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Thursday, 20 September 2007
Page: 2


Mr BROUGH (Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs) (9:08 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This bill introduces amendments to consolidate the government’s major legislation responding to the national emergency confronting the abuse of Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory.

Before outlining the details of the bill, this is an opportunity to provide an update on progress, report on some of the issues that have emerged and outline some important developments to do with land tenure and engagement with Aboriginal people.

I have just left a meeting with Major General Dave Chalmers, who is overseeing the operation of this intervention. At the conclusion of this speech, I will be chairing a ministerial task force meeting with my colleagues to ensure the implementation of this legislation is carried out to the full.

Of course, we all would like everything in place as of yesterday, but there is a level of complexity that requires care and time, and local people have to be engaged in the process.

The Northern Territory Emergency Response Taskforce is in place, fully staffed and working well under the leadership of Dr Sue Gordon and Major General Dave Chalmers.

All 73 communities that were identified have been visited by departmental survey teams. Fifteen government business managers have been deployed, and more are on their way. Over 2,000 children have received health checks, and arrangements are in place to follow up on the results of those checks.

The process of quarantining welfare payments in the first four communities has been completed. Over 20 people previously on CDEP at Imanpa and Finke have now converted into real jobs in health care, child care, night patrols and municipal services.

Last weekend, the alcohol and pornography bans came into effect.

The government has just announced a further $740 million in additional funding for policing, health, education, employment and housing, bringing the total emergency response so far to $1.33 billion over four years. This clearly demonstrates that the government is in here for the long haul to once and for all rid the Territory of the abuse, the neglect and the despair that have plagued it.

But this is not just about spending more money. We are requiring better results on the ground. It is about a radical overhaul of the way we do business. It is about better value for money, and stronger and more positive outcomes.

The response received from the public and people on the ground has been overwhelmingly supportive. Of course, there are issues where people differ in their views, but communication tends to solve most of these problems. Some people still argue about the permit system, even though it only applies to about 0.02 per cent of Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory. But, over time, I expect some of the critics to see the long-term benefits that will be achieved by this very important measure.

Some have expressed concern about the five-year leases of townships. Some, for mischievous reasons, have called it a ‘land grab’. Even the Leader of the Opposition says that he understands the relevance of this particular measure to the prevention of child abuse and he supports our approach.

Since announcing the emergency intervention, more fundamental land reform measures have occurred. The people at Nguiu in the Tiwi Islands have signed a 99-year headlease so that they can enjoy greater economic benefits for their town, and local residents finally have the opportunity to realise what we all take for granted—our capacity to own our own home where we live. The people in the town camps at Julalikari have agreed to negotiate a 99-year sublease in return for a major new investment in housing and infrastructure by the Australian government. That is at town camps just outside of Tennant Creek. Another important model that has emerged recently in the Northern Territory will be outlined later.

The tide is turning. The landscape is changing for the better.

One of the difficulties we have faced in implementation in the early days has been a pushback from people with vested interests who want to maintain the status quo—people who are employees in some of these communities, often not Indigenous people, and people who work for community service organisations that purport to represent the views of Aboriginal people in local communities. It is the people they are paid to serve who are our priority in government. We will not bow to these pressures. We want to involve local people and empower them.

Those who are trying to undermine the intervention have said it is a deliberate attempt to destroy Indigenous culture. The reverse is true. It is being destroyed now by dysfunction, alcohol, drugs and violence. Any culture would be destroyed under those circumstances. We want to empower the elders and allow the strength of Aboriginal culture to come to the fore—a living and vibrant culture engaging with the rest of world and respected by all.

Several weeks ago, I met with Galarrwuy Yunupingu, former Australian of the Year and an important law man in his local community and elsewhere in the Northern Territory. He had sent a message stick to the Australian government asking for a meeting. I responded to that message stick. We talked at length about the intervention and arrived at a meeting of minds. He, like other Aboriginal leaders in the Northern Territory, very much wants children protected and wants a much better future economically and socially for their people.

Mr Yunupingu supports the intervention in its efforts to protect children and create a better future for those children. His concerns were about how the five-year leases of town areas would operate and he wanted to ensure that the task force members and the government would be able to interact properly with local people in a culturally sensitive manner.

His preference is for long-term and more formal leases. The government has signed a memorandum of understanding with him which agrees to the negotiation of an innovative 99-year lease arrangement for his traditional lands. The MOU recognises that the traditional owners can hold a headlease over a town and surrounding areas, with a 99-year sublease over the town to be negotiated with government. This model will become another avenue for other traditional owner groups if they wish to pursue a new pathway.

The Australian government has also instructed government business managers and government agencies to work closely with local elders to make sure that our activities in the townships during the five-year emergency leasing period are fully understood and, most importantly, do not disturb sacred sites or other places of local significance.

Mr Yunupingu also raised the prospect of establishing a senior elders group in the Northern Territory. Respected and legitimate Aboriginal law men and women drawn from local communities across the Northern Territory emergency response could provide a valuable source of advice to the Northern Territory Emergency Response Taskforce, to me and to government. I know Mr Yunupingu is committed to establishing such an important group and I wish him well with this very important undertaking.

The government welcomes this initiative and commits to engaging with and taking advice from such a group, once formed. It is absolutely essential that the senior elders group be formed by local Aboriginal people themselves and not be just another construct of government or a group of government-funded service providers. Ideally, it would be a body that would, in its own way, be truly representative of local Aboriginal elders in the Northern Territory. This will send the strongest possible message to Aboriginal youth, reinforcing the importance of Indigenous culture and most importantly, in my eyes, the respect for their elders.

On a final matter, Mr Yunupingu also told us that he is fiercely determined to realise the economic potential of Aboriginal land. This is an important discussion that needs to continue to occur and the Australian government is committed to this continuing discussion. Without economic development, there will be no jobs and no future for Aboriginal children. The traditional owners must be full participants in this process if we are to ensure the future sustainability of the regional and remote areas of the Northern Territory.

Returning to the details of this bill, the government’s recent legislation included prohibitions on the possession, control and supply in prescribed areas of pornographic material. This bill addresses a further area of concern about inappropriate material, raised by the Northern Territory government and, again most importantly, by Aboriginal people themselves.

Through amendments in this bill to the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, any subscription television narrowcasting service will be prohibited from providing programming that is rated R18+ to subscribers who receive the service in the prescribed areas. This arrangement will be consistent with the pornography amendments already made to the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995, including the sunset provision.

A further measure in the bill will make sure that, if a roadhouse effectively takes the place of a community store in a remote area, it is properly treated as a community store in having to meet the new licensing standards. Assuming the community substantially relies on the roadhouse for grocery items and drinks, the roadhouse should be part of the scheme applying to community stores. Otherwise, roadhouses will continue not to be regarded as community stores.

The legislation passed recently will have the effect of making the Commonwealth a landlord for the purposes of the Residential Tenancies Act in the Northern Territory.

The Residential Tenancies Act normally imposes requirements on a landlord about the state of repair of the premises in question.

However, the fact is that the Northern Territory government has not been enforcing these standards in these communities. Under the new legislation, the Commonwealth has become the landlord of what is often dilapidated housing stock. The Commonwealth simply cannot comply with the already in place Residential Tenancies Act obligations in the short term, although we are committed to bringing the quality of this housing to an acceptable standard as quickly as possible.

This bill now provides for the Residential Tenancies Act and the related tenancy act in the NT not to apply in the situations covered by the new lease arrangements.

I want to make it clear that this does not mean the Australian government is avoiding its responsibilities as a landlord. It is simply to allow the response to do its proper work in making the substantial and essential improvements already announced, and to avoid any mischievous application of the Residential Tenancies Act by the Northern Territory government.

The bill will amend the Defence Housing Australia Act 1987 to enable Defence Housing Australia (DHA) to assist with the construction of housing in remote Indigenous communities, subject to DHA being able to maintain its primary defence focus on meeting the needs of Australian Defence Force personnel. While DHA’s functions are essentially limited to providing housing and housing related services for defence personnel, DHA has the expertise and construction market knowledge that would be required for assisting with an Indigenous construction program.

The bill also makes minor or technical refinements to the land related provisions in the previous legislation.

I commend the bill and the other measures I have described, aimed at protecting Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory and providing them with a much brighter future, to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Edwards) adjourned.