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Thursday, 27 November 2008
Page: 7567

Senator PAYNE (3:51 PM) —I think I had uttered one sentence on the matter of the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Emergency Response Consolidation) Bill 2008 before we went to government business at 12.45 pm today. I will continue, but this will not be a long contribution.

The amendments proposed in this bill by the government relate to a number of issues: the viewing of R18+ programming, the transport of prohibited materials through prescribed areas, the status of roadhouses as community stores in some remote communities and the resumption of the permit system. These amendments seek to make changes to the special measures to protect Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory that were introduced by the former coalition government through the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007 and the Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory National Emergency Response and Other Measures) Act 2007.

I want to speak briefly this afternoon about the particular changes the government’s amendments will make to the permit system in the Northern Territory. They will repeal the changes to the permit system that were put in place by the former government in order to give public access to certain Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory. The changes have been in force since February of this year. The government’s amendments will reinstate the permit system for major Aboriginal communities, while enabling the minister to allow access to certain people, such as journalists.

A number of my colleagues in the coalition have spoken already about the negative impact the reinstatement of the permit system will have, particularly on women and children in remote Aboriginal communities, and our concerns in relation to that. I do not think that the seriousness of this impact can be taken lightly, and we certainly do not do so. From some reporting over recent times, it seems that as a result of the intervention—especially the introduction of income management and the rollback of the permit system—after experiencing well-documented abuse and violence and poverty, in some cases, women in remote Aboriginal communities are finally finding their voice and the ability to assert some greater control over their own lives and, consequently, the lives of their children. In fact, this week on Tuesday, 25 November, I was interested to read in the Age newspaper some writing by Russell Skelton on the positive impact the intervention, including the abolition of the permit system, has had on the lives of women through remote areas in the Northern Territory, transferring power—I suppose that would be the word—away from the ‘big men’, as they were described in that article and others, of these communities. Professor Marcia Langton, foundation chair in Australian Indigenous studies at the Melbourne university, has called it ‘big bunga’ politics. That sort of politics has allowed relatively small cliques of very powerful men to assert their control over communities without the sorts of checks and balances that we might expect. There are many reports of the abuse and the violation of process and the disadvantage that have flourished under that, with patronage the decisive factor in the allocation of jobs, of houses, of cars and of other benefits.

The abolition of the permit system by the previous government’s legislation was part of the means of addressing that situation—of shining some light into those areas and on, most importantly, those leaders. It put them in a position where they were not able to avoid the scrutiny of the management of resources in the same way. Now, as should be the case, the leaders in these communities have to account for the way that government funding, particularly, is managed and one would hope, consequently, put the security and the safety of their people and the communities first.

An equally important consequence of this aspect of the previous government’s legislation was to allow a door to open a little further to greater economic development in some of these communities. It seems to me to be logical to contemplate that long-term security and viability of remote and regional communities is absolutely tied to effective development. I cannot see how it is in fact logical to close them off. By abolishing the permit system, amongst other impacts, the former coalition government endeavoured to give the communities a greater chance at economic development. Any decision to reinstate this permit system by this government in such communities would be a disappointing setback to the possibility of this economic development.

That is not just my view or our view in the coalition. There have been a number of reports in this calendar year and more in recent months and weeks about these issues. In the Australian in January this year former president of the Australian Labor Party Mr Warren Mundine said:

If we are looking at building economies in these communities then we need to have a free flow of people to create commercial activities. The permit system didn’t stop crime. In fact, if you look at all of the reports that have come out in the last few years, crime has flourished under the permit system, so it’s a fallacy to say that it helps law-and-order problems. It really embedded these problems because some powerful people were able to get away with things without being watched.

He further said:

If you want to create a real economy you’re going to have to have more commercial activity happening and that happens by allowing people to flow in and out of places.

I think the government would do well to listen to those words and words of others who have raised similar sorts of concerns.

I wanted to make a couple of other comments in relation to economic development and to the potential for benefits that go far beyond the security and prosperity of remote and regional Aboriginal communities. An Access Economics report commissioned by Reconciliation Australia and released in August this year found, in relation to the economic impact of Indigenous disadvantage, that, if the health, educational and economic circumstances of Indigenous Australians improved to match those of the Australian average, ‘government revenue in 2029 would be $4.6 billion higher than otherwise’ and ‘government expenditure in 2029 in key portfolios relevant to Indigenous Australians would be $3.7 billion lower than otherwise’. I do not think a government can afford to be insensitive to those sorts of compelling figures, nor to any step that might help in getting even closer than we currently are.

I began my remarks today on the need to ensure the safety of women and children in remote communities. I want to finish with some brief words about the other changes that the bill will make that could impact negatively on those children the intervention was in fact designed to protect.

The government’s amendments will change the nature of bans on pornographic material in prescribed areas and on the transport of such materials through prescribed areas. In communities where it is reported that children do remain at risk from a range of factors and where there are serious concerns about levels of functionality, there is no reason at this time to be loosening these sorts of restrictions. It seems to me to be a regressive step and one which I regard very seriously.

As has been stated in the other place and by other speakers to this legislation in this chamber, the opposition’s amendments reflect these concerns. I will reiterate those points and will of course call on the government to adopt them. The opposition has called on the government to impose a blanket ban on all pornographic material in prescribed areas and to prohibit the transport of pornographic material through any prescribed areas. We further urge the government to leave in place the permit system amendments, which have enabled greater access to public land.