Senate debates

Thursday, 9 March 2023


Northern Territory Safe Measures Bill 2023; Second Reading

9:02 am

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party, Shadow Minister for Resources) Share this | | Hansard source

I have to begin my comments regarding the Northern Territory Safe Measures Bill 2023 by reflecting on the huge body of work that's been done by my colleague Senator Nampijinpa Price. The work she has done in consulting broadly and deeply within the Northern Territory community is a perfect example of what it is to be a member of this place—to take the responsibilities and actions of being in government. As outlined by Senator Price, she has taken a huge amount of time to consult with a range of different people and with her colleagues, and has been forced to take action on this matter by the lack of action by the Albanese government.

When a government's action or inaction results in harm, it is a moral imperative to stop that harm. There is no moral high ground in demonising and then rejecting alcohol restrictions in the Northern Territory. It was the height of misplaced paternalistic inaction. Furthermore, defending this harmful stance in the face of extraordinary and alarming evidence was beyond the pale and had to be rectified.

It was in July last year that we had a sunset on the previous legislation. After three months of being in government, with all the incoming ministerial briefs that would have been provided to the incoming government, when that legislation lapsed, somehow this lack of action became the problem of the coalition, yet it was clearly understood by the community that action needed to be taken.

This bill would allow for greater federal oversight of bans in the Northern Territory. It would be similar to the powers granted to the Commonwealth by those expired intervention laws. The Northern Territory government, with federal funding, has recently again prohibited takeaway alcohol not only in town camps but, more importantly, across the entire community. This legislation is designed to go across all vulnerable communities, across anyone who is subject to harm from additional alcohol in the community.

New restrictions on the sale of alcohol came into effect at the end of January, following a flying visit from the FIFO Prime Minister to the town. Takeaway-alcohol-free days were introduced on Mondays and Tuesdays; bottle shops were restricted to 3 pm, and to 7 pm on other days; and a limit of one transaction per person per day was implemented. This took months to finally be enacted by the Territory government, after complete inaction by the federal government, because there had been a massive spike in home invasions, robberies, domestic violence and assaults. Many people have clearly attributed that to the end of the alcohol restrictions in July.

We know that there is a direct correlation because of the new data that came out following the introduction of those new measures from the Territory government. It is reported in the Daily Telegraph that youth disturbances declined by 36.36 per cent in February, compared to January; there were 235 unlawful entries across Alice Springs between 2 January and 30 January, which dropped 45.96 per cent to 127 incidents in the following month; alcohol as a factor in domestic violence was down 27.7 per cent over the month; and in the first week in January, when crime was at a crisis level, alcohol was deemed a factor in 76 per cent of the 167 domestic violence incidents and that had decreased by the week of 20 February when alcohol was deemed a factor in 47 per cent of the 92 domestic violence incidents. There is a clear correlation between the lifting of alcohol restrictions and the reintroduction of those restrictions in January after crime spiralled out of control.

What is not reported in that data is the number of other family members affected, such as older children being forced to care for younger siblings and young people being forced out on the streets because of alcohol abuse at home. Care is often at the expense of the young people's own studies or jobs, and the cycle continues. This is repeated right across northern Australia. It destroys lives and futures. Northern Territory lives are the responsibility of all of us, as is the need for kids in particular to go to school and be able to sleep soundly at night, with full tummies and no fear of violence and abuse.

We know that Alice Springs businesses had been impacted. People were afraid to go out at night. Children were roaming the streets and the police couldn't keep up. We see similar effects in Katherine and Tennant Creek. Because of flooding in Western Australia, people have been displaced from remote communities and have ended up in town. Unless there are alcohol restrictions in those places, alcohol related crime soars there too. We see the same issues in Mount Isa.

Alcohol abuse is the enemy of advancement of vulnerable people. Restricting access is a circuit breaker to multigenerational dysfunction where violence, abuse and hopelessness are all that those people have to see each day. We have had significant research and studies of alcohol management plans, like the study of the Cape York alcohol management plan conducted in 2018. That saw a greater reduction in violence against women in the communities that entered prohibition compared with the communities that did not; a decrease in assault injury presentations, especially those linked with alcohol; a decrease in female victims of a police charge of violence against a person; and a perceived reduction in violence against women reported by community members.

There is a moral imperative at play that overrides political philosophy—something that Labor shamefully ignored when allowing these laws to lapse and then taking no action, instead, leaving it to those local communities to demand change. Again, Senator Nampijinpa Price and her colleagues, her Labor colleagues, in the Northern Territory were only too aware of the devastating impacts that the lifting of alcohol restrictions was having in those communities. The Prime Minister promised to be a prime minister of action, and he has been—on lots of planes overseas. He spent four hours in Alice Springs and couldn't get out fast enough. He was carefully shown the clean and tidy streets, but he didn't listen to those community members who were desperate for protection.

This must be the most important thing that a government can do—to protect its people and protect the most vulnerable in our communities. I don't know of any other task we have that is more important, whether it be the economy or border protection. In this very clear case, the need for alcohol restrictions to prevent harm to vulnerable people could not have been more urgent, yet we watched as the harm continued in those communities, whether it was crime against individuals, with assaults and domestic violence, or attacks on businesses. But what really keeps me awake at night is the thought of those children and vulnerable women who are left unprotected. I think it was extraordinary that we were left waiting for a private senator's bill like this one to provide the tools to extend a policy that was in place and was working well. Of course, we now have documented evidence of the impact of the lifting of alcohol restrictions on people's lives, on people's property and on their future.

I reflect on the many people who were left without protection, and I encourage this federal government to once again turn its mind to supporting this legislation, because these are issues that are seen not just in the Northern Territory. This is a northern Australia issue. Alcohol abuse is something that we struggle with in so many communities. I've touched on Katherine, but, outside of the Northern Territory, in places such as Mount Isa in my own community, we see people coming across the border to places that don't have alcohol restrictions, and we see the subsequent impact that that's having on those communities and, worse, on those people who are vulnerable to alcohol.

It is a terrible scourge. We have rules around other prohibited drugs. We have rules around putting safety notices on food depending on its health level. We try to alert people to the impacts on them of imbibing something which is going to be bad, but we don't have those sorts of restrictions and alerts for alcohol. I think that this is a terrible oversight from all levels of government. Having seen it in Alice Springs, having seen the impact of the immediate lifting of restrictions, having seen the damage and the terror of people living in those communities, I think that this was a shocking waste of months of inaction from this government.

We saw in December that they were happy to walk into the parliament and introduce legislation for what they saw as an urgent need to intervene in the gas and coal markets. They did that with very little notice: we saw the legislation only hours before we came into this place to debate it. But they have not been willing to take the same sort of urgent intervention when there are children as young as five who are walking around on the streets, unprotected, because they were not safe at home; when we saw a spike in assaults and crimes; when young people who should have been preparing for school the next day are unable to be safe in their own homes; when elderly people were being assaulted.

This was and is a national emergency, and yet this government did nothing. And it wasn't because they didn't know. They were alerted to this by Senator Nampijinpa Price. They would have heard the same things from the members of parliament from the Northern Territory, as well as the other senator from the Northern Territory. This is a shocking indictment of the Albanese government. They talk about the requirement for a Voice, and yet they do not listen to voices on the ground in regional Australia.

I commend this legislation. I think that it is incredibly brave and well researched and thought through. I think that the ability of individual senators and members to recognise urgent and important issues in their community is something that we must never lose sight of. We are a long way away in Canberra, and, if we do not remember the impact of legislation or the sunsetting of legislation in places like the Northern Territory, then we have failed. We have failed those who rely on us to protect and preserve their way of life. I think that it has been a shocking missed opportunity for this government, which has done absolutely nothing.

So I'm very proud of this private senator's bill from Senator Nampijinpa Price. I support it in every way and I hope that the government will consider supporting it to provide them with some tools to continue the protection and oversight of communities where the most vulnerable people have been affected by alcohol violence and by alcohol abuse. I commend this legislation to this place.

7:17 pm

Photo of David PocockDavid Pocock (ACT, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

What is unfolding in Alice Springs is devastating. I would like to acknowledge Senator Nampijinpa Price for her ongoing work and advocacy in raising issues in Alice Springs and elsewhere in the Northern Territory.

I'm new to this place, and what I've seen in the news and read about this issue, over time, is largely from when I was not a politician. It seems to me we have a long history of the federal government intervening in times of crisis. This has been happening for decades now, where the federal government—politicians in this place—are imposing things on communities across the country.

As Senator McDonald pointed out, alcohol abuse is a huge issue. This is something that we should be facing up to as a country. As she rightly pointed out, it's not just in Alice Springs; it's also elsewhere in the country that this drug is causing a lot of harm. But we have to remember that alcohol abuse is a complex, multifaceted issue. As experts have pointed out, substance abuse, wherever we see it, is people's way of coping. For those people, this is a solution to their problems. This is their way of coping with things that feel out of control. It takes an understanding of the underlying problems and it takes finding ways to empower people to deal with them over the long term to actually deal with this issue. Yes, bandaids are necessary at times, but we must be looking at the underlying issues.

The Central Australia Regional Controller, Dorrelle Anderson, pointed out in her report to the NT and Australian governments that all of these issues are 'closely related to the disproportionate disadvantage that Aboriginal people face at every level in our society and are visible on essentially every social index'. Clearly, what we've been doing for a long time now is not working. Communities affected know about the issues that they are facing. They are living them. With support and the right resources, they will develop solutions better than those developed by anyone in this building. We need communities to be deeply consulted if we are actually going to come up with long-term solutions and move beyond this constant cycle of interventions. This is why I believe it's so important that Australia moves forward and implements a voice to parliament. It is for this reason that I accept the generous offer in the Uluru Statement from the Heart to rethink and change the way that decisions are made that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in this country—a process in which community voices are heard and Australia's First Peoples are advising on what is best for their communities. When First Nations people are advising what they need in order to improve health and wellbeing, then we can listen and respond.

We've seen so many of these interventions by the federal government, responding in crisis, but these crises don't happen overnight. There's often a slow build-up, and we need a structure like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice to allow these issues to be raised before they become a crisis where we have private senators' bills introduced seeking to impose intervention-like legislation on communities. As well as recognition of First Nations people and of the longest continuing cultures in the world—something that we rightly celebrate and should recognise in our Constitution—the Voice could facilitate this level of consultation. To politicians who are criticising the Voice and the level of detail, I say that parliament will design what that looks like, and I hope parliament will improve it over time if it's not working. There is a way to improve it. I really don't think it's a radical proposition to recognise a land's first peoples in the constitution that now governs that land and to set up a formal process that allows consultation and voices from across the country to be heard.

I applaud Senator Thorpe, Senator Dodson and many others for pushing the implementation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Only a fraction of the 339 recommendations released in 1991 have been implemented. This is a national disgrace, and there is no excuse for it. Within these recommendations, Nos 188 to 204 speak to the path to self-determination and the call for deeper consultation and to consider constituting a body. Recommendation 188 states:

That governments negotiate with appropriate Aboriginal organisations and communities to determine guidelines as to the procedures and processes which should be followed to ensure that the self-determination principle is applied in the design and implementation of any policy or program or the substantial modification of any policy or program which will particularly affect Aboriginal people.

The final recommendation, which is on the process of reconciliation, states:

That all political leaders and their parties recognise that reconciliation between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities in Australia must be achieved if community division, discord and injustice to Aboriginal people are to be avoided. To this end the Commission recommends that political leaders use their best endeavours to ensure bi-partisan public support for the process of reconciliation and that the urgency and necessity of the process be acknowledged.

Despite this from a report that was commissioned before I was born, we're still seeing deaths in custody and we're still seeing calls for interventions. In 2023 we have many Australians concerned and dismayed that an offer to the Australian people, not an offer to politicians, is being obstructed by politicians. We have an opportunity to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—people who live in remote communities across the country, people whom we talk about a lot but know little about—have a voice. We have an opportunity to ensure that these communities have input and can be consulted on legislation that affects them.

I have real concerns with this bill when it comes to territory rights. Federal government overriding local laws rather than working with territory governments to solve these complex issues is something that I don't agree with. As someone from the ACT, I really believe that people need to be putting pressure on their local parliament to deal with these issues. I respectfully disagree that the way to avoid having an ad hoc approach is through legislation like this that overrides the territories. It is my understanding that the NT are dealing with this in a similar way through their legislative assembly, and there has been much commentary about whether this has happened fast enough. Clearly it seems to be something that should have been dealt with early, but my understanding is that the legislative assembly is now dealing with it.

For me, this clearly points to the need for structural change in the way that we make decisions. We need to embrace a new way of making decisions that affect First Nations people and deal with the root causes of problems in communities. We've seen decades and decades of bandaids. We need to start dealing with root causes. That takes more time. It's not as politically sexy as selling a program that's going to solve something in a few years. This is long, hard work that we all need to be committed to.

To return to the Voice, I'd like to finish by quoting two powerful women who have been pushing for this change for many years now. Professor Megan Davis says:

You need to suspend your disbelief that the nation can't change. You need to suspend your disbelief that Australia won't understand what you're trying to say. And we need you to imagine that the world can be a better place.

Aunty Pat Anderson AO adds:

Imagine an Australia without these ugly fights about Aboriginal affairs. Why are we the football in politics, far too often with no result? This is why we need the Voice—to take the politics out of good policy design.

Again, whilst I acknowledge Senator Nampijinpa Price's passion for this issue and her continued advocacy, I will not be supporting this bill.

9:28 am

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

ator CANAVAN () (): We should support the Northern Territory Safe Measures Bill 2023 because it's clear that the removal of alcohol restrictions was a massive, massive error and mistake over the past couple of years, and they should be reintroduced in full as per Senator Price's proposal here. We see today very clear evidence that alcohol restrictions do work and that the removal of them has been a factor leading to the complete breakdown of social order in Alice Springs over the past few months. It's been shocking to watch on our nation's TVs, to see our fellow Australians having to cower in their own homes and businesses and not being able to just go about their day on the streets because of a shocking loss of control of law and order in a major Australian town, the centre of Australia.

Alcohol restrictions, or at least some of them, have been reintroduced over the past month, and today the Daily Telegraph reports that data from Northern Territory police shows a substantial reduction in crime in just one month immediately after the reintroduction of the alcohol restrictions. I'll go through that article. There have been massive reductions in crime. There has been a 46 per cent reduction in unlawful entries—so a halving of unlawful entries—following the reintroduction of alcohol restrictions. There's been a 36 per cent reduction in 'youth disturbances' in Alice Springs, apparently, over the month of February, because of the introduction of alcohol restrictions. And—not as big a reduction, but perhaps a more personally touching reduction—there has been a 28 per cent reduction in alcohol contributing to domestic violence in Alice Springs. We should not forget that, when law and order does break down, it's not just those businesses and those people who are directly affected by crime. It's often those in the homes as well—it's the mums and wives and children of unruly criminals—who are subject to increasing amounts of violence, if we do not maintain law and order.

We've just got to focus on things that work. That's what we should do. There's a lot of talk about the Voice and the Statement from the Heart. It is heartless not to just simply focus on things that work. You may not like them. They may be a little heavy-handed, or seem heavy-handed, at times, but we have to focus on pragmatic ways of making people's lives better. Clearly, alcohol restrictions in the Northern Territory, in communities and in Alice Springs, are what is needed to make people's lives better in the Northern Territory.

It did not have to be this way. It's a failure of this parliament and certainly of the Northern Territory government, and of us all, if you like, because we were deaf to the Aboriginal voices that warned us against the removal of alcohol restrictions and the cashless debit card over the past couple of years. I'm not making a partisan point here. The former coalition government accepted the request of the Northern Territory government at the time to end the stronger futures legislation. Of course, the incoming Labor government removed the cashless debit card in mid last year as well.

Those changes were made despite the Aboriginal voices from Alice Springs warning that that shouldn't happen. We like to talk a lot in theory about establishing an Aboriginal voice in this town, but we do very little in practice to listen to the existing Aboriginal voices that are here, elected to this parliament. They're here—they're elected representatives. There are two members of parliament, across our chamber and the other chamber, from Alice Springs. Alice Springs is a town of 30,000 people, and an emblematic town of our nation—somewhere that really is the heart of our country. It's a town of 30,000 people and it has two representatives here in the federal parliament. It's up there with the most represented town in this parliament, of any in the country. It has a representative for each 15,000 individuals in Alice Springs, whereas most federal electorates are roughly 100,000 people and they might have the odd senator here or there. But Alice Springs has a federal member of parliament for every 15,000 people.

One of those two members of parliament from Alice Springs is Senator Price here, who is the mover of this bill, and I congratulate her for the work she's done to put this together as a very new senator. She's done excellent work. The other member of parliament from Alice Springs is Ms Marion Scrymgour. One is from the coalition side here, from the Country Liberal Party; the other is from the Labor party. Both of those members of parliament were warning about the removal of alcohol restrictions mid last year. Both of them were saying: 'This will be a tragedy. We should not do it. We need to pause, here. This is going to lead to increased crime, domestic violence and terrible outcomes for people.' Their voices were ignored—completely ignored. They were the Aboriginal voices of Alice Springs, and we didn't listen to them. We didn't listen to them.

Instead of rectifying that gross error that's led to terrible consequences, and now supporting this bill—supporting the Aboriginal voice in this parliament from Alice Springs—those on the other side are going to oppose this bill, and then have the temerity to say: 'No, no. We want a Voice to Parliament. We don't need to actually listen. We just want more voices, so we can ignore even more people from around the country.'

If we're serious about a Voice, we have to be serious about listening. We have to be serious about actually using our two ears in proportion to our one mouth and listening to those voices. They're already here from Alice Springs. We've got a mini voice from Alice Springs in this parliament, and they want alcohol restrictions reintroduced. So why aren't we supporting this bill? What is the Voice about? Is it just so people can speak and talk? Are we actually going to act on anything being said? We're not right now—well, we are now, I must say. As I said, I'm not being partisan. We've made a mistake by removing the Stronger Futures legislation, and the best thing to do in life when you make a mistake and you realise it is to turn your decisions around. That's what we've done here by listening to Senator Nampijinpa Price, who joined us as part of our team less than a year ago. She has convinced us that we need to have this back in. We're listening to her voice. We're listening to her community and reintroducing—or trying to reintroduce—the things that worked.

I do hear from people that we don't need to do this because the Northern Territory government has acted in the past month and reintroduced some alcohol restrictions—and I mentioned those earlier—and they're already having an enormously positive effect. Some say, 'Well, it's already done, so we don't need to do anything.' I disagree with that, because the Northern Territory government obviously hasn't got things right over the past few years. There is a risk that I'm very concerned about. Once the media heat and attention is turned away from this issue—as it will be, particularly if crime does reduce—I have no faith in Chief Minister Fyles. I have no faith at all that she will maintain the things that work. She was clearly a reluctant convert to the need for alcohol restrictions. Her press conference with the Prime Minister a few months ago looked like a hostage video. She clearly didn't want to be there in some dingy little room. They couldn't go out on the streets, of course, to do this press conference at the time. She did not give me any confidence that she has this under control or that she's the kind of strong-willed individual who will restore law and order for so many law-abiding citizens in Alice Springs.

As I said, we in this place should focus on what works, and clearly the Stronger Futures legislation, which was in place before it was removed at the request of the Northern Territory government, did work. It worked to keep at least some level of law and order within the Northern Territory communities. It's not the whole solution. There are a whole lot of other issues that need to be tackled, of course, to deal with Indigenous disadvantage. But clearly the removal of the Stronger Futures legislation was a massive error and, as I said before, when you make a mistake you should rectify it. You should realise that you've done it. You should eat some humble pie, put aside your pride, accept you've done the wrong thing and reintroduce it. That is what this legislation sensibly does here. It sensibly puts back in place a framework that did work and gives confidence to Northern Territory residents that they will have a safe place to reside in and a future.

Right now it's not so much whether there is a stronger future or a weaker future for Alice Springs and many other towns; it's a question of whether they have a future at all, because of the massive hit that their town has suffered because of this publicity. My fear right now is that, with these declining crime statistics, the attention of the nation will turn away from Alice Springs and that the people there who own homes and businesses and have built their lives in this wonderful town will be left to pick up the pieces with very little help from others. There is a huge issue now for the future of Alice Springs because its reputation has been tarnished. We have to recognise that. It's not the fault of the people of Alice Springs. If we want to hand out culpability, it's certainly the elected officials who must take the lion's share of that. I've had the wonderful opportunity to visit Alice Springs many times as Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, and it is a wonderful place. Its economy—or at least a big part of it—is very much contingent on tourism. It's a wonderful place. When the streets are actually under control, it's a beautiful place to visit. It has a lovely climate, and there are lots of things for people to explore in and around the Alice Springs region.

I read last month that Qantas has slashed flights to Alice Springs, almost certainly as a result of this publicity. Clearly, fewer Australians are deciding to go for a holiday to Alice Springs after what they have seen on TV. The reintroduction of alcohol restrictions is not immediately going to turn that knob back on, even with this good news today of declining crime. People's perceptions of Alice Springs and whether they should take a holiday in the Top End will be damaged for some time. It will take time for people to feel like it is safe and right to get back there.

One added reason why we need to put this framework back in place is to give people in Alice Springs and Central Australia confidence that there is a future and that there is now going to be the re-establishment of a legislative framework which doesn't allow us to fall back into the errors we clearly made over the past year. As I said, there's no doubt that the left-wing elements of the Northern Territory Labor Party that have seized control of their government, post the Michael Gunner government, don't want these things. They definitely do not want to put alcohol restrictions in, and they will look at any opportunity to not bring them back. If we do not put this framework in place, what confidence can people have in the Northern Territory that they will—in six months, 12 months or 18 months time—still have the kinds of measures in place required to guarantee law and order in their town and their community? We should get behind this legislation to give confidence to the people of Alice Springs.

Mistakes have made here in Canberra. I think more blame needs to go to the Labor government in Darwin, but we have a responsibility here too. Because of the culpability, there needs to be a level of reparation paid from this parliament and the Northern Territory parliament to the people of Alice Springs. This bill does part of that. It would be an act of good faith for the people of the Northern Territory to rectify some of our mistakes. But we also need to be there time and time again, over the coming years, to help them to invest in their town and their community and to rebuild that shattered confidence that has been caused by the complete breakdown in law and order.

It took the Prime Minister far too long to go to Alice Springs. He only went after he was effectively dragged there, kicking and screaming, by the Leader of the Opposition—away from the tennis in Melbourne. He didn't want to be there, either. He was Johnny Depp to Natasha Fyles's Amber Heard. There was a hostage video. They didn't want to be there. I know they don't want to be there, but they've got to go back. They have to keep turning up in the months ahead to give the people of Alice Springs their due and to give them confidence in their future. We should support this legislation to help in that regard, but this cannot be something we forget. We have to remember that people have been hurt in Central Australia. It's a great place in our country, and they should not be forgotten. I give credit to Senator Nampijinpa Price for making sure they're not through this bill.

9:43 am

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm very pleased to rise to speak in favour of the Northern Territory Safe Measures Bill 2023, which has been introduced by my colleague and my friend Senator Nampijinpa Price. I want to make some preliminary points. The first is that I think Senator Nampijinpa Price has been subjected to some of the most vile personal abuse that I've seen in politics—and I've been involved in politics since the age of 17. Senator Nampijinpa Price should really be congratulated for the courage she has demonstrated throughout her time in this place. Some people have attacked her on a personal basis as opposed to raising legitimate issues, in the context of a civil debate about policy issues, where genuine people acting in good faith can have differences of opinion. Senator Nampijinpa Price has been attacked on a very, very personal basis. That is unacceptable in our Australian democracy.

As we progress with a number of debates, including in relation to the Voice, I say to those who are engaging in vile, vitriolic, personal attacks: you are doing your own arguments great harm. It is the refuge of the scoundrel to resort to ad hominem attacks. You are simply demonstrating the weakness of your arguments when you engage in personal, vile attacks. I have been profoundly disappointed in relation to some of the comments made by a number of individuals in that regard, which I think are just beyond the pale.

So, in that context, I pay tribute to Senator Nampijinpa Price. I think she is a gift to this place, an ornament to this place. More power to Senator Nampijinpa Price as she stands up, with great courage, to voice her views and articulate her concerns regardless of the disgraceful, vile comments that are directed her way. So I compliment Senator Nampijinpa Price.

On that theme: as I was considering what I wanted to say in this debate, I had cause to reflect on one of my great heroes, Senator Neville Bonner, who represented my state of Queensland in this place. He was the first Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander to serve in the Australian parliament and one of my boyhood heroes. In fact, as I've said in this place before, I was one of those who orchestrated a campaign with the Australian Electoral Commission to have a federal seat named after the great Senator Neville Bonner. And we have that seat in Queensland: the seat of Bonner. That is a true reflection of the greatness of Senator Neville Bonner, who I had the honour of meeting a number of times. I wanted to read a quote from Senator Neville Bonner's speech at the Constitutional Convention in 1998, which I think should be seen as an exhortation to all of us, in terms of how we conduct these debates, and any debates, in this respect. He said:

From the bottom of my heart, I pray you: stop this senseless division. Let us work together on the real issues. Let us solve those problems which haunt my people—the problems of land, of health, of unemployment, of the despair and hopelessness which leads even to suicide. Let us unite this country, not divide it ever …

Those are the words of the great Senator the Hon. Neville Bonner, AO.

Just reflect for a moment on a man who was subjected to the most horrendous discrimination as he was growing up, but who, near the end of his life, when he spoke those words and made those comments, was able to be so full of grace and so full of forgiveness, and so passionate about uniting this country and focusing on the real issues of substance as opposed to dividing us. Just reflect on his background. When he was a small boy, growing up in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, he and his sister had an opportunity to go to school for the first time, and he was so excited. He was a young boy, so excited about the opportunity to go to school for the first time. When he and his sister turned up at that school, by lunchtime of that day every other parent had pulled their children out of that school because an Aboriginal child had turned up at that school. Just imagine the impact that would have on someone. When this man was a boy, his mother bought some oats at the local shop, and they were full of weevils, but they were given these oats and she was determined that her son Neville would have porridge.

He went to the farmer who lived near where they lived and asked for some milk. That farmer said: 'Neville, I've got pigs I need to feed. Why would I give milk to a little Aboriginal boy?' That's what he was told. Notwithstanding that, when he was presented with an honorary doctorate at Griffith University he recounted that episode, more than 50 years later. It had stayed within him. He said without an ounce of aggression or anger that, in a way, the farmer was doing it tough. Even after being subjected to that horrendous incident—I can't imagine what it would have been like—he was still being empathetic and trying to put himself in the position of standing in other people's shoes. In that context I'll repeat the words he said at the constitutional convention, near the end of his life. He said:

From the bottom of my heart, I pray you: stop this senseless division. Let us work together on the real issues. Let us solve those problems which haunt my people—the problems of land, of health, of unemployment, of the despair and hopelessness which leads even to suicide. Let us unite this country, not divide it ever …

A speech that Senator Nampijinpa Price gave in this place on 8 February 2023 has resonances with that speech the great Neville Bonner gave. I could see the connection between the two. In a way, Senator Nampijinpa Price is such a worth successor to Senator Neville Bonner. Senator Nampijinpa Price said:

Senators, I plead with you to help me save the lives of those I love and those I'm democratically elected to represent and whose lives we are all responsible for. I seek your bipartisan support to make my hometown community and vulnerable communities throughout the Northern Territory safer. If we can save one woman from becoming the next domestic violence or homicide statistic, we are winning. If we can prevent one child from being sexually abused and left with a venereal disease or internal physical and psychological scarring for life, that is one child. But I know we can do better than this.

We should listen very, very carefully to that exhortation from Senator Nampijinpa Price, who has clearly articulated why we should be supporting this bill. Senator Nampijinpa Price said in her speech on the bill's second reading debate:

When dealing with addiction, the first step to management and recovery is acknowledging there is a problem. And those that are subject to the effects of addiction in the Northern Territory—the whole community—have been crying out that we have a problem since the cessation of the measures and the lifting of alcohol restrictions in the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Act.

I associate myself with the remarks of Senator Canavan. There were so many warnings given by Aboriginal people living in these communities before the cashless welfare debit card was abolished, before the alcohol restrictions that were in place came to an end. Many of my colleagues in this chamber, from different parties, got up and said, 'We are going to cause a profoundly negative impact on the people in these communities if we lift these restrictions.' Those calls were ignored. Those practical calls were ignored on the basis of ideology. We should all have such a profound disappointment, because we were warned. The Australian government was warned. The Northern Territory government was warned but did not listen to the communities on the ground. There's a profound lesson in that.

I note that Senator Nampijinpa Price's bill provides for consultation in relation to alcohol protection measures. It calls for a committee of experts to consider and support the development of each alcohol management plan. It also provides the basis upon which this bill is introduced.

These figures are just astonishing. Again, we were warned. This government was warned that this was going to happen. Here are the figures: alcohol related assaults in Alice Springs alone rose by 54.6 per cent from December 2021 to December 2022. That's a statistic, but in that statistic are women and children who had been assaulted but who would not have been assaulted but for the fact that the alcohol restrictions were removed. Those communities warned this government and this government just proceeded to remove those restrictions, despite those warnings from the local community. It is those communities that have to suffer the impact of the removal of these restrictions.

I've made this point repeatedly in this place in relation to the removal of the cashless welfare debit card—and we're seeing increased crime and violence in the communities in Western Australia, in Ceduna in South Australia and in the Northern Territory—that the government said it had a mandate to remove the cashless welfare debit card, but those communities are in seats that are not held by the government. In each and every one of those places where the cashless welfare debit card was in place the people did not vote for the election of the Albanese government. So the communities most impacted by the removal of the cashless welfare debit card did not vote for its removal. None of them, not a single one of them—not the communities in Western Australia, South Australia or in my home state of Queensland—voted for its removal. So the government does not have a mandate from the communities most impacted by the removal of the cashless welfare debit card.

There may be people in Sydney and Melbourne who voted for the removal of the cashless welfare debit card, but they don't live in the communities that are most impacted. The people in the communities most impacted by the removal of the cashless welfare debit card voted for its retention, voted for it to continue. There is absolutely no mandate with respect to—

Photo of Pauline HansonPauline Hanson (Queensland, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor has got no mandate, on 33 per cent of the vote.

Photo of Marielle SmithMarielle Smith (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The interjections are unhelpful.

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'll take that interjection. It is absolutely correct. Labor does not have a mandate to remove it. Even with 33 per cent of the primary vote across the whole of Australia, there is barely any mandate to do anything. In relation to the cashless welfare debit card, not a single one of the communities where it was operating voted for its removal, so there was no mandate to remove the cashless welfare debit card provided by the communities most impacted.

I've said repeatedly in this place, including in my first speech in this place when I was talking about project approvals in the mining, oil and gas sector, that the people who should be most deeply listened to and respected are the communities most impacted. So, whether it's the cashless welfare debit card or a coal, oil or gas project, the views of those most impacted and the local communities are the views that should be most listened to, not those in other areas of Australia who aren't affected by the decision. I commend this private senator's bill to the Senate.

9:58 am

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too rise to speak on the Northern Territory Safe Measures Bill 2023. I thank Senator Nampijinpa Price for her long advocacy for the women and children of the Territory. Our government is committed to bringing communities and governments together. We know that the challenges in the Territory are real and that families and communities need support from all levels of government. We know that one level of government alone just can't address this. What we need is partnerships, not a top-down approach. That is why I am speaking against this bill today.

I was honoured to be in the chamber in the last sitting week for the speech by Senator Malarndirri McCarthy on this bill. I know that she's not here with us this week, because she is doing an incredible job of leading Australia's delegation to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York. As always, she is a fierce advocate for the rights of women and, importantly, the rights of First Nations women. She is taking that to the global stage right now, and I'm so proud to see her there. Senator McCarthy's speech was personal and it was powerful. It addressed the challenges for Aboriginal women head-on and was also full of heart. She told her own family's story and she did it with absolute courage and grace. It's always an honour to sit in this place and hear from Senator McCarthy and all First Nations senators on both sides of the chamber not just about their long-term advocacy for their communities but also how they personally know the challenges all too well.

This place is one of the most important places to hear these stories—stories that far too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families have. No-one should ever feel unsafe in their own home, and no-one should ever have to go through what these communities have suffered not just in the last six months but for decades. Senator McCarthy addressed how important it is for us to work together and the importance of consultation. She talked about disempowerment, and that is something in her speech that really stuck with me, because, as Senator McCarthy said, we've got to always keep trying to get it right and to empower people at every level. She said that we need to allow local, state and territory, and federal governments to work together. This bill would make the Commonwealth minister responsible for approving alcohol management plans that the community develop, and that would mean that the ultimate decision-making for alcohol management plans for communities in the Territory would be made right here in Canberra. That, to me, seems to go right to the heart of disempowerment.

Senator McCarthy implored the Senate to see that there's a better way than the bill before us, and I support her in that. We know that these are long-term problems. They require not just words but long-term solutions and actions. We need to allow the Northern Territory government to take legislative action themselves, which they have done, but we also need to support them in long-term solutions and work with them in partnership. We are a government that focuses on outcomes. While alcohol restrictions are part of the solution, they are only part of what is needed. We also need to work on the social and economic drivers of community unrest, and that's why we're investing $250 million into a plan for a better, safer future for Central Australia. This funding will go towards addressing the fundamental, underlying structural causes of disadvantage.

The plan focuses on improved community safety and cohesion through more youth engagement and diversion programs; job creation, particularly in the communities that surround Alice Springs, including urgent changes as part of replacing the completely failed Community Development Program; better services because, by improving services in surrounding communities, particularly health services, there will be less pressure in Alice Springs as a result; preventing and addressing the issues caused by fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, including better responding through the health and justice systems; investing in families, including by better supporting elders and parents and boosting domestic violence services; and on-country learning, which will improve school attendance and completion through caring for culture and country and provide accessible opportunities for children to get an education. This is in addition to the investment in community safety announced by the government in January this year.

This funding is based on recommendations from the Central Australian Regional Controller, Dorrelle Anderson, and it's investment that will be delivered in partnership with the local community because, again, we know that the most effective solutions come from the local community. We know that what is really needed comes back to two things: empowerment and consultation. Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory have been calling for self-determination for a very long time. The stronger futures legislation deliberately denied this, and, as my colleague Senator Pat Dodson put it so well, were legislative means of structurally disempowering remote Aboriginal communities in the NT. Senator Dodson notes, in his words:

… these policy regimes … destabilised, disempowered, and disoriented Aboriginal communities … have taken away community power and instead made them dependent on government for survival …

The Joint Standing on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, of which Senator Pat Dodson is chair, looked at all of these issues in February. This joint standing committee has membership from Labor, from the coalition and from the crossbench and Independents as well. Its inquiry into community safety, support services and job opportunities in the Northern Territory found that top-down approaches like this bill fail.

Witnesses to the inquiry emphasised that governments need to invest in and value community led solutions. In discussing community safety and alcohol management, the report from the inquiry notes that through the Stronger Futures legislation there was 'little investment in harm reduction', and witnesses noted that these problems are bigger than just alcohol and that long-term solutions will only come when governments also look at housing, meaningful employment, education and, as the Alice Springs Hospital put it so very well in their submission to the inquiry, hope and despair. The report led by Senator Dodson specifically states:

It is clear to the Committee that the NT Government has sufficient legislative means to manage alcohol-related harm within its jurisdiction where there is the will to do so. This has been demonstrated by its recent legislative amendments to the Liquor Act 2019 (NT). It is the view of the Committee that this is the appropriate role of the NT Government (informed by the views of community), rather than the Commonwealth.

With all the work of witnesses sharing their stories in this inquiry, it is clear that what we should do is listen to those voices, and those voices are telling us that this work needs to be done in consultation, in partnership and without further disempowering local communities. There really is no place for a top-down approach when what is really needed is partnership and consultation.

The problem of family balance that Senator Nampijinpa Price is so genuinely passionate about, along with so many senators in this place, is a national problem. Everywhere in our country, First Nations women are at the greatest risk, including in my home state of Victoria. On Friday, I had the opportunity, along with Senator Stewart, to bring the Minister for Social Services, Minister Rishworth, to Victoria to meet with some of our incredible family violence organisations and hear about the real challenges that they face on the ground and the amazing work that they're doing. This was a roundtable where several First Nations advocates gave up their time to talk with us about what is happening here in Victoria, my home state, and the work that they've done over decades to prevent and respond to family violence. Again I can say that what came through unequivocally and clearly is the importance of ground-up solutions of community empowerment, listening and partnership. Aboriginal controlled family violence services talked about the success of investment in self-determination, allowing Aboriginal communities to partner with government to help and family violence. So, rather than intervention or a top-down approach, a real partnership that is about consultation and working together is what I heard was needed.

I had the opportunity to hear from an amazing woman, Daphne Yarram from Gippsland, who has dedicated her entire life to the safety of women and children in her community. For 24 years she's been working to address family violence. Daphne talked about the importance of community led approaches. She talked about how we can only stop family violence at the start by working with community and ensuring that our family violence system is culturally safe and trauma-informed.

Antoinette Braybrook from Djirra and Muriel Bamblett from the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency highlighted really effective work that we can draw some lessons from in Victoria, such as the Dhelk Dja Partnership Forum. Muriel spoke about the increased risk that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women face, and they noted that that is, of course, often at the hands of white people. Dhelk Dja is an Aboriginal led agreement to address family violence. It's a partnership with the Victorian government. It reflects the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across Victoria. It requires government to do the two most important things the government can do in this space: listen and act. Darren Lovett from the Dhelk Dja action group was there to share how this works on the ground. I also want to note the personal contribution from Simon Flagg of Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative, who told his story about family violence at the roundtable, again with real grace and real courage.

Listening to these voices, hearing their stories and respecting the work that they've done for many years really emphasised to me the importance of a community led approach. These people that I met with are the real experts in their fields. I wouldn't seek to tell them how things should work in their community or how to fix problems that they know about much better than I do. I was there then on Friday, and I'm here today to listen and take the advice of First Nations communities to take—

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Sorry to interrupt you. The time for the debate has expired. You'll be able to continue your speech. You'll be in continuation.