Senate debates

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Answers to Questions

3:00 pm

Photo of Jan McLucasJan McLucas (Queensland, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Mental Health) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Defence, Senator Johnston, and the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Scullion, to questions without notice asked by Opposition senators today relating to the manufacture of the next fleet of Australian submarines and to Indigenous affairs policy.

In my address this afternoon, I will focus on the answers given by Minister Scullion to questions that were asked of him today. From my perspective, two themes seemed to emerge from the answers to those questions during question time. The first one was that all of the issues that were being raised by Labor senators were not his responsibility; they were someone else's responsibility. They were either the responsibility of a state government or in fact our responsibility, which is somewhat troubling since he has been the minister for quite some time now.

Senator Sterle asked some very important questions about the impact of the cuts of more than $28 million in the state of Western Australia to the municipal and essential services funding program. Frankly, Minister Scullion's response was flippant and dismissive; in fact, it seemed that he did not care. It was all the responsibility of Western Australia. So $28 million has been cut from those services in Western Australia, and the state of Western Australia has responded by saying that up to 150 communities will be closed down. That is appalling and atrocious—it is quite an irresponsible response from Western Australia—but we should look at the history here. Let us not forget it was Minister Scullion who came into this chamber and proclaimed proudly that agreement—that was his word—had been reached with a number of states and territories around the municipal and essential services program, that they would be phased out and that this was an agreed position. The comments from the Queensland Premier and the Western Australian Premier would put a lie to the claim that this was in fact an agreement. Western Australian are still responding by saying that they will stop municipal services to up to 150 communities, with the result that we will see another Mapoon; we will see another event where people will be forcibly removed from their communities, with huge impacts on more regional centres around the community. And I commend Senator Scullion for his work in promoting this issue to the community.

I also want to draw attention to the issues around the huge cut, the more than $500 million cut, to Indigenous services following this budget. As well as that, as well as half a billion dollars cut from Indigenous programs, we have seen the monumental throwing up in the air of the funding programs to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations. This has been a monumental change, and all in one hit. We have seen services not even apply for funding because it was too complex. We have seen the minister or his department have to go back to talk with up to 75 organisations providing absolutely essential services across the country. They have had to talk to them about how they are going to continue to provide services to Indigenous communities, services that include domestic violence shelters. They cannot have just assumed that everyone was going to apply for these services; they must have had some knowledge that these services would simply close their doors, that they would not continue.

We have also seen the Prisoner Throughcare Program and the anti-recidivism program cut; the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service defunded; preventative health programs like the tackling smoking program have been cut significantly. We know that Indigenous people smoke at a much higher rate than the non-Indigenous population, so to cut anti-smoking campaigns in your first budget is surely terribly short-sighted. Healthy lifestyle programs have also been cut. But what I found astonishing, and this goes to a question of credibility, was the second theme that appeared in today's answers. When I asked the minister if he was aware of Indigenous groups, who would not speak on the record because they feared their funding would be cut, who found that the Indigenous Advancement Strategy criteria were not clear, he said he had not heard those concerns. Now Minister Scullion stands there every time we ask him questions—he is so connected to the community, but if he has not heard those concerns, then he is not listening. (Time expired)

3:06 pm

Photo of Simon BirminghamSimon Birmingham (SA, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Education and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

One of the areas of policy pursuit of this government, particularly of social policy pursuit, that I am most proud of is the work in Indigenous advancement, is the work to ensure that we tackle an issue that has been a sad blight on Australia throughout our modern history, and that we take the necessary steps to make changes that can make a real difference, I hope, to the lives of current and in particular future generations.

We have made very clear that we want to focus on making a difference with the basics because we believe—from the Prime Minister to Minister Scullion and Parliamentary Secretary Tudge, right through the government—that if you get the basics right in Indigenous policy, then the benefits will flow right throughout the wellbeing of our Indigenous populations.

The basics we start with are our three key priorities: getting children to school, getting adults to work and ensuring communities are safe. The truth is that we have been failing as a country across those three priorities for far too long. In many cases, Indigenous school children do not make it to school even half of the time, according to the data. Indigenous employment fell to 48 per cent in 2012-13 after significant gains between 1994 and 2008, when it had risen from 38 per cent to 54 per cent. So we have gone backwards in Indigenous employment. The most recent data indicates that there was no significant change in family and community violence between 2002 and 2008. It is clear for all to see that levels of violence in Indigenous communities are far, far too high.

So we must admit, and I would hope that everyone must admit, that the policies that have been deployed to date simply do not work, they have not worked and a new approach is needed. That is exactly what this government has done. We often hear debates about how much is being invested. It is not about how much money you spend; it is about how you spend the money that you invest. It is most important in this space that we get the policy settings right to ensure that we are investing the dollars in Indigenous policies to actually generate outcomes. I hope that we are able to spend what is necessary. But it is not about the quantum as much as it is about what it is we do with it.

Our government's new Indigenous Advancement Strategy began on 1 July this year. It absolutely was unashamedly about shaking up and reshaping the way we deliver policies for Indigenous Australians. It replaced more than 150 different individual programs scattered across government—programs that lacked cohesion or coordination—with five flexible, broad-based programs under the leadership and direction of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. It ensured that the direction sits at the heart of government, that the coordination sits at the heart of government and that we have programs in place that are able to deliver what is required on the ground.

Those five streams focus on, firstly, jobs, land and economy; secondly, children and schooling; thirdly, safety and wellbeing; fourthly, culture and capability; and, fifthly, remote Australia. This refocusing is critical and accompanying it is a significant investment in Indigenous policy—$4.8 billion is being invested over four years with a clear focus to achieve the results our government desires of getting more children to school and more adults into work, and delivering safer communities. Already we are seeing some positive returns in this space. Already we are seeing that the investment in the remote school attendance strategy is delivering some positive results. But of course there is much, much more to be done. But I hope that rather than the nitpicking that we see from those opposite, we see constructive contributions from them that allow us to reshape these policies for the benefit of the Australians who need it most.

3:11 pm

Photo of Nova PerisNova Peris (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise to take note of answers provided in question time today by the Minister for Indigenous Affairs in relation to concerns raised by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda. A week ago, the government announced it was breaking yet another promise: it was going to scrap the promise to bring in a Closing the Gap target for incarceration rates. In response to this, Mr Gooda said, 'Australia was better at keeping Aboriginal children in jail than in school.' I thought his comment was spot on because it highlights that in this country we are trying to lock away the problems rather than solve them. Locking away the problems is easier than working hard to come up with complex solutions.

The Abbott government's cuts of half a billion dollars to Indigenous affairs is hurting Aboriginal people in this country and the claims that these cuts are not to front-line services have been proven wrong. You cannot rip out half a billion dollars without having an effect. Everybody knows this, including Mr Gooda, which is why he said that in the first 12 months, this minister has overseen an upheaval in the Indigenous affairs portfolio which has caused, 'widespread uncertainty and stress, particularly amongst Aboriginal communities.' Mr Gooda also said that there had been little or no consultation with those working at the coalface. He also said that government plans will create one of the largest upheavals in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs.

The minister should take these concerns very seriously and not dismiss Mr Gooda's views with such arrogance, as he displayed today in the Senate. On this issue, the government is not listening and Aboriginal people feel like their concerns are falling on deaf ears. I say to the Prime Minister, if you are going to be the Prime Minister for Aboriginal affairs then the first thing you must do is open up your ears. The Prime Minister acknowledged that his cuts are hurting. He must acknowledge that the changes he has made are not working. He must acknowledge that all we have are broken promises.

The Prime Minister should read Mr Gooda's report because the report says that the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as both victims and offenders in the criminal justice system is one of the most urgent human rights issues facing Australia today. Sadly, in the Northern Territory we are going backwards—Aboriginal people are held in detention without any conviction. There are Aboriginal people who have been determined by a court to be unfit to plead guilty due to their intellectual disabilities who have never been convicted but languish in prison for years. This is a clear breach of human rights. There are people who are locked up without conviction because they suffer from alcoholism. They have committed no crime and have not been charged with any offence, but they are locked up against their will in conditions doctors have warned could lead to death. We have seen this occur through ignorance. Tragically, a few weeks ago an Aboriginal woman died in custody, and all the Northern Territory government tried to do was cover up the death. Of course, these alcohol prisons are racially based. Ninety-nine per cent of those who are locked up are Aboriginal. When a non-Aboriginal person gets drunk in the pub and falls over, they do not end up in these alcohol prisons, but, if an Aboriginal person drinks in a park, the solution is to lock them up.

A facility that was deemed unsuitable for adults is being used now for our children. Young children are being held in isolation. The Northern Territory government has changed legislation so that prison officers now can ignore medical practitioners and deny an inmate medical attention. None of this will work to reduce incarceration rates. In fact, the evidence on what works is being ignored—again going back to chapter 4 of Mr Gooda's report, where he outlines what is working. I urge everyone on the crossbench to read what Mr Gooda has said. One of the programs he talks about is one in Bourke. The program is called Maranguka, which simply means 'to give to the people', 'caring' and 'offering help'. They engage locals. They empower young people rather than lecture them.

I could talk about this for hours, because it is such an important thing. The Prime Minister needs to read this report to understand what is working. I suspect that the Prime Minister and the Minister for Indigenous Affairs have broken their promise on the Closing the Gap target for incarceration rates because they do not think that they will meet any meaningful target, but, through justice reinvestment, we can. Mr Gooda has stated in his report that he is severely disappointed that the minister is backing away from his previous commitment to justice targets. He outlines why justice targets are so important if we are going to achieve a reduction in both offenders and victims. We need to end the approach of simply locking up problems that appear too hard to solve.

3:16 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Let me begin with some congratulations. This is a very positive sign that we can look towards for 2015. At last, the Labor opposition have brought to the Senate during question time some issues worthy of debate. Congratulations. You will not be surprised to hear that senators on this side have a different point of view. You will not be surprised to hear that senators on this side reflect some of the attitudes across the Australian community. But, before I talk about the disgraceful episode that was Labor's period of governance in Indigenous affairs, before I talk about what happened to education, before I talk about what happened to employment, before I talk about what the Australian National Audit Office, the independent auditor, had to say in 2012 about Labor's performance, let us put it in context.

Labor want you to believe that on Sunday, 8 September 2013 the world changed. Labor want you to believe that everything that happened before Sunday, 8 September 2013 no longer matters. They want their legacy purged from your memory. They do not want you to be reminded about the economic vandalism. They do not want you to be reminded about the poor policy, matched only by poor implementation. They do not want you to know that much of what the government is facing now is inherited and caused by the inaction or poor action of the previous government. Nothing demonstrates the romanticism, the revisionism, of Labor more than the comments of Bill Shorten this morning. What did Bill Shorten say this morning? He said, 'Today is the anniversary of the election of the Whitlam government.' What anniversary did he not reflect on? He did not reflect on the fact that it is also the anniversary of the election of Mark Latham, when Mark Latham beat Kim Beazley by one vote in the Labor caucus room. Why doesn't Labor want you to talk about or hear about Mark Latham?

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What has this got to do with the debate we're having now?

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Context is very important, Senator Gallacher. This goes to a very, very important issue. Nothing that is happening at the moment, none of the decisions the government take, is happening in isolation. It is happening under the umbrella of the poor management of the previous Labor government. So why do they not want you to hear about Mark Latham? Because this is what Mark Latham had to say about Labor on 28 August this year:

Shorten failed to support the push for rank-and-file participation: breaking down factional control and the inexorable march of dud union officials into upper house seats.

He can't afford to be missing in action again. After all, if he won't stand up for good governance inside his own party, how can he govern the country?

If Bill Shorten does not stand up for good governance in his own party, how can he stand up for good governance in the country? This is the important part:

Shorten needs to prove to voters he's tough enough to run tight fiscal and border protection strategies.

We are dealing today with a very important issue, and that is how we progress Indigenous advantage in our community. We cannot do that without addressing some of the appalling legacy left to us by the former Labor government.

I want to turn briefly to Labor's record in Indigenous affairs. This is a personal point of view. I think that disagreement about how we approach Indigenous issues in our country is good, because it means we get better ideas. It means we get a better approach. We need more contestability in how we approach Indigenous issues in our country, much more contestability. So what do we know about Labor's record when it comes to Indigenous affairs? Let us look at school attendance. Then I will turn to employment and then I will turn to the comments of the Australian National Audit Office. Under Labor, school attendance in remote communities was appalling. In many cases, children were not even attending school 50 per cent of the time. We know we need good education to make sure that the cycle of welfare dependency is broken. What did the Australian National Audit Office say? The Australian National Audit Office said— (Time expired)

3:21 pm

Photo of Alex GallacherAlex Gallacher (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of answers to questions asked by Senator Wong to Senator Johnston. Senator Johnston made a couple of remarks in his replies, and one was about the 'capability gap'. You would have to be quite far away from a newspaper, a radio station, a talkback journalist or a politician not to realise that there are serious questions about Senator Johnston's capability and whether he has a capability gap, whether he is actually in charge of his portfolio and in charge of his processes.

He was asked to reply to the statement made by the Treasurer this morning ruling out an open competitive tender in the purchase of Australia's defence capability in submarines. His answer was, 'It will all be aboveboard and according to Hoyle.' Well 'aboveboard', if you have a bit of a google, means open and transparent. I would have thought that would apply to a competitive tender with intense competitive pressure from various nations with the capability, including the ability for, most importantly, South Australian operations to compete. Given that the Liberal Party, allegedly, are the party of free enterprise and competition, I would have thought that they would have welcomed an open and transparent process, including a competitive tender. He went on to say 'and according to Hoyle'. Hoyle, I think, was the expert on the rules of cards. So really they have not delivered 'aboveboard and according to Hoyle'. They have actually ruled out a competitive tender.

May we ask the question: why? There are some who suggest that it has something to do with the early completion of the Japan-Australia free trade agreement. Was there a second deal in that treaty—one that the Australian population is not aware of? Was consideration given to an earlier resolution in that treaty with the inclusion of, 'We'll buy your submarines'? Was that the case? If the minister is absolutely correct that it is aboveboard, according to Hoyle, a second pass process and no decision has been made, why did the Treasurer say, 'I categorically rule out a competitive tender process'?

There are a number of South Australian senators who would probably support me, and they are not on this side of the chamber. There are probably a number of South Australian members of parliament who would be asking much the same questions of this government as we have. Senator Fawcett, Senator Ruston, Senator Birmingham, Senator Edwards, the member for Hindmarsh, the member for Sturt and the member for Boothby—all Liberal members of parliament—are on the record questioning the capability of this minister.

As I said at the outset, is the capability gap that he is referring to in his own operation of his department? Is his office where there is a lack of capability? Are they incapable and unable to stand up to the Prime Minister's office? Is there a deal here that the Australian public know nothing about? In an early and prompt conclusion of the Japan-Australia free trade agreement was a side deal done? Was there some other arrangement made—a nod and a wink: 'Don't you worry about that. We'll buy your submarines. Just get this paperwork signed'? South Australians need to know.

There are a few in that group of Liberals who have a shiver running up their spine, because the attitude of all South Australians is that we are a defence state, we have capable people, we have many businesses investing many millions of dollars and there are many small businesses who rely on those workers and the ancillary flow-on effects in the economy. As I have said repeatedly, it is widely held and deeply felt that we need to build the submarines in South Australia. The disgraceful situation, as we heard early this morning, is that we are not even going to be allowed to tender. The Treasurer of this country said that we are not even going to be allowed to tender. The minister stumbles and mumbles about a capability gap and it being aboveboard and according to Hoyle, but it looks like a deal has been done.

3:26 pm

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

I rise to take note of Minister Scullion's answer to the question on the Indigenous Advancement Strategy from Senator McLucas. I express my disappointment at the minister's response to that question. He clearly has not been listening to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in terms of their response to the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, which in fact they were not consulted on in the first place. I urge him to relook at Commissioner Gooda's Social justiceand native titlereport 2014 where, very clearly, Mr Gooda points out:

… it has been a year characterised by deep funding cuts, the radical re-shaping of existing programs and services, and the development of new programs and services.

… … …

Information on the transfer arrangements has been scant with minimal involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. There was little or no consultation with those working on the ground about which programs and activities were best kept … or which departments were best placed to administer them.

… … …

Overall, this upheaval and lack of clarity is deeply worrying and is causing widespread uncertainty and stress, particularly amongst our communities.

Mr Gooda has been out throughout the year talking to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and these are his findings. How can we believe the minister when the commissioner charged with social justice and working on these issues finds that, overall, this upheaval and lack of clarity is deeply worrying and is causing widespread uncertainty and stress, particularly amongst Aboriginal communities?

I must admit that absolutely reflects the feedback that I received when I was out and about talking to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. I have not been to as many communities as the commissioner has, but certainly that is the feedback. Who can blame them for feeling like that when you have had 5,000 applications? In estimates, the department's response was, 'We think that we have had around 3,000; we have not opened them all yet.' They could not tell us how many submissions they had, they could not tell us what they were for and they could not tell us the amount of money they were for. Since then, they have discovered that there are 5,000, and I do not think that they are going to be able to meet even the extension that they have granted themselves.

Organisations that rely on this funding are deeply worried about the future, their future, but that is only really a symptom of their deep worry, which is how services are going to be provided to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The government are leading people up the garden path if they think that they are not going to be taking funding away from front-line services and that communities will not realise that their services have been cut. We have a Prime Minister for Aboriginal affairs who is overseeing a mess when it comes to delivery of services and programs. As Commissioner Gooda said, 'the radical re-shaping of existing programs and services'. He is overseeing a mess. That is what it is looking like to people on the ground. It absolutely looks like a mess on the ground. If it walks, talks and quacks like a duck, it is a duck and that is what is happening with this strategy. It is a duck. People are deeply worried about the future of their communities.

On top of this process what do we see? Premier Barnett in Western Australia announce that he is going to close up to 150 communities. That is also as a direct response to the fact that there is not enough funding coming in to support those communities. Have governments, state and federal, thought through what happens to those people when they are effectively kicked out of their communities? They end up being homeless, on the outskirts of time, living in far worse situations than those they have left, meaning that services have to go further to provide the support people need. Commissioner Gooda goes on to say:

It is disappointing that savings from the rationalisation of Indigenous programs and services will not be reinvested into Indigenous Affairs and Closing the Gap initiatives.

This, once again, is highlighting the failure of this government to provide the necessary services and support from a Prime Minister who says he is the Prime Minister from Aboriginal affairs. Then, of course, you have the Minister for Indigenous Affairs and the parliamentary secretary. Nobody really knows what is going on in the mess this government is currently making of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs.

Question agreed to.