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Thursday, 27 November 2008
Page: 7572


Senator FIELDING (Leader of the Family First Party) (4:19 PM) —Just over a year ago, both Labor and the coalition agreed to put in place a range of emergency measures in response to the problems of child sexual abuse confirmed in the Little children are sacred report. The legislation was a sweeping and far-reaching response to a terrible problem and it went more broadly to addressing Aboriginal disadvantage. It relied on a momentum powered by widespread revulsion across the Australian community at numerous cases of child abuse. The Little children are sacred report found evidence of child sexual abuse in every one of the 45 communities visited. Indigenous people in the Northern Territory, particularly children, deserve better. They deserve a life that is free from child abuse and free of alcohol abuse and illegal drugs—a life that offers hope of an escape from poverty through good education, health care and housing.

Last year the Senate agreed the situation in the Northern Territory was an emergency and passed legislation that was a radical change in policy direction and that would have long-term implications for Aboriginal people and their communities. The concern last year, when the emergency response measures were about to be put in place, was that the measures would alienate some Aboriginal people and increase the gulf between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. However, Family First came to the conclusion—and still believes—that we should not and must not leave things as they were when children were at risk from abuse. That is the reason Family First supported the previous government’s sweeping and far-reaching proposals for change.

A key part of the emergency response involved removing the permit system so that visitors to the communities would not have to obtain a permit. It was removed as part of the previous government’s national Indigenous emergency intervention to stop child abuse in remote communities. How disappointing, then, that the Rudd government has failed to fully remove the permit system, potentially leaving children’s lives at risk. In February this year the requirement for permits to visit 73 Indigenous townships was abolished, but the government did not remove all the permits on the access roads. Therefore, no-one can use the access roads to get to the communities. Unless you fly in or go by boat, you cannot get to many of those communities. How can we judge whether the parliament’s decision last year to remove permits has worked or not, when some access restrictions remain?

Many in the parliament have argued over the last few months that the permit system effectively shuts off Indigenous communities and creates barriers between Australians. Again I say: how do we know that this is the case? We do not, because the Rudd government was unwilling to test it thoroughly. For those of us who are considering the permit system, that decision has robbed us of an informed choice, because the information coming from this trial is flawed.

I have seen firsthand the challenges facing Indigenous communities, including the deeply entrenched problems of alcohol abuse and child abuse, and the hopelessness that many of these people feel. It was shocking and profoundly sad—particularly the stories of children who have been caught up in domestic disputes fuelled by alcohol and subjected to horrific sexual abuse. However, alcohol is a huge problem not just in the Northern Territory but right across Australia. In the Northern Territory, nearly every conversation ends up being about grog. Australia has a huge drinking problem in the broader community, but what I saw in the Aboriginal community is much worse. The sheer acceptance of the alcohol problem by most people in Aboriginal communities is staggering. It seems to me that this is ‘just the way it is’. The term ‘dry community’ seems farcical when, outside the gates of these communities, you see dozens of empty tinnies littering the entrance as you drive in.

The enormity of the problems I saw was overwhelming. The Aboriginal people and the welfare workers who are trying to make a difference all sounded tired and worn out. People told me government departments were part of the problem because of the lack of care, lack of action and lack of funds. It is horrifying to contemplate that the next generation is already being condemned to an endless cycle of abuse. It is shameful that this exists in our country and that we have allowed it to happen. I believe this is an issue that affects all Australians. When our Prime Minister said sorry to Indigenous Australians, it began the process of healing the long years of pain between white and Aboriginal Australians. But, since then, not enough has happened. Children are still at risk from abuse and exposure to pornography and alcohol. Poverty remains an issue. Violence and despair are a way of life.

Will the Prime Minister be apologising to these communities in years to come when abuse and violence continue to fester? I do not want to give the impression that governments are responsible for everything. Clearly, Aboriginal people and their communities have to bear some responsibility too, but they need a helping hand. With the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Emergency Response Consolidation) Bill 2008, the Rudd government wants to make changes to the emergency response measures generally agreed to last year. The changes the Rudd government wants to make are as follows: schedule 1 to the bill restricts R-rated material on pay TV to 35 per cent of programming; schedule 2 allows pornographic material to be transported through communities; schedule 3 reintroduces access restrictions to communities by way of permits; and schedule 4 allows certain roadhouses to be deemed as ‘community stores’ and be subject to the same licensing standards as community stores.

Given the serious issue of abuse within communities, as highlighted in the Little children are sacred report, I am staggered that the Rudd government would start with schedule 1, which basically says it is okay to allow up to 35 per cent of programming on pay television to be R rated and beamed into communities that are grappling with addressing child abuse. It also seems crazy that the government would then have schedule 2, which removes the existing restrictions that prohibit the transport of pornographic material across communities. Is this really a priority?

Schedule 3 reintroduces the permit system. Family First was aware that, when the permit system was removed last year, it would be of concern to some Indigenous people. But Family First was of the view that towns should be public areas. Family First believes that permits isolate some Australian communities by saying that only some people can enter. Permits have not protected communities from child abuse, alcohol or drugs. Family First is happy for the Senate to reconsider the permit system but believes it is too early to make any decision to reintroduce permits at this stage. Schedule 4 allows certain roadhouses to be deemed as ‘community stores’. Family First can see merit in this proposal as it will provide more locations where people can get access to the services that are provided through licensed community stores.

Family First believes we should not allow the broadcasting of pornography into communities that are already riddled with cases of child abuse. This fails to properly tackle this terrible problem. We already know that pornography is a real concern for communities. Judy Atkinson, the Head of the College of Indigenous Australian Peoples at Southern Cross University, said that Aboriginal communities are ‘saturated with pornography’. She said she had seen ‘uncles watching hardcore, violent pornographic movies while three- and four-year-olds in nappies played in the dust at their feet’.

Family First remains convinced that permits isolate some Aboriginal communities and simply build barriers between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians—barriers that we should all be working towards removing. Family First is not convinced that reintroducing the permit system will protect Indigenous communities from child abuse, alcohol or drugs. Family First cannot support this bill.