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Monday, 22 February 2010
Page: 1368

Mr OAKESHOTT (7:07 PM) —I rise not to oppose the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (2009 Measures) Bill 2009. It is a valuable opportunity to get a few local issues on the record. I note that the Bills Digest outlines that there is no unifying theme in this legislation but a broad suite of changes, some minor amendments and a group of disparate measures. These include the amendments to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 to schedule land to be granted as Aboriginal land, some minor amendments to the income management regime, amendments to the operation of the Social Security Appeals Tribunal, a beneficial amendment to the gifting provisions in the means test for pensions and benefits, amendments to provisions relating to beneficiaries of discretionary trusts to address issues arising from a recent Federal Court case, amendments to the notification provisions relating to the baby bonus and, finally, amendments to correct minor anomalies and technical errors in the social security law, the family assistance law and the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006. I think the Bills Digest is correct in saying that it is a broad suite of changes without a unifying theme but certainly with its own forms. They are welcome.

On the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 and the minor amendments to the income management regime directly relevant to income management in Cape York, and allowing the Family Responsibility Commission in Queensland to income manage age pensions or carer payments, I just reiterate a comment I made last week on the response from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to the second anniversary of the apology and the Closing the gap statement. We on the east coast of New South Wales and, in particular, the mid-North Coast are increasingly concerned, frustrated and worried about the amount of attention going into the Northern Territory and Cape York for all things related to closing the gap and Indigenous related issues.

There is a very good map in the Closing the gap documents that tells the real story and not the stereotype quite often presented by many members of this parliament and of the executive. The image that the majority of Aboriginal people live in dusty outback towns in the Northern Territory, outback Western Australia or Far North Queensland is not correct. The vast majority of the Aboriginal population lives on the east coast. They are coastal Indigenous dwellers and do not fit in with that stereotype that is quite often painted by government. It is a concern that we see enormous attention and political debate around Indigenous populations in the Northern Territory, for example, and how Commonwealth and Territory relations have allowed for an ‘emergency intervention’ in one part of Australia.

If we are serious about this topic, if we are serious about words like social inclusion and if we really want to tackle the complexities of this issue, the regionalised, urbanised coastal populations on the east coast of Australia are where the vast majority of the Australian Aboriginal population live, yet in 15 months in this place I have heard very little about them from the executive. This very good map is in the Closing the gap documents, but it is sad that we do not hear words or see attention from government shaped around the government’s own map and the realities of where that majority of the population live. Once again, with this legislation we see examples of that.

I also made the point last week in regard to Cape York. It is a worry that in communities such as mine there seems to be an increasing reliance in the political process, in certain newspapers—national dailies—on this desire to paint all the voices of the Aboriginal populations of Australia with the one brush of Noel Pearson. Noel Pearson does some tremendous work for his communities of Cape York. Noel Pearson is one voice among many voices about Indigenous policy throughout Australia. But I would hope the executive and all members of this chamber recognise that there are many voices, many leaders in Indigenous communities throughout Australia. I think that this constant desire by the government and the opposition to paint themselves close to the politics of Cape York, to somehow capture the Aboriginal communities of Australia, is a dangerous trend that, increasingly, we are seeing in trying to close the gap and truly reconcile with the many Aboriginal communities within Australia. Please do not leave behind the many communities on the east coast and do not forget the complexities, the number of voices and the number of leaders who exist within the many Aboriginal communities of Australia.

Whilst this particular legislation, once again, sees some changes directly targeted at Cape York and whilst we, once again, see some changes directly targeted at the Aboriginal Lands Trust in the Northern Territory, I do not oppose either of those. I would certainly hope that they are of value to progression and reconciliation within both those communities. But I do flag, once again, this issue involving the rest of Australia—for example, the issue around the very large east coast population on the mid-North Coast. It might surprise many people here that 11 per cent of the New South Wales Indigenous population is in the electorate of Lyne. It probably has not been talked about much before, it probably has not been recognised much before, but it is there. It is active, and dealing with a regionalised Indigenous population and the challenges wrapped up in that Indigenous population is a complex challenge. Therefore, how the executive responds to those challenges will be a challenge.

Only a fortnight ago we had an example where there was an application for certain funding around Aboriginal health. It was only applicable to communities with a population fewer than 20,000. Why? Because government wanted to get to the needs of rural and remote Aboriginal communities. However, in talking about needs, within my electorate I have fewer than 20,000 Aboriginal people with significant health needs in the mid-North Coast communities. However, they are buried into a broader population, which therefore means we cannot apply for that significant, important and potentially much-valued funding from the government. So if we are serious about this issue, please recognise where the majority lives and please consider us, moving forward, in future legislative changes.

Another significant issue I want to raise because we are talking about Aboriginal land rights—I am going off on a small tangent but it is an important one for me to get on the record—is the importance of a native title claim that finally came through, in 2010, at the end of last week. The Dunghutti communities, shaped around Crescent Head, were, supposedly, the first to receive recognition for the extinguishment of native title and due compensation to follow from that. It was the first practical example following the Mabo case that grabbed the headlines and came out of various court processes. Sadly, it has taken almost 13 or 14 years for the state to come through with compensation and to do its bit by paying due compensation for the extinguishment of native title. At the end of last week a ceremony was held in the electorate of Lyne and a substantial compensation payment, of $6.1 million, was paid to the Dunghutti communities for the extinguishment of native title.

Hopefully, that is the start of yet another step in recognising the importance of land, the importance of High Court judgments around terra nullius, the Mabo case. Also, importantly, for residents of the Crescent Head communities, I think it puts at peace any of those fears that were thrown around in the mid-1990s about people potentially losing their homes or losing private title as a consequence of native title. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is dealing with some unfinished business of over 200 years ago, and I would hope the communities not only at Crescent Head but right throughout Australia start to recognise the importance of practical reconciliation as well as the words that we often hear spoken today about reconciliation.

A separate topic altogether, which is of interest, is the baby bonus and the changes, which occurred in 2008, from a lump sum payment to a series of 13 fortnightly payments. There is now a change to the way someone reports, if they change care of a child at a very early stage of life, which I would hope people consider not doing. Sadly, it is a reality of Australian life today that it happens and therefore there are reporting requirements around that. I just want to put on the record my reaffirmation, if you like, for the baby bonus. I know that many people in this chamber are critical of that payment but, from a policy perspective, I think it is of value in not only supporting those families with those early-stage costs but also recognising that there are many people who have significant cost-of-living pressures in communities such as the mid-North Coast of New South Wales. There are a range of pressures at any time, let alone in those early stages, and this measure is of assistance and has proven itself to be. I hear pub talk about people blowing the bonus on the pokies or drinking it but I think that is, more often than not, anecdotal pub talk rather than factual evidence. What I see with my own eyes and hear from young families is that the baby bonus has been of significant benefit to their lives and has allowed them to build a family, worrying about financial pressures, but for a short period having some of those pressures relieved through the baby bonus.

I also want to mention the issue of private trusts. Following a Federal Court decision in 2008, the provisions of the Social Security Act 1991 relating to income support recipients who are the beneficiaries of private trusts needed to be clarified. The mechanism for determining whether the income of the trust is income of the income support recipient for means test purposes was brought into question in the court case. According to the explanatory memorandum to the bill, the amendments in the schedule have the following rationale:

These amendments clarify that, where a social security customer or veterans’ affairs pensioner is the beneficiary of a discretionary trust, and the trustee of that trust has a duty to provide for the maintenance of that customer or pensioner, even if the customer or pensioner receives a social security payment or veterans’ affairs pension, then the trust should be assessed as being a controlled private trust in respect of that beneficiary. It should not be relevant that there are other future beneficiaries of the trust, when those parties are not currently receiving any benefits from the trust.

The Mid-North Coast has a significant number of Centrelink benefit recipients. In the recent census figures, we were in the top 10 per cent of electorates in terms of the number of people on some form of income support. This bill will clarify for several people on the Mid-North Coast the issue of how discretionary trusts and private trusts relate to income support. I am willing to work through that with local constituents, but I am pleased to see that issue in this legislation and, hopefully, clarity being provided in the clients’ best interests. I support the legislation and I hope the government has been listening to my comments and will give some consideration to them.