Thursday, 28 June 2012
Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011, Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2012, Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2011; Second Reading
In speaking to the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 and the package of legislation known more colloquially as the Stronger Futures legislation, it does concern me somewhat that in looking at the legislation before the chamber, it does not show any particularly new or insightful leadership or any fresh views with regard to the matters considered in the bills. Just putting adjectives like 'stronger' and nouns like 'futures' in front of existing policy does not actually make it stronger—or new, for that matter.
Basically we see this legislation introduced because over a period of time I do not think the government has really had its heart in implementing a number of the initiatives which were part of the emergency response that the coalition found necessary to put forward in the Northern Territory. If I were an optimist—and I like to think of myself in that way—and a generous person, I would say that, hopefully, there has been some realisation that those emergency response measures which were designed to enforce the rule of law, to get children to school and to create economies in remote communities, were real, were targeted and would have worked if pursued with some degree of focus and force and some enthusiasm.
After nearly five years of federal investment in this aspect of governance in the Northern Territory, it is beyond time to progress beyond an emergency situation and we need to really move to a position of stability, a position of normalisation, and, more importantly, one where the Indigenous people of the Territory themselves are able to lead the reforms. But it seems to us that instead, due to an at best apathetic response, we still have school attendance rates which are far, far too low, we have very prominent alcohol-related crime and assaults, we have persistent preventable health problems and we have a lack of economic opportunity that just leads to despair, which have not been addressed.
In some cases—and in a number which I know Senator Scullion spoke about in his remarks on this legislation—we are still where the coalition left off after 2007, and so we still require these sorts of measures to be put forward by the government. We are supporting this legislation because we believe that real reforms are still needed. But we will vigorously hold the government to account if they do not deliver the sort of leadership that is backed up by a very real commitment to pursue the end of the disadvantage and the disconnection being experienced in these remote communities.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the major challenges that confronts remote communities—and this will not be news to you, Madam Acting Deputy President Moore, given the work that you have done over many years here in the parliament—is the abuse of alcohol and the multitude of problems that inevitably follow, including assaults, family breakdowns and very poor health outcomes. There are not any new policies in this package of legislation which would enhance or complement any current Northern Territory government policies or initiatives. As far as I can see, this legislation is only duplicating existing measures, so that they can be seen to be taking strong action against alcohol abuse.
I understand that the government has agreed to an opposition amendment to the Stronger Futures legislation which clarifies the power of the federal minister, particularly in relation to the alcohol measures. The amendment makes it clear that prior to modifying, suspending or cancelling a liquor licence or permit the minister is first required to write to the Northern Territory government requesting the Northern Territory Liquor Commission to take action. If after those steps are taken, the Northern Territory authorities decline to act, the Northern Territory government must then provide a written response detailing why that requested action will not be taken. After considering the response from the Northern Territory, the minister may then exercise the powers provided in this legislation to suspend or to cancel liquor licences.
The clause in the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011 that states alcohol sales must be restricted where harm may be caused to 'Aboriginal people', ignores the fact that it is an entire community that suffers either directly or indirectly from the consequences of alcohol abuse. Whether it is business owners or emergency service workers, they are just some of the other people whose lives and properties are put at risk as a result of the problem, be they Indigenous or otherwise. We have recommended that this clause be amended to specify that the sale of alcohol is causing harm in the 'community'. That removes any specific reference to the Aboriginal people. It also clearly identifies that excessive alcohol consumption and alcohol abuse have community-wide consequences and therefore require a whole-of-community commitment to overcome.
I also note that the coalition supports the township and community living area leasing arrangements in the legislation. This is a reform which is absolutely vital but it has not been pursued by this government. The Northern Territory emergency response monitoring report from October last year says:
Following feedback from the land councils on these proposals, township leasing is now being pursued as a longer-term priority, unless traditional owners initiate discussions.
The government is not showing the urgency that, in our view, this issue demands. The leasing arrangements should be a top priority, because township leases are vital to enabling private home ownership and commercial development in Indigenous communities.
In relation to food security, this measure is an extension of the previous government's community stores program, where stores were assessed and Outback Stores were supported to enter a community to raise the quality and quantity and reduce the price of food and other household items. Expanding the support, monitoring and enforcement of food standards is obviously important, and we are not quibbling on that point. But we do need to know why 10 years have been set aside for improvement in this area. It does seem to be an extraordinarily long time, and we would have thought that it could be—and should be—accomplished within a shorter time frame than that, or at least give us a chance of trying to meet a shorter time frame. A decade is a very, very long time to put on that assessment.
In relation to the issue of school attendance being tied to welfare, which of course is part of the social security bill, the evaluation report for the school enrolment and attendance measure, known as SEAM, shows that SEAM has not really been implemented properly. Again that engenders even greater frustration with the government's actions in this area. It seems to me difficult to conceive that fewer than 10 parents in the Northern Territory were suspended under the attendance component but school attendance at remote schools rarely exceeded 50 per cent. The conclusion that can be drawn from that report is that there is obviously a focus on the exchange of enrolment data between the schools and Centrelink, but where is the focus on greater working with the families to ensure the children are actually going to school? Our concern is that there is an imbalance, if you like.
One of the biggest overall concerns with the bills is that there do not appear to be interim targets set to ensure that the programs are achieving their aims, because all the measures are to be reviewed after seven years, except the alcohol measures, which are of course reviewed after two. We would like to see a more robust set of guidelines to track the progress of the reforms on a more frequent basis so that you could actually raise a red flag if you thought that the sort of progress you were looking for was not being achieved.
It has been a subject of great debate around some of the aims and objectives set within the COAG process that earlier warnings are necessary—in fact essential—to avoid the sorts of delays with the government's Indigenous COAG reforms, amongst others, which we have found in closely examining those. The COAG Reform Council in particular have been significantly delayed and, more importantly, frustrated due to the lack of availability of performance data. Those would seem to be a couple of key points that the coalition would be urging the government to consider.
We agree and have recognised for some time that federal involvement, federal investment, is critical to ending disadvantage and the feeling of disconnect or the actual disconnect in remote communities. I think that waiting for seven years, as specified in the legislation, to review what has worked is not good enough. It is not a strong enough requirement within this legislation and it seems to be almost a laying down of energy, if you like, to actually take this on as a hard task and pursue it as a hard task. We think that the measures should be reviewed after three years.
The Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 is the bill that inserts a new income management measure to enable income management referrals from both state and territory authorities. We do share the concerns which were raised by a number of submissions and a number of individuals who have provided evidence to the committee that there should be an established and transparent appeals mechanism which is applicable to all income management referral processes.
It concerns us as well that the government is very focused on process and perhaps less focused on outcomes than would be desirable. This new tranche of legislation has engendered a great deal of debate and a great deal of correspondence—I am sure all colleagues would acknowledge that—but the government does not necessarily seem prepared to strap on the boots for the sort of hard work that is necessary here, including the enforcement of sanctions and suspensions where necessary. If that continues to be the case, then the challenge that has been identified and agreed to overwhelmingly nationally of closing the gap will take so much longer. Those are the concerns that we see in relation to this legislation and which disappoint us in relation to the material put forward to the parliament in that context. I know that this will be a lengthy second reading debate and that there are also a number of amendments for the chamber to consider, but those points that I have raised and which were previously raised in remarks in the chamber by Senator Scullion are key issues that the coalition has endeavoured to address.
I regret that I have to rise tonight to speak to the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011. I spoke briefly about the reasons for that regret at two o'clock when we were debating the motion as to whether this bill would be debated tonight at all. I suspect when government senators come to their feet during this debate we will hear some arguments for urgency. I suspect we will hear some arguments for why this bill could not have waited until after the winter break. My reasons for strongly preferring that this debate was not occurring are twofold: first, it is a terrible bill that should not have been presented to this chamber in its present form in the first place; second, the person who has done the most in this building to champion the voices against the propositions being put in this bill is on the other side of the country tonight and is not able to be here.
I spoke earlier of the goodwill that I am very happy to acknowledge on behalf of the government and the whips and I suspect the minister in preventing this bill from coming forward last week when it was originally scheduled for debate. But here we are, Thursday night, with everybody probably pretty exhausted after a big couple of days in this parliament. We come here to work and nobody will complain about that, but we are expected to simply shunt this legislation through tonight without the key advocate for the reasons this bill should not pass in the first place being present.
I am sure that many senators have received a huge volume of email and traffic that I have received expressing profound opposition and deeply held concerns from people all over the country about extending the Northern Territory intervention with this bill. My friend and colleague Senator Rachel Siewert from Western Australia knows probably more intimately than most of us in here just how strongly felt that opposition is. Before I proceed, I would like to, if I may, seek leave, by agreement with the whips, and understand this has been cleared, to incorporate into Hansard at the end of my speech Senator Siewert's second reading speech.
I thank the chamber. I encourage senators to read the speech because it is a great deal more eloquent than the contribution that I will make now, but on Rachel's behalf I will do my best.
The Greens opposed the intervention when it was introduced in 2007 and we oppose it now. You can change the name but the underlying intent of the legislation remains the same, and the failure of the intentions of the original intervention, even with the best faith in the world. If you look back over the time since the original bills came into force in 2007, we have now had some time and some opportunity to assess whether or not it has succeeded—and it has failed. The legislation we are going to knock through tonight, presuming the coalition and the government will vote together, does nothing to address the failures of the original NTER. Instead, it entrenches them for another 15 years. That evidence was given to the Senate committee that travelled far and wide around the country to interpret the messages that were coming back, and I will speak a little bit about that experience down the track. We are not alone in opposing this legislation. We are joined by the Human Rights Commission and by the Catholic bishops. The intervention, and its continuation through this bill, has brought international shame upon Australia at the United Nations. The Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights and the Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People found that it was 'racially discriminating and infringes on the human rights of Aboriginal people'.
So here we are. The intervention has not worked. The gap is not closing. Probably most of the people here tonight if they were able would have attended the original Closing the Gap ceremony. I can remember it was an event free of politics. It was something that was welcomed and was the culmination of an amazing grassroots campaign that had been working through huge efforts from largely volunteer community groups and Aboriginal leaders and people throughout the communities. It made its way into this parliament and made its way onto the Prime Minister's desk and promises were made, announcements were made, programs were set in place. The intervention as a vehicle for achieving some of those things was a pretty clumsy and warped way of effectively hijacking the Closing the Gap debate. Use the bumper sticker, use the slogan, and insert these failed and coercive policies into that frame, which does an enormous injustice to the people who got that campaign onto the front page.
There are no Aboriginal people in the chamber tonight for this debate and so as a white guy from Fremantle I am going to quote somebody who is not here. This is entitled 'A letter to the politicians of Australia who will debate the Stronger Futures Legislation, June 2012'. The writer says:
I never thought I would be so affected by this statement from Rosalie and Djiniyini. It is like having everything I dreamed of disappearing from my sight. I am so upset at this happening to us and after all the hard work we have put into trying to stop the Stolen Futures Legislation getting passed in Parliament and becoming Law.
I don't know yet if it has been voted on in the Senate, but when I think of politicians in Canberra, who never bothered to get to know First Nations People or understand our Culture and simply don't care that we are human beings as they are, it makes me very sad and my heart aches for all those who have never known freedom in their lives and the deaths of the children who saw nothing but despair in their future lives and ended it with a rope or other form of suicide. I can only cry from the pain they felt and the hopelessness they looked forward to.
I can only ask those politicians who don't care for their fellow human beings, "Do you feel good about what you are doing to the First Nations People today? Does this power you have over our lives make you a better person? But most importantly, will you tell your grandchildren, what you did to the First Nations People this day and how you destroyed the lives of so many First Nations People and caused their deaths prematurely? Will you have the guts to admit what you have done, to your grandchildren, or will you hide this truth from them when they ask you, that question of curiosity, 'Who were the First Australians in this Land?' Will you feel the shame of Generations of First Nations People being trampled underfoot by your political policy of Racism and Discrimination and greed and how you used your power to keep them forcibly shackled to a yard or fenced-in area away from their Country and Communities, all because you wanted their wealth in their Land ownership, the wealth you will never know!
I wonder how you will tell your grandchildren these atrocities you did to the First Nations People.
If you will tell the truth to them.
If you will finally say you are sorry for what you did and mean it.
If you will shed a tear for the People who only wanted to live their old age in freedom on their Traditional Lands and teach THEIR grandchildren the wealth of knowledge they had.
These beautiful People are no longer with us now. They died of broken hearts and Stolen Dreams by politicians who never cared to treat us like human beings.
You will have to look into your grandchild's eyes and see the emptiness they feel of losing such a wonderful Heritage and Culture forever, for your greed.
Traditional Owner of Uluru
Those words come from the centre of the country. She obviously cannot be here tonight, but, through the clumsy mechanisms that are available to us, after the kind of evidence-gathering processes that we can avail ourselves of in the parliament, mostly just sitting down and listening, we will put these views as best we can.
The failed strategy of the intervention will be set in concrete for 15 years by this legislation. It is interesting that you would stand up and critique that, because actually what this area of policy needs most is some continuity. Steady resourcing of programs and long-term commitments are welcome, not just in this portfolio but in many cases across the board, but what happens if we get the original settings wrong? What happens if we look at the evidence that has accumulated since 2007 and conclude that we can set it aside and just plough on as though we did not know? Funnelling resources through a policy framework that is flawed is not defensible. It is not defensible, particularly when there are alternatives, and of course there are.
Ideas for such alternatives have been emerging, but not really through the inquiry process, which was mishandled. Inadequate notice for people, time frames that were crunched and, very importantly in this area, lack of translation were major problems. Some of the alternative paths—and I suspect Senator Wright, when she comes to her feet a little later in the evening, will speak of them; I know this is a passion of hers—include justice, not jail; building communities, not prisons. The phrase that has come to be used—and I came across it first after having my eyes opened by former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma at an event in Sydney—is 'justice reinvestment': schools, youth workers, child centres, counselling, drug and alcohol work, not incarceration.
I put up a reference to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee—and I was to be pleased to have it supported—for an inquiry into access to justice. I have some insights on this issue, and it is wonderful to see the idea taking hold. Before former Attorney-General McClelland was moved into a different portfolio, there were very interesting signs coming out of the Attorney-General's office that this was an idea that could be taken up—putting the money at the front-end for treating people and treating the reasons why there are such catastrophic levels of incarceration of Aboriginal people, particularly young people. I will leave those issues to Senator Wright to address later in the debate.
In the area of education, an alternative approach to that taken by the government suggests that education should be used for empowerment, rather than punishment. Why exactly is there a ban on bilingual education in the Northern Territory? It is shameful that people cannot learn in their own language, where requested, in addition to English. Schools can be centres of culture and community but not without properly resourced staff and equipment. The Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure is a punitive program that links welfare payments to school attendance, and does not make coming to school an empowering or happy learning experience. The Greens oppose it.
Compulsory income management is one of the headline issues around the intervention. When you come off a plane in Alice Springs or in the Top End, that is one of the first things that you will hear about if you stop and listen. It is being expanded under this legislation. Jimmy Wavehill, one of the old men who walked off the Wave Hill station and helped spark the original land rights movement in this country, in the action celebrated in the Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly song From Little Things Big Things Grow, told a staff member of ours that the income management BasicsCard reminded him of the ration card. That is how demeaning and insulting the system is to people. You turn up at the shopping centre and you stand in the blackfellas' line with your BasicsCard, because you are being told that you are not grown-up enough to look after your own affairs. These people are being treated like dirt. Jimmy in particular fought for his rights and, in old age, after raising a family of children with his wife, is being treated like an infant again. There is no evidence that income management actually works to improve budgeting or any other outcome. I challenge members of this parliament to describe to us whether they would submit to this kind of thing—if somebody in Canberra was going to hold onto half your cash for you and work out what it is that you can and cannot buy, at certain kinds of shops that might be a long, long way from where you live.
I will be moving, at the request of Senator Siewert, a second reading amendment that catches the issue of alcohol. I know this is a vexed issue, that it is complicated and that there are no simple solutions, but there are alternatives to blanket alcohol bans. Some of the best places in the north-west, which I am a little more familiar with, are the ones where solutions bubbled up from the grassroots, from the communities themselves. In some Kimberley communities, there are solutions that have been brought to bear, but none of them are alike. In every area where it has worked, it has been slightly different. Communities need resources to develop local solutions to alcohol misuse and abuse. There are culturally appropriate and accessible alcohol treatment programs. But the approach under the intervention is to put up signs, at the edge of which people drink. I have seen these. I have spent a fair bit of time in the Territory, and you can see these monstrous great signs by the side of the freeway saying, 'You are coming into a prescribed area,' with a whole lot of fine print about things you are not allowed to do. There are serious problems associated with alcohol around the country, through every racial group in the country. Putting up signs—if that is considered to be some form of rehabilitation—is not considered, in those prescribed areas, as a sign of support. It is not setting any kind of floor price. It is not implementing alcohol-free days. These are some of the answers that we should be experimenting with—or supporting the experiments that exist. Gigantic billboards are not.
I would like briefly to foreshadow some of the amendments that the Greens will be moving to these flawed bills. I will speak at much greater length on the amendments when we get to the committee stage of the legislation. And, as I said, I will be moving a second reading amendment, which I believe has been circulated to the whips. It reads:
At the end of the motion, add:
but that the Senate recommends that, after community consultation, the Government develop a policy for the implementation of take-away alcohol free days, and a floor price for alcohol.
These are two of the measures that have come through the process which those who have been closer to this legislation and this debate than me would be very familiar with. Senator Siewert's amendments in the committee stage, which we will discuss, go to a number of issues. One will ensure that the Australian Human Rights Commission criteria for meaningful consultation go into the definition in the legislation. There are also amendments to the objects clause referencing effective participation. There are amendments to remove the entire schedule containing SEAM. If that schedule is not removed, we will then move amendments to improve community and family involvement in the drafting of attendance plans and ensuring that parents understand fully their obligations under those plans.
We are proposing amendments to remove the schedule containing income management from the legislation entirely, for reasons that I just described. If this schedule is maintained, we will move amendments to remove the power to refer by state and territory agencies and reduce the amount of money that can be quarantined. So, if we cannot get rid of that obnoxious schedule from the bill, perhaps we can at least condition it and wind back its impact on people somewhat.
There are amendments to remove the ability to make new alcohol protected areas and requiring all present bans to sunset in three years, unless of course communities choose, through their free will, to maintain them. This will allow alcohol protected areas to be transitioned into alcohol management plans. We will discuss amendments to remove harsher penalties for possession and consumption of alcohol and amendments to ensure that judges can consider customary law and culture in bail and sentencing for all offences in the NT—and take a look at some of the experiments and the degree to which these ideas have been tried in Western Australia, where very similar issues are obviously prevalent. We propose amendments to sunset the legislation in five years rather than 10, and I hope that this is something, at least, that we can carry.
I am not familiar enough with this legislation, having been dragged into it kicking and screaming, quite literally, to know whether we have coalition or perhaps even government support for some of these amendments, but I hope to test some of these propositions later in the evening. We have also an amendment which will change the requirement for investigating premises from 'causing substantial harm to Aboriginal people' to 'causing substantial harm to the community'.
It is five years since the NTER insulted Aboriginal people. I can remember quite clearly the day that Prime Minister Howard announced it. I was at the place of a friend who actually ended up being my campaign manager, because we were in the early stages of the campaign that would eventually, for better or worse, bring me here. My friend and dear colleague burst into tears, because it was so clear what was being done. The politics of it were so brutal—the way the announcement was made, ripping off the Little children are sacred report and pretending that that was what this was all about. I can also remember quite clearly sometime later the original authors of that report reminding the public and reminding the government that not a single one of the recommendations in that report was acted on. Their report was hollowed out and used as a political shell to advance an agenda of control and coercion that is absolutely inappropriate for us to be entrenching and consolidating in 2012, for heaven's sake.
The result, which was described in a recent issue of Arena magazine, is pretty messy and disturbing. I commend this to the chamber, and perhaps we might even, by leave, once it has been to the whips, seek to table a copy of that document for the permanent record. By the government's own measures, outcomes and indicators, this policy is failing. Unemployment and welfare dependence in many cases are worse than they were before the NTER was instituted. Children are being hospitalised and school attendance has not improved. Suicide and self-harm rates have doubled since the intervention. I believe that some of the senators who will come in here later this evening and vote for the bill profoundly wish that they were not, but perhaps some contributions could be made about why, when the indicators are all going in the opposite direction, we are insisting on carrying on. These are not results that should be simply continued; they are results that should be heeded, understood and not perpetuated.
I am also not claiming that there was nothing good in that package, because clearly there was. I believe that the senators who took evidence on the way around the country heard evidence that there are measures that work. Let's take those and let's continue them, but let's not continue the false hope of a continued coercive approach that has made people in the NT and across the country feel even more powerless than they already did. We owe these people better. The government came in and provided a moving apology. We do not want it to conclude its time owing more. I move:
At the end of the motion, add:
but that the Senate recommends that, after community consultation, the Government develop a policy for the implementation of take-away alcohol free days, and a floor price for alcohol.
I now incorporate into Hansard Senator Siewert's second reading speech.
(—) (): The incorporated speech read as follows—
The Australian Greens oppose this package of legislation.
But we are not the only ones.
I read here from the statement of the Yolngu Nations Assembly, who represent the people of 8 Aboriginal nations in Western, Central, and East Arnhem Land:
To the Leaders of the Australian Federal and Northern Territory Parliaments:
The Yolngu Nations reject the Stronger Futures Bill (and those associated) and call on the Senate to discard these Bills in full. We have clearly informed you that we do not support the legislation.
The Australian Federal Government can achieve all its aims through partnership in our communities. They have no need to grant themselves the continued and new powers contained within these Bills....
The Yolngu Nations call on both the Australian Federal and Northern Territory Governments to end their interventionist policies and agendas, and return to a mindset of partnership based on the principles of Self - Determination.
Partnership and Self-Determination
I'd also like to share with you comments from the CEO of Malabam Health Board in Manningrida
Do you all know what a lorrkon is? It is a hollow log. We use logs for coffins. Since the intervention and since this new policy has come in that is all we are seeing. We are seeing hollow people walking around. This place is definitely different from the place it was before the intervention. That is not to say that we do not have our issues; we do, as do a lot of other communities. Personally, and again this is only my personal view, they seem to be exacerbated and have been since the intervention. I am not confident that Stronger Futures is going to rectify any of that, but that is what we have got to deal with.
Sentiments like this were expressed by many witnesses we spoke to during the Community Affairs Committee inquiry. I cannot overstate the opposition to these Bills. It came from Aboriginal leaders, Aboriginal people, Aboriginal organisations, community service organisations, the NT anti discrimination commissioner; teachers; social workers; academics and the Australian Human Rights Commission—our National Human Rights Institution. And just recently, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia issued a statement, calling on us—on Federal Senators not to pass this legislation
I could go on and on listing organisations and eminent persons that reject these Bills. Rarely in my time as a Senator have I seen such consistent, fierce and wide ranging opposition to a suite of legislation.
The Stronger Futures package effectively extends the measures put in place by Northern Territory 'Intervention'. The Australian Greens opposed the Intervention and we likewise oppose the Stronger Futures legislation.
There is no substantive evidence to show that the Intervention has had a positive effect on the lives of Aboriginal people in the NT. Rather, it is clear that the top-down, punitive nature of the Intervention is actually undermining and disempowering Aboriginal people and communities.
The ineffectiveness of these measures is not surprising considering international research on Indigenous economic development points to the success of community driven measures over top-down approaches.
Let me repeat—we oppose this legislations. Time after time we have criticised the Intervention, and this policy is no different.
I'll explain why.
Extension of an Ineffective and Expensive Approach
The safety and wellbeing of children in remote areas and town camps is severely under threat in the Northern Territory and remains so. Their circumstances are perilous, even when compared to the circumstances of Indigenous children in other Australian jurisdictions. There is a mass of data supporting that contention. They have been documented widely. There have been a few improvements.
School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure (SEAM)
The official evaluation of the SEAM trials is incomplete. Nevertheless, the 2009 Evaluation Report makes clear that in 2009 there was no observable improvement in school attendance. On this basis, APO NT submits that the introduction of the Social Security Bill, seeking to continue and in fact extend SEAM, is unjustifiable.
Tackling Alcohol Abuse
There is an American academic, Patricia Williams she is a black woman who describes the majoritarian privilege of not noticing one's self. That is the danger with this sort of law, that we, being white fellows, do not recognise our culture and our custom as we think that is the status quo. When it is Aboriginal people it is custom and culture and it is excluded. That is why at the core of this law there is something that really should trouble us.
A call for a culturally competent approach which supports local governance
There is extensive Australian and international research which consistently concludes that active participation of Aboriginal people in decision-making on issues affecting their communities is fundamental to effective governance and a precursor to sustained development ...
The Stronger Futures engagement mechanisms and consultation processes will be ineffective unless they are supported by a skilled and culturally competent government workforce. The NTER Review Board found that new attitudes must be developed to redefine the relationship between the bureaucracy and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples including a greater understanding of Indigenous cultures and world views.
I have waited many, many weeks and many, many months to provide my contribution to this debate on what we would probably call the Stronger Futures packages. We are talking tonight about three bills: the main bill itself, the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2012; the consequential provisions bill; and changes to elements of the social security legislation.
Five years ago, when the Northern Territory Emergency Response occurred, or the 'intervention', as we now all commonly call it, I was shocked. I was literally shocked. I just could not find words that night or the next day, as people across the Northern Territory were ringing me. My colleagues in the Northern Territory were ringing me, absolutely bewildered at why the Howard government would move into Aboriginal communities with the speed and the stealth and the lack of consultation with which they did. The intervention was introduced in less than 48 hours with not a word to anybody, with total disregard for the work of Clare Martin, who was then the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, and a total disregard for any of the reforms that the Northern Territory government had put into place.
I am hoping that, with the passage of this legislation, we can just get a few facts on the record tonight—and so far, from the two speakers I have heard, we are very far from the facts. For example, Senator Payne, the school attendance and enrolment management program has only been on trial in the Northern Territory in fewer than eight schools, so you cannot talk about improvement of attendance across the Northern Territory. It has not even been in all of the schools across the Northern Territory. So let's start talking about a few facts here. I say that bearing in mind also the number of emails I have received from particular groups that seek to lobby about this, sitting in the heart of Melbourne and Sydney rather than the heart of Borroloola, Ngukurr or Lajamanu.
But I am hoping that with the passage of this legislation we can ensure that the intervention is placed in another sorry, sad chapter of the history of the communities in the Northern Territory. Key legislative NTER measures will cease by 12 August. This is not a continuation of the intervention. If this legislation goes through, it will stop the Howard government's intervention. As I said, along with many others I was totally shocked about the motives, about the disregard for Indigenous people, about the lack of respect—disbelief and an absolute sense of betrayal. I have travelled the length and the breadth of the Northern Territory many, many times over the last five years. I have probably not gone to as many communities as I wanted to and I have probably not gone back to them as often as I wanted to, and I would have to say the same, probably, for Senator Scullion. Of all the people in this place, we know only too well the hurt and pain that Indigenous people have endured in the Northern Territory because of those policies.
Within a year of coming to government we announced that we would do a review, which we did. It reported in October 2008, and this government handed down its response in 2009. We accepted the need initially to reset our relationship with Indigenous people. That is the first thing we wanted to do as a government. We recognised that high levels of disadvantage still had to be urgently addressed—and they still do. There are improvements out there in communities, but circumstances are nowhere near what we would find acceptable in this day and age. One of the first things we did was reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act, and we introduced a scheme of income management that was not racially discriminatory. In the Northern Territory now it is applied to everybody. I do not particularly like the model. I have made my views known very loudly and clearly to the government to which I belong. I believe it needs to be a model that you opt into—totally, voluntarily—or it needs to be a model whereby families that do need assistance are targeted. I think today's amendments, which unfortunately the Greens want to remove, are the way to go. They are the kinds of amendments I think we need, rather than the obligatory, mandatory income management regime.
But, I have to say, as I get around the Territory I meet lots of people who actually like it. I never hear their voices being echoed by lobby groups. I never hear their voices being articulated in this chamber. But they actually like it. A couple of women out in one of the communities said to me when I was there about five weeks ago that they like the fact they can go into the local store and know they have a certain amount of money to spend on their food and goods. They like the fact that it is budgeted for them. They actually like that! People say to me, 'I like the fact that the fellas in my life, the young boys in my life, my grandsons, can't humbug me for all my cash,' and there are many thousands in the Northern Territory who have that view. So we have to accept that there are some elements of this package that the people I represent want continued.
We also redesigned the alcohol and pornography restrictions, the law enforcement powers and the community stores licensing. But, if you have a look at or have a very good read of the Stronger Futures legislation, it really goes to only four measures. One is to sort out what is happening on community living areas. We have needed to do that for long time. Do you know why that is in there? The Indigenous people are frustrated with the intransigence of the Northern Territory government, so they came to us and asked, 'Can you work with the Northern Land Council and the Central Land Council and get a move on this?' For those people who might be listening, community living areas, or CLAs, are those communities that are excised on pastoral properties. At the moment, no-one can own anything on them. There are usually no stores on them. No-one can get a lease to do anything on them, because of the nature of the lease on that land. It is a CLA, a community living area. They want that sorted. That is in this legislation. Why would those opposite object to that?
I want to go through the other issues one by one. Regarding alcohol management, the plans we want to introduce through this will take us to regional centres and remote communities. Communities will be able to have their own alcohol management plans. Groote Eylandt, where they have had their own alcohol management plan, has been particularly successful. From 2004-05 to 2008 their antisocial behaviour declined by 74 per cent. Property crime dropped by 68 per cent. Aggravated assaults dropped by 68 per cent. In Nhulunbuy, where there are some alcohol management plans, the number of people in protective custody has halved since 2009.
We know that there is more work to be done, and we are working with the Northern Territory government, who of course have announced their 'enough is enough' laws. But what we see is that people want their own alcohol management plans. Barbara Shaw is out there advocating that we do not pass this legislation. In her particular town camp they are negotiating their own alcohol management plan. When I asked her in Alice Springs, 'Do you think that having an alcohol management plan camp by camp or community by community is a good way to go?' she said, 'Yes. It's no good my camp having an alcohol management plan and then using it in my grandfather's community. It should be his people in his community making up their own rules.' That is what this legislation allows to happen. That is exactly what this legislation allows to occur, so that, community by community, people can sit down and empower themselves and go back to having their own alcohol management plans. That is something the original intervention took away.
Alcohol consumption in the Northern Territory is the highest in the world; it is 14.6 litres per person per year. Even the national level is only 10.3 litres. We need to do something about it, and we are working with Aboriginal communities to do something about it. There will now be penalties for grog running. That is, if you are supplying 1,350 millilitres of pure alcohol—and we are going to make amendments to ensure that that is really clear to people—you are going to be penalised now. You cannot stock up the boot of your car and run it into communities and get away with it anymore. This legislation will empower police in communities to deal with it.
The other thing I want to say is: what is not in this act is those horrible, shocking, blue community signs, which I think were probably Mal Brough's idea to put up all around the place. Those signs can now be taken down and replaced with signs that are more respectful and that have had direct community input into them. So, yes, it will be illegal to take alcohol into communities, because they are dry, and it will be against the law to have certain pornography in those communities—just as it is illegal for me to take my cattle dog into a national park, and there is a sign there saying stop, you cannot do it. It is the same with these communities. So those horrible, godforsaken silver and blue signs can come down finally with the passage of this legislation, and Aboriginal communities will be able to replace them with their own signs that they have designed and that they have negotiated for, ensuring that they comply with the legislation. I think that is a great thing and I am going to be out there every day advocating that they do that.
This legislation will license community stores—92 have been licensed—and with that comes improvement in quality, quantity and the range of fresh food. With licensing comes improvement in the management and operation of stores. They are cleaner, they are more hygienic and, guess what, they now employ Indigenous staff. As well, licensed outback stores do not have book-up any more. It has meant an end to book-up—an end to a cycle of debt. Book-up is where you go into a store and say, 'I really can't afford that $100 worth of food but give it to me anyway, and when I get my Centrelink money next week I will pay you back.' But you can never pay it back because the next week you need the next $100 worth. That cycle of debt is now ended because outback stores will be licensed and the BasicsCard has been introduced.
This is about food security in remote communities. The stores have been managed and handled in a shonky way by people who have no regard for the kind of food they sell or the people they sell it to. The only regard they have is for how fat their wallet is going to be at the end of the week. This will stop with the licensing of outback stores. That is what is in this legislation. How could anyone say that that is not a good thing? Indigenous people everywhere say to me, 'Sister, I want my store looking just like your Woolies supermarket; I want my store to have proper fruit—I don't want to pay $10 for three oranges anymore.' That is what outback stores have been doing, store by store. If it is not outback stores, it is ALPA—and I gave a speech just last week on how fantastic ALPA is in the Top End. There will be penalties if the store licence is breached. Stores will be designated food security areas. This is about ensuring that there will be competition out there. Competition always drives a better outcome.
I turn to land reform. Five-year leases will not be extended. Fair rent will continue to be paid for the period those leases are in force. The issue of leasing was polarised by the former minister, Mal Brough—there is no doubt about that. There was no attempt to get people to work with the previous government on this. Leasing became a threat—sign up to these 99-year leases on Galiwinku or you will not get any houses. We do not operate like that, and we have never operated like that. We have empowered Indigenous people. We have sat with Indigenous people, through the department and through Jenny Macklin, day after day and got them to understand that at the end of the day if you lease your land, on which we can then build a building, you will get rent for the land that you lease—you will get payment for the land you have leased.
Let me put this on the record: under the current leases, nine major communities in the Top End will receive payments equal to the royalties of a small mine—about $1 million to $2.5 million—once an agreement with the Valuer-General has been reached. For the first time ever communities will be paid for the land that they lease to governments or to people who want a house on that land. They will get money out of that. I will be dammed if I know why anyone would not want to support legislation that ensures that.
So they are three areas: alcohol, store management and land issues. The fourth area is school enrolment and improvement in attendance. I am probably the only person in the federal parliament who has taught on an Aboriginal community. I am probably the only person who has gone to school on Monday with 25 kids in my class, and three on Tuesday, six on Wednesday, 25 again on Thursday and maybe two on Friday. Then the following Monday I get another 25—but they might be a different 25 from the 25 I had the week before. I have been there and I have experienced how damned difficult it is trying to teach kids when you cannot even get the same child consistently day after day.
Whose fault is this? It is everyone's fault. Finally we now have the Northern Territory government stepping up to the plate with their Every Child, Every Day strategy. That is about ensuring that the Department of Education and Training starts to bring people into the schools, starts to work with Indigenous parents, starts to develop attendance plans with them and starts to get to the grassroots reasons those kids are not attending every single day. This is an intervention as much on the Northern Territory government as it is on trying to get kids to school every day. We know the statistics for child attendance, and I am not going to go over them again here. What I do want to say is that I do not know of any answer other than to have a piece of legislation that is going to draw all the parties together. It will make the department of education in the Northern Territory and the teachers in the school communities come to the table. It will make the parents come to the table. Let's get to the bottom of why those kids are not coming to school. Thirty-three school community agreements have already been completed and it is anticipated that a further 22 will be completed by the end of this year.
I think I saw in the last statistics from the Northern Territory department of education that, with the 480 children they have been working with in the trial schools, there have been 39 breaches to date. At the end of the day we do not want any breaches at all. We want to see the education system strengthened so that there is a plan in place to get children to school every single day of every single year. I would hope, at the end of the day, that we have a commitment from the Northern Territory government and from our Centrelink social workers to work with families. That is where we want to be at. We want to work out whether a child is not going to school every day because they do not have shoes, because they are hungry or because they have not been able to sleep at night. You know what? Those are some of the really basic excuses you get for a kid not turning up to school in the Northern Territory.
Schools in the Northern Territory are fabulous places. A lot of my friends and colleagues work in them and they are places of fun and joy. I think it is time. People are screaming out at me. They say: 'Trish, you have to do something about getting my grandson to school. I want my kids to have an education. I want my community to be well educated. I just can't get my grandson to school. You have to help us do something.' That is what this legislation does.
There is one part of this legislation I strongly disagree with and I am toying with the idea of asking the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee to inquire into the provisions relating to customary law. I think we are making a very big mistake in not accepting the fact that the customary law provisions need to be removed from this piece of legislation. Schedule 4 of the bill amends the Crimes Act and proposes to insert new section 16AA. The effect of this provision would be to prohibit a court, in bail or sentencing matters, from taking into account customary law or cultural practices which may lessen or aggravate the seriousness of criminal behaviour. I refer to the comments about this provision made by Chief Justice Riley on 30 May 2011, when he gave an address to the centenary ceremonial sitting of the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory. He argued:
The effect of that provision, whether intended or unintended, has been held to be that customary law and cultural practice must not be taken into account—
and went on to say that, because of this:
Aboriginal offenders do not enjoy the same rights as offenders from other sections of the community. It seems to me this is a backward step.
Whether, as he says, the effect of the provision is intended or unintended, clearly customary law and cultural practice should be taken into account. I think this is a flaw in this legislation and I think it needs to be addressed. (Time expired)
The Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 and the two related bills together comprise the so-called Stronger Futures legislation—rather disingenuously named in my view. The Australian Greens oppose this legislation. The legislation proposes to extend both the time frame and the geographic scope of an ineffective and damaging policy, which is the NT intervention under another name. This is despite widespread opposition to the intervention and a serious lack of evidence that it has been at all effective in improving outcomes for affected communities.
I want to put on record, in line with the comments of my colleagues in the Australian Greens, why continuing the intervention is not the right path for Australia. In short, it is a top-down, heavy-handed, disempowering policy. It was made clear during the Senate inquiry into these bills that the NT emergency response has caused an erosion of community governance and a disempowerment of Aboriginal people. This disempowerment has been caused by a number of factors, including the way the federal, state and territory governments engaged with Aboriginal communities throughout the intervention and the general top-down, punitive nature of the intervention measures and their interaction with other simultaneous reforms. There was reduced control at the community level and increased centralisation of decision making due to the parallel reforms to the Community Development Employment Program, remote service delivery, housing and homelands and to the abolition of community councils in the local government reforms.
This heavy-handed approach flies in the face of research from the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, which the Senate inquiry into these bills heard extensive evidence about. Their research demonstrates that when indigenous communities:
… make their own decisions about what development approaches to take, they consistently out-perform external decision makers on matters as diverse as governmental form, natural resource management, economic development, health care, and social service provision.
I will talk a little bit now about how income management potentially breaches human rights obligations. The Law Council of Australia has described income management, which of course is a core part of these bills, as 'unacceptable' and in direct contravention of Australia's international human rights obligations. While the Stronger Futures package, unlike the 2007 intervention, will no longer involve the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act—and for that small mercy, at least, we are grateful—there are very serious concerns that these laws will have a disproportionate impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. This is because, although the law will apply to everyone, the people who will be impacted by the law are, disproportionately, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Clearly, therefore, it is indirect discrimination.
In our view the package also gives state and territory authorities far too much discretion to impose income management on any person in Australia. The Australian Human Rights Commission advised the Senate inquiry that it is concerned by the breadth of the minister's discretion, which allows income management to be introduced across the country without consultation with affected communities. Indeed, there is no evidence that the communities in the five targeted areas were consulted prior to the budget announcement or the introduction of the social security bill. Not only is income management being extended to five communities but the minister will be able to grant other state and territory authorities the ability to put any other Australian outside of those specific intervention areas on income management, which is, quite frankly, outrageous.
The original intervention was not based on evidence and the same is true for this continuation. It just has not delivered. One would think and hope that a continuation and expansion of a policy of this magnitude would be supported by a solid evidence base. But research suggests this is not the case. Two years after the introduction of compulsory income management, evidence suggested that in fact there had been no increase in purchases of healthier food and drink and no reduction in tobacco sales. Despite the emphasis placed on children's health in the ongoing Northern Territory emergency response, or NTER, data showed that in the Northern Territory in 2009-2010 only 12.7 per cent of children aged under 15 had a health check that attracted a Medicare reimbursement. There has been only a very small increase in the number of convictions for child sexual abuse in the implementation of the NTER and, with some few exceptions, school attendance at NT remote schools fell in 2009 and 2010. Fewer than 60 per cent of children enrolled in 2010 were attending school and that has declined from 70 per cent at the beginning of 2009. There was little change in attendance rates at government remote and provincial schools in 2009 to 2010. Dr Bath, the Northern Territory Children's Commissioner, informed the Senate inquiry into this bill:
The safety and wellbeing of children in remote areas and town camps is severely under threat in the Northern Territory and remains so. Their circumstances are perilous, even when compared to the circumstances of Indigenous children in other Australian jurisdictions. There is a mass of data supporting that contention. They have been documented widely. There have been a few improvements.
He then went on to state the following:
Up to 70% of children in some communities are affected by ... inner ear disorder.
Anaemia is present in up to 40 per cent, with an average of around 22 per cent of remote area kids.
At what cost? There is no evidence base to suggest things are improving, yet this heavy-handed and paternalistic approach has cost Australian taxpayers almost $1 billion. Why continue such a flawed policy? As for the Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure, SEAM, the Australian Greens are very concerned that the government intends to spend over $110 million over four years on a policy that cannot be shown to be effective, when that money could be spent on properly resourcing schools in the Northern Territory and other Indigenous communities and putting in place programs that will actually improve school attendance.
I want to talk now about whether Indigenous communities feel they have been heard in this debate which critically affects their very wellbeing and existence. It is clear that many Indigenous communities are deeply unhappy with the intervention. I would like to put on the record the concerns of the Yolngu Nations Assembly, from north-east Arnhem Land, who have issued the following statement—it is extensive but it is very powerful:
To the Leaders of the Australian Federal and Northern Territory Parliaments:
1. The Yolngu nations reject the Stronger Futures bill (and those associated) and call on the Senate to discard these bills in full. We have clearly informed you that we do not support the legislation.
This dreaded federal government can achieve all its aims through partnership in our communities. They have no need to grant themselves the continued and new powers contained within these Bills.
2. Until the Stronger Futures Bill (and those associated) are thrown out of the Australian federal parliament, the Yolngu Nations call on all traditional owners across the Northern Territory to refuse:
a) participation in land lease negotiations with the Australian federal government, and
b) approval for any exploration licences.
3. The traditional owners (TOs) of prescribed community lands have been placed under extreme pressure from the Australian federal government to grant them headpieces over these communities. TOs want independently facilitate negotiations that can result in advancing the interests of both the TOs and the Australian federal government.
4. The Land Councils are increasingly being pressed by the government to act outside their roles and become agencies of government. We want our Land Councils to advocate for our needs and not have their independence curtailed by government funding arrangements and political interference.
The Yolngu Nations call on the Australian federal parliament to ask the Auditor-General for a review of the relationship between the Australian federal government and the Land Councils of the Northern Territory.
5. The Yolngu Nations call on both the Australian federal and Northern Territory governments to end their interventionist policies and agendas, and returned to a mindset of partnership based on the principles of self-determination.
6. The Yolngu Nations call on the Northern Territory government to reform the structures of local government ... to better reflect Yolngu and First People's government structures which will provide a more locally based and accessible form of local government.
7. The Yolngu Nations call for an end to the Northern Territory governments Working Futures policy. For the sustainable social and economic development of our society, homelands need to be considered equal to communities that were former mission and government settlements.
8. The Yolngu Nations call for an end to the Northern Territory governments Compulsory Teaching in English for the First Four of Hours of Each School Day policy. To be successful we need education with instruction in our Yolngu languages through all levels of schooling.
This statement by the Yolngu Nations Assembly has been supported by numerous civil society groups.
The statement was signed by Reverend Dr Gondarra, who told the Senate inquiry into these bills:
If we want to see Aboriginal people better in education, better in jobs and better in any other area, we need to work together to build better legislation because this particular legislation is not on.
The Australian people should be asked to reject this legislation because it is racist. It is not helping our people. That is why we come before you and you are listening to us because we represent not stakeholders, not a department, not the service providers. We come here to represent people who are struggling, people who feel pain, people who are confused—what is going on?
Madam Chair, we want you to take this message from us. It is eating us like a cancer. We are always going to be, from the fifties until today, 2012, a puppet on a string of somebody else. We are not a free people. We are supposed to be the first people, the first nation, of this country. You should be learning so much from us when we are learning something from you. This is very important for us. We should be able to educate our people to stand and work together to build.
It is abundantly clear that these bills are not supported by key Aboriginal leaders. Why will the government not listen to them?
I would also like to put on the record the appalling consultation process by which this legislation supposedly gained community support. The vast majority of submissions and evidence addressing the consultation process expressed serious concern at how the consultations were carried out and the way community comments and concerns were reflected in the consultation report. The Australian Human Rights Commission summarised this in their submission to the Senate committee inquiry into these bills, stating:
The Commission has previously brought these concerns to the attention of the government in relation to the inadequacy of the consultation process as outlined below:
- Stronger Futures Discussion Paper
- Stronger Futures Discussion Paper
It was evident from the Senate inquiry that this lack of consultation has led to a lack of understanding among Aboriginal people about what this legislation actually contains. For example, Miss Shaw from the Intervention Rollback Action Group, speaking about her grandfather's experience, said:
There were no consultations at his nearest community—the only one he has ever known and the one he grew up in. So here he is: an old man who is almost 80—he looks very well for his age—who has lived on the same country his whole life as a caretaker, who is a prominent elder in his community and who is the holder of stories of his country. Yet he does not know anything about the three bills being passed …
In my grandfather's community, for example, how they went about it is that a time and a place were booked for somebody to go out there, but a few days later a phone call was received to say it had been cancelled. The people in my grandfather's community were not consulted about the Stronger Futures. So they do not know. The only consultation that he had came from land council. If people are not going to have their say and their input into the Stronger Futures policy then how are you supposed to work in partnership and have genuine consultation with people? How are you going to find out what people's needs and wants are?
The Maningrida community were particularly critical of the consultation process. Community members commented that meetings were disorganised and rushed; materials were not given in time for people to properly understand them; no-one returned to follow up; and, in one instance, men and women were divided into separate groups for discussion, despite wanting to consult as a group. Mr Morrish, CEO of Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation, told the committee inquiry:
Just to clarify in relation to the consultation process, I want to bring a couple of points to the committee's attention. The discussion paper on Stronger Futures was actually handed to members of the community minutes—literally minutes—before the minister arrived for that consultation. I am not sure how community members, with low levels of numeracy and literacy in some cases, where English is a third or fourth language, are supposed to digest a 28-page document in a matter of minutes in order to have an informed consultation, and for the results of that consultation to be taken back and considered and used informing the Stronger Futures legislation. Certainly the Stronger Futures legislation report does not reflect in any knowing way what was actually said here. There were a number of clear statements made that certainly have not found their way into that report.
I want to talk a little about what is actually needed. There is overwhelming evidence that, rather than draconian, top-down interventions, governments must learn to develop respectful partnerships with Indigenous people and communities. Trust and respect between government and communities is critical to tackling the issues that face those communities. Solutions need to be developed in partnership with local communities, drawing on local expertise and governance, to develop and implement more effective, local solutions.
The Australian Greens believe that the federal government must re-examine the approach that they are taking in the Northern Territory and, of course, that they now wish to roll out elsewhere. International research and best practice point to the importance of empowerment and local governance in improving outcomes for Indigenous people. The Stronger Futures package, rather than empowering Aboriginal people, undermines their governance and devalues their culture. Until we see a change in approach, until Aboriginal people are empowered to lead their own development, efforts in the NT and elsewhere will not be effective. The Australian Greens recommend that the federal and Northern Territory governments commit to appropriately resource—which includes financial and technical assistance—and prioritise programs that facilitate the development of community governance structures. Such measures enable and empower Aboriginal communities to engage with and control decision making about their cultural, political, economic and social development goals.
As a Queensland senator I do not want to see compulsory income management rolled out in Logan and Rockhampton, in low-income communities, which this bill will allow. This is racist, bad policy, and rolling it out in non-Indigenous communities as well just makes it bad policy that is applied to everyone.
In conclusion, the Australian Greens oppose the intervention and we likewise oppose the Stronger Futures legislation. There is no substantive evidence to show that the intervention has had a positive effect on the lives of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. Rather, we have heard loud and clear from Aboriginal people, their representative organisations and the community sector that the top-down, punitive nature of the intervention has actually undermined and disempowered Aboriginal people and communities. That the intervention has been ineffective should come as no surprise. International research on Indigenous economic development makes it clear that community driven measures are far more successful in improving the lives of people than top-down approaches. The government should abandon Stronger Futures. These bills will not deliver the future we want for Australian communities.
The Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory bills before the Senate this evening are of serious concern to me and to all members of the Democratic Labor Party. Over the past couple of months, I have received a large amount of correspondence from my constituents and from members of the wider community right across Australia with regard to this legislation. They share my concerns about the legislation, not least of which is the concern derived from the fact that this legislation was rushed through the other place without giving members an adequate opportunity to debate it.
I would like to bring the Senate's attention to the fact that there were only nine sitting days between the legislation being brought before the parliament and its third reading, only one of which was occupied with debate. I am also concerned that members failed to properly listen to constituents. The fact that the Community Affairs Legislation Committee released its report on 14 March this year, two weeks after the bill passed the lower house, speaks volumes of the complete disregard the government has had for addressing constituent concerns within the legislation.
Those in Australia who will be affected by this bill deserve to have it debated to its full extent. The government is attempting to offer a haphazard, bandaid solution in response to only some of the community's concerns. As a senator for the Democratic Labor Party, I believe very strongly in the importance of democracy. I think the distribution of power across different tiers of government is very important in addressing the problems within our communities. It may come as a surprise to many in this place and in the other place that problems faced by Australian communities are rarely solved by the long arm of the nation's capital. I believe that this kind of legislation would be much better if it were drafted, consulted and implemented at a community level, not a federal one.
For this place to be prepared to inflict such punitive measures on the communities of the Northern Territory, especially considering the fact that the majority of us are not elected by those whom this legislation will be affecting, is unfair and unjust. I quote the submission by the Public Health Association of Australia, which states:
It is the view of the PHAA that there is never a case for universal, compulsory income management, for moral, ethical, and legal reasons and for reasons of cost (particularly, social and health costs). In addition to undermining autonomy and self-determination, which are pre-requisites for good health and wellbeing, universal compulsory income management violates Australia's human rights commitments and the principles of citizenship.
Instead of imposing penalties from afar we should assist the Northern Territory government in their endeavours to work with local communities to adopt workable and plausible solutions to the problems facing the Aboriginal communities. It has been reported that the total cost of the intervention so far has exceeded $1 billion. The amount of money being spent to solve the problems facing these Australian communities is not the issue; it is the way it is spent that is of concern. If it is to be spent in an effective way, let's take on board the solutions offered by those facing the problems within these communities. The submission of the Darwin Aboriginal Rights Coalition states:
We call on the government to withdraw the bills in their entirety, revisit the many suggestions put forward by Aboriginal people, and open a genuine dialogue with communities—a dialogue that starts from the principles that Aboriginal people have a right to make the fundamental decisions that affect their lives, that solutions must be tailored to individual communities on the basis of their particular circumstances, and that Aboriginal law and culture will be respected and protected.
We know the communities in the Northern Territory want to address the unsatisfactory circumstances affecting them as much as we do. We know through our inquiries that these communities have plans and ideas in place to tackle these problems. It is now up to us to empower these communities to address their circumstances on a much more local level.
It is not right to treat one section of the Australian community in a vastly different way to any other section. Many of the submissions that were lodged with the inquiry were particularly concerned with what appears to be a deliberate removal of the rights of Australian citizens in these remote communities. The submission by the Aboriginal Catholic Ministry summed up the concerns of many others by stating:
This legislation continues to cast Aboriginal people as unable to manage their own affairs. It further removes Aboriginal rights over land and continues to disempower and disenfranchise people through the use of punitive measures connected with alcohol management, income management and school attendance amongst others.
They go on to say:
The fact that the suicide rate has doubled in Aboriginal communities during the Intervention should not be dismissed. It speaks to the depths of despair that many in NT Aboriginal communities are feeling.
Top-down intervention in remote communities which are complex and rich in history and culture does not work. This legislation before the house is archaic and against the very principles that the Democratic Labor Party has stood for since it began. For this reason, I will be voting against the bills.
These three Stronger Futures bills will undermine the human rights of Indigenous communities. It really does defy understanding why they have been brought forward in this form. Anything that is positive in the package will be rendered meaningless because they are so deeply discriminatory.
The Stronger Futures bills actually betray Labor's own actions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Labor's misnamed Stronger Futures bills I do believe are actually an insult to Labor's history in this area. There was the famous day when former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam met with Aboriginal elders in the Northern Territory, one of them being Vincent Lingiari. It was 1975 and there is that famous photo where they let the red sand run through their hands in a most important ceremony and handover of land. Then, in 1992, we had the historic Redfern speech by former Prime Minister Paul Keating. Again, it was a most historic day. So many people quote that speech to me, and not just in the context of Aboriginal affairs but as a fantastic speech that inspired them to stand up for social justice not just for Aboriginal people but for people across the board. I can clearly understand why Labor members would be proud of it, and many people in Australia would see it as most significant.
In 2008, we had that most moving day when former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spoke at Sorry Day. I think many of us can remember where we were and how deeply moved we were. I am not saying Labor's own Indigenous history and their response is perfect—far from it—but there is so much to be proud of. But, when we look at this Stronger Futures package, that history really has been trashed. The Stronger Futures package actually continues the intervention. I want to take some time for us to remind ourselves, because it is so relevant to this debate, what was involved in the intervention and why it was introduced. As we know, the intervention was initiated by former Prime Minister John Howard, with the support of his then Indigenous affairs minister, Mr Mal Brough. Unfortunately, and I think sadly, it was continued by the Rudd government and then the Gillard government. The intervention was officially known as the Northern Territory National Emergency Response. It was a package of welfare changes, law enforcement and land takeovers. It was introduced, as I said, by the federal government. It was at a time when there were these very distressing and extraordinary claims of sexual and other types of abuse.
Let's firstly deal with the issue of sexual abuse, because it still comes up in these debates. I do not know anybody who would deny there is a problem with sexual abuse in Aboriginal communities, and I understand that in many areas the rate of abuse is high. However, the government review of the intervention that was released at the end of last year found that the conviction rate stayed steady at about 11 per year. There were not all these arrests and all these results from the intervention. We had the extraordinary situation—and it still shocks me that this occurred in my own country, in my lifetime—of the intervention into Aboriginal communities by the Army. I know they were instructed to go in there by the government—it was government policy—but it was certainly deeply wrong.
The other thing that is relevant to how necessary this intervention was is the Territory government's publication Little children are sacred. Of the report's 97 recommendations, only two were implemented. That clearly shows how problematic the way in which that whole era was conducted. But the important point that I want to make here is that, when that intervention occurred, we were just months out from a federal election and it really looked like the coalition could lose it. That intervention was electorally motivated. Right from the time the intervention was first initiated, the then opposition leader, Mr Kevin Rudd, should have ruled it out. There was no need for Labor to incorporate it into their policy. That they did so and continued it when they were in government is quite disgraceful.
The Northern Territory intervention has eroded local governance and disempowered communities. It has also done nothing to improve the safety and wellbeing of children in the Northern Territory. There is a continuing lack of health and wellbeing support, which is clearly a key issue. And then there are the costs. The Northern Territory intervention costs are climbing above $1 billion. I am sure that many of us, not just the Greens, can only imagine what better outcomes would have been achieved if this money had been spent on properly targeted community directed programs. You have heard the earlier Greens speakers, my colleagues Senator Ludlam and Senator Waters, give great emphasis to this theme of community involvement.
There is another very telling aspect of how this intervention was rolled out, and that is the extraordinary situation whereby the Racial Discrimination Act had to be suspended in order for the intervention legislation to be passed. Obviously, that was deeply shameful. I think many people are aware that the intervention was actually condemned by the United Nations for its racial discrimination against Aboriginal people and their cultures. I remember this was really getting traction. It was starting to penetrate into some of the east coast areas, where obviously this story needed to be emphasised because this was where it was so important to help influence decision makers as more people were understanding the situation. I really do believe that a great effort was made by the Rudd government to remove this criticism, which was continually coming up. So what did we see happen? The Racial Discrimination Act was reinstated, but it was reinstated in a way that I think was quite disgraceful. The Rudd government expanded the scheme to apply to all people in the Northern Territory based on their age and how long they had been in receipt of Centrelink payments. We saw there that the Racial Discrimination Act was reinstated but not in the way that it should have been, because the discrimination was still there, well and truly.
One point before I go on to some more detail about the Stronger Futures bills is to acknowledge what we lost when the intervention came in. There were certainly serious problems in the Northern Territory. However, as happens sometimes in life, when something changes you realise that you have lost a great deal. I am referring here to some of the programs that were in place prior to the intervention. The intervention did result in further dispossession of Aboriginal communities. There was closure of the Community Development Employment Projects. These were run by Aboriginal organisations, often the community council, and it meant that the direction of the development and employment arrangements were guided by Aboriginal priorities. This was really critical. Many of the people whom I knew worked in the Territory at the time often explained to me that many Aboriginal people were able to get employment under this scheme. When it went, one of the main sources of employment, and therefore dignity, livelihood and interaction with one's community, was stripped away. The other thing that was lost with the intervention was the Aboriginal community government councils. I did want to put that on the record. As I say, I think many of us would have spoken prior to 2007 about the great inadequacies in government policy for Aboriginal communities. But when those were lost to Aboriginal communities, they really were enormously disadvantaged.
We have the three Stronger Futures bills before us. There is enormous criticism of them by Aboriginal communities right across the country. Many supporters and many Aboriginal communities are deeply concerned about how this legislation will play out. I would like to share with you some comments that I have received. Nicole Watson, writing in Arena No. 118, stated:
To say that the Stronger Futures legislation is difficult to comprehend is an understatement.
Together with the Explanatory Memoranda, the three Bills run to over three hundred pages. Even for lawyers, unravelling the legislation is an onerous task because it requires reference to earlier legislation. It beggars belief that the general consultations conducted between June and August could have resulted in such a detailed legislative result.
There is an important point in that last sentence. The consultation that has been undertaken here is really what many people these days call 'tick in a box' consultation. It is not real, it is not meaningful and it is not really gauging people's opinion. It is about allowing the ministers to say that the consultation has been done so that the media releases can be put out.
These three pieces of legislation have been developed without the informed consent of Aboriginal communities. The legislation delivers the government 10 years of control. That is bad enough, but when you think of this framework of 10 years it is quite extraordinary. After meeting many people from the Northern Territory and from the Bankstown area, which is going to be one of the trial areas—and I will speak about that later—I am certainly picking up how these bills are causing distress, uncertainty and anger among many communities. Aboriginal elders, community leaders and Aboriginal organisations clearly have a right to control their own futures. We might have the word 'futures' in this bill, but it is certainly not giving control to Aboriginal communities.
Labor, with the support of the coalition, is pushing for more top-down policy making. We really do need to recognise this. No matter how it is dressed up, that will be the outcome when these three complex pieces of legislation are pushed through to control and determine how so much of Aboriginal life will operate for the next 10 years.
Since the Northern Territory intervention started, in 2007, there have been various developments that highlight the huge inadequacy in the approach the government has come forward with. The incarceration of Aboriginal people has increased by 41 per cent. Attempted suicide and self-harm amongst young Aboriginal people has doubled. Aboriginal life expectancy continues to be the lowest of any indigenous group in the world. These are from the government's review of the intervention. When you look at those basic benchmark figures you can see that the situation for Aboriginal people has deteriorated.
When we consider this legislation there has been no clear justification from the Labor government based on meaningful, evidence based research. The legislation gives the federal government the power to determine that any state and territory is a jurisdiction in which income management may operate. Once the bill has passed, the government will be able to extend income management wherever it determines, without having to pass further legislation.
It is the issue of income management that I want to give attention to. In one suburb of Sydney, where I come from, it has certainly been motivating many people. I have had the opportunity to meet with a number of members of Aboriginal groups in the area as well as various small business people, people from Muslim organisations and various other community organisations. Bankstown is one of five areas that have been identified by the government where trials will be held under the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011. They are Bankstown, Logan in Queensland, Rockhampton in Queensland, Playford in South Australia and Shepparton in Victoria. The Bankstown community, although they are doing it tough and they are very distressed about this, are certainly very well organised and are being very effective in how they are getting their voice heard.
On the issue of how this system of income management will work, between 50 to 70 per cent of the income support payments are quarantined as credit on a BasicsCard, which can then be used as an EFTPOS card to buy groceries et cetera from approved stores. There are only certain things that can be bought, only at approved stores, and the total has to be over $5. That is one of the issues that some business people in Bankstown have taken up. They have been concerned they are going to lose business. So, again, you see the degree to which the government is bringing in a policy that just does not work and is certainly a negative for many sections of our community.
The nominated payments, in terms of a BasicsCard, can affect Newstart, youth allowance, parenting payment, sickness benefit and special benefit. People assessed as vulnerable, and that mainly refers to victims of domestic violence, and others, are at risk of having someone else control their money, when it is not in their interest. A Centrelink social worker is the one who will be assessing this vulnerability. Already I can tell you that people who fear they will be targeted are feeling very vulnerable. They are not confident in terms of how these decisions will be made.
I acknowledge that I have seen interviews with some people who say that they welcome having their income managed, but it should not be imposed on people. That is one of the aspects that is so deeply wrong. I have heard some very sad stories of elderly couples in the Northern Territory who are on the pension and have lived together for a long time and have managed their own income. They lose half their income and have a card that they feel discriminates against them and singles them out in their own community in a destructive way.
The Australian Council of Social Service have made some very useful assessments of these developments. They have a real concern about how the research methodology has been undertaken. The government has relied on the reports from the Northern Territory Emergency Response, and they feel that that has not been adequate. They have also identified that even with careful budgeting it will not be possible to live decently on payments such as the $231 per week you get under Newstart allowance. When you have some of that being managed on the BasicsCard it will be even harder. Then there are those who may have drug or alcohol problems. They believe that is not going to solve those problems as people can find their way around a BasicsCard. What the government should be looking at is targeted intensive support to overcome these addictions and assist people who are in that situation.
Something that comes up regularly when debating this issue is the methodology that the government has used. There are some other useful studies that should be considered. A Menzies School of Health Research report using quantitative data found that income management in the Northern Territory had no beneficial effect on tobacco, cigarette, soft drink or fruit and vegetable sales. Probably many of you have seen the minister doing spot visits and then saying how she saw fruit and vegetables being consumed by people and how that shows that the program has been a success. But, as the Menzies School of Health Research has identified, when you look at the quantitative data the story is quite different.
There are considerable problems with how this legislation is playing out. I want to share with you a comment from Shane Duffy, the national chairperson of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services. He said:
The idea that the quarantining of welfare payments can address the root causes of what is most commonly inter-generational disadvantage is simplistic and naïve.
Addressing entrenched social disadvantage requires sustained investment into community-driven initiatives that promote self-determination and autonomy, rather than programs based on control and punishment.
He went on to say:
If passed, this legislation will be yet another missed opportunity for the Government to step away from failed past policies based on control and punishment, and move towards effective, evidence-based policies that empower communities, promote self-determination and embrace the idea of locally developed and owned solutions.
The Australian Greens acknowledge that there are complex problems facing Indigenous communities that require considered and calm responses. The starting point must be consultation with Aboriginal people. Policy determined by cooperation and consultation is what we need. But that has not happened. The intervention and now the Stronger Futures program have established a 21st century form of the discredited Aboriginal Welfare Board. I will give the final word to some of the Aboriginal elders who I have spoken to. They said that they feel like it is the return of parole officers.
I have some insight into the communities that are most affected by this legislation in that I was fortunate enough to have spent several years of my professional life in Tennant Creek working at the wonderful Anyinginyi Congress Aboriginal Medical Service, a medical organisation run with an Indigenous health board that was community controlled. There were some wonderful people there doing some wonderful work. I was also fortunate to spend some time working in the medical communities of Elcho Island and the Tiwi Islands. We all acknowledge that there are some difficulties in those communities. There are many complexities that need to be addressed. We need to work very hard to try and do what we can do bridge the gaps in health, education, employment and all the other critical indicators. We need to bridge those gaps to ensure that Indigenous people in this country are afforded the same life expectancy and life opportunities that we all are.
I have some very vivid memories of people who saw me as the result of alcohol fuelled violence, such as women who had been attacked with nulla-nullas. But I also have to say that I have some very warm memories of my time there. I spent time with Indigenous women learning about bush tucker. I took trips in the back of a troop carrier—and I think that I have mentioned this before—and I was sung to by the old Aboriginal women and was told that as a result of that song I would soon be married and have babies. As it turns out, they were right.
I do not deny that there are problems in Indigenous communities. But we also have to acknowledge that those sorts of problems are not limited to Indigenous communities—they are problems that exist right across the country. They sometimes occur out of sight but are certainly not out of mind.
When you are confronted with a package of legislation like this, you have to have some sort of framework or principle for determining how you are going to assess it. In my view, one of the abiding principles needs to be: what is the view of those people most affected? It is interesting that we are having this debate after we had a very moving debate on the issue of asylum seekers. I asked that question in that debate. It is all very well and good to be acting in what you believe are the best interests of another group within the community. But we need to ask them what they believe is in their best interests. That consultation is incredibly important.
The second thing that we need to be guided by is the evidence. If we are not guided by evidence for policies on health, social issues and education then we do not have much to go by; we are flying blind. On the issue of consultation, something has become very clear to me as a result of looking through some of the reports of the inquiries that have been done in response to this legislation. I pay tribute to Senator Rachel Siewert, who has worked tirelessly on this issue and was a very strong advocate for the Indigenous community, who were not consulted adequately.
The dissenting report of the inquiry looking at the Northern Territory intervention legislation made it very clear that from the very start of the inquiry the consultation process was totally inadequate. The vast majority of submissions to that inquiry indicated that there were very serious concerns about how consultation had been carried out and how comments made during that consultation process were interpreted. There were problems with the scheduling of meetings, with people being unable to attend. There was inadequate notice of some meetings. Meetings did not run long enough to address important issues. Comments were misreported.
Bodies like the Human Rights Commission brought their concerns about the inadequacy of the consultation process to the attention of government. We had those concerns reiterated by the Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Commission. We had members of the community saying that they were especially critical of the consultation process—that meetings were disorganised and rushed, and materials were not given out in time. For example, Mr Morrish, the CEO of Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation, said:
In relation to the consultation process, I want to bring a couple of points to the committee's attention. The discussion paper on Stronger Futures was actually handed to members of the community literally minutes before the Minister arrived for that consultation. I am not sure how many community members with low levels of numeracy and literacy, in some cases where English is a third or fourth language—
And I cannot stress that enough: English in many of these communities is their third or fourth language. How are they supposed to digest a 28-page document in a matter of minutes, in order to have an informed consultation and for the results of that consultation to be taken back and used in informing the Stronger Futures legislation?
We have the same sort of message from members of the Babbarra Women's Centre, where again they bemoan the lack of preparation and the lack of time for the community to digest, to think about and to discuss with their families what those policies actually mean. They said:
When the Minister and all her staff came in, it just went crazy. It was just so unorganised and everything branched off and everything was quick. People had not really even had time to consider the correlation between the policy and addressing it with the Minister. They didn't have the time to do that.
I was very fortunate to, only recently, be asked to launch the screening of a wonderful documentary about a project called Stand for Freedom. This initiative has the support of eminent Australians right around the country—traditional owners, church leaders, former judges, lawyers—and we now have a petition on that website, which over 30,000 citizens have signed and said that they believe that something needs to happen. I was fortunate enough to launch the documentary, where hundreds of people were crammed into cinemas right around the country—in this case it was in my home state of Victoria—and I was presented with this book, NT Consultations Report 2011: By Quotations.
At the screening of that documentary it was made very clear that the views of the Indigenous community were not represented in the deliberations by government. This is a book of quotations, taken independently because the people involved in this process did not believe that the views of the community members were in fact being faithfully recorded. So we have, for example, the quote from the Alice Springs public meeting, where we hear someone say:
The determinants of health is more than just housing. There is education, there is jobs. It is not just any job; it is actually having control over your workplace, getting paid a fair wage for a fair day's work. That's really important. The more individual and community control that person has in their life, the better their health.
This is something I have, again, said many times in this chamber: that having a decent job, having control over your work and having access to education and employment are as important as any other health intervention that we could muster. This person goes on to say:
These are all things that the intervention has suspended and dismantled. Issues of land and language and law. These are not talked about in these consultations. And they are really the key things that need to be changed.
That theme came through time and time again:
Until governments do recognise the local governance structures, and allow those structures, the elders and the landowners to control things then things aren't going to get better. I think the answer is recognising sovereignty.
We had more critical feedback on the nature of the intervention: 'It's been a total failure', said one person, going on to say:
Rather than closing the gap, the government's own statistics show the Indigenous imprisonment rates have increased by 35 per cent, putting more people in jail. That's the number one statistic. In a lot of other communities in the Northern Territory attendance rates at school have actually dropped, and in some places suicide and self-harm have increased.
It is very clear, through this consultation report—and I commend it to the Senate—that the Indigenous community, to a large degree, believe the intervention is unnecessary and, more importantly, unsuccessful.
When we move beyond the issue of consultation we then get to this question: what does the evidence actually show us? Backing up what we have just heard in that consultation report, perhaps one of the most damning findings is that in fact things have not improved and, in many cases, they have gone backwards. The ineffectiveness of the intervention in improving the wellbeing of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory is evident when you look at the Closing the Gap in the Northern Territory Monitoring Report. School attendance has declined since 2009. Child hospitalisation rates have increased. We have more incidents of personal harm and suicide. The intervention was supposed to improve lives, but instead things are going backwards.
We cannot ignore the evidence—the evidence is clear. It is clear we have an approach here which, as the report says, undermines and disempowers. What was very clear through the Senate inquiry was that the intervention caused the erosion of community governance and disempowerment of Aboriginal people. That has been made very clear. It has been made clear in the manner through which federal, state and territory governments engage with Aboriginal communities—the whole nature of the top-down and punitive approach. The parallel reforms of the CDEP Remote Delivery Service, housing, homelands and abolition of community councils are all issues which caused the undermining and disempowerment of people within the community. And what is very clear is that Stronger Futures carries on that tradition rather than departing from it. The government has made no attempt to address these major problems, as outlined in the Senate inquiry. AMSANT said that the Stronger Futures bill:
… in failing to abandon an intervention approach, will further undermine the control and empowerment of individuals and communities and will enhance factors associated with social exclusion and racial targeting.
AMSANT went on to say:
Such adverse outcomes can be expected in relation to, for example, the continuation of compulsory income management, the expansion of powers of the federal, state and territory authorities, continued blanket bans on alcohol and restricted materials.
And a number of other people said at that inquiry that in fact the intervention has been unsuccessful.
I want to take a minute to talk about the role of the intervention in tackling alcohol abuse. It is clear that we, the Greens, are very proactive in supporting measures to try to address the issues associated with alcohol abuse. In fact, in my time in this chamber I have spent many hours discussing the need to improve the way we price alcohol so that we price it according to the harms it causes rather than having the irrational system we have at the moment, which makes no sense to anybody—not least many people in the alcohol industry. We need to look at things like warning labels. But one thing is very clear. In the case of Indigenous communities we need to ensure that any measure that is adopted is owned and controlled by the Indigenous community.
There was one such intervention in Tennant Creek which was incredibly successful. It was an intervention known as 'Thirsty Thursday'. People could not get grog on Thursdays, which was traditionally payday. As a result of that intervention, people had more money to spend on essential grocery items, on feeding their kids, on health care and so on. Thirsty Thursday was very successful because it was led by the Indigenous community; it was driven by the Indigenous community. It was not a top-down approach. Many of the people in the region—Anyinginyi Congress and so on—led the charge to reform the way alcohol was made available on Thursdays. We saw a decline in hospitalisation rates. We saw a decline in the number of people being imprisoned. It was very successful. Unfortunately, one of the biggest opponents of Thirsty Thursday was the publican, who wanted the sale of alcohol to continue right through the week.
The Stronger Future legislation takes that control away from Indigenous communities. It says, 'We know best, and we're going to put a blanket ban on alcohol in your community so that you have no control over the way restrictions are implemented.' Of course we support locally developed alcohol management plans. But there are some real concerns here. Harsher penalties contained in the new legislation have the potential to increase rather than decrease the rate of imprisonment. And we note that there is nothing in this bill that talks about what is absolutely necessary, and that is reforming the way we price alcohol, such as a floor price or some form of tiered volumetric system. Unless we do that, the alcohol measure indicated in this report will fail.
Dr John Boffa from Alice Springs has been a tireless worker in this area. I pay tribute to Dr Boffa, who is the public health medical officer of the People's Alcohol Action Coalition. He says that it would be preferable to remove the reference to Aboriginal people in the provision: let's not make this about the Indigenous community; let's make this about everybody, and let's ask for an independent audit of the alcohol outlets in town; let's not make this a racial issue. He says he feels that we can amend the process so that any particular outlet that has been deemed to be causing excessive problems for the community, and not for Aboriginal people, can be remedied. It must not be made a racial issue. We know that non-Aboriginal people who are addicted to alcohol are just as likely to gravitate towards the cheapest forms of alcohol as Aboriginal people are. It is a rational decision. Dr Boffa says that there is nothing racially based about the message for alcohol reform that he proposes, but unfortunately that is not the message in the Stronger Futures legislation.
There is more in this bill around food security. Food security is absolutely critical. It is interesting that there were very few submissions to the inquiry, and even less evidence addressed, around store licensing provisions. That is one thing we need to take some very clear action on.
In summary, I—like my colleagues in this place—am very concerned about this piece of legislation. Unfortunately, this legislation cannot be described as anything but a racist piece of legislation. It has to be, by definition, because it has involved the suspension—through the intervention—of the Racial Discrimination Act. It can be described as nothing but a racist piece of legislation because it requires that action to be enforced. Instead, we need to look at other measures. We need to ensure that anything we do is owned and controlled by the Indigenous community. As I said earlier, I was very lucky to work at Anyinginyi Congress, where there was an Aboriginal controlled community health board with some very strong women in charge—women who made sure that people who needed help were helped. We trained Aboriginal health workers, who, again, were empowered to take control not just of their health but of the health of the local community.
We have to move away from this paternalistic notion that we will solve these problems with a top-down approach. The consultation through this process has indicated that in fact the Indigenous community have rejected this approach. They do not believe it is going to work. They have called it a total failure, and the evidence suggests that it has been a total failure, that we are not seeing a decline in the things that need to be addressed in Indigenous communities. We are not seeing a decline in child hospitalisation rates. We are not seeing a decline in personal harm and suicide. In fact, we are seeing an increase. We need to do better, but this is not the way to do it.
I rise to speak on the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 and two related bills, colloquially known as the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory bills. As I do so, I reflect that I am standing here on Aboriginal land and that everywhere we stand in Australia is Aboriginal land. It is no surprise that, as the Australian Greens' spokesperson for legal affairs, I join with my colleagues in opposing this bill and in calling for a new approach to improving outcomes for Indigenous Australians. I will also declare a particular personal interest in this matter. I have been fortunate enough in my life to have the opportunity to visit my sister, who has worked on Aboriginal communities and has had a lot of experience both in arts administration and governance, particularly in Northern Territory communities. In the 1980s I had the great fortune to visit both Yuendemu and Oenpelli at different times and to get a sense of the rich Aboriginal culture of the people living in those communities and the incredibly intense connection with the land. It was palpable to me at the time.
The new Stronger Futures legislative package is essentially a re-naming of the Northern Territory intervention. The passage of these laws, which the Australian Greens oppose, will mean that the Northern Territory intervention will potentially be in place for another 15 years. Human rights organisations have on numerous occasions, dating back to 2007, loudly and repeatedly criticised the Northern Territory intervention because it is inconsistent with Australia's international human rights obligations. In 2008, the Human Rights Law Centre expressed concern that the Northern Territory intervention is inconsistent with Indigenous peoples' right to self-determination as it destroys 'the control that communities have over their own lives'. The centre pointed out the aspects of the intervention that have affected the right to self-determination, which have included the top-down policy approach and the lack of real and effective consultation, and that is a theme of the speeches that Greens senators are making today. Other concerns include the disallowing of consideration of customary law, an increase in law enforcement and policing and the imposition of income management. All of these measures continue in some form under the Stronger Futures legislation.
Under Stronger Futures, the government has again failed to properly engage and consult with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Instead, it has continued its top-down policy approach that addresses the symptoms of disadvantage through punitive measures. It fails to address the underlying problems of alcoholism, violence, poverty and generational trauma. The bills are also racially discriminatory, as they apply blanket measures to diverse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, as if we can talk about them as one group of people. This latest iteration of the NT intervention continues to undermine the right to self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The right to self-determination is a central principle of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Australia endorsed in 2009.
Les Malezer, co-chair of the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples, recently spoke about the principle of self-determination and what it means under the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. He said:
… self-determination is, in fact, when we all pull together as peoples operating together collectively as peoples. It's not about everybody refusing to listen to anybody else or being told how to operate by anybody else … the exercise of decision-making is in fact the exercise of self-determination … What it promises is empowerment, it promises us the power to make our own decisions, the power to determine our own future. The power to determine continuity of us as peoples, that our culture that we inherit that we pass it on, that it continues on, it's guaranteed into the future.
By further denying Indigenous Australians the right to self-determination, the Stronger Futures legislation will continue the disempowering and oppressive effect of the Northern Territory intervention. The impact of this will be devastating and far reaching for Indigenous communities.
In 2008, the Australian Indigenous Doctors Association found that the Northern Territory intervention had created a feeling of 'collective existential despair' that is 'characterised by a widespread sense of helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness, and experienced throughout entire communities'. The Australian Indigenous Doctors Association indicated that such powerlessness will have profound implications and is likely to result in ongoing, serious negative impacts on health.
The Northern Territory intervention has perpetuated disadvantage in Aboriginal communities and contributed to long-term damage to the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal Australians in the Northern Territory. The punitive nature of the Stronger Futures measures will further undermine and disempower Aboriginal people and communities, which will continue to have serious and far-reaching repercussions on their overall health and wellbeing.
Concerns about the human rights impact of the Northern Territory intervention have also been raised at an international level—another blot on Australia's record. In August 2010, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination released its concluding observations following a review of Australia's compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The committee made over 20 recommendations for concrete action to address racial discrimination, disadvantage and inequality in Australia. One of those recommendations was to reform and remedy the discriminatory impact that the Northern Territory intervention has had on affected Indigenous communities. Last year, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Navi Pillay, criticised the Northern Territory intervention because it failed to recognise—indeed it undermined—the right to self-determination and has resulted in anger, pain and humiliation among Indigenous Australians. Despite the numerous criticisms and concerns regarding the Northern Territory intervention being raised at both a domestic and international level, the government is inexplicably intent on going ahead with Stronger Futures. It is a fundamentally flawed and indeed, I think, an unconscionable approach.
Instead of the many top-down punitive measures included in the Strong Futures package, we need holistic, well-designed, targeted and incentive based programs that are—and these are important concepts—community led and community owned. We need programs that are developed in partnership with the very people that they affect—the Aboriginal people—not imposed upon them. Our history is littered with failed programs, endeavours, projects and pilots that have foundered on a basic flawed assumption that decision makers know best, and they have been foisted on those affected, divorced from their knowledge and lived experience. We now know the only way to bring about sustainable and effective development is to ensure that those people who are affected have 'ownership' and are committed to the change. Even the original catalyst for the intervention in 2007, the Little children are sacred report, clearly expressed the need to consult genuinely and in good faith, citing the need for genuine consultation because of the 'sufficient evidence to show that well-resourced programs that are owned and run by the community are more successful than generic, short-term and sometimes inflexible programs imposed on them'.
An example of the kinds of punitive, top-down measures which are almost destined to fail is the imposition of excessive alcohol bans and penalties embodied in the legislation. This an aspect of the legislation which is likely to widen the yawning justice gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. At this point I would like to refer to an editorial by Jon Altman and Melinda Hinkson in the June edition of Arena Magazine, No. 118, which illustrates the reason this may occur. It states:
On an unsealed road in central Australia one Saturday afternoon in late 2011, a police car flashes its lights and directs the driver of a non-descript sedan to pull over. The driver and his female passenger, a married couple in their mid-twenties, are directed to get out of the car. The police have been called to attend an incident in a nearby town where protracted fighting has been reported over several weeks and have stopped this car out of concern that its occupants might be en route to join the fray. They search the car for weapons, but uncover nothing of interest. The boot of the car is full of firewood which the couple have spent the past hour collecting. On completion of identity checks the police arrest the man for driving with a suspended licence. He is placed in the back of the police van. His wife is warned that if she attempts to drive the car—she does not have a licence—she too will be arrested. The police officers climb into their van and drive off, leaving the woman on her own, at sunset, on a lonely desert road with no supplies and no option but to walk the several kilometres back home as darkness descends.
This tale captures well one of the many paradoxes of the Northern Territory Intervention. Increased police numbers on the ground are often quoted as a key marker of the Intervention's success. Women and children feel much safer now we are told. It is only when we go to the ground and recall that any relations between Aboriginal people and police in the present are built upon a deeply fraught history that the prospect of increased policing takes on a different inflection. The township this couple calls home has witnessed astonishing levels of arrests, even by local standards, over the past eighteen months. Many are for vehicle related offences. Many others result from another of the Intervention's measures—the outlawing of customary law, especially the use of payback to settle disputes. When Aboriginal people attempt to use their own customary measures to resolve significant transgressions, police who once turned a blind eye are now legally obliged not to do so.
In submissions made to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, a number of organisations expressed concern that, if passed, the Stronger Futures legislation will significantly increase the number of Aboriginal people in Northern Territory jails. If so, this will be catastrophic, because Aboriginal people are already grossly overrepresented in the Australian prison system. Eighty per cent of prisoners in the Northern Territory are Aboriginal people. In fact, it has been said that Aboriginal people in Australia are the most highly incarcerated people in the world. Just pause to absorb that piece of information, that the most highly incarcerated people in the world are here in Australia, the nation of which we are proud, a First World liberal democracy. How can that be? The statistics are stark and they are shameful. Although Indigenous Australians account for less than three per cent of the total population they compose 26 per cent of the national prison population. Indigenous adults are 18 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous adults. And, most shockingly in my view, detention rates for Indigenous young people aged 10 to 17 are 25 times higher than for non-Indigenous youth.
Instead of adopting policies which seek to enhance community safety by addressing the underlying causes of crime, the government is instead proposing to introduce new laws which could see a person handed a six-month prison sentence for carrying less than 1.35 litres of alcohol into a prescribed area. Such penalties are excessive, unnecessary and have not been proven to deter alcohol abuse within Aboriginal communities. This will also likely lead to increased imprisonment of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. Yes, alcohol dependence and abuse is a serious problem for some members of Indigenous communities, as it is in non-Indigenous communities, and the Australian Greens support alcohol controls where they have community support. But, rather than increasing penalties, the focus should be on supporting communities to develop alcohol management plans and, importantly, on providing additional resources dedicated to culturally appropriate alcohol counselling and rehabilitation services. It is a health issue, not a justice issue.
At a broader level, the Australian Greens are encouraging governments to reconceptualise the way they think about criminal justice issues. Prisons are not the answer. In April, the Prison Officers Association described conditions in Northern Territory jails as Third World, saying that overcrowding has reached crisis point. In Darwin and Alice Springs, it is said that up to 14 prisoners at a time are being held in 10-metre by five-metre dormitories, with one toilet and one hand basin. Prisons like these are counterproductive. Offenders leave prison, unsurprisingly, less functional than when they went in, more likely to commit future crimes and more likely to commit more serious crimes. Instead, we need to be implementing a long-term strategic approach which will reduce the number of people held in Australian prisons. The savings—because prisons are incredibly expensive—can then be used to reinvest in evidence based services and programs which are proven to effectively address the underlying causes of crime and improve community safety.
We should be reinvesting, spending the money—the hundreds of millions of dollars; $3 billion a year in Australia—on those communities which need it most, those high-stakes communities to which most people, when released from prison, return. This approach, called justice reinvestment, has worked in the United States to reduce crime and strengthen communities, and it can work in Australia too. Justice reinvestment has been championed by the current and former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioners, Mick Gooda and Tom Calma, as a part of the solution to Australia's growing Aboriginal incarceration rate. The Greens support that call—something needs to be done. Importantly, justice reinvestment seeks community level solutions to community level problems. If properly implemented, it provides a real opportunity for community members to have a say about what is causing offending in their communities and what needs to be done to fix it.
Why is this relevant? Because throughout the life of the Northern Territory intervention we have seen significant waste on ineffective measures when far better outcomes could have been delivered through direct investment in communities and organisations on the ground. In recent years the Australian government has indicated a commitment to improving the promotion and protection of the human rights of Aboriginal Australians through the national apology and its support of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
This rhetoric has clearly not been matched by action. The government's commitment to rights has not been implemented in many of the laws, policies or programs affecting Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory and throughout Australia. Instead, the Northern Territory intervention has had a deep and profoundly detrimental impact on the rights of Aboriginal Australians in the Northern Territory and has been strongly condemned by domestic and international human rights organisations and advocates. There is no substantive evidence demonstrating that the intervention has had a positive effect on the lives of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, and now the current government is proposing to continue these ineffective and damaging policies for a further 10 to 15 years.
If the government is truly committed to addressing Aboriginal disadvantage, creating safe and healthy communities and fulfilling its obligations under international human rights law, Stronger Futures should be abandoned. Improved health and wellbeing, community safety and education and employment opportunities for Indigenous Australians are best delivered through involvement and empowerment of communities, not the imposition of expensive and unproven policies.
In Justice Kirby's final High Court judgment, which considered the impact of the Northern Territory intervention, he left us with these wise words:
History, and not only ancient history, teaches that there are many dangers in enacting special laws that target people of a particular race and disadvantage their rights to liberty, property and other entitlements by reference to that criterion. The history of Australian law, including earlier decisions of this Court, stands as a warning about how such matters should be decided.
It is time we started to heed these warnings. The consequences of not doing this are too great to ignore. We need a different approach that tackles the underlying causes, not just the symptoms, of Aboriginal disadvantage, poverty, crime and social dislocation. Indigenous individuals and communities must be at the centre of any such approach if it is going to work. They must be integrally involved in decision making and policy and program design. The Northern Territory intervention has not worked. We must not repeat the mistakes of the past. The Stronger Futures bills should be abandoned—our first peoples deserve much, much better.
Along with my Greens colleagues, I wish to speak in opposition to this Stronger Futures legislation which is being rushed through the Senate today. Today has been a pretty big day for us. It has been pretty emotional. It has been quite intense. We have dealt with a number of issues. This morning the government had not even flagged that this legislation would come before the Senate. This morning the government wanted us to deal purely with Mr Oakeshott's bill and the withholding tax legislation. Somehow during the morning the government decided that what it had agreed to previously—not rushing this legislation through the parliament—somehow could now be forgotten. So here we are, 8.30 at night at the end of a very long sitting week, and we are talking about an important piece of legislation that affects some of the most vulnerable people in our country. I guess the government is hoping that this can simply be rushed through and brushed under the carpet, with no-one noticing because there is a big media storm over the asylum seeker issue.
The truth of the matter is that this legislation is simply extending a program, if you can call it that—the intervention introduced by the Howard government—that has failed at every corner. It has been proven to have failed at every stage. The government's own statistics prove what a failure the intervention has been. We have the nice spin of calling this intervention Stronger Futures. We know that is part and parcel of these things. It reminds me of calling Work Choices Work Choices when we all knew it had nothing to do with work choices. The intervention is not about stronger futures; it is about entrenching the weaknesses and the mistakes of the past.
There is no evidence, even in the government's own review and consultations, that the intervention has worked. If the government believed that the intervention was working, therefore justifying its extension for another 10 to 15 years, you would think it would have been promoting good news to justify extending this program. The government would be swamping us, as Malcolm Fraser has put it, with statistics about fewer people in jail, more people in decent housing, improved health, better performances in schools, higher attendance in schools and better health outcomes for children. But, instead, the statistics the government are using to try and justify the extension of this program include a 41 per cent rise in Indigenous imprisonment, lower school attendance, inadequate housing, 38 per cent more children having been removed from their homes by social services and a doubling of self-harm and suicide. Where are the facts? Where is the evidence that the intervention has worked? It does not exist. What does exist is the absolute failure the intervention has been.
I want to go to the issue of consultation. The government keeps talking about the consultation that they ran. The consultation was a sham. They did not listen to what people were saying. They did not involve Indigenous people and local communities in the drafting of this legislation. In fact, this legislation pretty much mirrored the document that they took to the consultations, despite hearing very clearly from the very people this intervention has impacted on for years that it does not work and that they need a new way. There was no standing by the needs of communities, having a basis to policy that is entrenched in human rights and dignity, believing that lifting education standards should be not just something that you talk about but something you deliver on, and ensuring that you look after the health of young Indigenous people—not just talking about it and then trying to pretend that the statistics do not matter in order to justify your own ends.
My colleague Senator Wright pointed out how damning the independent analysis and reviews have been in relation to the intervention. Amnesty International have condemned the intervention and the consultation period used to justify the extension of the intervention. Around the world, not just directly to our government ministers here in Canberra, they have said that Australia does not know how to treat its Indigenous people with the respect, dignity and human rights that they deserve. Rather than listening to expert opinion and listening to the communities who are affected directly by the negative impacts of the intervention, the government has brushed all of that advice away and gone ahead—steamrolled ahead—with keeping a program that is fundamentally flawed and, in fact, is resulting in worse outcomes for Indigenous children and their communities. There has been a 41 per cent increase in imprisonment and a doubling of self-harm and suicide.
The most alarming thing about the government's approach is that, if they are so blinded now by the evidence that stares them in the face, what makes us think they are going to be any more equipped to deal with the realities facing Indigenous people in the Northern Territory any time soon? They have had the opportunity to fix this and they have got the evidence they need, and they have absolutely ignored it. One of the strongest arguments for implementing the intervention in the first place was to deal with the health issues of children, the safety of children and the alarming levels of self-harm and suicide, particularly in relation to young Indigenous kids. The fact that those statistics have doubled since 2007 should have been enough to wake this government up to the fact that a different approach was needed.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have a child mortality rate that is three times that of their non-Aboriginal peers. Aboriginal children aged 10 to 17 are 24 times more likely to be jailed than non-Aboriginal children, and Aboriginal children are almost 10 times more likely to be in out-of-home care. Nothing that the government is proposing in this legislation will fix that. In fact, it is going to make it worse. If the last six years are anything to go by, the statistics will double, because that is what we have seen since the intervention was first introduced.
This legislation will mean that the intervention will be in place for 15 years. They are going to fund some programs for up to 10 years. Why would a government who took such a remarkable and historic step of apologising to our Indigenous people miss the opportunity to put that apology into action when they have all of the evidence they need to fix the problems and to do away with what is such a damaging intervention? The intervention has not worked. I was not here when the intervention was first passed into law but my colleagues Senator Milne, Senator Bob Brown and Senator Siewert were. They all warned in this very place, standing here in a rushed debate, that this would not fix the problems and that we needed proper consultation with Indigenous people about how they could work together to deal with the very serious issues in their communities, particularly when it came to children. That advice and those warnings fell on deaf ears.
A number of people have written on this issue because they were very disappointed that this Labor government was not taking the opportunity to scrap what had been such a flawed program which inflicted so much pain, so much hurt, so much disingenuous support. There was a hope that this government might do something about dealing with these issues, but it has not of course. So many people have written about this. I have already mentioned that former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has condemned strongly not just the lack of evidence base for extending this program but the lack of proper consultation that was run.
A number of other people have spoken about this because it is an issue which concerns many Australians, particularly those who believe that our values of a fair go are entrenched in our communities but must be reflected in the laws we pass in this parliament. If they are to mean anything, we need to understand the values of looking after each other, standing up for the most vulnerable, listening to what they need and giving them a fair go.
One commentator and expert in relation to this issue, Nicole Watson, poses a very clear question and I think it is worth us pondering it or at least putting it on the record for this rushed debate:
One day the generosity and patience of Aboriginal people will surely run out.
Perhaps the questions that need to be asked should begin with: why do governments go to such lengths to avoid meaningful engagement with Aboriginal people? That question has not been answered in this place. It has been ignored by this government and from the other side as well. When the intervention was first introduced, it was not based on the evidence presented or on the support of the expert advice on how to engage with Indigenous people to tackle these issues. The report often quoted as the reasons and the motivations for the intervention—we all remember it—is the Little children are sacred report. We know the horrific statistics, stories and horror contained in that report, particularly for our Indigenous children. The report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse, which was publicly released in June 2007 and quoted as the motivation for why we had to strip away the rights of Indigenous people and their communities—to make their own decisions, to work with them, to listen to what it was they needed—said that everything the intervention did, the motivations and methods and how they went about it, was exactly what you should not do. So we were warned in 2007 that this is not how to go about it. It was unequivocal in its demand that government abandon imposed solutions in favour of working in partnership with communities.
That very same report was used by the Howard government at the time as the excuse for the intervention. They liked the title; they ignored the content. It said that there was sufficient evidence to show that well-resourced programs that are owned and run by the community are more successful than generic, short-term and sometimes inflexible programs that are simply imposed on communities. Even back in 2007, the Howard government was warned that if you just go in, impose, take away people's rights, threaten them, endanger them and take away their necessities you will have an absolute failure for an outcome when it comes to dealing with issues facing young people, children, prison rates, self-harm and suicide. It was all there in black and white warning the Howard government at the time that that was not how to do it. I do not blame this government for what the Howard government did but I do blame this government for not taking the opportunity to fix past mistakes when the evidence now before us shows that all those warnings were right. Children are no safer in those communities in 2012 than they were in 2007. In fact, they are in more danger, having had restrictions imposed on their safety and their welfare. All of the evidence that the government needed to reverse the mistakes of the past they have ignored.
Then, when they went out to consult with the community, it was an absolute farce. The report that they took to those consultations is virtually the same as that for the intervention itself and for the extension of the intervention through this legislation. They have not learned from the past. They have ignored the statistics: a doubling of the incidence of self-harm and suicide amongst children, a 41 per cent increase in imprisonments and a decreased school attendance rate—which we know was constantly used as the key thing the intervention would fix, but it failed to do so, as all the warnings and advice said it would.
Throughout this debate, the Greens have been very clear that we oppose the further extension of the intervention. We know that, despite the name of this bill, it is not about 'stronger futures'. It is about weakening the future because the government have not learnt from past mistakes and have their heads in the sand. (Time expired)
I rise to give my first speech in this chamber on legislation, the government's Stronger Futures bills. Last night, in my first speech, I mentioned that I grew up in the Kimberley and in the Pilbara. I remember kicking the football around in Karratha as a little boy, in my first football games, with a number of my Aboriginal friends, who I went to primary school with. I also remember climbing over the rock paintings in the Kimberley when we went crabbing as kids. I remember working in the goldmines in Meekatharra and Wiluna with lots of good Aboriginal people. I have respect for their culture, and they are a proud people. I think part of the reason we are considering this legislation tonight is that many non-Indigenous Australians have not experienced Aboriginal communities. I feel there is a disconnect there.
So I am pleased to join with my Greens colleagues tonight and contribute to their longstanding work on putting forward positive proposals for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across this country. I note in particular Senator Rachel Siewert's extraordinarily hard work on Indigenous affairs here in the parliament and on the ground throughout Australia. As has been expressed several times today, we are very disappointed Senator Siewert cannot be here tonight.
Before I discuss the Stronger Futures legislation and the Northern Territory intervention laws that came before it, I want to begin by stating some stark facts that illustrate the health crisis for Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Indigenous men and women die up to 17 years earlier than other Australians. Indigenous children die at more than double the rate of non-Indigenous children. Many Indigenous people suffer from chronic diseases which are entirely preventable and have virtually been eliminated in the non-Indigenous population. Almost one in five Indigenous people reported that a member of the family had been sent to jail in the previous 12 months.
The 2004-05 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey found that Indigenous adults were twice as likely as non-Indigenous adults to feel high or very high levels of psychological distress. Indigenous people may have higher levels of such distress because they experience more stressors than non-Indigenous people. A social survey in 2008 found that almost eight out of 10 Indigenous people experienced one or more significant stressors in the 12 months before they were interviewed. The sorts of stressors those surveyed reported in interviews included the death of a family member or friend, alcohol or drug related problems, trouble with the police and being a witness to violence.
I turn my comments to the legislation before us. As my fellow senators will be aware, the Greens position on the Stronger Futures legislation is clear. We oppose the Northern Territory emergency response, what became known as the NT intervention, introduced by then Prime Minister John Howard. One of the most astonishing dimensions of the intervention was, of course, that it suspended the hard-won Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 as it related to the intervention and its associated measures. I recall being completely flabbergasted that in the 21st century, albeit under an extremely conservative government, there were moves to repeal racial discrimination laws.
The whole process, and the legislation that ensued, was an insult to Aboriginal people, acting as it did to marginalise them and effectively render them second-class citizens in what is, after all, their own country. Worse, all this was done here in Canberra in the name of being in the best interests of the children, and this is the disconnect that I mentioned earlier. At the time, asking questions about the intervention, let alone opposing it, was to risk the accusation that one did not care about the safety of children. I am proud of the work the Greens did then in asking those hard questions to point out the injustice and ineffectiveness of that emergency response.
Just a few years later, as the intervention wore on in the Territory, a new government was sworn in here in Canberra. I should think few Australians gathered here, in public squares and around televisions were unmoved by the apology to the stolen generations that the new Labor government delivered, finally. It was an electric moment, long overdue but entirely heartfelt. That was a big day in this nation's history. I as a farmer also remember feeling optimism that we might get some action on climate change as well, following that election. You could reasonably have imagined that, with the arrival of a Labor government, the Aboriginal communities of the Territory could have expected a different approach to dealing with their social problems—not so. The Rudd government opted to continue most of the worst features of the intervention, rather than go back to the communities on the ground and engage with them to determine a way forward. All that goodwill from the apology ground to a halt. What a lost opportunity.
Here, in 2012, this legislation now before us essentially extends the measures that were established under the intervention. Notwithstanding our opposition to Stronger Futures, my colleague Senator Ludlam will seek to amend this legislation in order to reduce the harm it will cause. Our amendments are consistent with the recommendations the Greens put to the recent Senate inquiry. Our opposition to Stronger Futures is based on the fact that, nearly five years on, there is no substantive evidence that the intervention is achieving real gains on the fundamental outcomes of health that it apparently set out to address. Instead, as Senator Siewert noted in the Australian Greens' dissenting report to the Senate committee that considered the Stronger Futures legislation earlier this year, many Aboriginal people, representative organisations and the community sector more broadly assert that the whole approach that the intervention began—and Stronger Futures would continue—undermines and disempowers Aboriginal people and communities in the Territory. It is at odds with international research that demonstrates that community-driven measures, not a top-down, punitive approach, will help communities make progress on health and economic development outcomes.
Before I speak in more detail on this legislation, I make the point that it is unfortunate that the government should have chosen to schedule discussion on this legislation today. It has been a long day for everyone, and it has especially been a long few days for the Greens. Of course, today, discussion in this chamber, and our thoughts as senators, have been focused on contending with the question of practical and immediate actions for creating safe pathways for refugees seeking asylum on our shores. With mere hours to go before we rise for the winter break, there simply will not be the time tonight to meaningfully contend with this Stronger Futures legislation. It is unseemly that the government should rush this legislation through while the nation is, quite rightly, transfixed on another matter.
Now that this legislation has been put on today's schedule, let me take this opportunity to set out the reasons for the Greens' position on it. Five years on since the intervention, there is enough time and enough evidence based research to tell us whether it is working. So far as the Greens go, there are strong relationships we have with Aboriginal communities, organisations and individuals in the Territory, who can tell us how well, or how poorly, the intervention has served their needs. As we all know, the intervention was announced and swiftly rolled out with no consultation. It was a shock for the affected communities on the ground, and I remember well the scenes of uniformed Army staff stepping off buses into the blazing sun of the Territory—there, as then Prime Minister Howard told us at the time, 'to help'.
Five years on from the intervention, it seems we are repeating the same mistake of not talking to the very people this legislation is supposed to be helping. Though I am new to this chamber I have read some of the submissions made to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry convened to look at the Stronger Futures legislation earlier in the year, and I note that many submissions made to the committee, and much of the evidence provided to the committee, expressed strong concerns about the inadequacy of the consultation process—how it was carried out, and also how these consultations were then interpreted within the consultation report.
People could not get to the consultation meetings due to the times they were held, and people had little time to even hear that the meetings were on. These meetings did not give enough time for issues to be properly discussed; people attending had their comments misreported; and, as so often occurs within consultation processes with Aboriginal people, many for whom English is a third or fourth language, insufficient interpretation services were provided. Lest anyone in the chamber tonight think that I am cherry-picking submissions to that committee process that align with the long-held views of the Greens, I take this opportunity to relay some of the key issues of concern that the Australian Human Rights Commission chose to highlight in their submission, which I shall read verbatim:
The excellent report, Listening but not hearing by Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, from the University of Technology, Sydney, from earlier this year does not mince words about where the government is failing to plan and draw up this legislation. The authors declare:
The Government's current policies have failed and they will continue to fail for so long as it continues to determine policies without the direct involvement of Aboriginal people in the decision-making process. As so many have pointed out, until Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory are allowed to gain ownership over their future, Government will fail to improve their overall circumstances and they will remain second class citizens of this country.
This legislation would erode local governance arrangements and disempower communities. The intervention, with its punitive, top-down approach, along with a suite of parallel reforms—such as those in service delivery to remote communities, the abolition of community councils within local government reforms, housing and other matters—all combine to reduce community level involvement in decision-making, towards an ever-more centralised model, This is confirmed within the Australian Human Rights Commission submission to the committee's process for this legislation earlier in the year.
It is for these reasons, and many more besides, that the Greens oppose the Stronger Futures package of legislation. The submission stated:
The feelings of disempowerment affecting these communities are symptomatic of a lack of control over issues directly affecting groups.
One extract from the dissenting report of the Greens really stuck out to me in reading it earlier this week. Our report quotes Dr Gondarra, a Yolngu man from East Anthem Land:
If we want to see Aboriginal people better in education, better in jobs and better in any other area, we need to work together to build better legislation, because this particular legislation is not on. The Australian people should be asked to reject this legislation because it is racist. It is not helping our people. That is why we come before you and you are listening to us because we represent not stakeholders, not a department, not the service providers. We come here to represent people who are struggling, people who feel pain, people who are confused—what is going on?
Madam Chair, we want you to take this message from us. It is eating us like a cancer. We are always going to be, from the fifties until today, 2012, a puppet on a string of somebody else. We are not a free people. We are supposed to be the first people, the first nation, of this country. You should be learning so much from us than we are learning something from you. This is very important for us.
These reports from the ground could not be further from the stated objective of these bills, namely: a stronger future, grounded in a stronger relationship between government and Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory
We must do better to ensure that the legislation we introduce and pass through this parliament actually achieves stated objectives. This is always true, but never more urgent than when we look at legislation concerned with tackling the great divide in health, education and just about every indicator you would care to mention between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
Though I know something of the scale of the health challenges that Indigenous people in Australia face through the good work of the Closing the Gap campaign, and other wonderful community initiatives, I was nonetheless astonished to read one Aboriginal child health statistic in particular, provided by Dr Bath, the NT Children's Commissioner to the parliament earlier this year:
That is an astonishing figure. When describing the experience of Indigenous children in the areas affected by the intervention, Dr Bath said to the committee:
Their circumstances are perilous, even when compared to the circumstances of Indigenous children in other Australian jurisdictions. There is a mass of data supporting that contention. They have been documented widely.
That figure alone requires us here in the nation's parliament to ensure the measures we enshrine in law in this place are effective. Many from the affected communities on the ground are telling us the intervention is not working. The experts looking at the evidence based research and agencies working in the community sector are telling us the same thing. We must listen to the chorus of voices and ensure that we focus on a different approach.
Much of what I have spoken of so far have been areas of concern about the background leading up to this legislation and the reasons that the Greens oppose it. It is extremely important to note the opportunity costs of legislation such as this. I note that the ongoing cost of the intervention to date totals over $1 billion. Imagine what we could have achieved over the past five years had we genuinely worked with communities to design, develop and implement effective targeted programs. That is why the Greens are focused on listening to communities and working with them to develop effective measures to tackle alcohol abuse. As an example, we are on the record as supporting locally developed alcohol management plans. I note that some communities are worried about the bureaucratic layers that are being added to these plans. In practical terms, the real world consequences of harsher penalties and blanket bans on alcohol as set out in the Stronger Futures legislation may increase imprisonment rates. The Greens support a different approach, one that is led by the community.
I refer to the submission of the Australian Human Rights Commission to the committee, which said on this issue:
Evidence indicates that interventions imposed without community control or culturally appropriate adaption and which stigmatise alcohol users do not work and can be counterproductive.
The commission goes on to talk about in the increase in alcohol related offences that has occurred since the intervention was established and the implication that the intervention may have led to increased rates of imprisonment among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The NTER evaluation report indicated that there was a clear increase in alcohol related offences. The commission therefore reiterated its standing concerns that the alcohol offences under the NTER and continued by the Stronger Futures legislation may result in increased imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
It strikes me that this is a good example of how better some of that $1 billion could have been spent by recognising alcohol addiction as a health issue and providing additional resources to culturally appropriate alcohol counselling and rehabilitation services. The Northern Territory Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, who provide free legal advice and support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the top end, said in their submission:
NTAAJA recognise the need to do more to stop the damage caused by alcohol abuse in our communities, but increasing the penalties for alcohol related offences is not the answer.
Another lost opportunity in this package of legislation is that the government has chosen not to tackle the changes to the permit system of access to Aboriginal lands that occurred when the intervention was brought in. Although there was never any clear evidence to link abuse of the permit system to instances of child abuse and other matters of disadvantage, the Howard government saw fit to change the permit system that gave public access to certain Aboriginal lands.
The Greens support the plea from many of the communities who have made a submission to the Senate committee for a new approach, one which supports communities to achieve their own independent objectives through proper consultation, local governance and cultural competency. I note in conclusion the comments from Indigenous leader Dr Gondarra— (Time expired)
In rising to speak to the legislation before us, I would like to make reference to the Greens' repeated comments tonight about it being rushed through. There is no guillotine tonight. Every single member of the Greens party who has wanted to speak on this piece of legislation, other than Senator Siewert, who is not here for other reasons—and I appreciate the work that she does in and the particularly passion she has for this area—has been able to. That is unlike coalition senators who have lined up over the last fortnight to have their say on many pieces of legislation and to put the concerns of their constituencies on the table and to make them part of the debate. The Greens assisted the government in guillotining everyone. So their complaints are a bit rich, and I would like that on the record. I am going to keep my comments short, not because of a guillotine but because I am conscious of the time. I am impressed to see that the Labor government has finally realised that the coalition's emergency response measures designed to enforce the rule of law, to get kids to school and to create economies in remote communities were real, were targeted and would have worked if only Labor had not wasted four years in inaction. Big problems remain in the Northern Territory five years on from the intervention: school attendance, alcohol related crime and assault, and health related issues. No economic opportunities remain where the coalition left off after the 2007 election. We still require measures such as those proposed by the Gillard government tonight.
I am a member of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, which conducted an inquiry into this piece of legislation when it was still part of what was called the Stronger Futures legislation, a package that repeals the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007 and related legislation but retains policy elements from that legislation in eight key areas, including: school attendance and educational achievement, economic development and employment, tackling alcohol abuse, community safety and the protection of children, health, food security, housing and governance.
Unfortunately, the Labor government struggles so often with its legislation and its policy agenda once it gets to the table and gets it through the parliament. There is always a bit of a problem with implementation. The education aspects of this bill were more focused on collecting data than talking to parents about how to get their young people to school. Under Labor, only seven parents were spoken to while education attendance in the Territory under this particular policy remained at 50 per cent. That is unacceptable. We all know what a difference education can make to young Australians—Indigenous or not—and particularly for these communities, as a means of building aspiration and skills. There has been nearly five years of federal investment in the Northern Territory. We should be way past the emergency stage and moving to a stage at which Indigenous people are leading the reforms.
In relation to the detail of the legislation, I am pleased to see that the government has agreed to the opposition's call for the Stronger Futures legislation to clarify the power of the federal minister in relation to the alcohol measures. I also want to mention the coalition's issues with the legislation. They go to something that the Greens mentioned before: concerns that the legislation specifies and is only applicable to Aboriginal people. That is why we have these amendments before us tonight that substitute 'Aboriginal people' with 'the community'. The coalition senators are concerned that excessive alcohol consumption leading to alcohol related harm is not just confined to Aboriginal people but is an issue that affects the whole community. Clause 15 of division five of the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2012 states that alcohol sales must be restricted where harm may be caused to Aboriginal people. This clause ignores the fact that the entire community suffers directly or indirectly from the consequences of alcohol abuse. Coalition senators said that this amendment removes 'any race based reference and stigma and clearly identifies that excessive alcohol consumption and alcohol abuse has community wide consequences and requires a whole of community commitment to ameliorate.' That shows that we have a holistic and a community led approach to dealing with this particular issue.
I now return to the government's lack of focus on a genuine engagement with families around their children attending education institutions. When we are looking at those who are not empowered, those who are not attending school as we would like them to, it is essential for all Australian children, particularly Indigenous children, that we focus less on the minutiae and more on the relationships, ensuring genuine engagement and building a course for real change and empowerment. This is something education can bring..
Another key area of concern for the coalition is a lack of the right to appeal an income-management referral from the state or territory. The right of appeal is a fundamental right and it is something that we would like to see addressed. Finally, the coalition is concerned that the Stronger Futures bill has no interim targets. How typical it is of this government to bring before us things which will be difficult to evaluate and which will not be assessed so that they are unable to refine what they are doing, where they are going and how to make things better in the future. Assessing the impact and effectiveness of a policy initiative such as this when we are dealing with the issues of child abuse, rape, childhood school attendance, building economic capacity in communities that have been disadvantaged for so long is essential. This particular piece of policy will be reviewed in seven years. We believe that it should be reviewed around the three-year period. Human Rights Council evidence said that three years is enough time to take a look at these measures to see where we can improve them. We would like to see that happen. As we know, implementation under this government will be an issue and so restricting and narrowing the opportunity for ongoing incompetence particularly in a policy area as important as this is important.
It is time the government focused more attention and action on achieving positive change for Northern Territory communities and stopped failing to deliver. I am confident of a stronger future for the Northern Territory and its citizens. There is hope yet in the government's promises and it is our job in the coalition to hold them to account—something I look forward to doing.
I rise tonight to speak against the government's Stronger Futures legislation because it will undermine the future for Aboriginal people in Australia and, what is more, the government knows that absolutely. The government knows that Aboriginal people do not want this Stronger Futures legislation. Aboriginal people find it offensive that it is even entitled 'Stronger Futures' because it takes them way back to a time of extreme paternalism and it makes a mockery of the apology to the stolen generation.
People need to think very carefully about what is going on here. People were horrified with the Northern Territory intervention when it was conducted under the former Prime Minister, John Howard. It is shocking to me, after the complete failure of the Northern Territory intervention and the complete lack of evidence for any of the claims that the government is making about successes under the intervention, that we would now see this legislation before us.
I want to address a remark that was made earlier about a suggestion that the legislation is not being rushed through. We have spent the entire day today on the Migration Legislation Amendment (The Bali Process) Bill 2012, talking about the treatment of asylum seekers and how what was being proposed stripped the legislation of any human rights protections and allowed the government to intercept asylum seekers and send them to any country that had signed the Bali process including Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Syria. It was appalling and any suggestion that it was anything other than a political take to try to take the heat off the parliament before the winter break is just an excuse. That is all it was. However, we now have a way to at least address that. The reason this is so shocking is that this is the last day of sitting before the long winter break. We have been debating other measures all day. This legislation was not even supposed to be coming on today. It was not even discussed in the meeting this morning about what would be on the agenda today in the parliament. It turned up here on the Notice Paper at about quarter past one this afternoon. The excuse the government has for bringing in this legislation, against the wishes of Australia's Aboriginal people, is that we have to get it through now because, unless it goes through now, there are programs that will lapse before we come back after the winter break. But that is not true. We have had a look at that, and 18 August is when the programs need to be renewed and this legislation needs to go through by. I raised this matter today with the Prime Minister.
It is appalling to me that we are here tonight with a virtually empty Senate chamber and that the parliament is not engaging on a matter which is of such great significance to Aboriginal people. You cannot imagine anything which has greater significance to them than this legislation. I would like to read you a statement regarding the Stronger Futures bills and Northern Territory policies. This is a statement from an Aboriginal spokesperson in the eastern region. It says:
To our brothers and sisters of eight nations in the Western, Central and East Arnhem Land areas of the Northern Territory: We say to you, we are with you and we will stand with you as one peoples against the Australian federal government’s Stronger Futures Bills and Northern Territory policies.
We call on the federal government to scrap the Stronger Futures laws and return to full consultation, negotiations and agreements with our leaders and custodians in the Eastern Alyawarr Region to discuss a way forward in partnership, and that our peoples be involved at all levels of government in setting policies, programs on health, education, employment and training.
We as the true custodians, landowners and leaders now demand that the federal, state and territory governments must respect all human rights, and recognise and acknowledge our peoples rights as first Australians to make all decisions to determine our own future directions, to work and walk with us towards a better future for our peoples.
I think as a parliament we should be taking that very seriously. I was honoured to be asked to accept and present to this parliament a petition signed by more than 40,000 people—that is why this parliament ought to be seriously engaging in this. This is a big issue. Those people sent in a petition to this effect:
We urge the Parliament of Australia not to pass the Stronger Futures legislation, and conjoined Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011.
We are opposed to the legislation because it extends many of the provisions of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act 2007 (NTER) and consolidates the top down, punitive approach that is already adversely impacting on the legal and human rights of Indigenous Australians.
We sincerely believe that informed and sustained dialogue with Indigenous communities is required on the issue.
We are deeply concerned that the legislation undermines legal rights across a range of areas of law, including administrative law; constitutional law; consumer law; criminal law; discrimination law; privacy law; property law and welfare rights.
We also believe that the policy underlying the legislation is in violation of fundamental principles of international law, such as the right to self-determination.
The policy also reflects the assimilationist and paternalistic views of government towards Aboriginal people from the 1890s to 1960s. Furthermore, the legislation seeks to deal with complex social and economic disadvantage through government regulation and the undermining of individual freedom.
Communities have not given their free, prior and informed consent to the measures proposed within the legislation. Although consultations were held with communities, these were not transcribed, and the consultations were not conducted in accordance with basic social science methodology.
Elders and community representatives have expressed that they are opposed to the legislation, which will further disempower their communities and entrench trauma and poverty.
We draw attention to comments made by Northern Territory elders about the legislation:
‘We do not consent to these bills. We will not support policies that have not been negotiated, or negotiated with all elders of prescribed communities, and we will not support an extension of the Intervention, or Intervention under other names.’ ...
We thank you for your understanding and commitment to achieving lasting positive change for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.
This bill works against lasting positive change for people in the Northern Territory. How is it possible that this parliament can be pretending that an extension of the Northern Territory intervention is anything other than a return to paternalism and undermining self-determination? It completely undermines self-determination. That was a point made very strongly.
Let me go to the evidence base. The disgraceful thing is that by the government's own measures intervention outcomes show an alarming worsening in many indicators of community and individual health and wellbeing. Unemployment and welfare dependence are escalating. More children are being hospitalised. School attendance remains low. Reported suicide and self-harm rates have doubled since the intervention's introduction in 2007. And yet we have Minister Macklin saying that Stronger Futures is evidence-based. It is not evidence based. It is not addressing the realities of what has occurred under this intervention policy.
How can we stand here and continue a policy that has led to increased unemployment and welfare dependence, in more children being put into hospitals and in higher suicide and self-harm rates? What are we thinking in this parliament? How can people just sit here and shrug their shoulders on the last evening before we go out for the winter break and just say, 'Well, okay; we'll just let the Greens talk this out and then we'll just vote for it, and away we'll go, and we'll forget about the fact that this undermines forever the self-determination of Aboriginal people'? This takes us right back to where we were years ago, in a paternalistic regime that undermines the capacity of individual Indigenous communities to determine their own future, their own health and wellbeing, and to participate in it.
As I listened to the Aboriginal people who were here for the press conference they told me about the complete failure of the consultation that had gone on. They said that most of the communities did not know what it actually meant. They were not properly consulted, especially a lot of the older people, and they still do not know what is going on. They do not know what these three pieces of legislation actually mean for them. They are being treated as if all that has to happen is that we take this top-down approach, we tell them what we are going to do, we go and do it and we take away any kind of hope they have that they will have control in the longer term over their own destiny. Residents of prescribed communities are becoming extremely dispirited as their local control is wrested away from them and their community institutions and programs are being dismantled in the name of modernisation. If that is not an attempt at assimilation I do not know what is.
On what possible basis can you take away and undermine local community institutions and programs? There are now unprecedented levels of surveillance by government agents. And, rather than the dentists or mental health workers that are desperately needed, it is police, truancy officers, housing construction crews and others who arrive, carrying out their activities under a coordinating government business manager who exercises supreme statutory powers.
But community resistance continues to grow in these communities, and you have to wonder how long Aboriginal people in Australia will put up with it. How long is it going to be before they just say, 'Enough is enough; we will not tolerate this in our communities anymore'? And that is the point to which we are driving people. Instead of taking a collaborative approach, a bottom-up approach of understanding and supporting Indigenous languages, of assisting people in community to do what they want to do and to use their own economic models and the like, we go in there with an intervention that has failed. I challenge the minister to show—any time, anywhere—where the evidence is to support her contention that the Northern Territory intervention has worked and that Stronger Futures will work any better than that. There is no evidence for it. What there is evidence for is, as I said, a doubling of reported suicide and self-harm rates since 2007, when the Northern Territory intervention was first introduced.
My colleague Senator Siewert has done a huge amount of work on this issue. She wrote a strong dissenting report to the committee's report on the legislation, of course saying that this bill should not be supported. In her dissenting report she quoted the experience of an elderly Aboriginal man with these consultations. I think we should be ashamed when we listen to this:
There were no consultations at his nearest community—the only one he has ever known and the one he grew up in. So here he is: an old man who is almost 80—he looks very well for his age—who has lived on the same country his whole life as a caretaker, who is a prominent elder in his community and who is the holder of stories of his country. Yet he does not know anything about the three bills being passed.…In my grandfather's community, for example, how they went about it is that a time and a place were booked for somebody to go out there, but a few days later a phone call was received to say it had been cancelled. The people in my grandfather's community were not consulted about the Stronger Futures. So they do not know. The only consultation that he had came from land council. If people are not going to have their say and their input into the Stronger Futures policy then how are you supposed to work in partnership and have genuine consultation with people? How are you going to find out what people's needs and wants are?
I would urge the Senate to think again, to actually go and look at and read what Aboriginal people are saying about the impact of the Northern Territory intervention on them and how disillusioned and angry they are that now this is going to be carried on again, with an extension of another 10 years. This is just unacceptable in modern Australia.
We stand up and talk about reconciliation with Aboriginal people, and now what this legislation means is that the reconciliation we have in mind is telling them how they will live, where they will live and the conditions in which they will run their communities—and that supposedly is reconciliation. I can tell you that people who marched around Australia for reconciliation do not believe the Northern Territory intervention had merit. There is no evidence to say that it had merit and there is no merit in Stronger Futures. We will oppose it and we will hound this government for the evidence that it says it has, because it does not exist; but we will make sure that the evidence is collected that demonstrates how destructive this policy is to Aboriginal people in Australia.
I hope it comes home to haunt the minister and the Prime Minister for pursuing this legislation in the way they have on this last day of this Senate sitting, when we could have debated it properly when we came back after the winter recess. It would have been good for people to go out and actually talk to Aboriginal people and have some reflection on the arrogance that is going on here with, once again, a predominantly well-educated, middle class community telling Aboriginal people, the traditional owners of the land, how they will live on their own land. It is a disgraceful piece of legislation.
Both sides of parliament, over many, many years tried desperately and put everything they had into improving the lot of our Indigenous people. If money could have solved the problem it would have been solved, because no side of parliament has spared anything to lift Aboriginals out of where they are, which is in communities that are relying basically on passive welfare to exist.
Time and time again we have seen reports, and every report has come out showing that there is no improvement in the welfare of or care of children. In fact, it is going backwards. I have observed this in my time here in parliament. I never want to go back to the stage where the communities were under the charge of religious orders. We have passed that and we never want to go there again. The Baptists had a community, the Lutherans had a community and the Catholics had a community. That has gone. We cannot go there again. We have advanced on that.
I have seen that people who lived in those communities had an education. They could speak English. Since those communities have been removed the standards have fallen. I have seen generations of Aborigines—grandmothers and grandfathers who can read and write and speak English, whose sons and daughters can speak less English and whose grandkids can speak less again. Report after report has come through saying the improvement has been zero; in fact, we are going backwards. A report came out which said little children are sacred, and that really blew the whistle on what was going on in Aboriginal communities. Are we to sit there and say, 'Let's continue; let's have more money; let's have more reports’? Every report is getting worse and worse, and we are putting more and more money in and going absolutely nowhere; in fact we are going backwards. What do you do in those circumstances? You have got to try something different. You have got to reach out and say, 'This hasn't been working over the last 50 years. What do we do? We can't continue to go down this path, because we are getting nowhere.' That is the background of the intervention.
The Greens obviously think it is not working and they are quoting Aboriginal people, leaders in their community, saying it is not working. I think you can find other Aboriginal leaders that say, 'It is working. It is improving. The kids are getting better educated. The kids are getting more to eat.' We have to do something. We cannot just keep going the way we have been for the last 50 years where Aboriginal children are only speaking one language in a community that maybe 400, 500 or 600 people can understand. They cannot speak English. They get marooned in the community. They cannot go out because no-one can understand them.
Senator Ludlam—and I do not doubt his or Senator Milne's sincerity for one minute—how can you advance an Aboriginal community when you have them locked in a community that speaks a language that only a minimal number of people can communicate in? They cannot move out of their community. They cannot go and get a job.
I am pleased to say I see a turnaround. I see some great leaders advancing Aboriginal communities. I see these people trying to lift their people out of welfare dependency. I see them trying to get education for their people. I see the mining companies taking their share of responsibility and Rio Tinto saying, 'Twenty five per cent of our employers will be first Australians.' 'Twiggy' Forrest and other mining entrepreneurs are saying that we have a responsibility to get these people out of their communities and into real, meaningful jobs. I am not talking about $20,000 a year token jobs; I am talking about $70,000, $80,000 or $100,000 jobs where they buddy them up and put a lot of effort into maintaining their commitment. I see the mining community accepting their responsibilities.
I see Bess Price, Noel Pearson, Wayne Bergman and Alison Anderson—they are the new Aboriginal leaders who are saying, 'Let's not be victims any longer. We played the victim game and it's never achieved anything for us. All we have ever achieved is to be on welfare and be dependent on handouts.' These leaders are driving their constituents forward, driving their people forward, urging them on. They are urging them to get an education, to get a job, to go into the mines, to develop their own country and to run cattle, farms and mines. They are doing a great job can and they have to be acknowledged.
I say to Senator Milne with the best will in the world: times have changed. People do not want this anymore. These leaders are leading their people into a new land. If you ever saw that, if you ever wanted to see it, you should have seen it at the last election in Queensland. The Aboriginal community said, 'There's nothing in this. The Green-Labor-Wilderness Society alliance—they want to take our land. They do not want us to develop it. We cannot run farms. We do not want World Heritage across all our land. We want to have our mines.' And what did the Greens, the Wilderness Society, Pew and all those other green groups do? They said, 'We want you to sit there and you can develop a tourist industry.' The Aboriginal community said, 'No, we don't want a tourist industry; we want to develop our land. We don't want wild rivers that block off all our land; we want to do things for ourselves.' It has not worked for 50 years and will not work over the next 50 years, because stupidity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.
I stood here and applauded when the apology to the stolen generations was given. I applauded when we introduced the welcome to country. I did not object to it. But what I did object to was that, on almost the same day that was introduced, the Aboriginals in the cape had the Wild Rivers Act declared. It was almost on the same day. I could see the irony, the hypocrisy. How could we say that we were sorry and speak the welcome to country every day but take the land they have had for 40,000 years and not let them use it? We tried to put a World Heritage listing on it. That is why the Greens are fighting a losing battle. Those people at Point Price and Wayne Bergman can see that, if they can get the money, they can educate their kids. They can give them an education; they can train them; they can lift them out of this poverty and this cycle of suicide, drunkenness and abuse.
At the last state election, I saw something that I never thought I would see: Aboriginals coming down and campaigning in the seat of Ashgrove. They were standing in front of Woolworths and on the street corners, handing out leaflets saying that the wild rivers legislation would deprive them of their country. They have realised they have a fight on their hands, and the only weapon they have is their vote. They are using their vote to lift themselves out of this poverty trap. They knew they had to win. Their land depended on it. Their birthright depended on it. If they could not stop the wild rivers act, they were going to lose everything. When we saw the vote from Cape York and the Torres Strait come in, which is where most of the First Australians live, it was overwhelmingly in favour of the conservatives. They are sick and tired of being pushed around by the Wilderness Society and the other green groups, which treat them as if they are ornaments, there to provide a photo opportunity for the non-existent people who might want to watch them and take a picture of some Aboriginal people. I say to the Greens: it is gone; you are fighting yesterday's battle. People want more.
This is the way we have tried to lift people out of their poverty, out of their welfare dependency. Some people say it will not work—the Greens say it will not work. I can find an equal number of Aboriginals who will say it is working. Let me just conclude my remarks by saying that as Australian politicians we had to do something. What were we to do, just sit there and say, 'Let's have a few more reports. Let's throw another couple of billion dollars in and see if we can buy the problem off'? We have tried that for years and it has not worked. That is why I support this intervention. I think it has problems, but I think the problems would be far worse if we did not have anything.
I implore the Labor Party: if you are going to have this particular policy then put your shoulder to the wheel and make it work. Do not just have it there as a picture that says, 'We have it here. No-one is really trying too hard. Let's not get our hands dirty.' If you are going to have it, make it work. Give it all you have and see if we can lift and help the Aboriginal community.
I wanted to speak very briefly on this report as a member of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee which undertook the inquiry into the Stronger Futures legislation. I would like to start by strongly supporting the sentiments of Senator Boswell's speech. I think it encapsulated the complexities and the very serious issues that all sides of politics have struggled with for many years.
I would also like to make the point that this was the last inquiry that the late Senator Judith Adams was involved in. She was a very, very active participant in the community affairs committee and a great advocate for Aboriginal people throughout Australia but especially in her home state of Western Australia.
I can appreciate the view of the Greens in that Senator Siewert has been one of the strongest advocates for the Indigenous population of Australia that I have seen and a very active participant in this committee. But I would also make the point that what the government is doing to the Greens right now is exactly what has been happening to the opposition all week and over the past term of parliament—simply not getting the chance to properly debate issues.
I would like to just briefly make some points on the inquiry that we held and the legislation. Certainly the point has been made over and over that there was very poor consultation undertaken by FaHCSIA. The committee went to the communities of Ntaria, better known as Hermannsburg, and Maningrida. In both cases, despite explaining what we were doing and why we were there, the local population thought that we as a committee were there not to hear their views about the legislation but to explain to them what the bill was about. We had been told that there had been extensive consultation undertaken both by the minister and her department and by consultants paid by her department. Certainly if that were the case the locals had not noticed.
So the first thing that we recommended is that consultation has to be far more carefully undertaken. We are not talking about a sophisticated inner-city population who understand the purpose of legislation. We are talking about people who need the purpose of legislation, along with the outcomes, explained to them, possibly numerous times over.
I was surprised not long after our report came out that on one day I received 28,000 emails vigorously opposing the Stronger Futures campaign. Clearly any politician pays attention when they get 28,000 emails on a particular issue. One of my more savvy IT staff, however, managed to find out that in fact all these emails—the whole 28,000—had come from one address in Victoria. So what was happening was a straight-out spam campaign to try to convince the politicians involved in this inquiry that the level of concern about the Stronger Futures legislation was far higher than it genuinely was. I acknowledge that there is concern about this legislation, but I suspect in many cases that concern is based more on not understanding the legislation properly, not understanding the intent of the legislation, than it is on the actual policies in the legislation. As a number of speakers have pointed out, you can find as many people who support the intent of that legislation and support it as a follow-on, a logical, sensible follow-on, from the Northern Territory intervention policy of our government. We are attempting to put in place decent living conditions, functional family conditions, in many of the communities where they have not existed.
I noted the Senator Hanson-Young spoke at length about the increased number of cases of self-harm and of suicide since the Northern Territory intervention. I found that approach somewhat dishonest. One of the things that has happened as a result of the Northern Territory intervention, and this government's further role into Stronger Futures, is that we are collecting far better statistics. Obviously if you have more police on the ground you find more cases of crime or of concern. Even the Bureau of Statistics itself has been somewhat better funded in this area to collect the figures that we need to know. It was all very well for former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to spend a not inconsiderable amount of time talking about closing the gap, but the point is that no-one had a clue what that gap actually looked like. The statistics that we had were not sufficient to allow us to look at that.
So to use an increase in self-harm and suicide statistics as suggesting that the intervention has been a failure and that those increases are because of the intervention, I think is patently dishonest. It is a better collection of statistics and a better analysis of statistics that has in the main produced those figures. I would like to leave my comments there. But of course the coalition will in the main support this legislation.
First of all, I thank all senators for their contributions to the debate. I have had a bit of a difficult time in the last few hours of listening to this debate. I was actually agreeing with Ron Boswell for part of that speech and I think that is probably only the first or second time that has happened, so it has been a bit disconcerting. I find myself at great odds with some of the contributions from the Greens, which is not as unusual but it is also not common.
These bills form part of the government's next steps in the Northern Territory to tackle the unacceptable levels of disadvantage still experienced by too many Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. It is about trying to take these steps forward in partnership with Indigenous people, but it continues to recognise the fact—and I think this is where perhaps the government and the Greens differ—that you have to do more than just give people rights. We have learnt that. I am one of the great supporters of the first Native Title Act. I spoke about native title rights and Indigenous rights in my first speech, an issue which has been very dear to me for a very long time—giving proper recognition to Indigenous people. I was one of those who were very proud when the parliament, through Prime Minister Rudd, made the apology. But over the years I have also come to recognise that you cannot just talk about rights; you have to help Indigenous communities address the symptoms and the manifestation of the social issues confronting them.
When I first became opposition Indigenous affairs spokesman, I had to come to terms with talking about alcohol, family break-up and violence against women. I could not pretend that these things did not occur; I could not pretend that we could only talk about rights. We had to focus on those issues that were destroying families, destroying lives, and we had to help those communities tackle those very serious social problems. I think some of the debate today has reflected that discomfort.
The Greens continue to focus on those well-meaning principles, but seem reluctant to get in and deal with the reality of Indigenous people on the ground. That is not for lack of knowledge. It is a shame Senator Siewert is not here—no-one has put more effort into these issues in the parliament than her, and I recognise her contribution. But I do think the Greens have been misleading tonight on this question of process. Senator Ludlam knows that for weeks I have told him that this bill would be dealt with in this session. Some claims made by the Greens today suggest that they did not know about until this morning—they ought to read the red. Senator Hanson-Young and Senator Milne said this was all a great shock to people. That is not true. Everyone has known for weeks that we would be seeking to get this bill through in this session, because the sunset clause in the current legislation takes effect in the middle of August.
What we did do is agree to defer the legislation until this week in the hope that Senator Siewert would be with us again and able to contribute to the debate. But I also made it very clear that, if she was not, we would continue with the legislation, because of the sunset clause in the current legislation. So, I will not cop some of the claims that have been made by Greens senators today. They are not true. This has been on the Notice Paper and on the red; they knew that it was coming. I remind people that this bill was introduced into the parliament last November, so this supposed unholy rush is actually seven months in process. We have had a full Senate inquiry into the bill, in which Greens senators and others participated. To suggest that somehow this has been rushed or that people did not know it was coming is nonsense.
It is true to say that it has come on at the end of a session and that there has been a lot on this week, but we have always indicated that we would be dealing with it and that we needed to deal with it because of the sunset clause in the existing legislation. It is also the case that the Greens have made it quite clear that they do not want to deal with it. They have been very frank with me that they did not want to deal with this legislation in this session, but no-one can claim that they did not know, that it was not on the red, that it was not on the Notice Paper or that we have not had time to prepare for this legislation to come on. I do apologise that Senator Siewert is not here and I think everyone understands the circumstances involved, but the government is faced with the situation that the existing legislation has a sunset clause—it falls over in the middle of August—and we have to deal with this matter now. I want to put that on the record, because I think people might have been misled by some of the commentary.
We do think this is important legislation and we have made a real attempt to work with Indigenous people to make sure it is understood and supported. We think this bill is much fairer than the initiative that was taken by the Howard government. It removes a number of the measures that we thought were punitive but seeks to maintain the measures that were strengths in the original legislation and extends some of those provisions. I look forward to the committee debate and hope that we can constructively move through the amendments. The government will be moving a set of amendments, and at the commencement of the committee stage I will table some explanatory memoranda relating to those amendments.