itself a cause of disadvantage and as an impediment to the efficient and effective pursuit of policy goals.
Anglicare make the same sort of statements. The National Welfare Rights Network has similar concerns. The Australian Council of Trade Unions Indigenous Committee has similar concerns.
The list of organisations opposing this legislation is extremely long and the list of those supporting it extremely short. This is not good social policy. The NTER is a failed top-down punitive, discriminatory approach which the government is making worse by keeping the intervention in place. This legislation is solely about keeping the intervention in place. It is taking the opportunity—as most Australians do not know this is coming to a neighbourhood near them—to keep the NTER in place. It is about slipping in place the most fundamental reform to our social security system in decades—basically since the Second World War. It is taking away the inalienable right to income support in this country.
The government should be ashamed of itself. The coalition has been dreaming of getting this policy in place for years, and you are now facilitating it. We will never get it changed. You wait until the people in the communities out there realise what you have done and how you have fundamentally changed our social security system, how you are demonising people and saying this is because single parents and those on income support gamble all their money away, they take drugs and they drink. That is just terrible. The Leader of the Government in the Senate said those things in this place when I asked him a question. He implied that people on income support cannot manage their income and do not look after their children.
You should be ashamed of yourselves. This is poor legislation. It is lazy legislation instead of addressing the underlying causes of disadvantage, instead of actually helping Aboriginal people into meaningful jobs. We just saw the latest employment figures for Aboriginal people and they have got worse. The CDEP has changed and so these are multiple hits to the Aboriginal community in the NT.
This legislation is not just about the NT. It is not just about the Racial Discrimination Act much as this government likes to say it is. It is about fundamental change to our social security system in this country and it should be opposed. The Greens are the only party in this place that is opposing this draconian legislation and we are proud to oppose it. I am ashamed that an Australian parliament could think that this is the right way to go, that the people in this place think it is okay to demonise those on income support and that this is the way you get them off income support. It will not work because it has not worked in the NT—the indicators have got worse not better and we spent billions—
by leave—My second reading amendment seeks to put off any further debate on this subject until the Greens’ bill has been dealt with. I move:
At the end of the motion, add “and further consideration of the bill be made an order of the day for consideration after the Senate concludes its consideration of the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Restoration of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009”.
I would like to briefly speak on the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009. I genuinely acknowledge the deep knowledge of Indigenous issues and the untiring advocacy of Senator Siewert in this area. I would also have liked to have had the opportunity to acknowledge the abilities and experience in this area of the government senators involved in the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs that inquired into this piece of legislation. Unfortunately, I cannot because the government has chosen to have no speakers on this bill.
One could get the impression, as Senator Fifield mentioned earlier, that this was because there was so little time to debate this matter. However, once again we have empty rhetoric from the government. I was looking through the notes of the dissenting report that the coalition senators did on this legislation. The date of that report, the date it was tabled, the date it was ready for anyone who chose to to proceed with the legislation was 10 March 2010—more than a month or two ago I would have thought—more than enough time to the government to have put it on an agenda and debated it in a serious and real way if they chose to. Instead, once again, we see their inability to schedule or to implement a legislative program. They have come up with this rushed effort at the end with no serious debate on what is a very serious issue.
I want to speak briefly about the hearings that were held by the community affairs committee into this legislation and related legislation. As Senator Fifield noted earlier the coalition does support income management. The coalition introduced income management. I would remind people of the name of the program under which income management started. It was called the Northern Territory Emergency Response. There was no joy in introducing that program. There was no joy in the reasons for introducing that program but certainly in the genuine view of the coalition members dozens and dozens of different programs had been tried over the years and had failed.
I remember speaking in this chamber probably two years ago now on the Little children are sacred report where there were hundreds and hundreds of examples of dysfunction within families that were beyond belief for most Australians. One story that stood out for me as emblematic of the situation faced by many people in Indigenous communities was the story of a two-year-old girl trying to encourage a four-year-old boy to come and play with her in the way that children do all over the world by sort of gesticulating to them to come and play. Except her way of doing this was to lie on her back, spread her legs and gesticulate at her crotch. What life has a two-year-old child lived if they think that is a normal way to encourage social interaction?
If this were a one-off story out of that report, you would address that particular issue but it was not one off. It was part of a total story of, in many cases, great social dysfunction. There is great leadership in many of our Indigenous communities but it is tired leadership, it is harangued leadership by many other members of their own communities who are dysfunctional.
Many of you will have seen the reports coming out of the Australian Crime Commission last week on organised paedophilia in some Indigenous communities—not in the Northern Territory—where power and paedophilia over local residents went hand in hand. The Northern Territory Emergency Response was just that—it was an attempt to change, to fix, the many, many efforts that we as coalition and Labor governments have made at state and federal levels over many, many years and have failed to do.
Certainly, the coalition supports income management and hopes desperately that it is going to lead to a better outcome. Yes, the coalition thinks some of the evidence that has already been produced suggests that there are good news stories coming out of that. If you look at the report of the Northern Territory Emergency Response, which refers to the increased incidence of sexual abuse, non-school attendance et cetera, you are looking not at increased incidents but at increased reporting of incidents. Finally, someone is paying attention. Finally, someone is collecting some of the data so that we can, as time goes on, actually improve and develop the policies that will mean the people do not need income management, that the leaderships in the communities are strong enough and supported enough by healthy, educated individuals which will mean that the scumbags, for want of a better word, who control some communities are driven out or ostracised by the others in those communities.
As I said, the government has said much about income management. We listen to the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Ms Macklin, attempting to suggest, along with the Prime Minister, that somehow this legislation has been held up by the coalition, but let us look at the government’s rhetoric surrounding the potential expansion of income management arrangements and see it for the hollow commitment that in many ways it is. The government has proposed extending income management only in the Northern Territory for now. There will be an evaluation and, as Senator Siewert says, we do not know where, how or by what process, but the idea is to have an evaluation in two years or so time so that the minister can decide where and whether to apply the system elsewhere in Australia. If the government were genuinely interested, as they say, in seeing racial discrimination taken out of this legislation, then they would apply it immediately to all areas of Australia where they thought it would be helpful and useful. Instead, they have not done that. They have had this little Clayton’s effort and decided they will give it a go in the Northern Territory and then decide what to do by a process that no-one knows anything about as yet.
The other very disturbing aspect of this bill is that the government have, by reinstating the Racial Discrimination Act, brought into question the whole basis for the process that was carefully introduced, after legal advice, by the previous government. The whole point of exempting the Northern Territory Emergency Response from the Racial Discrimination Act was that the Northern Territory Emergency Response was seen as a special measure. Under international law, for this to be seen as a special measure it had to have the purpose of advancing the welfare of the people that it was directed at. That was certainly the intention and I think to date has been the outcome in certain areas of the application of income management.
When you look at the evidence that was given to our Senate inquiry into this matter way back in February and March this year, there was a great deal of comment on the point that this legislation would now become more likely to be challenged in the courts and more likely to lead to a successful challenge in the courts. We should note that there has not been a successful challenge in the courts under the legislation that was introduced by the coalition. I hesitate to say that the people who gave this evidence were supporters of the Northern Territory Emergency Response legislation as it stood. They were not. They wanted income management gone completely. Nevertheless, they agreed when asked whether this change of exempting it from the RDA would open up a legal minefield. Dr Robyn Seth-Purdie from Amnesty International Australia said:
As for challenging, let the RDA reinstatement come in so that it can be challenged and then we can sort it out in the courts. That is a risk because it is not beyond doubt that if the RDA exclusions are removed from the Northern Territory intervention legislation the RDA would prevail over a statute passed subsequent to it. Conflict of law doctrine: the later statute prevails.
Another witness, Mr Jared Sharp, from the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, who certainly was keen to see all the measures of the Northern Territory Emergency Response removed, commented:
What we would be challenging is the designation of the measure as a special measure based on, for example, the fact that for a special measure to be a special measure there needs to be this demonstrated necessity. In our submission that does not appear to be the case. Similarly, it needs to be the case that the government can demonstrate that the measure is for the sole purpose and advancement of the targeted group. Again ... we say that we do not feel that that has been the case.
Dr Pritchard of the Law Council of Australia, speaking on the potential for recourse to the UN Racial Discrimination Committee, said:
It would depend on the full reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act in the first instance. It would also depend on the interpretation by the court of interaction between the NTNER legislation and the Racial Discrimination Act. It would also have regard to whether or not an amendment … were enacted. And then it would ultimately depend on whether the question were justiciable or not, and that would be a matter that would need to be determined by a court. In the event that no remedy were available domestically, then there would be recourse to the UN racial discrimination committee.
I would like to conclude my remarks there, but I will summarise by making the point that if there has been any delay whatsoever in bringing this legislation to a vote it has been on the part of the government. The report on what the legislation said, the report suggesting what amendments the coalition believed could be made to improve it, has been available for the government since March this year. There has been no dillydallying on the coalition’s part, because we believe that the Northern Territory Emergency Response and the income management that is part of it are crucial factors in trying to do what this parliament, this house, the government can do to assist Indigenous Australians whether they live in the Northern Territory or anywhere else in Australia.
As I said earlier today, time is more precious than usual in this last sitting week before the winter break and possibly an election, so I will keep my remarks brief. The Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009 is a very important piece of legislation and, I acknowledge, a quite controversial one. I agree that there is a fine line between respecting people’s rights and acknowledging people’s responsibilities, and I agree that when it comes to issues raised in this bill we need to be aware of all the circumstances and possible consequences that may occur. There is no question that adults can, do and should make decisions for themselves: where they go, what they eat and how they spend their money. However, when a person’s ability to make good decisions is obscured by drug, alcohol or gambling addictions, and when children, vulnerable people and the safety of the community are at stake, that is when we as a parliament need to step in. As a society, it is our responsibility to make sure that people who need our support receive it. Sadly, a reality that we cannot ignore is that people who receive this support are not always able to make the best decisions about how they use it, and the ramifications for others affected by that, particularly children, can be quite severe.
This is not to say that all people who receive support are helpless and at the mercy of alcohol, drugs and gambling; far from it. But I think we need to look at the issues involved. This is not about finding a quick fix to complicated problems by taking away people’s power and responsibility. This is about acknowledging that there are real problems in our society and trying to find ways to address them. Quite simply, there are some circumstances where the government has to act in the public interest, especially when children are disadvantaged or put at risk as a consequence of their parents’ behaviour.
Income management was introduced to try to combat passive welfare and to encourage welfare recipients to be more engaged with their social responsibilities. It was also designed to help protect children and other vulnerable people who may be victims of misspent payments. It is a sad fact that children who grow up in households or environments where welfare payments are abused may become adults with similar views and may perpetuate the cycle. Noel Pearson, the noted Aboriginal land rights activist, lawyer and founder of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership, discussed the sense of victimhood in his 2007 essay, ‘White guilt, victimhood and the quest for a radical centre’. He writes:
I want to talk about two problems with victimhood. The first is that we pay a high price for casting ourselves as victims in the morality field. The tactic of victimhood moves from an outlook and a mentality to become an identity. The long grassers and under-the-bridge dwellers are the most visible, end-stage subscribers to this tragic and self-harming tactic. It damages our people wherever they are—from the young student who believes that academic achievement at school is ‘acting white’ and defeats him or herself with such a pernicious outlook, to those who tolerate domestic violence because it is ‘understandable’ given the history of the people concerned.
I believe the sense of victimhood can be extended to other groups who become dependent on welfare payments. I acknowledge the concern surrounding the legislation. In the past few months, my office—and, I am sure, those of many of my colleagues—has received a number of submissions as to why I should oppose this bill. But we have to remember that the intent of income management is not malicious. The scheme is in place because we need to ensure that those who are most vulnerable are being protected and that there is money to pay the rent and the bills and to put food on the table and that children are sent to school. There have been suggestions that the scheme should operate on an opt in, opt out basis. While I appreciate that this may be suitable in some cases, unfortunately it is those who are most likely to choose to opt out of the system who are most in need of it. A key example of this is people who are trapped by gambling, drug or alcohol addictions, and people who may not feel comfortable admitting to financial troubles because of those addictions or who simply do not want to change their lifestyle.
I also note that during the consultations the government undertook on income management, some communities mentioned that gambling activity had reduced. Comments were made that kids were staying away from card games and that chronic gamblers and their families now had food to eat. I see this as a positive step and I encourage the government to specifically ensure that the issue of gambling activity is part of future reviews. I look forward to an undertaking from the government in relation to that.
Welfare payments enable those who receive benefits to fulfil basic responsibilities such as paying rent, purchasing food and ensuring that children attend school. This makes all the difference to the recipients’ families and to the wider community. There is a lot more that needs to be done to address these problems and broader social issues, and we cannot rely on this legislation to be an instant, easy solution, but it is a first step and it is one we need to take if we are serious about ending the cycle of victimhood. Finally, I commend the second reading amendment moved by Senator Siewert. I will be supporting it. Data collection is something that is important, and I look forward to the government providing details at the end of the second reading stage as to what steps there will be to ensure that the data collection from this program of income management is being disseminated, so that we can be guided in terms of our policy decisions in relation to that. With those remarks, I indicate my support for this bill and I look forward to its passage and to the undertakings that I have requested from the government in relation to this.
I begin by indicating that the government will not be supporting the Greens second reading amendment.
The Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009 amends the social security law, the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007, the NTER Act, and other laws that give effect to the Northern Territory emergency response. It reinstates the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, the RDA, and state and territory antidiscrimination legislation so that it applies to the NTER and makes changes so that the core NTER measures are more clearly special measures under the RDA. It also introduces a new scheme of income management that from 1 July 2010 will commence in the Northern Territory in urban, regional and remote areas as a first step in a national rollout of income management in disadvantaged regions across Australia. Existing provisions for income management in prescribed Northern Territory Indigenous communities will be repealed.
These reforms to the welfare system are designed to tackle the destructive intergenerational cycle of passive welfare and to provide a platform for people to move up and out of welfare. The government has chosen the target group due to their high risk of social isolation and disengagement, poor financial literacy, participation in risky behaviours and the likelihood of poor outcomes for children growing up in these circumstances. The government believes that the target groups identified in the bill, including disengaged youth and long-term welfare payment recipients, will particularly benefit from the help that income management provides. The new scheme provides for financial incentives to encourage welfare recipients outside the targeted categories to volunteer for income management. There will also be a matched savings incentive to encourage those who fall within the targeted categories to build their own financial management skills and capabilities. The RDA will apply to the new scheme from 1 July 2010 when it is introduced. The RDA suspension in relation to existing measures will be lifted on 31 December 2010, which allows necessary time for an effective transition from existing to new arrangements.
These reforms represent a comprehensive policy that is fair, protects the most vulnerable in urban, regional and remote areas and is non-discriminatory. The NTER alcohol and pornography restrictions, five-year leases, community stores licensing and law enforcement hours have been redesigned to more clearly be special measures that help Indigenous people achieve equal human rights. These changes follow an extensive consultation process with Indigenous people in the Northern Territory in 2009. The consultations involved people across the communities affected by the NTER as well as several other Northern Territory Indigenous communities and town camps. The consultations were conducted in a spirit of genuine engagement, and the government has listened to the feedback provided through that consultation process.
Changes made by this bill to the NTER measures recognise that these measures have delivered substantial benefits to Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory and that there is more to be done. The consultations reveal that family and community violence, the wellbeing of children, the elderly and the vulnerable and the misuse of alcohol and drugs remain prominent in local people’s everyday concerns. The removal of the RDA suspension along with a redesign of relevant NTER measures will strengthen the NTER and provide the foundations for real and lasting change in Northern Territory Indigenous communities. To achieve this the government will continue to work in partnership with Indigenous Australians, recognising that they are essential to developing effective solutions and driving change on the ground.
That the amendment (Senator Siewert’s) be agreed to.
That this bill be now read a second time.
Bill read a second time.