Thursday, 23 March 2023
Northern Territory Safe Measures Bill 2023; Second Reading
Article 28 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.
However, what we have seen in areas of the Northern Territory is the blatant disregard and blatant violation of this and of many, many more basic human rights. What is worse is that the violation of these rights has been fuelled by this government's incoherent, ideological driven and socially destabilising policies.
After the last election, the Albanese Labor government made a choice—an active choice to do nothing and to let the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Act 2012 lapse. This led the Territory Labor government to implement an opt-in model rather than an opt-out model, with communities not required to have any alcohol management plans in place. To be clear, this government, the Albanese Labor government, knew that the communities in the Northern Territory had problems with alcohol and alcohol-related violence, and the choice they made was to do nothing. By doing nothing they increased people's access to and the availability of alcohol. Not taking an action is a choice; we must remember that. The choice that the government made was to help fuel alcohol related violence in our most vulnerable communities. We see that this came true, after all the warnings that were given to them. There was an increase of 54 per cent of alcohol related assaults alone after this policy change.
The explanatory memorandum states that the bill before us today, the Northern Territory Safe Measures Bill 2023, is:
… a Bill for an Act to make provisions for all Territorians to be safe consuming and being exposed to alcohol and alcohol-related harm and violence in the Northern Territory.
However, it is more than that. It is a bill that will undo the socially and economically destructive approach that the Albanese government has taken towards managing violence in the Northern Territory. This bill will reintroduce elements of the previous Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Act, a legal framework to tackle alcohol abuse while putting in place requirements for the Northern Territory Labor government to work with communities to demonstrate a community driven alcohol management plan for a reinstated opt-out model. It will also, importantly, ensure safe measures are in place for consumers of alcohol, their children, families and communities, upholding the human rights of some of the most vulnerable citizens of Australia right across the Northern Territory. It will help do this by ensuring that the supply of alcohol is regulated, mitigating illegal alcohol supply and providing a framework for prosecution.
If the fly in, fly out Prime Minister spent some actual time in these communities, he would see the harm that he caused by letting the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Act lapse after the last election. But, no, we see that, with his last trip to Alice Springs, he managed to spend more time at the Australian Open across the following days than he did in the Territory. It was really just for a photo-op. Spending less than four hours in Alice Springs and then holding a press conference is not good enough. That is not leadership. It is clear he went there without an objective other than to get a photo. But that is a defining feature that we are learning about this government: they spend all their time making grandiose statements and make good sound bites for their social media pages that make them feel good, but when it actually comes to delivering outcomes and improving the lives of Australians they are failing at every step.
As Senator Nampijinpa Price said in her second reading speech, this bill:
… was drafted in response to calls from vulnerable community members across the Northern Territory and a letter that was dated 9 June, representing nine separate Aboriginal organisations, seeking urgent support from the federal Minister for Indigenous Australians after failed attempts at communicating these concerns with the Northern Territory Fyles government.
Unlike many of the private senators' bills that we see coming from the Greens, or from Labor when they were in opposition, that are put forward to grandstand and make themselves seem relevant, this bill before us today is because of an urgent need that the government has been ignoring.
The Australian Institute of Criminology has told us that there is strong evidence of an association between the consumption of alcohol and violence. This fact has been known for quite some time. My good friend and colleague pointed this out to this government from this place many, many times. All the statistics back this up. Alcohol related assaults in Alice Springs alone have risen by 54.6 per cent from December 2021 to December 2022, and property damage has increased by 59.6 per cent. Those opposite should let that sink in a bit. Under this government's watch alcohol related assaults in Alice Springs alone rose by 54.6 per cent. That is a damning statistic.
Reports overnight show how effective alcohol restrictions can be. After some restrictions were lifted in January, youth disturbances declined by 36.36 per cent and unlawful entries across Alice Springs between 2 January and 30 January this year dropped by 45.96 per cent. Alcohol is a factor in domestic violence; it was down 27.7 per cent and had decreased in being a factor in 47 per cent of the 92 domestic violence incidents. And yet those opposite still decide to ignore the facts. They need to start listening to the experts and listening to the facts. They need to stop applying this ideologically driven approach to deal with what is a very complex and difficult matter.
Senator David Pocock spoke earlier in this chamber on this bill and, while I disagree with his position on the bill, I agree with him when he said that fixing these issues will be long and hard and that this is a step in the right direction. This government cannot sit on their hands and do nothing anymore. There is all the talk of the Labor government wanting to implement an Indigenous Voice to the parliament, but I think it would be more pertinent and useful if they stopped ignoring the Indigenous voices that actually are in parliament. They're the elected representatives who are screaming out on behalf of their communities about what they want and what they need. Instead, those opposite ignore the very voices they say they need to listen to.
The government must take urgent action to restore the rule of law. The federal government must provide law enforcement and social services resources to the Northern Territory to give the people of Alice Springs and other remote communities the law and order that they desperately need. The stories that we have heard coming out of Central Australia as a result of alcohol fuelled crime are heartbreaking. No-one should have to live in those conditions. I encourage everyone here to vote in favour of this bill for the good of all Australians.
I rise to speak on the Northern Territory Safe Measures Bill 2023. I would like to thank Senator Nampijinpa Price for providing an opportunity to us in this chamber to discuss the current situation in Central Australia. I want to thank her for sharing the experiences of her family in Central Australia, and for some of her personal reflections on some of the heartbreaking situations there. It isn't often in this place that we get to share concerns about the same matter, but in this instance we do. I also want to thank Senator Malarndirri McCarthy for her speech on this bill. Senator McCarthy spoke so openly about her experiences, and I thank her for her strength and for trusting us to share, in a small way, her story.
We, as a country, are made stronger by having First Nations Australians in federal parliament, and I'm looking forward to seeing our numbers continue to grow as the years progress. It's important that First Nations voices are listened to in these debates. It is clear that there is work to do in the Northern Territory to make communities safer. More needs to be done to improve community safety and to support community members to thrive. We note that when you work with and listen to local communities that you achieve better outcomes.
This bill is primarily a repackaging of the racist Stronger Futures legislation in that it imposes federal alcohol restrictions onto the Northern Territory. Since the lapsing of the Stronger Futures legislation last year, the Northern Territory government have legislated new alcohol restrictions and are getting on with the job of supporting Territorians. Alcohol restrictions are only one part of the solution, and the Northern Territory and Australian governments are working together to improve the underlying causes of community unrest. Communities on the ground are already seeing a difference. I know my colleague the member for Lingiari, Marion Scrymgour, is working extremely hard and closely with local community members and organisations to deliver the best results in the Northern Territory.
This bill is superfluous. In fact, in the last sitting week, when this very bill was being debated, my newsfeed was flooded with some very interesting headlines, and I'll share some of those with this chamber this morning. The Australian had headlines suggesting that crime fell in Alice Springs after alcohol trials. The Daily Telegraph had, 'Crime plummets in Alice Springs after one month of alcohol restrictions'. And Sky News had 'Crime rates begin to decline in Alice Springs'.
Senator Dodson tabled a report of the Joint Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs from its inquiry into community safety support services and job opportunities in the Northern Territory. I'm proud to be a member of this committee that is doing incredibly important work and I thank all witnesses who contributed to this inquiry. The inquiry was established in this very chamber to inquire into community safety, support services and job opportunities and the Northern Territory with particular reference to the preparation of the sunsetting of the Stronger Futures legislation, community safety and alcohol management, job opportunities and community development program reform, justice reinvestment community services and any related matters. These matters were considered together because we all know that alcohol restrictions are only one part of the problem. We need to work under the social and economic drivers of community unrest. The committee's final report 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.
These are the words of the joint committee of this parliament. Those opposite are already in agreement with that report. This bill is not necessary, it is not needed and it is mostly just a lot of hot air.
May I suggest that Senator Nampijinpa Price start focusing on ways she can tangibly support her constituents—the community she is here to represent. May I suggest that the senator focuses her efforts on ways to support Territory residents. May I suggest that she has a word with her colleagues about the significant and hugely damaging cuts we saw in the last decade under the coalition government, because we know that these challenges in the Northern Territory did not arise overnight, certainly not just in the last 10 months; it is an accumulation of a decade of neglect.
We know that the only solutions that work are ones that from the community, by empowering First Nations communities and working with them to find solutions. When we thrust solutions onto communities we know that those solutions do not work. We have seen under the previous government what it looks like when solutions do not come from First Nations communities, and I want to share just one example of what that is—the cashless debit card. It was a program crafted by the coalition without coming from the community. It was shown that it did not result in widespread or sustained benefits. It was poorly targeted, led to no discernible improvements in employment outcomes, it damaged financial management skills, led to social stigmatism and exclusion, and it increased stress, financial harassment and discrimination.
The Albanese Labor government has already made solid inroads to ensuring any income-management programs are designed and managed according to what the communities say they need. Perhaps the senator could have a word with her colleagues about the $245 million cut from Indigenous housing under the Turnbull government, while the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found Indigenous children are at greatest risk when they are removed from their homes and their families, or the federal government's decision to cut funding into national family violence prevention and legal services, the peak body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander victim-survivors of family violence and sexual assault.
Then Morrison cut a promised $10 million from the Indigenous students success program to support First Nations students who are financially disadvantaged and/or from remote and regional areas. And the list, of course, goes on. Maybe if there were a Voice to Parliament, the coalition would have been aware just horrendous these policies would end up being for First Nations communities but, unfortunately, the coalition does not listen to First Nations communities. 'A wasted decade' would be a generous term to describe the last coalition government's impact on First Nations people in this country. The coalition can't hear the gracious request for recognition and consultation, the simplicity of recognition and consultation in this country, being made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through the Uluru Statement from the Heart. It is owed to First Nations communities in this country to listen—at the very, very least to listen. For far too long this place has told First Nations communities what was good for them. Now it's time to hear their voice. You have cut services, passed oppressive legislation, taking what meagre offerings were available to First Nations people, and defunded them. Now, it is time to listen to the impact of the cuts made over the last decade, and now is the time to hear them when they come to us with solutions.
Instead of subjecting First Nations Australians to oppressive legislation like this that continues not to work, now is the time to listen. You're putting up legislation that is categorically redundant while the Closing the gap statistics are going backwards. Talk about not being able to focus our efforts in the right areas! You cut funding to the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum, the peak body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander victims-survivors of family violence and sexual assault, and now you're saying that you want better outcomes for First Nations Australians but your only solution for that is to ban alcohol. Talk about tunnel vision! We're trying to fix the mess that you've left and undo the massive damage you have inflicted on First Nations communities right across the country.
This government is here to hear the voices and move forward with real actions that put communities first. The Albanese Labor government has already invested $250 million in a better, safer future for Central Australia. We're focusing investment on those who need it most. We're getting on with the job and working collaboratively with the Northern Territory government. We're certainly not trying to tell them how to suck eggs with legislation that is not actually necessary. We're investing in our youth through on-country learning, improving school attendance and increasing completion rates through caring for culture and country. Moreover, we're investing in youth engagement and diversion programs.
Labor is investing in families, listening and supporting elders and parents and boosting domestic violence services. Labor is working to address and prevent Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders through better responses within both the health and justice systems. Labor is working to relieve the stress on the Alice Springs healthcare services by improving the services in surrounding communities. We're creating jobs focusing on and around Alice Springs, making changes to current programs to make them work for communities. On top of that, this government is also investing an additional $48 million in community safety measures, including support for domestic violence services and support for young people to access safe places and support at night.
It is through empowering communities and investing in support services and local stakeholders that we will improve outcomes. Getting young people off the streets and into homes will have a direct impact on breaking the cycle that some are in. Giving them the stability to reach out for help and guidance will have significant and positive impact on their lives.
We are hearing the voices of the community and we know that we can do more, but, to ensure the voices of First Nations people are heard, we are fully committed to delivering a successful referendum on a voice to parliament this year. It's about giving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a say in matters that affect them and their communities. It's really that simple. It's about creating practical and lasting change that will lead to better policies and improve the lives of First Nations people in areas like health, education and housing. And, if those opposite really cared about those things, they would be supporting the referendum.
Whilst the opposition have sought to distract attention from the core purpose of the Voice, Uncle Pat, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Minister Linda Burney, Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and many, many others continue to share information about what the Voice is about—two simple things: recognition and consultation. Those opposite are so deeply out of touch with the needs of First Nations communities in this country. It's almost as though they don't have a set of ears themselves. The Australian people support reconciliation. They support giving First Nations people a fair go. I urge the coalition to do the right thing by First Nations communities and walk with us to reconciliation for a better nation for all of us.
I rise to speak in support of the Northern Territory Safe Measures Bill 2023. What more proof do you need that the federal parliament, the taxpayers of Australia and the residents of Central Australia, Barkly and the Top End should not trust the Northern Territory government? Even the most vulnerable people in the NT surely have endured and experienced enough.
On a recent trip to Central Australia I heard a resounding and reverberating message. The message was of bringing to an end the failed service delivery and poor outcomes they've seen delivered by the NT government and by government, non-government and private service providers. They are not referring to all of them, but the names of the organisations and leaders are coming up often. It's time for some truth telling. The people of the Northern Territory will make their choice in an election in 2024, but what I'm talking about is the Commonwealth intervening and protecting its interests where it has the responsibility and ability to do so.
The Albanese Labor government was blinded by ideology and political posturing that saw it not intervene until the tide of public opinion left it with little choice. The media doggedly maintained its focus on the government's failure. What more proof do we need? It was the Northern Territory government that spectacularly sacrificed the right to safety, the right to live free from harm and the right to go about their everyday lives, to prioritise what the NT Attorney-General lauded as human rights, the consequences of which will be felt for some time. Some people will feel the consequences forever.
The end of Stronger Futures legislation and its alcohol restrictions, without an appropriate transition plan, prioritised the rights of addicts and abusers over the rights of residents: men, women and children who are the everyday Territorians just trying to go about their everyday lives. There was no accountability, no responsibility, no idea and, it seems, no consequences. The NT leadership is the same. The accountability sits with the same people who triggered the chaos. They remain in charge of the Treasury benches and the programs funded by the rivers of taxpayers' money to respond, in no small part, to an issue largely of their own making.
Despite the warning of what would happen, and despite immediate and confronting evidence of the consequences, it still took around seven months and federal intervention for a proper circuit breaker. The NT government presided over a jump of 54 per cent in alcohol-related assaults. House break-ins rose by 22.5 per cent, commercial break-ins increased by 55 per cent, motor vehicle theft was up by 31 per cent and property damage jumped by nearly 60 per cent. The cost of living hits regional areas hardest and remote areas hard, and the human, social and economic toll rose to dizzying heights for Territorians. Tourists stopped coming in the same numbers. Locals don't move around so freely, and many residents have simply packed up and left after experiencing or witnessing ongoing damage to property and/or person.
Doing what they did—allowing alcohol restrictions to lapse with no proper consultation and no transition plan and, worse, ignoring the pleas of key organisations—is what led to an escalation of community chaos in Central Australia. Even the Commonwealth agency whose purpose is to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples got it wrong when it supported an opt-in clause for those who wished alcohol restrictions to remain. Voices of several key organisations wanted an opt-out clause, but they were simply ignored. Nine organisations—key organisations who, for decades, have worked to improve the lives of Aboriginal people in the NT—wrote to the Albanese government pleading and warning of the catastrophe about to unfold. Those key organisations argued, in a Senate inquiry, that positive discrimination was an appropriate response to protect the most vulnerable and to stop the unravelling of hard-won gains that had been made to close the gap in important health indicators. You can't stand up and talk about closing the gap whilst not responding to issues that are widening the gap.
The NT government, in the face of consistent warning, precedence and overwhelming evidence, showed no foresight, had no consideration for the most vulnerable, and with no meaningful consultation or transition plan showed they had no idea. That's why it's not feasible, plausible or responsible to dismiss this bill outright without some serious checks and balances that it asks for. Sure, the NT government has put in place its own legislation, but that lacks detail and oversight—sounds like a familiar story. The bill introduced in the Northern Territory is the Liquor Act 2019. In its six pages it talks of who can make an order, how alcohol management plans will be agreed to and how views of specific stakeholders will be considered. The bill lacks detail. There's nothing that suggests how it will ensure that voices won't be silenced so that a 60 per cent majority endorsement can be obtained. It is with consultation—I repeat, consultation—with police, the government and the relevant local health organisations before approval is granted. I want to know exactly who is going to be consulted. They didn't listen to the most vulnerable or those who worked with the most vulnerable people. This doesn't go far enough to protect elders, leaders, men and women who would want to object to allowing alcohol in their communities and ensure their safety in the process.
This private senator's bill requires a review within one year by the Senate in relation to the effectiveness of these laws. It is not seeking to remove the ability for these communities to have alcohol management plans. What it does is describe in greater detail the framework for decision-making in much more detail than the Northern Territory legislation does. It deserves support.
I also raise my advocacy, and that of Senator Nampijinpa Price, to get a family with children and sick adults who had been homeless for almost two years, living on a cement slab in Alice Springs—exposed to the elements and the issues impacting the region—off that slab. The NT government had to be dragged into action by the Commonwealth, by the minister and by the local member to find them a safer place, a more reasonable place—permanent housing. But their job is not done yet. You can't take your eyes off the Northern Territory government. Need more proof about the common sense and the competency of that government and its agencies? Let me explain how it took 3½ weeks to get that family off the slab. When they take 3½ weeks to get a place for that family, how can they do the job now of fixing an entire region?
Guess what, when they were moved off the slab they said to me: 'You know what? They've told us we need to provide a tenancy reference.' Can you believe that? A tenancy reference. They were told they had to get a tenancy reference to trigger the process of securing a greater place of safety. It's disbelief. They have been neglected for years. Service providers, people who should have known they were there, drove past them, and now they want a tenancy reference. I'm talking about a young woman with advanced kidney disease, on dialysis three times a week. Up to nine children and their family were on that slab, enduring 40-degree heat in summer and below in winter. I invite anyone to do that out the front one night.
There was no running water, no sanitation, just beds made up neatly on a concrete slab each day while six of the nine children who were school aged went to school. I can say that because I wasn't 1,000 or 2,000 kilometres away; I saw it for myself. There was no running water, no sanitation. It's just unbelievable in the middle of Australia. They were non-drinking and non-gambling, and they still have to do mount a case of being a responsible family. Last night it continued. You can't take your eyes off the Northern Territory government, I say again. Instead of sending social workers, financial counsellors or the support they need to set themselves up for success and to build a better life for themselves—they don't need government to do that for them; they just need the things that allow them to do it for themselves—they were told that Centrelink was coming to bill them $500 a week for their stay.
Right from the very beginning, the only people who have been telling the truth about what's going on in the argy-bargy of negotiations between government and service providers about how to respond to these people are those people—Miranda, Bessie and Kate are their names. They are real people just trying to do their best. So why doesn't Centrelink say: 'Look, we're coming out to check that you're all on the right payments and that you're getting the right money to support your family.' Why isn't it giving them an update on a more permanent housing outcome and making sure that they don't go broke while they're in temporary housing? They wear the same clothes every day. They are coming from a slab trying to build a future for themselves, and now they're being asked to pay that kind of money while they transition and wait for the Northern Territory government and others to make sure that they follow through on what they said they were going do, which was to provide a better future for them.
I would say to Minister Burney, 'It's a backflip,' when I'm told their accommodation in a government statutory facility, Aboriginal Hostels Limited, will be covered until they are permanently housed. That gave me and them some comfort, and it should give all Australians some comfort, that at least the effort is being put in to find them a permanent place and that action is actually happening so that they can get on with improving their own lives. You can't take your eyes off this.
If you are serious about confirming greater safety for women in the Northern Territory then you have to give the women's domestic family violence services some comfort that their funding will continue. It's a little over 12 weeks before the end of the financial year, and they don't know whether—in the middle of a crisis for women, children and the elderly—they've got funding to continue their important work, or that they've got increased funding to continue their important work. Stop talking about it, stop putting those services and the people who rely on them at risk, and confirm their future funding.
These are the reasons it's not possible to support this bill, given the weight of evidence against leaving the Northern Territory government to get this right. These are real examples. They're not made up. I'm happy for people to challenge them and I'm happy to provide the evidence. You can't take your eyes off the Northern Territory government. You can't take eyes of these situations. And we can't take our eyes off the Albanese Labor government in doing the right thing and not just talking about it but making a difference—a real difference—to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. That's why I support this bill.
I also rise to make a contribution on the Northern Territory Safe Measures Bill 2023. In doing so, I want to thank all the colleagues who've previously made a contribution to this debate. I acknowledge Senator Nampijinpa Price's genuine concerns for the Northern Territory and her community in Alice Springs as well.
We have heard throughout this debate some deeply distressing and personal stories from a number of senators, and I acknowledge that it can be a difficult thing to bring these stories into a public forum. This has been a moving debate and it is clear to us that people in Central Australia are doing it really tough right now. The sticking point here is a difference in opinion over the solutions. I don't think there is any difference in opinion in this debate about the challenges and the problems. I agree with everyone who has come and spoken in this debate and has put forward the view that we of course need to be putting women and children first and prioritising their safety. But, again, the government has a disagreement with the solutions put forward by the senator, and that comes down to this question of whether federal legislation is required.
I haven't heckled anyone during this debate so I would appreciate being able to be heard.
Fundamentally, this comes down to a question about whether federal legislation is required, whether federal intervention is required. In the Northern Territory we have seen significant steps being taken by the Northern Territory government. We've seen them step up and take responsibility legislating new alcohol restrictions, and I will come back to that point shortly. But there is always a challenge for us. And we have debates in this place, about matters as serious as this, between how we bring what are very difficult things and very challenging things into the light in order to get action, to drive the momentum, to get change, but also how we talk about communities and how we talk about the need to empower them too. Our communities aren't ever served by quick headlines and they're never served by becoming political footballs in here, and that's why I think the tone of this debate is really important. I have seen that happen in Ceduna. I have seen that community being used as a political football over the years and it is no good. People in the community tell me it's no good when they are used as a political football in this place.
We do need serious solutions to serious challenges. That work is always done, in my view, when the different levels of government work in partnership together—the Commonwealth working in partnership with the territory governments, working in partnership in different parts of Australia with local government. It's when the government works together well and when communities are engaged, consulted and brought into the solutions that we see the best policy.
I note the member for Lingiari, in the other place, has talked about the challenges before us, that this is beyond the political games that get played. She said, 'This is about people's lives. It is about Aboriginal women and children. There are many men who are not drinkers, but we forget about that because of the cheap politics.' She has called for a stop to the political games. I want to acknowledge her work and her advocacy in this place. She has been one of the loudest speakers for more support for Central Australia and for more support for some of these challenges. I have seen her work in the First Nations caucus committee and I want to acknowledge it here today.
As I said my opening remarks, there is no doubt of the genuine intention across the chamber here to improve the lives of women and children, particularly the Northern Territory. But this is about the component, the level and the degree of federal intervention. In the Northern Territory we have seen the introduction of the Northern Territory Liquor Amendment Act in 2023. The effect of this legislation is that across the NT town camps and communities have reverted to dry zones. My understanding is that through this legislation there are clear, robust opt-out process requiring the development of community alcohol plans.
I also note that the Chief Minister has announced other measures to address crime and antisocial behaviour in Alice Springs. I don't think anyone here doubts that these reforms, changes and measures were necessary. But we also need to be honest about why they were necessary. They came into place because the former government allowed the stronger futures legislation to sunset. When it did these restrictions sunsetted too. It is appropriate at that point for the Northern Territory to step-up and show leadership. Indeed, it was incumbent upon them to step-up, to show leadership, to legislate and to introduce policy for these changes, and that's what these changes that we have seen in the NT are all about.
I acknowledge I'm not on the ground in Alice Springs. I represent the state of South Australia. That's where I'm on the ground. That's where I travel. That's where I'm talking to people. I acknowledge that this is not my personal lived experience and I don't speak for these communities. But I have listened carefully to the contributions in this debate, listened carefully to the contributions of Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and listened carefully to the member for Lingiari in the other place, and I see, acknowledge and understand the challenges and the problems we have here. But the thing is, the Northern Territory government has the authority and the responsibility to act in this place. That's appropriate. Just like every other state and territory they are the ones who hold responsibility for alcohol policy and regulation.
We have seen what happens when the Commonwealth overrides the states and territories. Indeed, we have seen the Commonwealth make grave errors in overriding the responsibility of the territories before in legislation. Commonwealth interventions in the past have caused significant distress and disempowerment. On this matter it is the responsibility of the Territory government to legislate regarding the issues of alcohol and alcohol access. This power is contained within the Northern Territory Liquor Act 2019. That act governs the sale, provision, service, promotion and consumption of liquor with the purpose of minimising alcohol harm in the Northern Territory. That has been looked at in the parliament. A cross-party parliamentary committee has looked into this issue. The Joint Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, which has cross-party membership—representatives from Labor, the coalition and Independents—found earlier this year in its inquiry on community safety, support services and job opportunities in the NT:
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.
That's what a committee of this chamber, of this parliament, found, and I respect the views that they put forward after their inquiry and after their consultation.
Passing this bill would be supporting a federal intervention, and I appreciate that that is what a number of senators in this chamber want to see. But federal interventions like this have caused significant distress in the past, and the scars caused by the Howard government's federal intervention remain and live on in communities. The intervention stripped community and Territory government of capacity. I reflect on the words Senator McCarthy shared in September last year about the intervention when she spoke about the impact it had on her as a member of the Northern Territory parliament:
In 2016, when I entered the Senate, I spoke about what happened in the NT in July 2007, when the Northern Territory parliament, the Northern Territory people, were intervened on in such an incredibly dramatic way, without any input, without any view. It was certainly, when I was the member for Arnhem in 2007, standing in the parliament of the Northern Territory, the most disempowering moment, not just for me as the member for Arnhem but for all those constituents I was there to represent. I could say nothing; I could do nothing. The humiliation of people, the shame that people felt, all carried through with the Northern Territory intervention which saw the arrival of the BasicsCard.
Supporting this bill would be overriding the Territory's role in legislating for itself and legislating on the topics that it does have jurisdiction and capability to legislate on. But those considerations—this question that where there is a difference here around how an intervention should happen, about whether the federal government should intervene or not—are about a response and a solution. This is not a question about need—the needs of people living in Alice Springs and Central Australia. There is no doubt that they are doing it seriously, seriously tough. I do not undermine or devalue any of the stories that have been brought to this chamber today and on the other days when we've debated this topic and indeed whenever we have a debate on these matters. They are nothing short of shocking and distressing. But it is the government's position that overriding the powers of the Territory government and overriding their responsibilities through federal legislation disempowers local communities. That would be the opposite of what we're seeking to achieve.
Policy solutions always work best in partnership. They always work best when people take responsibility. And they always work best when they're co-designed, when they take the community seriously in designing and implementing the solutions they want and need to see for the problems they are living—far away from this building, far away from Canberra and indeed far away from where many of our offices are around Australia. That requires willingness to listen and to learn and willingness for engagement, and that is the focus of our government. Our Minister for Social Services, Amanda Rishworth, the member for Kingston, has said very clearly that co-design is one of her key priorities in the Social Services portfolio:
Our focus and our objective as a government remains clear: to empower people, empower communities, and provide individuals and communities with a range of supports that they can choose to use when and how it best suits them.
This is really important, and many of the challenges that we see in Central Australia are not unique to these communities. We've all read the latest Closing the gap report; the data is there, but we don't need the data. I'm sure all of us spend time in our states and communities talking to people. But that report did make for pretty harrowing reading on some of the indicators, and, while I think there is a strong degree of willingness, desire and motivation to improve on those, a whole lot of good intention has never been enough. There has been a lot of good intention in this building; I think there's a lot of good intention in this chamber today. But we aren't making enough progress in these issues—of course we're not.
I reaffirm that, in this debate, I don't think anyone is standing here diminishing the challenges before us, diminishing the motivation behind bringing these challenges to this chamber or diminishing the challenge ahead of us. This is a question around federal intervention and legislative need and whether this bill would have an impact on these issues when it steps into an area of authority and delegation which is held by the Northern Territory government and when we have seen, in recent weeks, a willingness by that government to take some responsibility and legislate to reintroduce alcohol restrictions.
These are not easy matters. None of the matters before us are easy matters. There are many things that we need to do and that we know we need to do, as a government, to improve on these issues. I know that Minister Burney takes these views very, very seriously. They are prioritised in cabinet and they are prioritised in government. They are prioritised in some of the programs we are funding. There will be more work to do, but I do note the Commonwealth government's investment in a $250 million plan for a better, safer future for Central Australia, and that plan is about job creation, better services, and improving community safety and cohesion through more youth engagement and diversion programs. It's also about preventing and addressing the issues caused by foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, including through responding better through the health and justice system. We are, as a Commonwealth, investing in families and in on-country learning. That investment—the $250 million program—is on top of the $48 million investment in community safety announced by the Australian government in January this year. The investment includes projects designed to have immediate impact on the safety of the community in Alice Springs.
Our government does take these issues seriously. I again want to acknowledge the contributions of senators in this chamber. I do not in any way diminish the motivations or the challenge before us. This is a question about an appropriate response and federal intervention. That is the debating point here.
I find it remarkable that the stronger futures legislation, introduced in 2012 by the then Labor government, is now being called racist by the new Labor government. It's quite incredible. Racist policies—
Thank you, Senator Smith. Senator Davey, I understand that this is a highly sensitive debate that people have really strong views about, which is perfectly reasonable, but I would hope that, when I give you the call, you move on from that particular statement and back to your speech.
I was not reflecting on any specific individual, just comments that have been made during the debate—but I will move on.
I want to congratulate my colleague Senator Nampijinpa Price on bringing this legislation to the Senate. I also want to commend my colleague Senator Liddle for her advocacy and for what she did for the family that were living on the concrete slab. Had Senator Liddle not raised this, not been there and taken a photo and put this before the Australian public, that family would still be on that slab, would still be under a tarpaulin and would still be being treated in a way that would be completely unacceptable anywhere else in the world. I applaud both of them, their tenacity, their commitment and their passion to deliver a better life for their community, a better life and a better future for all Northern Territorians. I want to make the point that this legislation is placed based, not race based. This private senators' bill is evidence of their commitment and their tenacity, and that's why we on this side are supporting it, because we support them in their efforts to make their communities a better place. We are listening to their voices.
Unlike claims from those on the other side of the chamber earlier in this debate when we first debated it a while ago, this work is not redundant; it is absolutely essential. Earlier, Senator Malarndirri McCarthy shared her story, a very moving story and a very important story, a story of breaking the cycle, of education and of support to show that there is a better way and there are options other than grog. But then Senator McCarthy said the Northern Territory government is best placed to manage the harm reduction policies—really? Ironically, she said that she had raised the sunsetting of the stronger futures legislation with the previous coalition government, who, in her words, did nothing. Yet, when they came into government, the Labor Party, still with time between being sworn in and the actual sunset, did nothing. Senator McCarthy said she and the member for Lingiari contacted the Northern Territory government way back in August last year, who, until February, when this issue hit the headlines, also did nothing. Now Senator McCarthy is saying: 'It's okay. The Northern Territory is alive to the issue. We can leave it in their hands.' I beg to differ.
We know the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill was introduced in 2012. It was also tied with a $3.4 billion commitment and a 10-year sunset clause. Some of that financial commitment was renegotiated midway through to extend the partnerships to ensure maximum potential for success. The aim of the legislation was to give the Northern Territory government enough time—10 years—to develop strategies to minimise harm, reduce alcohol dependence, and work with Aboriginal people and their communities to incite positive change. It sounds like a great plan.
Five years later, in 2017, the Northern Territory government commissioned the Alcohol Policies and Legislation Review to deliver a cohesive approach to alcohol harm reduction. Commonly known as the Riley review, the Hon. Justice Trevor Riley chaired the expert advisory panel, and the panel delivered their final report in October 2017—and a comprehensive report it was. It observed that a recurring theme throughout the review 'was that the lack of coordinated, long-term, appropriately resourced programs targeting alcohol harm reduction is a major contributor to the lack of reduction in alcohol statistics'. The report acknowledged that that the then regulatory framework for alcohol in the Northern Territory was not fit for purpose and that the Territory government needed to deliver a cohesive approach to alcohol harm minimisation for all Territorians.
The report, along with the 220 recommendations contained therein, was handed to the then Attorney-General in the Northern Territory, Minister Natasha Fyles. That's right—the current Territory Chief Minister was the Attorney-General at the time who accepted this report, who took 220 recommendations. But, to date, what has she done with them? To be fair, in 2018 she did rewrite the Northern Territory Liquor Act, as recommended. But it is very hard to see what has been done in communities to prepare for the end of stronger futures, which was always on the cards.
The chapter on harm prevention in the Riley report offered advice on pricing; on taxing of alcohol; on whether safe and vibrant entertainment precincts should be extended; on delivering better community policing patrols; on studies into alcohol treatment services, including identifying and relocating drinking away from roads, trialling residential managed alcohol programs, and providing sobering-up shelters where they're needed and would be used. As I said, the report was very detailed. That was in 2017.
As we know, cultural and alcohol issues in the Northern Territory have a long history, and a report is not a silver bullet. But, when it is such a comprehensive report, with so many recommendations, not to even look at implementing those recommendations, knowing that there is a sunset on the federal legislation that is providing a sense of safety and security, is absolutely remiss. The Northern Territory government should hang its head in shame. It is because of their inaction that we are here today debating a reintroduction of federal legislation to provide some safety, some stability and some certainty for our vulnerable Northern Territory communities.
As the stronger futures legislation was coming up to sunset, as I said, the new government did nothing. In fact, the new government was completely silent on the issue. But it was very active in other areas, like removing the cashless debit card for welfare recipients—something that many elders, particularly aunties in the vulnerable communities of the Northern Territory, asked them to not do. In fact, they warned them what the results would be if they took away the cashless debit card for welfare, if they put cash back into hands, allowing the practice of humbugging. When a person gets their welfare—gets their cash—and goes home, they actually get stood over. It's like the olden days. They get stood over and demanded that their cash be handed over. The cashless debit card prevented that from happening because you couldn't take the cash and go and buy your grog. You couldn't buy grog with the cashless debit card. You couldn't gamble that money away, but you could feed your family and you could buy clothes or books for school.
That warning was made loud and clear to this government, and they ignored it. They didn't listen to the voices of the people of the vulnerable communities of the Northern Territory and Western Australia and some of the communities in South Australia. The Northern Territory government introduced legislation that made provision for communities to opt in to alcohol restrictions, instead of opt out, so they flipped it on its head. They also said that communities would not be required to have any form of alcohol management plans in place before they chose to opt out. Chief Minister Fyles has said that to do otherwise would implement racist policies. Again, I point out that prohibitions are not race based; they're place based, to ensure the safety of our most vulnerable, regardless of what their heritage is or their background.
The blanket policy shift and the inaction of the federal Labor government has resulted in a devastating increase in both consumption and alcohol-related harm. This was what people warned the government about. Alice Springs had identified to the world amply just how serious the problem was and how much the federal and Territory governments have floundered in addressing the issues. They acted only after the issues made headlines, not just in Australia but internationally. People saw what was happening in Alice Springs when it became news headlines; people saw the number of kids roaming the streets in Alice Springs because it was safer to be on the streets than to go home. That alone is an indictment on what we have allowed to happen in those communities.
It was only when this made headlines that both the Northern Territory and the federal Labor ministers decided that they actually might have to show their faces. Of course, we know the five-minute visit by the Prime Minister to Alice Springs was not the cure-all. We know that it was actually a media opportunity. We know he had to race back to Melbourne for the Australian Open, after all.
On a point of order, Acting Deputy President: the standing orders prohibit reflections on the motivations of others in the other place. I ask you to consider whether the senator's contribution is consistent with the standing orders.
I won't reflect on the motivation behind the Prime Minister's short visit to Alice Springs, but I will observe that it was a very short visit to Alice Springs and yet he managed to find three days to spend at the Australian Open.
What we do know is that the media focus actually did force change, finally. It did force a recognition of the issues that governments had been warned would happen if they removed the cashless debit card and reversed the onus of the alcohol prohibitions. Senator Price, Senator Liddle and others from Northern Territory communities, who have constantly brought to light the real tragedies occurring in these communities each and every day, deserve to be commended.
Senator Price's bill's intention is to protect all Territorians, especially those most vulnerable Territorians who face alcohol addiction or associated harms from family members with alcohol addiction—the related harms those bring for them, their families and the wider community. I congratulate Senator Price and I thank her for her tireless work. I thank her for bringing these issues to this place, raising them so that we should all be listening. What is happening in the communities in and around Central Australia is a tragedy that need not be. With this bill, we can start to put in place mechanisms that allow communities to introduce harm-reduction policies and to look at what can be done to ensure that their children are safe, their wives are safe and their families are safe. I thank Senator Price for her tireless work, and I trust and implore all senators in this place to have the courage and decency to support this bill. I commend the bill to the chamber.
I am pleased to make a contribution on the Northern Territory Safe Measures Bill 2023. I thank colleagues for their contributions on this bill, especially those who have shared their personal stories and experiences. I should indicate that in speaking on this bill I am not speaking in my capacity as the minister; I am simply making a personal contribution as a senator participating in the chamber. It is important that the Senate hears about these issues and works on these issues.
We know people are doing it tough in Alice Springs and that more needs to be done to improve community safety, particularly to protect women and children. It has been my privilege in my time in this place to have had some responsibilities that have afforded me opportunities to work with the many people in community who every day get up and apply themselves exclusively to protecting women and children right across the country. We need to keep women and children safe in all communities all around Australia. And we need to keep people safe in Alice Springs. But the government and I disagree with the proposed solution to this problem in the bill. This bill is not necessary and federal legislation is not necessary. Federal intervention is not the right step.
We have recently had a big and important step in the right direction: the Northern Territory government has taken responsibility, and recently legislated new alcohol restrictions. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.