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Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Page: 1705

Mr ZAPPIA (1:42 PM) —I rise to speak on the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009 and, in doing so, say that this bill reinstates the Racial Discrimination Act provisions into the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007. It ensures that measures under the Northern Territory Emergency Response and Cape York welfare reform trials remain consistent with the Racial Discrimination Act and state and territory antidiscrimination laws.

It also changes a number of measures to improve aspects of the operation of the Northern Territory Emergency Response and it extends income management to other regions throughout Australia. I think that is an important aspect of this bill because, from my understanding and experience, it is the case that if you are going to apply this process to one part of Australia there are undoubtedly other places where the same provisions should apply. In fact, I am well aware of places within my own state of South Australia where one could argue that this kind of intervention is also warranted if it is going to occur in the Northern Territory.

The Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill was brought in by the Howard government in August 2007. It was a drastic measure brought in as a response to what some would describe as a crisis situation within some communities. The special measures introduced were: income management whereby 50 per cent of welfare moneys are quarantined and controlled through the use of a basics card, five-year leases whereby the government compulsorily takes over people’s land on leases, alcohol restrictions imposing large fines for possessing alcohol in restricted areas, licensing of community stores, establishment of government business managers in each community, pornography restrictions, control over publicly funded computers, and other law enforcement measures.

The initial provisions were clearly targeted at Aboriginal people and were only possible because of the suspension of the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act. Suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act is generally acceptable if the suspension results in improvements to the lives of those affected. It was argued at the time that such would be the case. The Rudd government, consistent with 2007 election promises, has lifted the provisions suspending compliance with the Racial Discrimination Act. It has also made other changes which are expected to improve the administration and outcomes of the Northern Territory Emergency Response. Those changes were made after review of the effectiveness of the initial Northern Territory Emergency Response actions and after extensive community consultations.

Since European settlement of Australia, Aboriginal people have been disadvantaged and marginalised. Their way of life was disrupted and they have struggled to adjust to their changed environment. The integration of Aboriginal culture with European culture has proven to be extremely difficult and filled with tragedy and suffering. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but it is clear that many early actions, from the time of European settlement through to the latter part of the 20th century, caused long-lasting scars and barriers, which are still causing widespread grief amongst Aboriginal people.

It is a regrettable aspect of Australia’s history that it was not until 1962 that Aboriginal people were given the full right to vote. In that respect, it is interesting that they were given the right to vote but it was illegal to encourage them to go and enrol. I am not quite sure how the two went hand in hand. It was after the referendum in 1967, which was overwhelmingly supported by Australians, that they were able to fully participate in Australian society. They were included in the census and the federal government was able to make laws relating to them. Full participation, however, requires much more than legal rights; it requires the necessary support to enable real opportunity for Aboriginal people to participate in Australian society.

We can legislate to make discrimination illegal, but breaking down discrimination is far more dependent on a change of mindset within people. Only then will true equality apply. Regardless of whether Aboriginal people live in country areas or urban areas, the majority of them continue to be marginalised. It is my view that over the past 40 years governments of all persuasions have made serious attempts to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Considerable effort and resources have been committed by governments over the years. Improvements have undoubtedly been made in some areas but, regrettably, those improvements have not been commensurate with the magnitude of the resources committed and the magnitude of the issues that still confront us. Those serious social problems were identified in the Little children are sacred report of the Northern Territory and ultimately led to the Howard government’s Northern Territory Emergency Response.

I have lived almost all my life in metropolitan Adelaide but I have, nevertheless, had considerable experience associating with and responding to many of the issues that Aboriginal people in metropolitan areas—certainly in Adelaide—face. In fact, in my time as mayor there were a number of initiatives that the City of Salisbury embarked upon in order to try and respond to many of those social urban issues of Aboriginal people. I say that because I want to make it absolutely clear that, whilst this bill in essence focuses on people in remote parts of Australia, the reality is that Aboriginal people, whether they be in remote or metropolitan parts of Australia, are nevertheless very much marginalised.

I note that the Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance, Mr McMullan, is sitting at the table today. He might recall that he visited the city of Salisbury when I was mayor. He was the shadow spokesman on Indigenous affairs for the Australian Labor Party and he addressed a forum which I hosted within the city. It was a forum which preceded the screening of the film Rabbit-Proof Fence, a wonderful film, which again exposes some of the history and scars that lie behind the issues that we still need to resolve and address.

It is my opinion that it is not Aboriginal culture that is the problem, as some would say, but rather the conditions under which Aboriginal people live. It is therefore the causes of the social problems, more so than the consequences, that need to be addressed. In that respect, I welcome and support the measures committed to by the Rudd government and outlined by the Prime Minister in this House on 11 February in his second ‘Closing the gap’ statement.

The provisions of this bill are an improvement on the Howard government’s original bill and adopt some, although not all, of the principles recommended by the Australian Human Rights Commission in response to that bill. Under the existing Howard government scheme, amounts diverted from a person subject to income management are placed into a special management account for that individual. The management account is used for the payment of expenses associated with priority goods and services. Those subject to income management may use the BasicsCard to access their income managed money at approved stores and businesses using the EFTPOS system. Amounts diverted under income management vary depending on the category of income management being applied. Any remaining amount in an individual’s management account is refunded to that person when they are no longer subject to income management.

Under the proposed Rudd government scheme, some people will have 50 per cent of their regular payments and 100 per cent of lump-sum payments quarantined in a separate account that may only be used for the purchase of the essentials of life, such as food, clothes and rent: people aged 15 to 24 who have been in receipt of youth allowance, Newstart allowance, special benefits or parenting payment for more than 13 weeks in the first 26 weeks; people aged 25 or over who have been in long-term receipt of specified payments, including Newstart allowance and parenting payments; people referred for income management by child protection authorities; and people assessed by Centrelink social workers as requiring income management due to vulnerability to financial crisis, domestic violence or economic abuse.

I am well aware that the scheme has not been without its critics. Many of those critics are people and organisations whom I respect, such as Dr Gawarrin Gumana, who is a Yolngu elder; former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser; Professor Larissa Behrendt, who is the director of Jumbunna House of Indigenous Learning at the University of Technology in Sydney; Mr Rex Wild QC, co-author of the Little children are sacred report; Alastair Nicholson, a former Chief Justice of the Family Court; Greg Thompson, who is the Anglican Bishop of the Northern Territory; Professor Mick Dodson, who, as we all know, was the Australian of the Year for 2009; Justice Elizabeth Evatt; Julian Burnside QC, a human rights advocate; David Ross, who is the director of the Central Land Council; Professor Patrick Dodson; the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ecumenical Commission, National Council of Churches; and Sir William Deane, former Governor-General of Australia. All of these people have made comments and contributed to the publication of a book entitled This Is What We Said. It is a book which responds to the Northern Territory Emergency Response and, in particular, to the public consultation that was carried out by the government to try to assess how well that response was working.

One of the contributors to that book was Irene Fisher, the CEO of Sunrise Health Service in Katherine. Irene said:

Income management shames those who live under it and takes us back to the days of the mission. It sets Aboriginal people apart from their fellow Australians.

I also want to quote from one of the people interviewed in the compilation of the book. He is a resident of the Bagot community in Darwin in the Northern Territory. He said:

Because it is wrong in what they are doing because…I mean this goes back to, I am sorry, but back in the time when you had Native Affairs where the government was overruling people and then you’ve got it, it is now 40 years down the track now, 50 years down the track. I was there in Native Affair times and if anybody remembers Native Affairs time, and this is exactly what they are doing to us now.

Those are some of the sentiments of the people who contributed to that book.

Last Friday, I met with a number of people who approached me about this very legislation. Those people included three people from the Sisters of St Joseph—Margaret Kenny, Margaret Lamb and Michele Madigan—and two Aboriginal people: Kaurna elder Dr Alitya Rigney, whom I know from Adelaide, and Pilawuk White. Pilawuk is from Peppimenarti, near Daly River. She travelled from Darwin to be at the meeting. They told me that they were very concerned that, whilst there had been some public consultation about the Northern Territory Emergency Response and this new legislation, they believed that the consultation did not go far enough. They said to me that, whilst they accept that there were some 76 people interviewed and that there were, I understand, a number of focus groups—in fact some 176 stakeholders attended focus group meetings in four locations—the fact of the matter is that there are some 73 different communities within the Northern Territory and not all of those people had their views sought. In fact, they believe that the advice that has been presented to the government is not advice which necessarily reflects the views of all people in the Northern Territory of Aboriginal culture.

They are clearly asking for this legislation to be amended, and I will come back to that in just a moment. I want to quote from part of what was said when the book This Is What We Said was launched by Christine Fejo-King, an Aboriginal woman from the Northern Territory. Her father was a Larakia man and her mother is a Warrumungu woman. Her skin name is Napaljarri. In launching the book, she said:

We are gravely concerned as social workers who believe in and work toward human rights and social justice, that the rights of our peoples have been and continue to be violated …

By deploying the army and police against our peoples, using the cover of concerns about sexual abuse of Aboriginal children, we believe a political agenda was served, against which the human rights and social justice of our peoples came a sad second. How would you our fellow Australians feel if this action had been carried out against you and your communities, because the statistics, the imperial evidence that governments rely so heavily upon, shows that the sexual abuse of non-indigenous children is relative to that of Aboriginal children.

I quote that because, in my view, that sums up much of the sentiment which was presented to me last week by these five women, all of whom have firsthand experience in dealing with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

I say to the House, having listened to those people and having had my own personal experience in dealing with Aboriginal issues over many years, that I support this bill because I believe that it is a genuine attempt, made after many years of attempts by governments, to improve the lives and the lot of Aboriginal people in this country. Primarily it is my view that, if we are ever going to provide the real support that Aboriginal people need, we need to begin by addressing the causes of the symptoms that we are trying to address through this bill—causes such as education, health outcomes, housing and employment. That is where our focus should be. We are doing that, through the statement on closing the gap made by the Prime Minister only a week or so ago, which I alluded to earlier. By addressing those very causes, we will get the best outcomes for Aboriginal people in this country.

I am aware that the bill is still subject to a degree of criticism, but I say to those people who have any criticism to make of it: give the government time to implement these measures to address both the causes of and the responses to the issues that we are confronted with. Once we have been able to do that, we will, in time, be able to make a much better judgment as to whether or not this bill is appropriate.

The SPEAKER —Order! It being 2 pm the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing 97. The debate may be resumed at a later hour. The member will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.