Thursday, 28 June 2012
Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2011
I table five supplementary explanatory memoranda relating to the government's amendments to be moved to the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 and the other bills. The memoranda were circulated in the chamber on 20 and 21 March and on 27 June.
The Greens oppose schedule 1 in the following terms:
This relates to income management. I addressed the basic issue of income management in my speech on the second reading, but I would just like to make some remarks now on the way through. Just to be clear, this amendment removes the schedule relating to income management entirely. If this amendment fails and it is the chamber's view that income management should remain—it is strongly the Australian Greens view that it should not—I do propose to debate a number of amendments that Senator Siewert thought would be a wise way to go. There are some ways that we could certainly improve the policy. We may get to debate those, but if this first amendment is carried then that will not be necessary. This amendment simply abolishes schedule 1.
We do not support the expansion of income management and we believe that the entirety of schedule 1 should be removed. To date, the bill for the current income management process in the Northern Territory sits at around $450 million, nearly half a billion dollars, in order to provide people, many of them impoverished, with little plastic cards telling them what they can and cannot spend their money on. In an area where basic services in many instances are lacking, we spend nearly half a billion dollars telling people how they can manage their income.
This policy remains one of the most criticised across the Northern Territory. If you travel into the prescribed areas and say to people that you have heard about the intervention and ask them what it is all about, income management generally is in the top three issues that people wish had simply never occurred. The money that is used to income-manage people would produce far better results if it were directed to services and programs based on collaboration, community involvement and partnership.
I notify the chamber that I certainly intend to put this amendment to the vote. I find it extraordinary that it is controversial that just under half a billion dollars would perhaps be better spent on the kinds of services that these communities are crying out for and that the Little children are sacred report identified: grassroots services and simple forms of helping communities rebuild themselves. Imagine how far half a billion dollars could go into providing those services. But, no, they have the little plastic cards to tell you what you can and cannot buy.
Claims continue that income management is designed to break the vicious cycle of welfare dependency by ensuring that welfare should not be a destination or a way of life. I acknowledge at the outset—and it seems awfully familiar from the Muckaty debate—that Senator Evans is here in a representational capacity, that this is not his bill, so none of this is intended to be taken personally. But I would like the minister, if he could, to provide us with any evidence whatsoever that income management has been a successful policy that deserves to be continued.
I thank Senator Ludlam for the question. Senator Ludlam, I think I heard during the second reading debate the Greens views on this question of evidence. But we maintain that there are improvements in the Northern Territory in things like infant mortality, reporting of child abuse and reporting of crime. You make the argument that these things show that we are going to have increased incarceration. We say, actually, that this is protecting the community, because crimes are being reported and the laws are being enforced. We think improvements in infant mortality are a good thing. We know that the health checks have been delivering really important results; a high number of health checks have been completed. There is early identification of things like ear infections. So we think the measures are delivering results. I understand you have a principled position that is in opposition to income management. I have heard Senator Siewert argue this many times; I have argued it with her myself. And I know that senators around the chamber have engaged with these issues over a long period of time. We support the maintenance of the income management program. We seek to make some amendments ourselves which we think will improve that. Fundamentally I understand the Greens do not support the income management system. That is why their amendment seeks to remove it. But the government, and I understand the opposition—but obviously they will speak for themselves—is committed to maintaining and improving the income management system. I listened to the contributions earlier today from Senator Crossin and I have heard Senator Scullion on this issue before. I just remind the Senate that the people who live and work in the territory have a lot of experience with how these programs are delivering real improvements to the lives of Indigenous people in the Northern Territory. Things like humbugging that have been so harmful to so many people are decreasing in incidence and a lot of older people are feeling much better protected as a result of these changes.
I know there is a fundamental difference of opinion on this but we think the income management program is an important part of this package. We have looked to extend that to other parts of Australia to address some of these serious social issues, but we think the evidence is that this income management system is assisting to stabilise the communities, assisting them to function better and to ensure that there is proper nutrition and health access in those communities. I understand that we will disagree on this but the government strongly supports the income management regime. This bill will improve that regime, in our view, but I do not expect that I will convince the Greens of that this evening.
I note that Senator Evans has just said 'we think income management will improve things' and 'we think it has improved things' but there is absolutely no evidence cited. I ask Senator Evans whether he is aware that the 2008 Northern Territory Emergency Response Review Board established by the Rudd government to evaluate compulsory income management recommended 'that compulsory income management in the Northern Territory cease'. Is Senator Evans aware that that recommendation came from the review board established by the Rudd government, and is he aware that the review board's recommendations were based on visits to 31 communities, meetings with representatives of 56 communities, consultation with over 140 organisations, and 222 submissions—and also consultancy work which has not been made public? That constitutes far more than what Senator Evans thinks. What is his view, and why does he reject the Northern Territory review board's advice that income management cease?
I have not seen the report Senator Milne refers to but I have read references to it and I have heard people discuss it. As I say, there is a contest here about these issues, and I accept that, but the government is convinced that the reforms are delivering results. We look at things like the fact that we are seeing reports of more fresh fruit and vegetables being brought into stores where income management applies—real changes in the nutritional impact on communities. We also know that about 4,100 people in the Northern Territory are on voluntary income management—they have chosen to be on income management. They are voting with their feet; they are saying this is of benefit to them. They are indicating that they value it. Senator Crossin, a Northern Territory senator with a great deal of experience in this area, referred to her personal experiences talking to people in communities.
I accept that there is a divergence of view on this but the government's experience is that these measures are delivering improved results for some of the basic issues we are trying to address, and we will continue with the income management program and look to refine it as part of the amendments we are introducing in this bill.
I note, Senator Evans, that you just said there is evidence of improved fruit and vegetable sales and the like. I would like to ask that you take it on notice to provide the evidence you have to support that claim. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare evaluation of income management notes that what evidence exists, given the lack of quantifiable data, means that government cited evidence should be treated with caution. Are you aware that the research by the Menzies School of Health Research indicates that income quarantining has had no substantial impact on improving Indigenous child welfare and that there has been little change in store spending patterns? That is contrary to what you have just said, Senator Evans, in terms of fruit and vegetables.
According to the Menzies School of Health Research, there has been little change in store spending patterns, which is the only way income management might have been shown to improve or even change child wellbeing. Are you aware that the Menzies study concludes that federal measures associated with income management lack any significant empirical data to support maintenance of the policies? I would like to see the significant empirical data which is contrary to what the Menzies centre is saying, because Menzies is saying that there has been little change in store spending patterns.
I am happy to take that question from the senator on notice. As I said, my briefing indicates that we have seen reporting of more fruit and vegetable consumption in the stores where income management applies, but I will try to get some more detailed information for the senator on those.
I have a question for the minister. We as a government responded quite comprehensively, I think, to the 2008 review and in fact put legislation through this parliament to change the income management regime so that it is not compulsory. I thank the minister for the number of people who have now voluntarily stayed on income management because they have wanted to. Perhaps the minister could provide for the chamber the difference in numbers between the people who were on income management prior to our changing the legislation and those who are now not income managed because we created a series of criteria that enabled people to either be removed from it or opt out, to be given an exemption. Those numbers might be useful.
Thank you, Mr Chairman. I have always found that the questions from your side are always much more difficult than the ones from the other side of the parliament! I will try to get that information for the senator and provide it later.
That was a joke. But when Senator Crossin asks, I am under huge pressure to provide the information. So we are looking for the information for Senator Crossin, and I will provide it as soon as I can locate something that is helpful.
When Senator Ludlam was commenting on some of these developments he made the point that in the Northern Territory at the moment the issue of income management is one of the top three issues raised in many of these communities. I have been working in Bankstown, where there is growing concern about income management being introduced. I would not say it was one of the top three issues at the moment, but it is certainly on the rise, and I am receiving more queries about it. I just want to check something with you. With this bill we are considering here, does the income management also cover the trials, like at Bankstown? Or is that in a later piece of legislation?
I want to be clear. I understand that the trials can proceed without this legislation. The trials will continue. There are some technical amendments that will affect their administration, but the trials can continue independently.
I will raise some of my concerns at this point, because there have been a considerable number of meetings over the last 10 months on the issue of income management in Bankstown in the library. There have been a few protests at some of the neighbourhood centres. People are concerned about the issue of income management and how it is going to impact on low-income people. Some of the businesses have also raised it. There is a large shopping strip there. The Muslim Business Association have raised their concerns because members of their community use a number of smaller shops and they understand that many of their customers could end up on the BasicsCard. My first question needs to be this one: how are you managing the concern that is coming from some business communities about them losing customers because they do not qualify as processors of the BasicsCard?
I thank the senator for her question. I remember having these discussions in estimates when Senator Siewert and others sought that sort of detail from the department. But as I understand it there are local implementation groups that will deal with those sorts of issues. The trails are operating around the country. There is one in Cannington in my own state. These local implementation groups will manage those sorts of issues. I can organise for you to have a briefing or I can get you the contact details for the Bankstown group if you want to engage with the local implementation group. I do not have any briefing on what is occurring in that particular area, but I can certainly get you some information that will put you in touch with the relevant officers and their operations.
Thank you, minister. I would appreciate those details. You could answer the question generally. You must have some guidelines for how many shops and businesses in any one area—for instance, Bankstown or any of these trial areas—can be included in administering the BasicsCard. Can you outline how that works, please?
As I understand it, there is no distinction between small businesses and big businesses participating in the scheme. It is a question of what they market, if you like. As it is not a particular focus of this bill, I do not have a specific briefing regarding the Bankstown trial. But I can certainly provide the senator with some information on notice and provide her a briefing. Participation is not determined by the size of the business. It is decided on the basis of the businesses marketing relevant goods.
I understand that the department is attempting to interact with the local communities so that this can work effectively. But when opposition develops, how do you gauge that?
I would like to share with you the widespread opposition that there is in Bankstown. I will read out a list of 57 organisations who have raised their opposition to income management in Bankstown. It includes: Catholic Care; the Maritime Union of Australia; the New South Wales Nurses Association; Unions New South Wales, the Arab Council Australia Inc.; the Association of Bahrain Al Amin; the Australian Arab Business Network; the Australian Immigrant and Refugee Women's Alliance; the Australian Services Union; the Bankstown Area Multicultural Network; the Bankstown Community Resource Group; the Bankstown Women's Health Centre; the Cabramatta Community Centre; the Combined Pensioners and Superannuants of New South Wales; the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union New South Wales; the New South Wales Council of Social Services; the Darug Tribal Aboriginal Corporation; the Ethnic Child Care, Family and Community Services Coop; the Ethnic Communities Council of New South Wales; the Finance Sector Union, New South Wales/ACT Branch; the Fairfield Local Aboriginal Access Group; the Federation of Ethnic Communities Council of Australia; the Gandangara Local Aboriginal Land Council; the Granville Multicultural Community Centre; the Greek Orthodox Community of New South Wales; the Greenacre Area Neighbourhood Centre Inc.; the Green Left Weekly; the Immigration Advocacy and Services Network; the Inner South-West Community Development Organisation Ltd; the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning, Research Unit, UTS; the Lebanese Community Council of New South Wales; the Lebanese Muslim Association; the Metro Migrant Resource Centre; the National Association of Community Legal Centres Inc; the National Tertiary Education Union New South Wales; the Network of Immigrant and Refugee Women of Australia Inc.; the Olive Tree Women's Network; the Pacific Island Women Advocate Support Service; the Presentation Sisters Queensland; the Public Service Association New South Wales; Reconciliation for Western Sydney; the St Vincent de Paul National Council of Australia; the Sisters of St Joseph South Australia Reconciliation Circle; the Society of Australian Presentation Sisters Justice Group; the South West Community Legal Centre; the Stop the Intervention Collective—
The CHAIRMAN: Senator Rhiannon—
There are only about 10 to go.
Senator Heffernan, these are organisations that have taken up the issue of income management in Bankstown and are raising their concerns about and their opposition to it occurring. I was reading them in the lead-up to a question to the minister. To continue, the list includes: the Tenants Union of New South Wales; the TRI Community Exchange; the United Muslim Women Association; United Voice; UnitingCare New South Wales and ACT; the Welfare Rights Centre, Sydney; the Western Sydney Community Forum; the Western Sydney Regional Information and Research Service; Woodville Community Services; the Women's Electoral Lobby, New South Wales; and the Working Group for Aboriginal Rights in Canberra.
Minister, you can see that that is a very impressive list. These organisations have come together to raise concerns about income management in Bankstown. It takes a lot of organisation for those groups to become informed about what is happening and for them to come together around a common position. Considering that it is so extensive, how is the government interacting with this opposition? Have there been meetings? Have there been explanations? Have you learnt anything from this level of opposition? Have you made any changes to how you are proceeding with income management?
I did not mean to arouse such sensitivity. I was just indicating that I was not aware of the engagement with Green Left Weekly nor with some of the South Australian or ACT groups. We have been focused on the recipients and the businesses in Bankstown who are directly impacted by the trial, as we have been focused in Cannington on the people directly impacted by the trial. But I understand that the department has had a series of meetings with interested groups about these issues and has a consultation process. But I am sure that in each of the trial areas the focus has been on groups who are in those areas—not interstate and not more broadly but with those who have a presence in the trial area. We are engaging with the people who are on income management in those areas and with the community groups who are servicing those people by providing financial advice and other support services and we are engaging with the shops who provide goods. I understand 75 shops or businesses have signed up to participate in income management in the Bankstown area and I think a large percentage of those can already access the BasicsCard through EFTPOS. I think more broadly in New South Wales there are about 1,500 shops that can accept the BasicsCard. There is community engagement with interested groups through the department. But, as I said, the focus is not on those groups; it is on the clients, the people participating in providing access to the BasicsCard and obviously on the groups like the support services, the advice services and the financial services that assist people who are having difficulty making ends meet or surviving on social security payments. So that is where the focus is. As to whether all of the groups Senator Rhiannon read out have engaged with the department on these issues, I am not aware, but I can provide you details on notice of the community engagement processes the department has followed.
I am not going to check whether every group that she mentioned has been consulted. I did say I would provide information on the consultation processes at Bankstown. I have offered to put her in touch with the group. She can talk to them directly. So there are no secrets about this. These are trials. All this information has been discussed at Senate estimates at great length. The senator is obviously not aware of that, but we can get her a briefing and put her in contact with the right people. I cannot take you through chapter and verse on these issues tonight, particularly the specifics around Bankstown, but we are happy to brief the senator and she can engage with the local implementation group. We can ensure that she is briefed to the greatest extent possible.
Thanks, Minister. In your opening response to the very first question that I put to you on this subject, you went through some general comments about the benefits of some of these programs. There were two factors relating to income management that you cited. One was crime and the other was infant mortality. There might have been one or two others, but could we take those two in turn. Can you provide any evidence at all of the link between income management and a decrease in crime?
I think the point I was making, which Senator Boyce made quite strongly, I think, is that what the Senate committee inquiry found is that in fact there was increased reporting of crime and increased reporting of child abuse. By putting more police officers and child support workers in, you have increased reporting and your statistics about those things will increase. I never claimed crime had gone down. The briefing I have had is that infant mortality rates have improved and that the health checks and other measures are delivering good results. But Senator Boyce made the point that, by providing more policing, more enforcement and more protection, many of the stats on offending or abuse actually rise as we get better reporting.
I just want to nail this down, because I still think the minister and I are talking past each other. I asked you a question directly about the link between income management and crime and the link between income management and infant mortality. These are the clauses we are debating. We are not trying to knock out the parts of government spending or government programs that have provided more youth workers or, in some instances, more police officers or better reporting. This is about income management. You cannot come in here and say you want to extend, entrench and continue to trial income management without a shred of evidence as to whether it has made any difference.
Minister, I appreciate you need to take advice on this stuff and this is getting down to detail. What is the role of income management in these things that we are proposing have actually helped people? Is there any evidence at all to support the government's legislated intention that income management is playing any kind of productive or positive role at all?
Sorry, Senator, I was not trying to draw the direct link between income management and some of those outcomes per se. I was talking about the suite of measures that have been implemented. I am not trying to overstate linkages, but I suppose we would say income management has allowed a sense of settling in the community, with better practices and more security, and that those things will flow on—and are flowing on—into issues such as better nutrition which will feed into the longer term health outcomes. But I do not want to overstate that. We say this is a suite of measures. Some are from the original intervention legislation we have abandoned which we thought to be too harsh and not delivering results. But we think income management is an important part of these measures and, as we have discussed, we are trialling it in other places in Australia, trying to assist in communities where there are really difficult ingrained social issues that income management can assist to address.
That is an easy question to answer—no. The whole point is that the card does not allow you to purchase alcohol. Therefore there will be no record on purchases of alcohol. The BasicsCard puts a limit on the goods that can be purchased to try and free up a part of income that cannot be dedicated to alcohol.
That is very important. I was going to ask if there had been demonstrated reduction in alcohol related incidents in areas where the cards were in use, but obviously that kind of question cannot be answered because the statistics might not be available.
I am advised that the other alcohol restriction measures for the Northern Territory came in around the same time. That statistical evidence not being available means I would not want to make any great claims in that regard. There were a range of other measures regarding alcohol management around the same time, so one would think that there was less consumption and, therefore, fewer alcohol fuelled incidents, but I cannot provide you with any evidence that links income management with those sorts of outcomes.
The second issue is: is there any data in the department on the frequency of the need for emergency financial assistance to Indigenous families and other families using income management cards compared to where the cards are not used?
I am not sure if I can help you. The government has increased the level of financial assistance available and is working through NGOs in delivering that assistance. I do not have any data that would give you the sort of thing that you are asking for. I will certainly take it on notice, but as you know the NGOs have been engaged to provide financial assistance and advice and more funding has been made available. But I do not have a briefing on the sort of evidence you are after, so I will take it on notice and see if there is anything that might assist you.
I have a couple more issues before moving on to the next amendment. On my various travels through the Territory I have been told anecdotally by mates who live in the prescribed areas that you can go into a shopping centre, particularly some of the ones where a fair number people from remote communities are travelling in and out—and they have to go a fair way to use this damn piece of plastic, because they cannot use them in their own communities—and there will be a queue in the shop where the blackfellas are lining up and a queue where the whitefellas are lining up, and they call it apartheid. I have not seen this personally and I do not know whether it still occurs, so this is a genuine attempt to ascertain whether it is still occurring.
I understand that the government has taken some measures to preclude or prevent this kind of thing from happening, although I am not sure how you would do it. Some people living in prescribed areas are forced to use these cards to obtain the basic necessities of life and some are not. When you get to some of these little shopping centres, some of them a great distance from where people live, you will be standing in the queue, you will be shamed and you will be handing over your little government card with the government telling you what you can and cannot buy. Then, over here at the other till, the people are just going through spending their money. I do not know the degree to which that is the case. This is from friends who have told me that this is their experience of it. Is the government aware whether that is the case, whether these people are making it up, and what steps have been taken to prevent that kind of thing from happening? Senator Crossin is welcome to jump in, too, as this is her neck of the woods.
I am advised that that is not right and that all community stores accept the card and there is no question of separate queues. I am sure Senator Crossin will be better informed than me in terms of this discussion, so I would encourage her to make a contribution. But my advice is that it is not right. Senator Crossin probably has a better firsthand feel for the claims. If those claims have been made broadly I suspect she would have heard of them.
One of the advantages of this package of legislation is that we will no longer have such things as prescribed communities. With respect to your question, Senator Ludlam, that may well have been the case when this was first introduced, four-plus years ago, and people were getting used to the system. Large supermarkets like Coles or Woolworths were also getting used to the system. People were not used to having a particular set of their Centrelink money budgeted. We have to be clear here: there is no reduction in the amount of money you get every fortnight; it is just given to you by the government in a different way. People may go shopping with $300 on the BasicsCard and $300 in cash and be unaware of how much you could buy for $300, as you might. When you fill your trolley up you may find you had put more in your trolley than you had on your card. So there was a lot of re-education and we then introduced a whole series of money management programs for people. Also, there are now points of query where you can look at what balance you have on your BasicsCard.
I do not find that those are problems anymore in the Northern Territory because for the last 18 months now Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the Territory have had a BasicsCard, if they fit into a certain category of people receiving Centrelink benefits. There are no such queues and there have not been for about four years now. Indigenous and non-Indigenous people get a card. We find more particularly that only certain shops have those cards, because those cards are meant for basic supplies, for food, for clothing, for educational purposes and for toys. They are not meant for a whole range of other goods. They are not meant for alcohol, for cigarettes or for cameras. They are not meant for a whole range of things, but I have found that, if we have discovered that there are certain shops that ought to get a BasicsCard, the representation I have made to the minister's office has been met pretty sympathetically. It has been a trial and error to begin with, but I think in most places it is now operating fairly smoothly.
I have a question to the minister about the degree of flexibility and choice that is available using the BasicsCard. Senator Crossin touched on this. My understanding is that there is a limited range of shops where the cards can be used. Is the minister aware whether it is possible to use the cards in opportunity or charity shops? People on low incomes are often quite adept at being frugal and making ends meet by buying things at a lower rate, including clothing. My experience in having mixed with some Indigenous people who have visited my family in the suburbs of Melbourne is that they absolutely loved going to charity shops where they could buy clothes at a lower price. I am interested in what flexibility is available on the BasicsCard.
The answer is 'yes', Senator. Some people suggest that I do my clothes shopping there! There is a range of those sorts of establishments where one can use the card, and quite a broader range than that. Senator Crossin explained to you that there had been other shops where things were brought into the system as we gained experience. So those shops are certainly available and there is quite a wide range of other shops. Those people understand that the system is designed to allow people to purchase normally but to try to restrict access to things like alcohol, which would deny children and other members of the family access to the basics of life because of the predominance of expenditure on alcohol and cigarettes. But the normal day-to-day needs of a family are what the BasicsCard is supposed to be used for. There is a wide range of shops where the card can be used.
I go to the issue of exemptions from income management. I understand that this is essentially a punitive system and, as has been said, the income management policies in Stronger Futures are likely to spread fear among parents about sanctions—which include loss of income—especially as it is often unknown what constitutes good and bad parenting. I ask the minister: who assesses applications for exemptions from income management on the ground of good parenting? What is the definition of good parenting that is applied by whichever officers determine whether or not good parenting is taking place and therefore decides that someone is eligible for an exemption?
): Firstly, this legislation does not deal with exemptions. There are no changes in this legislation. I understand there is interest in the issue and that we are travelling widely, but this is not the subject of the bill. However, the answer is Centrelink and, as I understand it, the good parenting guidance includes things like child immunisation, school attendance and health checks. Those basic measures are used by Centrelink. As I say, there is nothing in the legislation that seeks to address any changes to the exemption regime.
): Surely there ought to be some sort of assessment of whether this exemption regime actually works. From what I can understand from the data, the March 2011 data showed that, of the 2,130 people granted exemptions from income management, 75 per cent were non-Indigenous. What that would mean is that only four per cent of the entire population on quarantined payments in the Northern Territory accounted for three-quarters of all exemptions granted. So how is it that Centrelink has determined that the non-Indigenous four per cent have three-quarters of all the exemptions granted?
I do not have any detailed briefing on this issue because, as I say, it is not subject to the bill. This is a wide-ranging discussion that is not contained in the bill. But I understand—if the officers are accurate—that those statistics came in very soon after the system was introduced, and we think that there have been developments. I will see if there are any more up-to-date statistics available. I do not think that we have any to hand, but I will see if there is anything we can help you with.
I understand that those statistics were produced about six months after the system started. The exemptions regime is administered by Centrelink, but there is nothing in the bill which seeks to address the exemptions regime. You say that there ought to be, and that is obviously a question for you if you want to move an amendment; but it is not subject to the bill or to tonight's debate.
I am not going to detain us for too much longer. We have been at this first amendment on the first sheet of the first bill for just under an hour now, but I have a couple of remarks that I want to address. My reason for spelling out the amount of time that we have dwelt there is that in all of that time, with well-meaning questions from across the chamber, the minister and his advisers have been unable to present the Senate with a single piece of evidence that income management works. I think that is extraordinary. If it is not here, and let us assume that if it was in the possession of the advisers who have come across from the minister's office it would already have been turned over to the Senate, I ask the minister to take on notice whether he can provide for us anything at all; not about the broad stuff—not about health care, child care, youth-care workers, police or well-meaning stuff dropped out of helicopters onto people's communities—just income management. If there is anything at all which you can provide us with which shows that income management is working and therefore should be consolidated, extended and entrenched, I would greatly appreciate it.
There is not a great deal of dignity in having control of your day-to-day finances micromanaged by Centrelink. I want senators to visualise, just for a second before this question is put, that you come in here in the morning and have in your pocket a little BasicsCard which controls exactly how much you get to spend on certain things and which is issued by some people in Bidyadanga, up on the north-west coast, whom you have never met. How humiliating and how weird would you find it? That is what we are effectively doing to communities scattered across the continent which most of us could not even name or find on maps. It is absolutely shameful. We have made the point repeatedly about evidence—whether this is evidence based policy or faith based policy or policy based on something else. What we are really after is some evidence that it works, and I do not feel that that is too much to ask.
I have a couple more quick quotes. Ms Cox from Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning said:
My conclusions were that the studies and statistics available showed no valid or reliable evidence of measurable benefits of income management to individuals or communities.
Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory made similar comments. They said:
It is disappointing that the government is seeking to expand the operation of income management without a clear evidence base that demonstrates its success in achieving its objective of protecting vulnerable women and children and encouraging socially responsible behaviours amongst welfare recipients.
I invite the minister to address these comments with provision of anything at all which could help the chamber make its mind up, but I disclose at this point that my mind is made up. If you had evidence, I presume you would have presented it by now. I commend the first amendment on sheet 7229 to the chamber.
I did indicate earlier that I would get some information for the senator which might meet some of the queries he had. I will just make two points. Four thousand people have voluntarily decided to access the BasicsCard. They clearly then are not humiliated, as they have done it voluntarily. You may be worried about humiliation; I think you ought to be worried about poverty, child abuse, social dislocation, alcoholism and foetal alcohol syndrome, as I know you are. But you have to balance your preciousness about humiliation, which is not matched by the 4,000 people who did it, and the serious social issues occurring in these communities. You can meet with Green Left Weekly and other groups in Sydney and discuss broad policy and philosophical objectives but in the end you have to get down to saying, 'What can we do to help these communities that are suffering some of the worst social conditions in the world in the middle of one of the most prosperous economies in the world?' This is a genuine attempt to come to terms and to assist people to deal with those issues. You have a philosophical opposition to that, but we have taken a different view.
Senator Ludlam interjecting—
Senator Milne interjecting—
To be honest, I am more inclined to listen to the Northern Territory representatives in the House of Representatives and the Senate about these issues than I am the Greens. I do not doubt your motives, but Senator Crossin moves in these communities all the time. I am much more inclined to take her advice on these issues and the practicalities. Senator Milne, I am not sure what visibility you get from Tasmania on these issues, but I would rather follow the advice Senator Crossin gives me about the practicalities of these measures on the ground. While I am interested in the views of the many groups that Senator Rhiannon read to me, the reality is that we are trying to engage and build support in these communities for measures that make a difference to people's lives and that allow the children of those communities to have some sort of fair start in life. I think that is something we ought to focus on. As I say, while Senator Ludlam might want to focus on what he thinks is humiliating, we know at least 4,000 people have volunteered to use the scheme because they find it a protection against some of the pressures on them in their communities.
I am afraid those comments cannot go unanswered. I was proposing that we move on, but the minister has managed to get completely under my skin. Some of those responses, with respect, were really pretty cheap. In the migration debate, as in this one, we managed to get through most of the day without accusing each other of not caring about the issues. Minister, I asked you for evidence and you fired back at me a bunch of stuff about philosophy and ideology and Green Left Weekly. To be quite frank, evidence would have been better. If you can show us that this measure helps the issues that I believe everybody in this chamber cares about—the things that you reeled off—then I will go and vote on the other side. But you have not been able to show us anything.
I would like to put one specific question that has come through from some people outside the building that I am relieved to remind myself does still exist. It is that research has been commissioned by the minister on income management from a number of academic organisations—unfortunately, they do not say who they are—in the NT. Has that report been received by the minister and will it be made publicly available?
I am not used to doing bills on Facebook or whatever it is we are doing, but I am advised that if it is the report that we think you are referring to then we have not received it.
I made this point at the start. This is a continuation of the income management scheme. There are a couple of very minor technical amendments to it. This is your amendment opposing the continuation of income management. We are not proposing substantial changes to income management in this bill.
I want to respond to what the minister was saying. The minister suggests that people who are opposed to the income management scheme as it is at the moment are imagining that it is humiliating for the people who are subject to it. In fact, the information upon which I am operating is the reflections and the information I am getting from the people who are subject to it. So it is not a matter of imagining it. People are telling us that they feel humiliated from having to be part of the scheme, because they do not have any agency or power in it. So the suggestion that some people are taking it up voluntarily is a totally different argument, because, of course, as soon as someone chooses to do something voluntarily, the power balance changes totally.
Certainly there may be people who find it useful, but the fact that someone is imposing this lack of decision-making opportunities on someone else—causing them to live their life in a way that they do not necessarily feel is appropriate, making it so that they have to act in that way and so that their children and the people around them see them being affected in that way—goes to the root of the criticism of this whole program. It is about disempowering people, which does not enable them to act from a position of strength and self-determination and essentially brings about the very kinds of responses and effects that you say you are trying to avoid.
I just make the point that I accept what Senator Wright says, and I do not wish to demean the fact that certain people have different views and different experiences about it, but it is the case, as I understand it, that people can make an application to get off income management. Those that cannot are those who are there as a result of child protection measures, but other people can move off it after assessment. We are trying to get that balance right. Changes have been made, as Senator Crossin mentioned, to make the system work better, but we are of the view that there is a cohort of people and communities that will benefit from this income management regime. I accept that Greens senators do not agree with that, but this bill merely seeks to make some very small amendments to the existing regime.
I have been promising for some time that I will ask for the question to be put; however, I wonder whether the minister could provide us with some data, or point to where it is held, regarding the number of applications for exemption from income management—the number of people who have attempted to apply and the number of people who have been allowed to do so. I do not expect you to have that to hand, but if you could provide that at some stage that would be good.
I think you will find that it was provided at Senate estimates. So I think we will be able to locate it for you amongst that information.
The CHAIRMAN: The question is that schedule 1 stand as printed.
by leave—The Greens oppose schedule 1 in the following terms:
I am glad to have so much support on this side of the house now! Senators who have been elsewhere in the building may not be aware that our proposal to oppose the whole schedule has been defeated, so we will look to address some of the more serious concerns we have around this policy. Senators will be aware that I am moving this amendment again on behalf of Senator Siewert, who is not able to be here. In her usual constructive fashion, she has proposed two courses of action.
Senator Siewert's approach has been, for reasons I think we have been fairly explicit about describing, that that schedule should in fact have been knocked out of the bill. In the absence of the chamber moving that way, Senator Siewert has proposed a number of amendments which finetune and improve the way that income management, if it is to be perpetuated, will occur. These amendments remove state and federal referrals, which govern who can be placed on income management. It should be pretty well known by now that the Australian Greens strongly oppose the continuation of compulsory income management in the Territory, its expansion to five communities in other states and the broadening of referral powers to state and territory authorities enabling the expansion of income management across Australia.
We probably do not need to dwell. I am not proposing to call a division on this, but I would commend this amendment to the Senate as the first of three amendments that I will move in sequence that are essentially about finetuning, conditioning and improving the way that income management occurs, having set fairly squarely on the record the fact that we do not believe that people should be subjected to this kind of treatment at all.
The government's amendments will give greater flexibility to the operation of income management, so we do not support the propositions by the Greens. It is pretty much about the supporting people at risk measure, which will allow referrals from recognised state and territory authorities determined by the minister on a similar basis to referrals under the current child protection measure, which will ensure income management will assist those people most likely to benefit. It does not broaden the scope of income management as, under the existing legislation, the minister can, by a legislative instrument, apply existing income management measures across all of Australia.
To support the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory alcohol measures, this bill will enable people referred by the Northern Territory government's Alcohol and Other Drugs Tribunal to be placed on this new measure of income management, thus reducing the proportion of income available for alcohol. As Senator Ludlam made clear, the Greens intent is to exclude any of the state or territory bodies being able to refer. That is a fundamentally different approach to ours. We think there is a place for referrals from those sorts of bodies, such as the Northern Territory's Alcohol and Other Drugs Tribunal. Therefore, we will not be supporting the Greens amendment.
With the appeal process that will be added to the bill through the government's amendments, which we will support, we agree with the process of state and territory referrals, so we also oppose this amendment.
The CHAIRMAN: The question is that part 1 of schedule 1 stand as printed.
Question agreed to.
by leave—I move government amendments (1) and (2) on sheet BM283 together:
(1) Schedule 1, item 6, page 4 (line 4), before "The", insert "(1)".
(2) Schedule 1, item 6, page 4 (after line 10), at the end of section 123TGAA, add:
Functions, powers or duties of officers or employees
The amendment to schedule 1 item 6 of the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill will place requirements on the type of state and territory authorities that would be able to give a notice to place a person on income management, including, as Senator Payne indicated, that they have the appropriate review processes. This means that the type of state or territory authority that can refer a person for income management must have powers or duties in relation to the care, protection, welfare or safety of adults, children or families.
The amendment means that these authorities will need to have appropriate processes for reviewing any decisions for referral of a person for income management. It addresses a recommendation of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee majority report on the bills. The committee recommended that the government amend the bill to require that only agencies that have in place the internal and external review and appeal processes be approved by the minster to make income management referrals. So, effectively, the amendment is picking up the recommendations of the majority report from the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee.
I wish to speak briefly on these. The Australian Greens will not oppose these amendments and we do not propose to call a division. I have received my first piece of feedback from Senator Siewert tonight, but it is probably best that I do not repeat it in the chamber for fear of being thrown out. She has taken issue with the minister, who on a couple of occasions has made it sound—and I do not want to paraphrase you here, Minister, so jump up if I get this wrong—like it is not a major expansion of the scope of income management. It is kind of 'steady as she goes', and Senator Siewert would like remotely to take issue with that contention. She has provided us with some notes on the government's amendment, but to call them lukewarm would probably overstate the case. We will not be opposing these amendments.
Amendments (1) and (2) place greater control and certainty around the state and territories and their officials that the minister may authorise as agencies that may place a client onto income management. We had been concerned that their was a lack of oversight of those agencies and that it was necessary to ensure that a potential referral agency had an appropriate professional relationship with a client in order to base such a referral. We were also concerned that any state or territory agency should have an appeals process that was comparable with those of Australian government agencies, given that amendment (2) specifies the review process or mechanism that must be in place before the minister may make a determination to include the relevant agency or body as a recognised authority under the act. The coalition is supporting the amendments.
Question agreed to.
by leave—I move Australian Greens amendments (3) to (5) on sheet 7229 together:
(3) Schedule 1, item 15, page 6 (line 24), omit "70%", substitute "50%".
(4) Schedule 1, item 15, page 6 (lines 25 to 27), omit paragraph 123XPAA(3)(b), substitute:
(b) if a lower percentage is specified in a legislative instrument made by the Minister for the purposes of this paragraph—the lower percentage;
(5) Schedule 1, item 15, page 7 (line 26), omit "100%", substitute "50%".
This kind of blew my mind. As senators will be aware, this bill was not my responsibility within the party until it got sprung on us this afternoon. In fact, the amount of income that can be quarantined could be as high as 100 per cent. People's entire income can be quarantined. What we are seeking to do with these three amendments that I have sought leave to move together is to reduce the amount of income that can be quarantined to only 50 per cent and to remove the ability of the minister to raise the amount that can be quarantined.
In the bill the minister can quarantine up to 70 per cent of a person's income but, under certain circumstances—and the minister will jump up and correct me if I have this wrong—the minister can raise the amount to be quarantined to 100 per cent. I am glad that I do not have one of these wretched little cards where somebody thousands of kilometres away can decide on my behalf that my entire income can be quarantined. This is a fairly sensible amendment and I look forward to its unanimous support. I think this actually raises serious human rights concerns. The right to social security is enshrined in international human rights conventions, which make it a fundamental part of the right to an adequate standard of living. Putting in such extreme conditionality as quarantining 70 per cent to 100 per cent of a person's social security income potentially breaches human rights obligations. I look forward to the minister apologising for what is clearly a drafting oversight, because surely this could not have made its way into the bill intentionally.
I know that when Senator Ludlam resorts to irony he is getting tired. I send my regards to Senator Siewert and indicate that we send her our best wishes. I am glad she is not here, because should would be hammering me a lot harder than Senator Ludlam is.
Senator Ludlam interjecting—
No, I just mean she is very good at it. She knows her stuff very well.
Yes, it was a compliment to Rachel. Senator Ludlam can take it any way he wants. The bill sets the default deductible proportion at 70 per cent when a state or territory body refers someone for income management—the deductible portion is the amount that is subject to income management. As Senator Ludlam said, he is seeking to move that to 50 per cent. The government has not supported that amendment. It is not unreasonable to expect that people would direct 70 per cent of their income support payments towards meeting priority needs such as food, clothing and shelter. It is also, I think, reasonable to restrict people on income management to spending no more than 30 per cent of their Centrelink income on alcohol, tobacco, pornography or gambling. The bill allows the minister to specify a different deductible proportion by legislative instrument, depending on the particular state or territory authority that is authorised to make referrals. I suppose the key point is that this level has been set for the existing child protection measure of income management, so it is at the higher, 70 per cent, mark. It was thought that, given that the referral would be for those referred from the alcohol and drugs tribunal, it was appropriate for it to be at that higher level, as is consistent with existing child protection measures. The government will not be supporting the Greens amendments.
The Australian Greens oppose schedule 2 in the following terms:
We are proposing to remove the schedule in the legislation relating to the school enrolment attendance through welfare reform measure. Again, this is an issue that I addressed briefly in my second reading remarks. The discussion on school attendance received a great deal of media attention with regard to the intervention—everybody wants to see kids in school when school is in session. The consultation report used a large number of quotes strongly emphasising the role of parental responsibility in getting kids to school. On reading the report quickly it would seem that there is a widely held belief in communities that parents are sorely and entirely to blame for poor school attendance. However, the number of people holding these opinions is never really quantified, so, in reality, there is no indication of how many people expressed this concern and how many contrary views were expressed.
In asking communities what the government could do to encourage school attendance, a specific reference to linking attendance with welfare payments was made. Subsequently, many responses to this issue directly commented on the idea of linking income support to school attendance. It is interesting to note, however, that almost nowhere in the report was this solution offered to deal with the issue of poor attendance. It appears that the government was very keen to focus the conversation towards this outcome, which is at odds with the existing evidence of the effectiveness of such an approach. In essence, it is a kind of prejudging of the outcome: no matter what it was that you were hearing, the government had already, in effect, it appears, made up its mind as to the kind of approach that it wanted to administer.
In Senate estimates it was confirmed that the impact of the government's school enrolment attendance through welfare reform measure, which I will refer to as SEAM from here on, is unquantifiable: the results are mixed at best and it cannot be linked to educational outcomes. So I will pause here before continuing my remarks and we will begin with the previous set of amendments. Can the minister provide the chamber with any evidence of any kind—peer reviewed, anecdotal, written, unwritten, handed in on bits of bark—that quarantining income or welfare payments pending children's attendance at school actually improves the kinds of outcomes that I understand everybody in here is seeking to achieve?
I am informed that the 2010 evaluation report you refer to is the source of the amendments we are making in the bill, which, by picking up the evaluation report findings, therefore seeks to improve SEAM. Responding in this way will ensure a closer alignment with the Northern Territory's Every Child, Every Day strategy and reinforce the effort to get kids to school. We think these measures will support the broader objectives for the program.
I am also advised that the 2010 evaluation report shows for students involved in the measure a greater increase in school attendance than for their counterparts not involved in the measure and that student attendance improved by more than five per cent, from 74 per cent to 79.9 per cent, in the Northern Territory and by more than four per cent in Queensland following referral to the Department of Human Services under SEAM. As I understand it, that evidence was given to the Senate committee inquiry and is available. The key point to make is that the measures we are seeking to introduce through the bill arise out of that evaluation report. It is our response, together with the Northern Territory Department of Education and Training, to improve the measure and more closely align it with their programs. If you like, it is what you have been asking for—an evidence led legislation response.
There is quite limited information available that indicates positive outcomes have been achieved in some instances when SEAM led to people becoming engaged with Centrelink and when they were assisted through a case management process. Our contention is that this can be achieved and provided without cutting off income support and threatening people with complete impoverishment. The report includes some strong suggestions from community members about the causes and the potential solution for factors that contribute to poor school attendance but the government seems reluctant to act on this advice.
I do not mean to take the minister the wrong way, but the sense that has come through from people who have taken a look at the report and compared it with what the government eventually did is that we seem to have zeroed in on this punitive proposal for cutting off people's income support and not taken a look at a heap of very interesting and, to my mind, vastly more creative proposals that came out of the same piece of work. Bullying, poor housing, a lack of parental education and worries that kids would lose their culture were some of the elements identified as contributing to poor attendance. Some of those reasons you could kind of understand. Kids are being sent off to school but they are coming back saying: 'I don't understand what they are saying. I can't hear what's being said. The language is wrong. Why can't I learn some of this stuff in my own language?' Some of these things do not fall back to poor parenting. There are entirely legitimate reasons why a kid might simply prefer not to find themselves in that environment and, if we are going to engage and contend with that, we need other ways to do that than just telling parents that their income support is to be cut off.
So solutions that were raised and have been tried—there is some evidence around the effectiveness of these—include support and mentoring of parents, greater involvement of elders at schools, incorporation of Aboriginal culture into school and bilingual education. None of those, I would hope, sound particularly controversial. Evidence heard during the Senate inquiry was also fairly clear—SEAM is not working and there is not enough evidence to support its expansion across the Territory. The inquiry revealed that there were numerous community-supported and quite effective measures that have a better prospect of improving school attendance. Everybody here is on the same page in terms of outcome, but in this instance we disagree very strongly on the method. Evaluations of comparable programs internationally are mixed, but the literature tends to suggest that well-designed, targeted and incentive-based programs work significantly better than punitive sanctions-based programs.
It may be noted that school attendance rates in the Northern Territory have continued to decline overall, and the SEAM trial schools evaluation has reported the failure of the SEAM measure. This negative step will only further alienate parents and decrease the levels of support within communities. We request that this aspect be deleted from the SEAM legislation.
Again, as Senator Siewert proposed for the measures we were contemplating a short while ago, if this amendment fails we will propose a number of amendments that finetune SEAM. As the committee would be aware, Senator Siewert has approached this bill in a constructive spirit that, if the amendments to knock these schedules out do not succeed, then we will do our best to improve and reform the measures.
Another area of concern raised during the inquiry was the inability of SEAM, even if it did manage to get kids to school, to address barriers to learning. What is the point of sitting there if you cannot hear what is being taught? Dr Bath, the NT Children's Commissioner, noticed that nearly 47 per cent of children in the NT have multiple development vulnerabilities, as measured by the Australian Early Development Index. That figure compares to a national average of just under 12 per cent. There are entire classrooms of kids who are well off the chart in terms the early development index. Cutting the parent support payments is not going to fix that—it is not going to help that.
If we look at the intervention's own data, it is estimated that up to 60 per cent of kids have multiple developmental vulnerabilities. Children with these vulnerabilities are going to require special assistance or enriched programs to deal with those areas of vulnerability. The minister, if he chooses, can go into some details about how we are doing that, but I would also be keen to hear how cutting off income support is helping kids who find themselves in those circumstances. I suspect it is not even worth asking for evidence, because anybody with a basic measure of commonsense would think, 'Well, cutting off payments to parents who are already being income-managed with these little plastic cards is not going to help kids in those circumstances'.
Neither Senator Siewert nor I would claim that this is easy. It is hard, it is complex and no set of dot points or bumper-sticker slogans will solve this for us. But reaching for punitive measures as the first tool in the box is so wrong. I do not think that any of the measures that I have just listed would necessarily be effective by themselves, and the AEDI data would probably support that contention. Why do we force kids to school if they are not able to sit on a chair and pay attention to the teacher or hear what is going on?
Evidence put before the Senate inquiry points to the effectiveness of holistic, long-term, well-designed, targeted and incentive-based programs that are community-led and community-owned. Those sorts of things are going to need to survive changes of government; they are going to need to survive the whims and the fads that wash through this place about how we can help people a long way away from us. We are absolutely ready to help achieve that kind of policy stability. We have to get the initial settings right and that means putting the tools into the hands of the people who are on the front line. The inclusion of conferences and school attendance plans in the bill are steps in the right direction, but we believe they should go much further in order to have a positive, long-term impact on school attendance.
Throughout the inquiry numerous examples of effective measures were provided, often based on independent research or community consultation. For example, the St Vincent de Paul Society noted that numerous proactive solutions to improving attendance were provided by communities during the Stronger Futures consultations. It is very disappointing that these suggestions were not then incorporated into the bills and that we come out the other end of a process, with which people engaged in good faith, with nothing other than a stick to beat parents with. We could have done a lot better.
I have a huge list of suggestions from communities whose views were sought and who gave their time to put their views to the government—things like using local elders to teach culture in schools or incorporating local language and culture in schools that kids can relate to rather than a culture that might be quite alien to them. Senator Whish-Wilson reminded us before that for some of these kids and some of these parents, English is a third or fourth language. I do not know how many senators can speak three or four languages—I certainly cannot. It is going to be really tough to come into a classroom effectively speaking a language alien to what you have grown up with at home.
A heap of good proposals were put on the table—homework centres where parents can help out and bring families back together, rather than the tradition that we have grown up with where we kick the kids out of home to school, perhaps to a completely different city, and then bring them back again from time to time; footy programs, linking excursions and incentives to attendance; full-time parent-liaison officers—but they were set aside in favour of a proposal to take money off people. I have a long list here I can table if the government is interested.
Other positive measures that were put forward in submissions included cultural appropriateness of the school setting, including the involvement of Aboriginal teaching personnel, parents and community members in all aspects of the schooling process from initial planning to implementation and delivery of programs; and recognising the importance of Indigenous discourse.
I presume that the minister is very familiar with many of these measures, which came through the consultations—I am sure the advisers in the box would be very familiar with them—and I ask the minister if he could provide us with an understanding of why none of them appear to have been taken up. The only thing that has come through in this bill is a proposal to pull people's welfare support payments.
The first thing to say is that that is a very misleading argument. The argument put by the senator goes: 'The only thing you are doing is punishing people by taking away their welfare payments, and there are all these other problems.' The reality is there is a whole range of measures designed to deal holistically with the challenges faced with schooling and school attendance in the Northern Territory, and one of the measures, which is used as a last resort in the process, is the suspension of income support payments.
The senator acknowledges that the evaluation report has provided the basis for what is in the bill. He seeks to create the sense that somehow the only thing we are doing is an income support payment penalty, when in fact the measures in the bill seek to provide and expand a range of other supports and measures. To say, 'Oh well, the kids might have some hearing issues'—quite frankly, that is what the health checks are about. And, no, we do not seek to solve that problem through SEAM. That is why it is a coordinated, holistic approach to try and address these issues. So we plead guilty if the accusation is that we are not trying to deal with the hearing issues of schoolchildren in the Northern Territory through SEAM. That is why we have such an extensive investment in the health checks and the treatment of issues that are identified.
The measures in this bill expand the support to parents and schools and seek to provide additional support. One of the key issues or initiatives is the parenting conference, which is designed to support parents in understanding the problem—why the child perhaps is not attending in the way that they should—and to work with the school, the parents, Aboriginal liaison officers and others to improve school attendance. This measure seeks to expand the supports and services available and to address the attendance issues. It also seeks to work much more closely with the Northern Territory education department, and particularly to enable local tailoring and ensure closer alignment with the Northern Territory Every Child, Every Day strategy.
I think it is unfair to try and paint this legislation as only providing a response which is focused on removal of income support payments. That is a last resort. The evaluation report picks up the need for more resources, more measures to support families and parents, to try and lift school attendance. We all accept, I think, that school attendance is key to improving the educational outcomes and opportunities for young Indigenous children. SEAM has been designed to try and help address that issue. We have also provided huge investment into the schools, into teacher training and into all the other measures that we think can help lift performance in education in the Northern Territory and give those kids a better opportunity. It is quite unfair, and wrong, to pretend that the income support measure is all that is occurring, that it is at the centre of what is occurring—rather, it is there as a last resort, as a tool that is available to authorities to try to change the culture and the terrible school attendance statistics. This bill adds a whole range of measures that will better support parents by trying to make sure we can lift attendance at school of their children.
The Senate report stated:
Information provided during the inquiry supports the conclusion that SEAM has not significantly improved school attendance rates in the trial sites, and witnesses expressed serious concern that it was being extended across the NT.
Therefore, I ask the minister to cite the figures that show that SEAM has significantly improved school attendance. Can he cite the statistics to demonstrate that is the case?
Perhaps Senator Milne was not paying attention, as I did that about 10 minutes ago when I quoted figures from the evaluation report. I understand that they were presented to the committee as well.
I understand that the government had access to the draft report when making the policy decisions, but the formal release of the report was later. I can take the dates on notice for Senator Milne.
I want to quickly test some figures on the minister. Based on the statistics in the most recent Closing the Gap report, we had a 62.3 per cent attendance rate just before the intervention was initiated and 57.5 per cent in 2011. Does the minister accept that those are the figures, and does he accept that that is a drop and that it would not be a particularly ringing endorsement of SEAM if that is the case?
I cannot necessarily respond to stats thrown at me without a piece of paper or exact titles of documentation et cetera, but as I understand it the overall statistics reflect the whole of the Northern Territory but the trial sites saw an improvement in the statistics. They are two different things—the overall versus the six trial sites. I understand the statistics given in the question are for both. I cannot say I have checked the statistics Senator Ludlam has given to me, but I understand that the outcome in the trial sites is better than overall.
It may be noted that school attendance rates in the Northern Territory have continued to decline overall, and the SEAM trial schools evaluation has also reported failure of the SEAM measure. This negative step will only further alienate parents and decrease the level of support within communities. We request that this aspect be deleted from the SEAM legislation.
So I ask the minister: is Mr Jones, the General Secretary of the Uniting Church Northern Synod, wrong when he says that the SEAM trial schools evaluation has also reported failure of the SEAM measure?
I did read them out 10 minutes ago in answer to your last question, Senator. I will read them out a second time, but I do not intend to read them out three or four times. It seems to me that people have to pay attention. I do not want to be difficult. I am happy for people to have an intensive committee stage, but I do not think it is reasonable that the Senate has to go over the same ground twice.
As I indicated to you, the evidence that is contained in the evaluation report of 2010 supports the effectiveness of SEAM in increasing parental responsibility in school attendance. The report found that students involved in the measure showed a greater increase in school attendance rates than their counterparts not involved in the measure and that student attendance improved by more than five per cent, from 74.4 to 79 per cent, in the Northern Territory and by more than four per cent, from 84.7 per cent to 88.7 per cent, in Queensland following referral to the Department of Human Services under SEAM. So the claims you quote do not sit comfortably with the evidence provided in the evaluation report. That is why I say I cannot support the claims made by the gentleman you quote.
I made a couple of remarks on this on my way through, and I know Senator Rachel Siewert has given a great deal of attention to the issue of the higher rates of hearing loss amongst Indigenous kids, some of whom are obviously being caught by this particular proposal. The hearing loss obviously needs to be addressed not just as a health issue but as an educational issue. If you are not able to hear what is going on in the classroom then not only are you not going to learn very much but you are much less likely to want to attend. I understand that the evaluation report indicated that the families with kids with hearing loss faced additional barriers, which obviously made it harder for them to keep their kids in school. At that point the incentive, or the disincentive, around withdrawal of income support becomes profoundly unhelpful. If your kid is not able to hear what is going on in the classroom, that is not a sign of poor parenting; it is a sign that the hearing needs to be fixed. So I wonder whether the minister can indicate the degree to which those sorts of factors are taken into account when choosing whether or not to withdraw somebody's welfare payment.
I would make the point that I made in an earlier response to the senator's inquiries. You cannot see everything through the prism of the income management measure in SEAM. As part of the measures adopted by the government there are an extra 200 teachers going into the schools. Part of the requirements for those teachers is training in issues such as identification of hearing loss and how to manage teaching in those circumstances. It has nothing to do with income management. It is part of a broader approach to try to address the educational needs of those children in the Northern Territory. So yes, we have health checks. But we also have 200 extra teachers going into the schools who will actually be required as part of that, as I understand it, to have training in dealing with kids with hearing loss and other special needs as part of the broader response, not linked to income management under SEAM but part of the broader approach. As I indicated, SEAM and management are a small part of a much broader activity and investment.
I do not think we need to dwell on this too much longer, although perhaps Senator Crossin wants to make a contribution before we close out this part of the debate. Again, I suspect that the minister and some of the others who have made contributions in this part of the debate are talking past each other. We are trying to tease out the degree to which the punitive aspects of this broad range of measures, which everybody agrees—and we have read some of them into the record tonight, such as withdrawing people's welfare payments or making them cart little plastic cards around in order to be able to buy the basic necessities of life—are contributing to the overall goals here. It is not really our job to analyse the stuff that is working; we are trying to pull out the controversial stuff. Nobody in here is going to critique the fact that you put another—
The CHAIRMAN: Order! To the chair, Minister, and to the chair, Senator Ludlam.
I will leave it to the minister to put out the press statement that you put 200 teachers into the schools; that is fantastic. I do not think it is our job to come in here at this hour and congratulate you on all the great stuff that is going on, but it is great that it is. We are trying to tease out the degree to which there is evidence that threatening to withdraw people's welfare payments contributes to getting their kids to school. I would not have thought it was that difficult a concept. I suspect that, again, we are going to have to agree to disagree. I do not know if other senators want to make contributions, but I am happy to move these amendments now and then move on through some of the others that Senator Siewert has prepared.
I am really conscious of the time, but I do think it is very important that we get to the bottom of this. There has been a school attendance and enrolment model introduced in the United States, and people who may have been following the academic research and the evaluation of that will know that the research showed that, where SEAM is introduced and implemented, if it is not backed up by a comprehensive plan through an education department and through education of parents, it will not work. It did not work in the United States, as the evidence shows. I think Larissa Behrendt from Jumbunna first highlighted that research and brought it to our attention.
When the SEAM trial started in the Northern Territory, in those six schools, it did not have a whole lot of that backup or support, even though school attendance in some of those schools actually increased and improved. The evaluation was done in Australia. What is not in this legislation but on the website of the Northern Territory's Department of Education and Training is their strategy called Every Child, Every Day. It is a comprehensive strategy that goes through the number of school attendance plans they have had—over 400, I think, across the Territory—and goes into the number of children that have started to come back to school as a result of that. In two years, they have referred something like 37, out of that 400, for further help and assistance.
So the initial statistics are showing that there have been many improvements with our assistance, with the additional 200 teachers, with the support that we have given schools through the BER and the School Pride program. A lot of schools have actually implemented loop systems in classrooms for kids with hearing difficulties, and there are now dedicated attendance officers in the Northern Territory. I think they have put six in the Territory, one in each regional centre, and they agree it is not enough and they are planning to do more. There are schools where teachers are working with parents, where parents are told about what school is about and why kids should get there.
I have taught in the Territory, and I have taught out bush, and I can tell you that the reason kids do not come to school is not because they cannot hear. The kids who cannot hear usually come to school, despite their hearing defect. They need to come every day so we can do something about it and tie them into the health centre services and get them checked—get them to see the specialists they require and get their hearing improved. Usually, kids do not come to school because it was too noisy in the home the night before due to too much drinking, or they do not have breakfast or they do not have shoes or their clothes are not clean. They are really basic, very simple reasons. If you know Indigenous people, you know how proud they are as a culture; and, if one of those wheels falls off, they are too ashamed to go to school. This program works with social workers, school liaison officers and Aboriginal liaison officers to work with those parents.
So Senator Evans is right: we would prefer that at the end of the day the income management regime under SEAM were not implemented. But I sit down with people—and I am talking about senior people in communities—and talk to them under a tree, on the beach, at their council meetings outside the store or wherever and say to them: 'What do we do? At the end of the day, what should we do to get these kids coming to school?' Nine times out of 10 the old, senior men in the community say to me, 'Take their Centrelink off them; take their payments off them.' I say, 'That's a bit harsh—100 per cent of them?' They say, 'Yes, we've got to get these kids educated.'
This is not 100 per cent of income; in fact, people who will be affected by SEAM will not have all of their income taken off them. That is another of the myths being propagated. But you have to understand that this program has been put in place in consultation with senior Indigenous people. They are elders; they are grandparents; they are people who are looking after their grandkids predominantly because their families are dysfunctional. They want a very strong partnership between them and the two governments. I have seen the Northern Territory education department develop their model, and it is substantially better than it was three years ago. This is a good start. Let us put this in place, and let us see in five years time whether it has had any effect now that we have beefed up and strengthened this part of the legislation.
Friday, 29 June 2012
The CHAIRMAN: The question is that schedule 2 stand as printed.
I am getting requests that I do not do so but I am going to. I move amendment (7) on sheet 7229 without delay and commend this wonderful amendment to the chamber:
(7) Schedule 2, item 8, page 15 (after line 5), after paragraph (aa), insert:
(ab) a person who is a member of the school's Council, Board or other governing body;
by leave—I move amendments (8) to (10) and (22) on sheet 7229:
(8) Schedule 2, item 11, page 15 (line 18), before "This Division", insert "(1)".
(9) Schedule 2, item 11, page 15 (line 24), at the end of paragraph 124NA(b), add "having regard to guidelines made under subsection (2)".
(10) Schedule 2, item 11, page 15 (after line 24), at the end of section 124NA, add:
(2) The Secretary must, by legislative instrument, determine guidelines for the purposes of subsection (1).
(3) The guidelines:
(a) may make different provision in relation to schools in different areas; and
(b) must provide for relevant cultural practices and obligations to be taken into account for the purposes of subsection
(22) Schedule 2, item 18, page 23 (line 14), omit "124NA(b)", substitute "124NA(1)(b)".
As with the first batch of amendments, Senator Siewert proposed an amendment which would simply remove the income management, or the withdrawal of welfare payment provisions, from the bill. I think Senator Siewert probably figured that that amendment would fail. I will briefly describe the amendments. These amendments basically relate to whether or not attendance is satisfactory. In the event that the scheme goes ahead, some important measures are needed to improve the operation of the measures, which, as I have indicated, we do not support, such as creating the requirement for guidelines for determining when attendance is satisfactory, including the consideration of relevant cultural practices and obligations. So these amendments reflect evidence given during the Senate committee inquiry, which heard that cultural practices and obligations were often not taken into account when considering school absences. To not consider cultural practices alienates Aboriginal children and their families and refuses recognition of Aboriginal culture, which is contrary to the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
We do not support the amendments. We are a bit old-fashioned on the Labor side of politics. We think kids should go to school and they should go to school every day. These measures are designed to make sure that that happens to give those kids the best opportunity to make their way in life. So we do not think setting a lower threshold is appropriate. We support the scheme to try and change that sort of culture to make sure the culture is one which says kids ought to go to school and they ought to be supported to go to school every day.
Thank you, Minister, for that response in saying that your view is an old-fashioned view that children should go to school every day. But we are also talking about cultural appropriateness here. The government has cut funding for maintenance of Indigenous languages and cultural context in schools. So, if it is not taught in the schools that they attend, how are Aboriginal students able to enhance their cultural experience in the absence of language teaching in their own language?
I think we need to be really clear about what happens in the Northern Territory in schools. The concern about school attendance kicks in if there have been five days of nonattendance without any notable absence. But let me be really clear about this: a notable absence can include, and does include, cultural reasons, either for initiation purposes or for funeral purposes, and it is quite well accepted that children will and must attend those ceremonies because of their culture and that some children will be more involved than others. Cultural reasons are acceptable for not attending school, so let us be really clear about that.
The second thing I know applies in most schools. There may well be a funeral ceremony happening and, as we know—well, as we ought to know—with Indigenous people a funeral ceremony can take six to eight weeks to occur and it is pretty common for schools to say, where kids are involved in ceremony for the first couple of weeks when it is not the important end of the funeral process: 'Get them to come to school for the morning at least. Let's try getting them to come to school for half a day.' I know there are schools in Arnhem Land that are trying that strategy. Then the kids can be away for the whole day in the last couple of weeks in the important part of the funeral ceremony. So in the Northern Territory there are many different things happening and many different trials and different variations happening that absolutely capture the child's cultural requirements, and being away for cultural purposes is one reason. In fact, I think such a reason is even on the attendance sheets that are notified weekly and monthly to the head office in Darwin, so you can actually be away for ceremonial purposes and you get the big tick.
The other thing that I want to say, while I am standing on my feet, is to get this absolutely and perfectly clear—and I see that Senator Milne is not here but I hope she is listening: the federal government had absolutely nothing to do with the abolition and the change to bilingual education in the Northern Territory. It was not driven by this government. It was a policy decision of the Northern Territory government, and implemented by the Northern Territory government, that schools should have at least four hours of English a day and they should be in the morning. We have talk about concerned Australians and people being against the intervention and about people lobbying us. People talk about Stronger Futures seeing the end of bilingual education, so the intervention saw the end of bilingual education. It did not. Neither federal government had anything to do with the abolition or the change to bilingual education in the Northern Territory, and I want to get that absolutely clear and absolutely on the record. That was absolutely a decision of the Northern Territory government implemented by the Northern Territory government. From memory, I think when Minister Gillard was the minister for education she was at Batchelor college one day and she was asked whether or not she supported that policy decision. This was her response: 'What we want to see is children finish year 12 competent in English literacy and numeracy. The path they take is up to the state and territory governments to determine.' So let us be really clear about this: Stronger Futures and this legislation have nothing to do with the change in bilingual education in the Northern Territory.
by leave—I move Australian Greens amendments (11) to (18) on sheet 7229 revised:
(11) Schedule 2, item 11, page 15 (line 26), before "The Secretary", insert "(1)".
(12) Schedule 2, item 11, page 16 (line 3), omit "is required", substitute "may be required".
(13) Schedule 2, item 11, page 16 (line 7), at the end of section 124NB, add:
; (e) the consequences under this Division of not complying with a requirement to enter into such a school attendance plan.
(14) Schedule 2, item 11, page 16 (after line 7), at the end of section 124NB, add:
(2) The schooling requirement person may be accompanied at the conference by no more than 2 other persons chosen by the person, and those persons are entitled to be heard at the conference.
(15) Schedule 2, item 11, page 16 (line 12), at the end of subsection 124NC(1), add "at the conference".
(16) Schedule 2, item 11, page 16 (line 16), after "plan", insert "at the conference,".
(17) Schedule 2, item 11, page 16 (line 21), omit paragraph 124NC(3)(b).
(18) Schedule 2, item 11, page 16 (lines 24 and 25), omit subsection 124NC(4).
These amendments are very simple. They are designed to improve the conference process to make families aware of the consequences of not following attendance plans and to ensure that they are supported throughout the process. I spoke earlier in my contribution—about the first amendment, in which we opposed schedule 2—about the ways in which this is likely to work better if parents are fully aware, if they are consulted and if they are brought into the picture as to what will happen if attendance plans are not followed. Doing that with them, so sitting down with them and taking the time to make sure that that conference process is properly consultative, is likely, in our view, to bring out the other factors, the confounding factors, that are likely to be preventing kids from getting to school. So the amendments are fairly simple and I commend them to the chamber.
The government does not support the amendments. As I indicated to the chamber earlier, there is a range of measures associated with this legislation to provide more support for parents and a capacity to work with them to identify with them their particular issues that might be impacting on a child's attendance at school and liaison with various people who can assist. But we do not believe this overall amendment is useful. It is already the case that people can bring support people to the conference. The reality is there will be some cases when a parent does not attend the conference and suspension of payments may be the only way to ensure that parents are engaging with the school about their kid's attendance. We do not think the amendment is necessary and it may in fact prevent us taking the measures that will be required to ensure we get a more responsive approach to the need for children to attend school.
I wonder whether or not the minister might be aware that these particular recommendations were proposed after a great deal of consideration by the committee that inquired into this bill. Obviously recommendations of a parliamentary legislation committee are not mandatory but they do tend to be pretty well thought through by the senators who attended the hearings and took the evidence. I wonder whether the minister might like to confirm why in this instance the government has a different view.
My briefing from one of the members of the committee is that they did not go to this level of detail. I am not saying you are wrong but the advice given to me by a very reliable source is that the claim you made may not be totally accurate. It certainly was not reflected, as I understand it, in the majority report. Be that as it may, the government's attitude is that the overall amendment ought not be supported. We can probably sort out by reference to the records and the memory of the senators who said what to whom and what was recommended. My advice is that it was not recommended necessarily with that sort of detail from the committee. In any event, we do not think it improves the bill.
To correct the record, my understanding, as you have indicated, was faulty. I am not someone who served on the committee although I am in intimate contact with someone who was. This evidence was in fact tended to the committee and it came through strongly in the work of the committee. But the minister is quite correct. It did not end up making its way into majority recommendation.
I was not verballing. I am correcting the record now. In our view, it should have made its way into a recommendation, but it clearly did not. I commend the amendments to the chamber nonetheless.
By leave—I move Greens amendments (19) to (21) on sheet 7229 revised together:
(19) Schedule 2, item 11, page 16 (line 27), after "be", insert "in writing and".
(20) Schedule 2, item 11, page 17 (after line 5), at the end of section 124NC, add:
Notifier to consider individual circumstances
(8) In determining requirements for the purposes of subsection (7), the notifier must consider the individual circumstances of the schooling requirement person and the one or more children covered by the plan.
Requirements of plan to be explained
(9) The notifier must not require a schooling requirement person to enter into a school attendance plan unless the notifier is satisfied that:
(a) the requirements of the plan have been explained to the person in the person's first language; and
(b) the person understands the requirements of the plan.
(21) Schedule 2, item 11, page 17 (line 14), omit "124NB(a)", substitute "124NB(1)(a)".
We are, by way of these amendments, seeking to create requirements for an attendance plan that does three essential things: firstly, that the individual circumstances of the family be considered; secondly, that the attendance plan be created with parents or the guardians responsible for the child at the conference, not beforehand; and thirdly, that the plan be explained properly in the first language of the parents. These are reasonably basic considerations that should be required in the making of attendance plans given that breaching these plans can have such extraordinarily serious consequences for the families concerned.
I do not think there is any disagreement about the intent to make sure that the parent is able to understand the information being given to them. We are not supporting the amendment because my advice is that interpreters will be made available when needed. We are not seeking to commit to a suggestion that they must be there and must be able to speak to the parent in their first language if that parent is in fact fluent in English. It is policy that people can be available to provide interpreting but we do not intend to mandate it given that on many occasions it may not be necessary. Question negatived.
Bill, as amended, agreed to.
by leave—I would like the Greens' opposition to that bill to be recorded.
Bill—by leave—taken as a whole.
by leave—I move Greens amendments (1), (5), (6) and (11) to (15) on sheet 7221 revised together:
(1) Clause 3, page 3 (lines 1 and 2), omit "(which are particular areas of the Northern Territory that are prescribed by the rules (see section 27))", substitute "(see section 27)".
(5) Clause 5, page 5 (lines 4 and 5), omit the definition of alcohol protected area, substitute:
alcohol protected area: see subsections 27(1) and (2).
(6) Clause 6, page 8 (lines 6 to 8), omit "(which are particular areas of the Northern Territory that are prescribed by the rules (see section 27))", substitute "(see section 27)".
(11) Clause 17, page 24 (line 26), at the end of subclause (1), add "before the end of the period of 30 days starting on the day the application is made".
(12) Clause 17, page 24 (line 27), omit "Note", substitute "Note 1".
(13) Clause 17, page 24 (after line 28), at the end of subclause (1), add:
Note 2: The 30 day period is extended by the number of days in any submission period that applies under section 18 in relation to the application: see subsection 18(5).
(14) Clause 18, page 26 (after line 16), at the end of the clause, add:
(5) The period of 30 days referred to in subsection 17(1) is extended in relation to the application by the number of days in the submission period.
(15) Clause 27, page 31 (line 2) to page 33 (line 19), omit the clause, substitute:
27 Areas that are alcohol protected areas
Areas that are alcohol protected areas
(1) An area in the Northern Territory is analcohol protected area if, immediately before the commencement of this section:
(a) the area was a prescribed area under section 4 of the repealed Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007; and
(b) there was not a determination in force in relation to the area under paragraph 19(1)(b) of that Act.
Ceasing to be an alcohol protected area
(2) However, an area in the Northern Territory ceases to be an alcohol protected area when the earliest of the following events occurs:
(a) the Minister approves an alcohol management plan under subsection 17(1) that covers the area (whether or not the plan also covers other areas);
(b) the area is prescribed by the rules for the purposes of this paragraph;
(c) the period of 3 years starting on the commencement of this section ends and the area is not prescribed by the rules for the purposes of this paragraph.
(3) A rule may only be made for the purposes of paragraph (2)(c) if the Minister is satisfied that a majority of the people ordinarily resident in the area to which the rule relates support the making of the rule.
(4) The Minister must make a rule revoking a rule made for the purposes of paragraph (2)(c) in relation to an area if the Minister is no longer satisfied as mentioned in subsection (3) in relation to the area.
When rules may be made
(5) A rule may be made for the purposes of paragraph (2)(b) or (c), or subsection (4):
(a) on the Minister's own initiative; or
(b) following a request made to the Minister by, or on behalf of, a person who is ordinarily resident in the area to which the rule relates; or
(c) following approval of an alcohol management plan relating to the area under subsection 17(1).
(6) Before making a rule for the purposes of paragraph (2)(b) or (c), or subsection (4), in relation to an area, the Minister must ensure that:
(a) information setting out:
(i) the proposal to make the rule; and
(ii) an explanation, in summary form, of the consequences of the making of the rule;
has been made available in the area; and
(b) people living in the area have been given a reasonable opportunity to make submissions to the Minister about:
(i) the proposal to make the rule; and
(ii) the consequences of the making of the rule; and
(iii) their circumstances, concerns and views, so far as they relate to the proposal.
(7) Subsection (6) does not apply if the rule is proposed to be made following the approval of an alcohol management plan.
Criteria for making rules
(8) In making a rule for the purposes of paragraph (2)(b) or (c), or subsection (4), in relation to an area, the Minister must have regard to the following matters:
(a) the object of this Part (see section 7);
(b) the wellbeing of people living in the area;
(c) whether there is reason to believe that people living in the area have been the victims of alcohol-related harm;
(d) the extent to which people living in the area have expressed their concerns about being at risk of alcohol-related harm;
(e) the extent to which people living in the area have expressed the view that their wellbeing will be improved if this Part applies in relation to the area;
(f) whether there is an alcohol management plan that covers the area or part of the area (whether or not the plan is approved under Division 6);
(g) any submissions of the kind referred to in paragraph (6)(b);
(h) any other matter that the Minister considers relevant.
Effect of area ceasing to be an alcohol protected area
(9) If an area ceases to be an alcohol protected area under subsection (2), then:
(a) the area can never again become an alcohol protected area after that cessation; and
(b) this Part continues to apply in relation to that area, after that cessation, in relation to things done, or omitted to be done, before that cessation.
These amendments relate, as the running sheet indicates, to alcohol protected areas and, in particular, alcohol management plans. The amendments put in place a recommendation that alcohol protected areas, or APAs, should be phased out in favour of alcohol management plans where the community wants them. I did foreshadow that I would bring these amendments to the chamber in my contribution to the second reading debate. The amendments state that APAs will expire within three years, or before that time if one of two things happens: either (a) the minister approves an AMP, an alcohol management plan, or (b) the minister makes a decision that the area no longer needs to be an APA.
In making this decision, the minister must be satisfied that people living in the area support the decision that he or she is making. There is a consultation process for this outlined in our amendments. The amendments also provide that the minister must consider a host of factors in making this decision, including the object, the wellbeing of the people in the area, the incidence or the risk of alcohol related harm, any submissions that might have been made and any other matters that are relevant that should be taken into consideration.
We move these amendments because we believe that blanket bans on alcohol such as those imposed by the intervention and its successor, whatever it ends up being called, are not the most effective way of tackling alcohol abuse, particularly as the necessary supports such as adequate access to rehabilitation services may not have been provided. We share the concern of the Australian Human Rights Commission, which states:
… the Commission is concerned that the Consequential and Transitional Provisions Bill automatically transitions prescribed areas under the 2007 NTER into 'alcohol protected areas'. Existing licences and permits are also transitioned. Accordingly, the Consequential and Transitional Provisions Bill will continue to impose alcohol restrictions on communities previously determined to be 'prescribed areas' without the need for the proposed consultation processes to be complied with.
That is a fairly serious criticism from a fairly serious institution. The Australian Greens support measures to address alcohol abuse, obviously, but such measures must be developed in partnership with the community. If there is a single theme that runs through the amendments that we have proposed to this suite of bills this evening, it is handing the tools back to the community and not trying to run the show from Canberra. So you will note a theme that runs through these amendments is that not necessarily just of partnership but of empowerment and allowing these communities to make their own decisions. This is a very important instance of where we are proposing to do that.
We are concerned that the measures contained in the Stronger Futures legislation do not adequately address alcohol abuse and may indeed have unintended consequences. We support the emphasis on locally developed alcohol management plans described in the bill, but we share community concerns about the increased layers of bureaucracy involved in developing them. The legislation automatically transitions prescribed areas into alcohol protected areas and it imposes alcohol restrictions without consultation. That is not acceptable, particularly if we do not have any evidence as to their effectiveness. I suspect that is where this debate will end up as well—with the inability of the government, as advised by the minister's advisers, to provide any kind of peer reviewed material or anything at all that can point to the effectiveness of the way that these bans have been implemented. As Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory explain:
I think on all sides of this chamber we probably know the different forms that the undermining of these bans can take. This is supported by the submission of the Australian Human Rights Commission to the inquiry. They put to the committee that:
… evidence indicates that interventions imposed without community control or culturally appropriate adaptation and which stigmatise alcohol users do not work and can be counterproductive.
For measures to be effective, they must be developed and implemented in partnership with Aboriginal people.
The Australian Greens support alcohol controls where they have community support. The focus of the approach should be on phasing out alcohol bans and supporting communities to develop alcohol management plans. We have saved the government the trouble of drafting amendments to give that concept effect by providing these amendments which I strongly commend to the chamber.
The organisation of these amendments and the way they have been taken together has managed to totally bamboozle me. So, if I am on the wrong subject matter, someone can draw my attention to it. But I think we are trying to deal with the alcohol protected area issues in one go. I think that is right.
I indicate to the Senate that, under the old architecture, we had prescribed communities where there were restrictions on alcohol. We are moving to a new regime where we are describing these areas as 'alcohol protected areas'. It is a new concept. It provides for blanket restrictions, but it also provides for management plans which will allow people within the architecture to start to develop local and tailored plans for alcohol management given minimum standards in their areas. So we are moving to a new regime which seeks to empower people to have more control over that and over what occurs in their communities. As I say, the concept has been called 'alcohol protected areas'.
I am informed that the Greens amendments would effectively dismantle the definition and the operation of alcohol protected areas, so we cannot support them. We know that many Indigenous communities want to keep these restrictions in place. But we do want to empower them through the management plans to move on from the blanket restrictions to a methodology that allows communities to tailor responses under this new architecture of alcohol protected areas. I am advised that the Greens amendments cannot be supported because of impacts on the definition.
We do not think that the Greens amendment, which requires a minister to approve alcohol management plans within 30 days of receiving a plan of approval, can be supported. With a partnership approach, we think it can be expected that most alcohol management plans will be able to be signed off by the minister in a reasonably short time. However, there needs to be scope for the minister to consider AMPs closely and to resolve issues when they arise. So we do not think that a fixed 30-day time frame is appropriate.
As I say, we have concerns about how the Greens amendments would impact on the operation of the architecture of the alcohol protected areas and, therefore, we will not be supporting the amendments. We think that this will allow us to move to a new system which will provide protection for communities from the influence of alcohol but also empower them, through the management plans, to take control of the process in their communities given the provision of minimum standards.
by leave—I move opposition amendments (1), (3) and (4) on revised sheet 7215, standing in Senator Scullion's name:
(1) Clause 3, page 3 (line 12), omit “Aboriginal people”, substitute “the community”.
(3) Clause 6, page 8 (line 26), omit “Aboriginal people”, substitute “the community”.
(4) Clause 15, page 22 (line 7), omit “Aboriginal people”, substitute “the community”.
The Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory legislation contains just three measures designed to address disadvantage in remote Northern Territory Aboriginal communities. The first of those measures, tackling alcohol abuse, is without doubt a critical issue dealing with chronic alcohol abuse and the resultant violence and health problems that, if not resolved, mean there will be no chance of ever reaching any of the Closing the Gap targets. Alcohol abuse is not just an issue, though, that affects or impacts Aboriginal people. It affects entire communities. In this bill there is a section that gives the minister the power to recommend that an independent assessor be appointed to review the operations of and potential consequences surrounding a particular liquor outlet, and there has been significant opposition from some quarters on this measure. Unfortunately, through what has not been a satisfactory consultation process, the government has not really explained what that means. In reality, again it is nothing new.
The power to appoint an independent assessor is an existing power available to the Northern Territory minister through the Northern Territory Liquor Act. This remains the case. The federal minister can request the Northern Territory minister to exercise their power to appoint an assessor in cases of concern. This also is the case now. There is nothing new in any of this, except that through bringing this existing provision to the attention of the Northern Territory government perhaps they might actually do their job in this area and ensure that all licence conditions are suitable and workable for a licensee. The coalition proposes that a request for an assessor not just be made on the basis of race but on the basis of harm to a community. Licensees need certainty of alcohol laws in order to operate and invest in their business. Continual tinkering around the edges serves no one. If there are problems or perceived problems surrounding particular venues, they should be assessed and resolved. The community, reasonably, expect nothing less. I hope the chamber will bear with me in view of the fact that I am assisting Senator Scullion in his absence tonight, and on behalf of Senator Scullion I commend the amendments to the Senate.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: I think everyone is representing everyone here this evening with this bill.
I understand Senator Scullion is on his way to Borroloola, so we are all representing people who are elsewhere this evening. It might surprise the chamber to note that the Australian Greens will be supporting these amendments and therefore withdrawing our own I understand almost identical set of amendments that follows on the running sheet.
Under this bill a licensed premise can be investigated if the minister believes that the sale or consumption of liquor is causing substantial alcohol-related harm to Aboriginal people. Our question, as Senator Payne just outlined, is why should this apply to Aboriginal people only? Surely a premise should be investigated not only if it is causing harm to Aboriginal people but also if it is causing harm to non-Aboriginal people. That is why we are supporting this amendment. If the coalition had not brought it forward, we would have been moving and voting for our own amendment to change the reference from 'substantial alcohol-related harm to Aboriginal people' to 'substantial alcohol-related harm to the community'.
Dr Boffa, the Public Health Medical Officer of People's Action Alcohol Coalition, noted during his evidence to the Senate inquiry:
… it would be preferable to remove the reference to Aboriginal people in the provision that gives the Commonwealth the powers to intervene and ask for an independent audit on particular alcohol outlets. It is not a racial issue. I think that could be amended to read that where any particular outlet is deemed to be causing excessive problems for 'the community', and not for 'Aboriginal people' … In the Northern Territory, non-Aboriginal people drink at twice the level of other Australians and have much higher rates of alcohol related problems. Non-Aboriginal people who are addicted to alcohol are just as likely to gravitate towards the cheapest forms of alcohol as Aboriginal people are. There is nothing racially based about the message we are proposing and we do not think the bill should single out Aboriginal people in that way, although we do support very much the intent behind giving the Commonwealth minister the powers to order an independent review …
So, while investigating harmful retailers is important, it is not what will end the damage caused by alcohol in the Northern Territory. What is really needed is supply reduction measures. I will briefly note a submission to the Senate inquiry from the People's Alcohol Action Coalition. They said:
… unless excessive alcohol consumption in the NT is addressed through supply reduction, other measures that the Australian (and the NT) Government may put in place in order to improve the situation of Aboriginal people will not be as effective as they might.
… the most effective supply reduction measures which the Commonwealth can and should take to reduce alcohol consumption in the NT are:
(i) a minimum floor price on take-away alcohol at the price of full strength beer ($1.20 per standard drink); and
(ii) a take-away alcohol-free day preferably tied to a set welfare benefits payment day, but in any event to have one day a week on which take-away alcohol is not sold.
We put up a second reading amendment which did not pass the chamber, but I am pleased to note that the forthcoming amendments probably will. Quite clearly, we are removing unnecessary discrimination. Perhaps it was not the government's intention, but it is there in black and white. Clearly, other parts of our community have problems with alcohol, so we do not understand why the government chose to specify that harm must be caused to Aboriginal people only. It could be seen to be evidence of the view of alcohol related harm as a problem affecting only Aboriginal people. It is a highly discriminatory view. That is why we move this amendment. Effectively, it is to make racist and discriminatory legislation slightly less awful. I thank Senator Scullion, on his travels, for bringing these amendments to the chamber and indicate our strong support.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: Thank you, Senator Ludlam. Before I call the minister, just to clarify: you withdrew the amendment and then you indicated that that is why you are moving these amendments, but you are supporting the opposition amendments. I clarify that for the Hansard record.
The eloquence of Senators Payne and Ludlam only confirms the government's intention to support the amendments.
The TEMPORARY CHAIRMAN: The question is that opposition amendments (1), (3) and (4) on sheet 7253, revised, be agreed to.
Question agreed to.
by leave—I move amendments (2), (5), (6) and (7) on sheet 7215 revised, standing in Senator Scullion's name, together:
(2) Clause 3, page 4 (line 14), omit “7 years”, substitute “3 years”.
(5) Clause 111, page 95 (line 6), omit “7 years”, substitute “3 years”.
(6) Clause 117, page 97 (line 27), omit “7 years”, substitute “3 years”.
(7) Clause 117, page 98 (line 3), omit “8 years”, substitute “4 years”.
As stated repeatedly during this debate, and many others which have preceded it in this place, reducing excessive alcohol consumption and the effects of alcohol abuse are fundamental in closing any gaps or eradicating effects of disadvantage. The opposition welcomes the government's long-term commitment to assist Aboriginal people and their communities and to address disadvantage and disconnect. We do welcome the commitment, but, as I mentioned both in my remarks and previously this evening, we do question the process.
It has been made very clear that there is not a single provision in these bills that is not already a pre-existing power of the Northern Territory liquor minister, as contained in the Northern Territory Liquor Act or its supporting regulations. If alcohol abuse is such a problem because the Northern Territory government is simply unable or unwilling to enforce its own laws, then it should not take long to expose that and deliver change, if the federal government is able to enforce the law on its behalf. Conversely, if the federal minister rigidly enforces the existing laws and there is no change, why would you continue to do the same thing over and over for seven years unless you apparently have the same deluded view as the Northern Territory government and expect things to work magically?
The government's proposal to lock into a 10-year plan and to only have a close look at how it is proceeding after seven years is in our view inadequate. Seven years is more than two full terms of parliament. Spending two terms of parliament taking over the enforcement of the existing Northern Territory law before you even review or propose changes is not the sort of leadership that we think is necessary on this matter. We recommend that a review be conducted into these measures after three years, with a report into the review tabled no later than four years after assent. If it works, keep it. If it is failing then change it. We do not believe that we should be waiting seven years to make that assessment. On behalf of Senator Scullion, I commend the amendments to the chamber.
There has apparently been an outbreak of harmony in the chamber, and the Greens will indicate support for this batch of amendments as well. I wish to remove Greens amendments (3), (16), (18) and (19) from sheet 7221, which is the next item in the running order.
Not only do the government intend to continue an ineffective, racist and damaging policy for another 10 years but, as Senator Payne indicated, as drafted this bill indicates they are happy to wait seven years before it is reviewed. We have had some fairly robust debates this evening—obviously, not as robust as if Senator Siewert were here herself to serve it up about the evidentiary underpinnings—
I am going to remember that, Senator Evans, forever.
Senator Chris Evans interjecting—
I get that; I understand that. We will fix that—there is time to fix that. The total absence of evidence underpinning this policy goes to, if we cannot compel the government to provide evidence tonight on the passage of the bill, the least that we can do is bring forward the reviewing periods. Where is the evidence that the continuation of this ineffective and misguided approach is going to help if we consolidate and entrench it? To date there has been no such evidence that the measures of the intervention have been effective. Again, narrowing down specifically to the clauses that we have been dealing with tonight and setting aside the other issues which obviously have strong community support, the evidence simply is not there of the coercive impacts of this policy.
Evidence indicates a top-down approach will not be effective and is actually undermining what the government says it is trying to achieve: Aboriginal people having stronger futures—the title of the bill—and taking control of their lives.
The Australian Human Rights Commission put the following view that there is an:
… extensive body of research and evidence that shows Aboriginal community governance is a key factor for the sustainable development of Aboriginal communities.
… … …
This is supported by research from the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, which 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.
This evidence stands in stark contrast to the policies of this government and not only do they intend to enforce these policies on Aboriginal people for another 10 years but they wish to do so without a review, just flying blind for another seven years.
This is a top-down, paternalistic and punitive set of measures from the outset which has meant that its ability to improve the lives of Aboriginal people in the Territory was extremely limited. Evidence of that can be found in the summary provided by Dr Bath, the NT Children's Commissioner—someone who should know a fair bit about the issues that we have been canvassing this evening—of ongoing child welfare issues in the Territory. That summary states:
The ineffectiveness of the Intervention in improving the wellbeing of Aboriginal people in the NT is also evident when looking at the Closing the Gap in the Northern Territory Monitoring Report. The report details how school attendance has declined since 2009, that child hospitalisation rates have increased and confirmed incidences of personal harm and suicide have more than doubled since 2007 …
These are scary statistics put on the public record and put to the committee by someone whose job it is to know these things. It went on:
The Intervention was supposed to improve the lives of Aboriginal people but it has further disempowered them and has wasted resources. These resources could have been used to develop programs that were better targeted and were developed in partnership with Aboriginal people.
The Greens oppose a continuation of the intervention—and I hope I have made that pretty clear tonight. If we are not successful in preventing this legislation from passing, we can at least make sure that it is reviewed as soon as possible. The amendments that I have withdrawn are identical to those that Senator Scullion has proposed through Senator Payne, and I am pleased to support an amendment that will at least bring forward a degree of evidence so that the people debating this bill or its future reforms at a quarter to one in the morning, those of us who are still there, maybe hopefully will have a solid evidence base on which to make our judgment calls. I join Senator Payne in commending these amendments to the chamber.
At the risk of making a habit of this, the government will also support the amendment. I do not rise to the bait of Senator Ludlam, who uses words like 'racist', 'punitive' and 'coercive', in supporting the measures. Obviously I do not agree with his interpretation, but the government has been clear from the outset that it is prepared to continually review and amend its approach to ensure that it is delivering the best possible outcomes for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, particularly through the special measures. So we are happy to support the amendment to bring forward the scheduled review period.
Question agreed to.
by leave—I move Australian Greens amendments (4), (17) and (20) on sheet 7221 together:
(4) Clause 3, page 4 (line 15), omit "10 years", substitute "5 years".
(17) Clause 111, page 95 (line 8), omit "10 years", substitute "5 years".
(20) Clause 118, page 98 (line 9), omit "10 years", substitute "5 years".
These amendments are quite important. They effectively relate to the sunset clauses in the bill by changing the sunsetting from 10 to five years. I have made it abundantly evident that we strongly oppose the passing of this package of legislation. It is nothing more than an extension of the Northern Territory intervention, which is widely opposed and despised by the people who are subject to it. The extension as drafted will mean that the intervention will ostensibly be in place for 15 years. We oppose the continuation of the ineffective and expensive approach of the intervention. To date, there has been no evidence that the measures of the intervention have actually been effective.
I want to briefly highlight the issue of consultation. This was particularly evident at Hermannsburg when the Senate committee visited. While there, it became very clear that there was very little knowledge about the contents of the legislation amongst community members attending the hearing. This is extremely troubling considering that the government undertook consultations in that area. So, even in the areas where the government actually made the effort—went out, put the word out and tried to explain to people—when the Senate committee visited it appeared that people had no idea what the bill was about.
These problems were completely ignored in the Stronger Futures consultation report. Submissions and evidence received during the inquiry outlined the following criticisms of the report: it was not reflective of community's view, the way that the information was statistically analysed was unsound and the information gathered did not inform the government's approach or the drafting of the bill. So consultation occurred; it is just that the government do not appear to have actually listened to what people told them. In her submission to the Senate inquiry, Ms Cox from Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning clearly outlines problems with the analysis of data that was taken by O'Brien Rich. She said:
I have taught research methods for probably about 20 years in varying guises. You cannot have a system where you have got a whole lot of people recording things, probably in a fairly haphazard manner, particularly under what might be called a 'tier one'—which are many hundreds of things—where you have got a GBM or somebody who is writing some notes while having a bit of a chat to somebody and then you suddenly collect all of those notes, plus the notes from the tier two things, which also seem to be fairly chaotic and done in varying ways. And you hand them to somebody and you say, 'Analysis this.'
Ms Cox also comments on the impartiality of staff who were recording outcomes from the consultation. She says:
My concern is that these assertions—
from the O’Brien Rich report—
… make it clear that any credibility at all relates to the quality of the recording of views given, which is nowhere validated. Or even made public! The research consultants make it clear that they can at best state their products as reflecting … records of what went on.
She goes on to talk about the lack of objectivity of FaHCSIA note takers and their 'presumed limited formal research skills'.
The House of Learning, based out of the University of Technology, Sydney, did quite a comprehensive analysis of the consultation and stated that it did not comply with Australia's obligations to meaningfully consult with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This is the evidence base upon which the government then bases their reform and can come in here and say, 'This is what people told us.' I think you could admit, in fact, that the evidence base is highly suspect for these reasons, among others. The process was deficient because, they say, it did not involve the affected Aboriginal people in the design or implementation of the process; it relied on materials that were dense and complex and were not translated into relevant Aboriginal languages—and it is not the first time we have heard that matter raised; it was conducted in very general terms without reference to specific proposals or potential initiatives; it was decidedly partisan; it covered so many themes and asked so many questions that in-depth discussion was not possible—and on and on and on it goes.
The Australian Greens cannot allow a policy to continue for 15 years when it is based on insufficient consultation and is biased in favour of predetermined outcomes. The poor quality of consultation undermines any claim that these initiatives can be classed as special measures under the RDA. As such, while we welcome the commitment of resources for a further 10 years, subjecting people to a discriminatory, ineffective and damaging policy for the next 15 years is totally unacceptable and we do not support a 10-year sunset clause as we believe it is far too long. I would be greatly encouraged by an indication from the coalition, in the spirit of the last half hour or so, that they will also be supporting these amendments. I commend the amendments to the chamber.
I am not sure that I can provide Senator Ludlam with all the assurance that he is looking for. We do have some sympathy with the proposition of a five-year sunset clause, but also believe that a long-term commitment to ending disconnect and disadvantage, backed up by long-term funding, is vital. By constantly monitoring and reviewing the measures as proposed at three years, we believe we will ensure in a more effective way that the measures remain valid and effective over the long term, as is necessary. The coalition does not support the Australian Greens amendments—I am sorry, Senator Ludlam.
I understand the point Senator Ludlam makes, but we fall on the side of stressing the long-term commitment required. This is as 10-year strategy. It is a key part of the approach. It is also a reflection of the financial commitment the government has made of $3.4 billion in extra services to support the legislation.
We are sending the signal this is a serious long-term commitment. We are very appreciative of the bipartisan support in this regard. This again sends the message that that commitment will continue, whoever forms government, and that that financial support will continue to be provided. It is also important, in the context of the Closing the Gap effort, that we constantly structure the effort around the commitment to a long-term strategy; we know things will not turn around in very short periods of time. We need constancy of effort, constancy of policy approach and constancy of investment in a long-term commitment. That is why the government supports maintaining a 10-year strategy and therefore will not be supporting the Greens amendments.
I move government amendment (1) on sheet BW237:
(1) Page 4 (after line 22), after clause 4, insert:
4A The Racial Discrimination Act is not affected
This Act does not affect the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.
The government has moved this amendment to make an express provision about the application of the Racial Discrimination Act to part 10 of the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act, as amended by the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill. This is really to provide reassurance and clarity for those who are concerned about the issue. The government believes that it was not absolutely necessary, but we want to make sure that people understand our commitment to Aboriginal people, that nothing in part 10 would suspend or limit the application of the Racial Discrimination Act, including the right of a person to seek redress under the act.
I understand that the Human Rights Commission had sought some assurance about this matter and have looked at a 'notwithstanding' type clause to be inserted. The government's amendment is consistent with that request by the Australian Human Rights Commission and makes it absolutely clear that everything will be consistent with the Racial Discrimination Act. I encourage the chamber to support the amendment.
The suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act under the NT intervention legislation was actually one of its most disturbing aspects and the one that attracted the most criticism. The Greens have been vocal in our opposition to the suspension of basic human rights in the Northern Territory. My colleague Senator Siewert introduced a private senator's bill to reintroduce the RDA into the intervention based on the recommendation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.
We continue to believe that the approach by the current government does not meet our human rights obligations under the RDA. The government is seemingly attempting to rely on the measures in this bill being special measures for the purposes of the RDA. However, in law, to meet the criteria of special measures legislation must provide a benefit, it must have the sole purpose of securing the advancement of a group so that they can enjoy human rights equally with others, it must be necessary for the group to achieve that purpose, and it must stop once that purpose has been achieved. It is also necessary for consultation to have occurred and for consent of the groups to have been sought and obtained. As former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner Tom Calma has written:
Measures taken with neither consultation nor consent cannot meaningfully be said to be for the ‘advancement’ of a group of people, as is required by the legal definition of ‘special measures’.
If these measures are intended to be for the advancement of people, there seem to be a lot of very unhappy people who do not approve of being advanced in these particular ways.
As you have heard from my colleagues and me this evening, serious concerns about the level and quality of consultations with the Northern Territory Aboriginal communities have been raised by many. Furthermore, as has been made abundantly clear from statements of opposition mentioned in this debate, and brought before the Senate inquiry, and brought before the public's attention in recent days—and I am sure by email and phone call to all senators in this place—the measures in this bill do not have the consent of the affected communities and, quite frankly, if they did we would not be here.
I indicate that the Greens appreciate the intent behind the amendment and that we will be supporting it. We appreciate that the government has sought to clarify it. Before we propose that the question be put, I will seek some clarification: is it the government's intention that the Racial Discrimination Act applies in full to the act, subsequent to this amendment being passed?
Given the concern that we pointed out about the legality of the special measure and that to secure adequate advancement of the beneficiaries there has to be proper consultation as a requirement of determining this advancement—as the Human Rights Commission has noted—it clearly cannot be seen to be meeting the requirements of a special measure. Has the government obtained any legal opinion as to whether the government is now going to be open to legal action by affected people and communities because this does not meet the criteria for special measures? Since the sole purpose of securing the advancement of a group is that it can enjoy human rights which are equal with others, and given that the intervention and now this so-called stronger futures legislation does not do that, I am interested to know whether you have had a legal eye cast over it for any vulnerabilities to legal action.
My advice is that our legal advice is: yes, it is a special measure—we have had legal advice to that effect—and also that everything would be challengeable under the Racial Discrimination Act, as it applies. So people could mount a challenge if they had concerns. But yes: our advice is that it is a special measure.
I understand that Senator Scullion has engaged in consultations with the Human Rights Commission and has had an indication that it is comfortable with the drafting of this amendment as it stands and that the amendment should alleviate any concerns in that regard.
Question agreed to.
by leave—I move Australian Greens amendments (8) and (9) on sheet 7221 revised:
(8) Clause 8, page 11 (lines 9 and 10), omit the penalty, substitute:
(c) 10 penalty units for a first offence; or
(d) 20 penalty units for a second or subsequent offence.
(9) Clause 8, page 12 (lines 28 and 29), omit the penalty, substitute:
(c) 10 penalty units for a first offence; or
(d) 20 penalty units for a second or subsequent offence.
This legislation increases penalties for the possession, consumption and supply of alcohol. Increasing penalties for more minor offences is always a concern to the Greens. In particular, we are concerned that this legislation makes possession of amounts under 1.35 litres an offence which could attract a penalty of up to six months imprisonment. Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory—APO NT—is an alliance comprising the Central Land Council, the Northern Land Council, North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, Central Australian Legal Aid Service and the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory. The alliance was created to provide a more effective response to key issues of joint interest and concern affecting Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, including through advocating practical policy solutions to government. This important organisation noted in its submission to the inquiry by the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee into these bills:
The NT already has amongst the harshest penalties in Australia for bringing alcohol into remote Aboriginal communities … A punitive response has not worked and there is no evidence that an additionally punitive response is what is needed.
This was supported by numerous submissions and evidence given at the inquiry—for example, Mr Hunyor, Principal Legal Officer with the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, NAAJA, asked:
… where is the evidence that it is going to make any difference to increase penalties? I think one of the issues we need to look at every time an increase in penalty and an increase in imprisonment is imposed is: what is the opportunity cost if realistically that is going to mean sending more people to jail?
This concern is supported by the Australian Human Rights Commission, which said:
The NTER Evaluation Report indicated there was a clear increase in alcohol-related offences, including offences that were created by the NTER measures. The Commission therefore reiterates its standing concerns that the alcohol offences under the NTER continued by the Stronger Futures Bill may result in increased imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Infringement notices provide a viable alternative to harsh penalties. We support the government amendments to this effect.
What is actually needed, rather than increasingly punitive measures, is more resources dedicated to culturally appropriate alcohol counselling and rehabilitation. Ms Rosas from NAAJA highlighted the inappropriate emphasis on penalties rather than rehabilitation:
NAAJA 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. Aboriginal people already make up 80 per cent of the jail population in the NT. Locking more people up is not going to fix our problems and banning alcohol has not solved the problem. The alcohol bans have pushed drinkers further from their communities into very unsafe situations. We need to treat the disease. There is no professional counselling … we need rehabilitation centres. We need culturally relevant programs and services and we need more education in the schools to teach the younger generation the dangers of drinking and drug use. Governments need to work with elders to take ownership and responsibility of alcohol management plans and be part of the solution.
The Australian Greens oppose the simplistic solution of increasing penalties for offences relating to less than 1.35 litres. It is unclear that punitive approaches are effective, and they will likely lead to increased imprisonment of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. This will be catastrophic. As such, these amendments reduce the number of penalty points and remove imprisonment for offences under 1.35 litres. I commend them to the chamber.
I indicate that we will not be supporting the Greens amendments. Effectively they significantly reduce the penalties for alcohol offences. That is not a position the government support, nor do we think it sends the right messages. We think that alcohol misuse is a very serious problem in remote communities. It is a major cause of violence, and communities have asked for assistance to try to address the really serious problems that result from the abuse of alcohol in those communities. We think strong penalties for those who do not respect the restrictions are one part of the help that those communities need.
I do accept that there has been some lack of clarity around a number of measures, and the next set of amendments from the government will seek to deal with some of those. We think those amendments will provide a better balance between offences for small amounts of liquor and more serious liquor offences. They will also seek to make clear that infringement notices can be issued for minor offences. We seek to address some of the issues the senator raised, but we will not be supporting the Greens amendments. But we hope, if we can get support for our subsequent amendments, there will be greater clarity about what the government intended and seeks to reinforce, which is, as I say, a better balance between offences for small amounts of liquor and more serious offences, and the capability for use of infringement notices for minor offences. But we will not be supporting the Greens amendments, which significantly reduce the penalties for alcohol offences.
Given the lateness of the hour, I do not necessarily expect the answer to this question now. I accept that this is a serious issue and that communities want assistance, which were your words, in dealing with alcohol dependence and abuse. But I would be interested if the minister could tell me what evidence there is that more punitive consequences for alcohol use are actually effective in preventing the problem. I would be happy for that to be taken on notice, given the lateness of the hour, if that is appropriate.
Senator, I think this is bringing it in line with the Northern Territory penalties and we think it reflects the appropriate level of penalty for these offences. I think it is really important to try to support the communities in dealing with these serious challenges to them and, as I say, the violence and dysfunction that comes from this serious alcohol misuse. If I can get further information for the senator, I am happy to take that on notice.
I asked the very same questions. I am told it is a pure alcohol measurement. It was explained to me as being the equivalent of about three cartons of beer. I think some people misinterpreted it. It is the pure alcohol content, not how we normally describe it in a bottle or a can. That is my advice. As a layman, I said 'Well, what does that really mean?' and someone said, 'You could equate it to about three cartons of beer, the alcohol content.'
Minister, you said that communities have sought help in dealing with alcohol abuse—I have no doubt that this the case—but did any of the communities ask for these higher penalties? Is that something that came from Aboriginal communities themselves and Aboriginal leadership, or is it something that was determined by the government or the bureaucracy? If so, how many Aboriginal communities asked for higher penalties of the kind that you are introducing?
As I understand it, as I briefly mentioned in an earlier contribution, these penalties are designed to bring them in line with the existing Northern Territory penalty regime. That is one aspect of it. They are very much targeting grog runners. It is aimed at targeting the grog-running trade. Yes, communities have asked for help in trying to tackle that problem. But, as I said, the actual penalties themselves are bringing things into line with the existing Northern Territory penalty regime. There are communities who have been very desperate for support in trying to deal with the grog runners. That is the purpose of these provisions. The penalty is designed to match the existing Northern Territory penalty. That is why we have set the penalties at those rates.
I take it from the minister's answer that the communities did not actually ask for the increased penalties; it was a decision of the government to bring the penalties in line with Northern Territory penalties. That being the case—and I have no doubt that communities are asking for assistance with the grog runners, as you say—what evidence is there that the penalties that you are suggesting will go anywhere near dealing with that issue? And where is there any evidence at all that increasing penalties in the general way you have suggested is going to address that specific problem? What evidence is there that that is the case?
There are a couple of responses to that. First of all, as I understand it, the existing legislation providing for lower penalties than the Northern Territory penalties actually had the effect of overriding the Northern Territory penalties; it undermined their regime by providing an overriding provision which had a lower penalty. So that is clearly not administratively very good and sends the wrong signal. So the idea was to bring those in line with the Northern Territory penalty regime. I understand it was specifically requested by the Northern Territory Police as part of their measures to deal with grog running.
by leave—I move government amendments (1) to (3) on sheet BW232:
(1) Clause 8, page 13 (line 31), before "alcohol", insert "ethyl".
(2) Clause 8, page 14 (line 3), omit "alcohol", substitute "liquor".
(3) Clause 8, page 14 (line 5), omit "alcohol", substitute "liquor".
These amendments will clarify the meaning of 'alcohol' and allow infringement notices to be issued for possession and supply liquor offences involving small amounts of alcohol. They make it clear that infringement notices can be issued for possession and supply liquor offences involving the aforementioned 1,350 millilitres of alcohol or less. These amendments address a recommendation of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee majority report. I hope that, unlike Senator Ludlam, I am not verballing them, but I am told that this was one of their recommendations. They recommended also that the bill be amended to allow infringement notices to be issued in relation to minor offences and to make clear that the infringement notices may be issued relating to possession and supply liquor offences. There was some support for these measures from the community affairs committee to provide greater clarity, and it really ties in with the debate that we have just had. We think that these amendments will benefit the legislation and benefit the management of those offences.
I indicate Australian Greens support. These are sensible amendments which have been brought forward as a result of the evidence given to the Senate inquiry. They are minor improvements to a terrible bill, so I guess we would be silly to oppose them. I am happy to commend them to the chamber.
The CHAIRMAN: The question is that government amendments (1) to (3) on sheet BW232 be agreed to.
Question agreed to.
I move government amendment (4) on sheet BW232:
(4) Clause 11, page 16 (lines 14 to 20), omit the clause, substitute:
11 Modification of the NT Liquor Regulations
The NT Liquor Regulations apply, while this Act is in effect, as if: (a) the following offences against the NT Liquor Act were police infringement offences for the purposes of those Regulations: (i) an offence against subsection 75B(1); (ii) an offence against subsection 75C(1) if the quantity of the ethyl alcohol involved in the commission of the offence is 1,350 ml or less; (iii) an offence against subsection 75F(1); and (b) the reference to section 75(1) of the NT Liquor Act in Part 1 of Schedule 2 to those Regulations included a reference to subsections 75B(1), 75C(1) and 75F(1) of that Act.
Note 1: Section 8 of this Act includes sections 75B, 75C and 75F into the NT Liquor Act.
Note 2: This Act ceases to have effect at the end of 10 years after commencement: see section 118.
This is part of the same set of amendments; it just inserts it into another part of the bill. I do not need to speak to it.
Mr Chairman, you will be aware that the Australian Greens propose to move an amendment to this one. We have already at some length debated the issue of a sunset clause, and we were seeking to essentially make it consistent with a set of amendments which have already comprehensively and unfortunately failed. So I withdraw our amendment to the government amendment (4) and indicate that we will support the government's amendment.
The CHAIRMAN: The question is that government amendment (4) on sheet BW232 be agreed to.
Question agreed to.
by leave—I move Australian Greens items (7) and (1) to (6) on sheet 7230:
(1) Clause 3, page 4 (after line 10), insert:
Part 4A is about consultation with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory to enable them to effectively engage in matters affecting them under this Act.
Part 4A requires the Minister to make rules prescribing consultation requirements that must be complied with in making a decision or legislative instrument under this Act that is likely to affect Aboriginal people living in one or more areas in the Northern Territory.
(2) Clause 4, page 4 (lines 19 to 22), omit the clause, substitute:
4 Objects of this Act
The objects of this Act are:
(a) to support Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory to live strong, independent lives, where communities, families and children are safe and healthy; and
(b) to enable Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory to effectively engage in matters affecting them under this Act.
(3) Clause 27, page 32 (lines 22 and 23), omit subclause (8).
(4) Clause 34, page 41 (lines 9 and 10), omit subclause (9).
(5) Clause 35, page 43 (lines 9 and 10), omit subclause (5).
(6) Clause 41, page 50 (lines 12 and 13), omit subclause (3).
(7) Page 94 (after line 15), after Part 4, insert:
110A Guide to this Part
This Part is about consultation with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory to enable them to effectively engage in matters affecting them under this Act.
It requires the Minister to make rules prescribing consultation requirements that must be complied with in making a decision or legislative instrument under this Act that is likely to affect Aboriginal people living in one or more areas in the Northern Territory. Those rules must be consistent with principles set out in this Part.
Consultation requirements under this Part apply in addition to any other consultation requirements under this Act.
110B Minister to make rules specifying consultation requirements
(1) The Minister must make rules prescribing consultation requirements to be complied with in making a decision or legislative instrument under this Act (other than a rule under this section) that is likely to affect Aboriginal people living in one or more areas in the Northern Territory.
(2) Before making a rule for the purposes of subsection (1), the Minister must:
(a) have regard to the object of this Act in paragraph 4(b); and
(b) be satisfied that the rule is consistent with the consultation principles set out in section 110C.
(3) A consultation requirement prescribed for the purposes of subsection (1) applies in addition to any other requirement relating to consultation that applies in relation to the making of the relevant decision or legislative instrument.
(4) Rules made for the purposes of subsection (1) may prescribe different requirements in relation to:
(a) different decisions and legislative instruments; and
(b) different areas.
110C Consultation principles
(1) This section sets out the consultation principles for the purposes of paragraph 110B(2)(b).
Obtaining consent or agreement
(2) The object of consultation must be to obtain the consent or agreement of the Aboriginal people likely to be affected by the proposed decision or legislative instrument, not simply to outline what is proposed.
(3) Consultation is a two-way process, which includes listening to the Aboriginal people likely to be affected by the proposed decision or legislative instrument, and using this feedback to influence and develop the decision or instrument.
(4) Consultation processes must be products of, and build, consensus. Consultations must be in the nature of negotiations and the Aboriginal people being consulted must not be pressured into making a decision.
(5) Consultations must begin early, be ongoing (if necessary), and have adequate timeframes built into them.
Assistance to participate
(6) The Aboriginal people likely to be affected by the proposed decision or legislative instrument must have access to financial, technical and other assistance to enable them to participate in the consultation process.
Coordination across agencies
(7) Consultations that involve a number of Commonwealth, State and Territory agencies must be coordinated across those agencies.
Reaching people in places most convenient for them
(8) Consultation processes must reach the Aboriginal people likely to be affected by the proposed decision or legislative instrument, and must be held in the location that is most convenient for, and chosen by, those people.
(9) Consultation processes must respect the protocols, including the representative and decision-making structures, followed by the Aboriginal people likely to be affected by the proposed decision or legislative instrument.
Information to be given
(10) Information about the proposed decision or legislative instrument, and its potential impact, must be provided to the Aboriginal people likely to be affected by it, being information that is:
(a) full and accurate; and
(b) clear, accessible, easy to understand and otherwise in accordance with plain language principles; and
(c) in the language of the people being consulted (if necessary).
The amendments inserts substantive consultation requirements into the bill. We have heard a great deal tonight about consultation and allowing communities to take ownership—and, indeed, about allowing them potentially to be empowered by some of the ideas that come out of this building. In response to the abysmal consultation process carried out in the context of Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory and the NTER, the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry into Stronger Futures was told in no uncertain terms that the consultation process taken by the government was completely inadequate. Criticism was made of the way that the consultations were conducted and of the interpretation of the outcomes of this process and the subsequent reports. Criticisms included: meetings being scheduled at times that people could not attend; inadequate notice given; not enough time given to discuss the issues when people did get there; comments misreported; no follow-up materials; not translated into language, and so on. Those were the local criticisms.
In counterpoint, the Australian Human Rights Commission said:
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:
-the timeframe for consultations was inadequate given the scope and depth of the issues raised in the Stronger Futures Discussion Paper
-significant measures such as income management were not listed for discussion during the Stronger Futures consultation process
-despite the Australian Government’s efforts to work with the Aboriginal Interpreter Service (AIS), there was neither sufficient time to translate the paper into the languages of Northern Territory communities nor to provide the Stronger Futures Discussion Paper to the interpreters sufficiently in advance of the consultations.
Just imagine what would happen if the government bowled up into some suburb, consulting on a particular development, and the consultation paper was written in Swahili. Then, the government having already made its mind up as to what it wanted to find from the consultation, took away their paper in Swahili and did what they were intending to do all along and then wondered why people were a bit narky when the foregone conclusion was eventually announced in whatever language. These concerns were also reiterated by the NT Anti-Discrimination Commissioner, who was somewhat scathing. Many Aboriginal Territorians impacted by the intervention have told me of their disappointment with federal consultations. There were concerns that only a few were spoken to, that the duration of visits was too short and that some Aboriginal Territorians could not participate because of language, dialect or hearing impairments. These are all pretty familiar issues that I am canvassing here. In fact, we are probably getting sick of hearing about them, but they are pervasive when they come to the issue of consultation with Aboriginal people about these coercive reforms which impact their lives directly.
This amendment provides for the engagement of Aboriginal people in effective participation in the consultation process around matters that directly affect them. The minister would be required to develop consultation rules based on principles derived from the guidelines presented to the Senate committee by the Australian Human Rights Council. We intend to inform the development of good policies, rather than be twisted to suit predetermined outcomes. This consultation process around Stronger Futures was limited to a six-week period and that was early warning that things were headed in the wrong direction.
Poor consultation is the starting point which disempowers Aboriginal people. We believe—and we have outlined in these amendments that we are putting to the chamber tonight—that we can do better, that this is not rocket science. This is stuff that in some instances we can point to. We are able to do this well. We believe that something must be done to ensure that future consultations are not as brutally disempowering as the last round and the one before that and that they cannot get twisted. We have seen some instances tonight—and I suspect the minister will dispute this—where the government has already made up its mind by the time it rolls into communities in brand-new four-wheel-drives, consults, ticks a few boxes, sits under a tree, does the best that it can, given the resources that it is allocated, and then heads off in the dust and does what it intended to do all along. We have seen these sorts of things happen over and over again.
We believe these amendments which are put forward in a spirit of constructive criticism of the bill would go a long way towards achieving the aim of effective and genuine authentic consultation with the people most directly affected. I am delighted to commend this last batch of Australian Greens amendments to this bill.
I did not make any comments about the consultation process in my second reading speech because I wanted to concentrate on other more important aspects of this. I do want to place on record though that I am disappointed that Senator Scullion is not here tonight to join us, particularly since he is the shadow minister for Indigenous affairs and we are talking about his constituents. I am not entirely sure that going to Borroloola for the show is where I would put my priorities.
Let us go back to the consultations. I think if you have a look at what occurred over the last couple of months in terms of just this package of legislation, you would probably see that, as with any process, there were good pockets of consultation and not so good pockets of consultation. I do want to say though that I have never seen an Indigenous affairs minister get out and about and go to the committee to the extent that Minister Macklin did during this time. She did not go to all of the communities. None of us could have done that. There are 73 of them and six regional towns. But I think she went to at least about eight communities. That is more than I think I have seen an Indigenous affairs minister do for a very, very long time. I did hear, for example, that Maningrida people were pretty upset that the men and women were separated for consultations. When I got out to Maningrida the women said to me that that was what they had asked for and that is properly what you would do as well if you were going to conduct consultations properly. But I did hear that the communities were brought together so they could all have a bit of a discussion with the minister about it.
I go back to what I said at the beginning of my second reading speech. That is that we had an intervention introduced into this parliament five years ago with absolutely no consultation. It was implemented within 48 hours and it hit the ground running. People across the Territory had no idea what had hit them. But we have actually had legislation in place for five years that we have said we would change. We said that when it came to the end of its time we would talk to Indigenous people about whether we would or would not replace it and, if we were to replace it, about what they would want to see in it. We have had review after review. People have had three or four years to think about what they want the future of the Northern Territory to look like. I have had many discussions with people about what they want in and what they do not want in. They do not want to see government business managers in the legislation again. They want that role totally changed, but that is there. They do not want to see blue-and-silver signs. They want to put their own signs up, but that is there.
Tonight we have concentrated a lot on what some people perceive Indigenous people do not want, but there is an awful lot in this bill that Indigenous people do want. Do you know what? They are women. The majority of them are women, and the trend is the same in our society. It is usually the women whose voices we do not hear. It is usually those women who do not get down to Melbourne or Sydney, do not travel and do not have computers. But when we actually sit down with them, what do they say to us? They have said: 'Keep going with the alcohol management stuff, Trish; that's what we want to see. And try and get my kids to school.' If you look at this legislation, that is where the emphasis has been.
I have a view, with Senator Ludlam and Senator Siewert, that the restrictions you are trying to put in this legislation are too confined. I do not think we have got consultation with Indigenous people right. I am not sure anybody has. I am not sure that even the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples has got it right. I am not sure even Reconciliation Australia or ANSTaR have got it right. What I do know is that the land councils seem to get it right, however they have it in their structure and however they go about it. I asked a couple of people involved in the land councils how it is they seem to get their consultations pretty well right. It is because they use anthropologists in their consultations. They know who to consult and how to consult those people.
I am not entirely convinced that the model you are putting into this legislation is right. I think that there is vast room for improvement. There is no doubt that there is room for improvement, and we could do it all over again if we had the chance. Would we do it differently? Maybe we would in some places, maybe we would not. We have to look at whether or not we even subcontract the land councils to do the next round of consultations or somehow involve the skills they have and the way in which they consult people. I think the constrictions and confines you have put in this clause are not the way to go.
I appreciate the remarks from Senator Crossin, but the provisions that the Greens have put forward in this amendment are actually derived from the consultation guidelines presented to the Senate committee by the Australian Human Rights Council. We did not dream them up by ourselves; they came from the Human Rights Council. I note that the criticisms that were made in that evidence were, as Senator Ludlam has said, meeting schedules that people could not attend, inadequate notice, comments misreported, no follow-up and materials not translated into local language. So I ask the minister in particular: does he concede that the Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Commissioner was correct when he pointed out, in regard to consultation, problems with the process? He said:
… as the commissioner in the Northern Territory I have been told by many Aboriginal Territorians impacted by the Commonwealth intervention of their disappointment at federal consultations. In particular there were concerns that only a few were spoken to, that the duration of visits was too short and that some Aboriginal Territorians could not participate because of language, dialect or hearing impairments.
Do you accept the Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination Commissioner's criticism of the consultation?
I think it is fair to say that we do not accept those criticisms. I understand that the commissioner you refer to was invited to all of the consultations. I am not sure that he got to many, but he was invited—as were the Human Rights Commission and a range of other people. We tried to be as open as possible and encouraged people with an interest to attend those consultations.
The key point to make is that, in any democratic process, people will want to discuss the adequacy or otherwise of the process. We have the same when we do Senate committee hearings—we get told that we have not been to enough places, we have not stayed long enough et cetera. There is always going to be that sort of debate. I make the broad point that this government has engaged in three rounds of consultations with Indigenous people in the Northern Territory on these issues as we have worked our way through the reform process. This last round was focused on these particular amendments to the legislation. We have had three rounds of consultation as we have developed policy over the last four years in government. There has been serious engagement with Indigenous communities on all these issues over an extended period. We cannot accept the Greens' amendments, because we think they confuse consultation with a much stronger concept of consent before being able to take any policy or regulatory action.
We think it is important that people consult, but in the end the government has to determine a policy and take actions in accordance with those policies. We think, as Senator Crossin said, that the Greens' amendments seek to place too much constraint on the capacity of the government to implement policies, but we are committed to the consultation process. As I say, there have been three rounds of consultations in the Northern Territory on matters relating to the intervention and the review of that. It is the case that not only did the minister engage but we also went to great lengths to ensure that any of the other interested parties, such as the human rights commissioner or the Northern Territory anti-discrimination commissioner, were invited to participate and to be present at those consultations.
I ask the minister: does the government believe that free, prior and informed consent ought to be a fundamental principle of any consultation, particularly before the imposition of any legislative provisions on Indigenous communities? Do you further agree that, if you do not allow those provisions of free, prior and informed consent, you are undermining the rights of people in Indigenous communities?
I think that there is a difference between consent and consultation. We are referring to consultations with Indigenous people in the Northern Territory, while you are talking about a concept of consent before government takes policy decisions. Are you suggesting that we have to obtain consent before passing a bill? I think that there is a confusion about the two concepts. We are not saying that we have sought consent in that stronger form; we have sought to consult with people before bringing legislation before the parliament. In the end it is the parliament that makes that decision.
The whole point of consultation is that communities should be well enough informed so that they can make a judgment before they consent to certain measures. Yes, parliament makes laws that govern the country; but, when you go to issues of Indigenous rights and the right to self-determination, you are effectively saying that communities have not been properly consulted—that the principle of free, prior and informed consent has been set aside and that this parliament is going to legislate to impose upon Indigenous communities a set of governance rules which are going to dominate them for the next 10 years against their free, prior and informed consent.
I am not sure I have much to add, Mr Chairman. I think we are confusing two concepts. I know that there is a debate in international law about the phraseology that the senator uses and the acceptance of what it means, but the government is not making claims beyond that we sought to consult with the communities—to have a consultation process—before presenting a bill to the parliament, where the parliament makes the decision. We have put it no higher than that.
The CHAIRMAN: The question is that Australian Greens amendments (7) and (1) to (6) on sheet 7230 be agreed to.
Bill, as amended, agreed to.