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Wednesday, 17 June 2009
Page: 6266

Mr OAKESHOTT (10:25 AM) —I rise certainly not to oppose this legislation but to flag several concerns I have with regard to several aspects of the bill, in particular the ongoing reforms to CDEP. I would also like to make some comments about the Northern Territory intervention generally and about the importance of considering in this place the poor policy for all aspects of discrimination, including something that is not talked about—geographic discrimination. I will come back to that.

This legislation is a continuation of the government’s reform agenda. It does seem to be a morphing of the previous government’s reform agenda and therefore there do seem to be some similarities in policy between each side of this House. In light of that, there are some sensible aspects to the bill. The move to remove the ATO as a place where FTB claims can be lodged is essentially a streamlining of the claim processes and an administrative cost-cutting measure and therefore, I would have thought, eminently sensible. Ninety per cent of FTB claimants currently claim through Centrelink anyway either by way of fortnightly payments or as a lump sum at the end of the year.

The move to allow IMR-affected welfare recipients residing in designated areas access to external review through the SSAT and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal again looks like a minor administrative change and sensible in the reform context.

Then there is the phasing-out of the CDEP wages payment arrangements. Payment arrangements for those on CDEP on 1 July will continue; new CDEP participants from 1 July onwards will be required to individually qualify for an income support payment. So it is a more gradual phasing-out of CDEP scheme payment arrangements than envisaged by the previous, Howard government. Mind you, it is still a phasing-out, and that is where a morphing of policy from both sides of the chamber is clearly occurring.

On that last point, I put on the table a clear example of success in a regional community, a practical example of how CDEP is delivering. Only last Thursday, I revisited a site in the Port Macquarie CBD—a so-called developed regional economy—where we are now seeing the final stages of completion of 12 two-bedroom affordable housing units. Affordable housing is much needed on the mid-North Coast. This has all been done by a Port Macquarie business, with links throughout the mid-North Coast, called Aboriginal Connections that has a very high strike rate for tendering well in a fully contestable market and delivering good building product. In addition, over 50 per cent of its employees are Indigenous, and it has been able to turn a lot of raw, young, unemployed talent into success stories in an open employment market. That has been done as part of the CDEP scheme and has largely occurred because of it.

There has been plenty of debate in this chamber in which people have generally been dishing out criticism on the CDEP and viewing it in a negative way. But there are success stories for CDEP. In relation to regional communities such as the mid-North Coast, I would ask people to consider some of the success stories as well as the negative stories when thinking about reform programs and Indigenous policy generally, including the ongoing changes to CDEP. If anyone wants to come and have a look at a local success story, there is Aboriginal Connections. It is doing everything that governments of both persuasions have required—that is, high employment of Indigenous people in a company that is competing in an open market and doing it very successfully. It is delivering product such as affordable housing for communities in need. It ticks all the boxes. Therefore, it is of concern to me that we are seeing the scrapping of the CDEP scheme and that the general consensus on both sides of this chamber is that that is okay to happen in the future. I accept the government’s point of view that CDEP will be replaced with a universal employment service. That will be a watching brief for the future, and it is where I am flagging concern rather than raising direct opposition. I want to start to make some noise about the language that the government uses in putting forward this reform program.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. AR Bevis)—Order! I am reluctant to intervene but I suspect that the member for Lyne may be wishing to speak on the social security and other legislation bill, which is listed next, rather than the family assistance bill.

Mr OAKESHOTT —Incorrect. It is the Family Assistance Amendment (Further 2008 Budget Measures) Bill 2009. Mr Deputy Speaker, part of this involves changes to the CDEP scheme welfare payments.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —I am happy to provide some latitude on that, but I am not sure that the remarks that you are making actually do go to the bill. I am happy for you to have some latitude about it; but, if that is the focus of your contribution, you may just consider whether or not the next bill is the one that you wish to address. Continue.

Mr OAKESHOTT —Mr Deputy Speaker, I will take your ruling. I assure you that I am focusing very much on changes to family assistance payments, including reforms to the way that the CDEP scheme will be administered. An important point with regard to the context of this bill is that, while CDEP will cease from 1 July and will be replaced by the new arrangements contained in this bill, the language of the government has been about new community support programs being introduced into urban and regional locations—such as the mid-North Coast of New South Wales, with its significant Indigenous population—to increase social inclusion and community cohesion. The program would function as a vital link in supporting Indigenous community members in accessing information and services, including through Centrelink, Mr Deputy Speaker. This would be a separate program from CDEP.

It is on this front that I want to start making some noise, and I hope that members on both sides will want to make some noise too and begin to flush out some detail on where, when and how that community support program will be delivered. Will it sit alongside a universal employment service and turn the reform program that we are seeing through this legislation—the dropping of the CDEP—into a universal employment service that basically blends Indigenous policy with mainstream policy? This is accepted by both sides of this House. But where is this community support program? It is time that we started to see the detail of this proposal. We are not far away from seeing very real changes on the ground that will effect some very real outcomes in many people’s lives. I ask the government to start spelling out in detail where, when and how this community support program will fall into place. How is it going to be accessible to communities such as those on the mid-North Coast?

It is of great concern that we are involved in geographic discrimination—and this will be my final point—and it does link into the concept of the intervention, which is also referred to in the family assistance bill. We talk a lot about discrimination in this place but we do not talk a lot about geographic discrimination. If we go back to why the Northern Territory was picked for the intervention, it was for constitutional reasons as much as for any other reason. In a lot of cases, we are seeing government resourcing and funding drifting away from regions such as the mid-North Coast of New South Wales, with its high Indigenous population. It is concerning to see the development of geographic discrimination, where some people are being treated differently from others in Australia. That is a concern held by me and I hope it is held by many members of this chamber. There should be some underlying principles in this chamber that we are all shoulder to shoulder on. For example, retrospective legislation in all its forms should be one issue that we are all shoulder to shoulder on in trying to avoid and stamp out. Likewise, we should be shoulder to shoulder on stamping out all forms of discriminatory policy. This is not soft; it is not wet; it is a fundamental principle that we should all uphold. We should work as hard as we possibly can to make sure that, where policy is concerned, everyone in this country is treated the same.

I would hope that is something that is considered when we are talking in the future about interventions into the Northern Territory and when we are talking about Indigenous and non-Indigenous reconciliation. I hope that they are principles that are not only important to the mid-North Coast of New South Wales but also to every single member in this chamber. So I certainly do not oppose this legislation but I do flag that the changes on the ground on the mid-North Coast are causing concern with regard to the CDEP scheme. Unless we see the new horizon soon it is going to be a point of criticism, because the language of government in this reform program has been good; we are now starting to look for the practical delivery and the detail.

Likewise, with regard to the intervention it looks as if both sides of this chamber are now starting to form a common view that aspects of discrimination are okay. I would hope that that is something that pricks the conscience of every single member of this chamber when they think about the intervention into the future. Why is it in the Northern Territory in particular and how can we best develop policy for the future that achieves outcomes that we all want: better statistics, closing the gap and reconciliation? But how do we do that for all Australians, not just for those who can be picked off due to constitutional arrangements?