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Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Page: 1656


Mr ANDREWS (9:59 AM) —To recap, the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009 has a number of objectives. Primary amongst them, as the title of the bill suggests, is the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act to the legislation pertaining to the Northern Territory intervention. It also proposes to change the income management measures now in operation in 73 Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.

The coalition believes this bill is flawed for a number of reasons. The government’s proposals purport to extend income management nationally, although in reality only to the Northern Territory at this time. However, there are a number of significant concerns. First, certain welfare recipients are excluded from income management, such as those on the age pension, disability support pension, widow allowance and veterans service pension. According to the Closing the gap report, there were 8,526 people on the age pension, disability support pension, carer payment or other payments in June 2009. This represented 42 per cent of welfare recipients in the communities who will now under this provision be excluded from income management. Secondly, vulnerability in many instances will be determined by social workers and child protection workers. The experience of the states and territories suggests that this is a very inadequate system, with such workers being overly cautious because of legal ramifications. Indeed, a recent report by the Northern Territory Department of Health and Community Services raised serious practice issues relating to risk management, case management decisions and interagency collaboration. Moreover, this bill retreats from the clear evidence of widespread vulnerability of women and children in the Indigenous communities. Thirdly, the ability of social workers to adequately service the whole of the Northern Territory is questionable. And, finally, the case-by-case approach will be more costly and less efficient than a universal approach.

The coalition is not necessarily opposed to the extension of income management, but it will not support an extension that amounts to a watering down of income management in Indigenous communities. Nor do we trust the government’s rhetoric about a national rollout. The watered-down extension is limited to the Northern Territory. It is only after a future evaluation—in the next parliamentary term—that an extension might be considered and then by ministerial decree to limited areas, not necessarily to the whole of Australia as the government’s rhetoric would have it. This is significant in light of the government’s inability even to measure progress in the areas that the Prime Minister identified in his apology speech in this parliament in early 2008. Much of the progress that Mr Rudd claimed recently in closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage had in fact occurred prior to his implementing any programs. For example, on preschool enrolment the Prime Minister said:

We are seeing the fastest preschool enrolment growth in remote communities, increasing by 31 per cent between 2005 and 2008.

In other words, changes that had occurred prior to the implementation of programs by this government. Let us take his words about school retention rates, on which the Prime Minister said:

Indigenous school retention rates from the start of high school to Year 12 have risen from 30.7 per cent in 1995 to 46.5 per cent in 2008.

As I recall, the period 1995 to late 2007 was a period when this side of the House was in government. Let us talk about Indigenous employment:

Between 2002 and 2008, the Indigenous employment rate rose form 48 per cent to 53.8 per cent.

Again, that is a measure of things which had occurred before the implementation of programs by this government. In other areas, the data is very mixed: a slight improvement in literacy and numeracy for years 3, 5 and 7 countered by a decline in year 9. As the Centre for Independent Studies concluded, there is ‘negligible improvement in student performance’. Even the claimed increase in Aboriginal life expectancy ‘is the result of having more reliable data, rather than the result of any real improvement on the ground’. Housing has been an abject failure. For example, only 15 houses have been completed under the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing. The Prime Minister made no mention of his promise to establish a bipartisan commission under his leadership and that of the Leader of the Opposition to oversee Indigenous housing development. This is another broken, and now forgotten, promise. In other areas, the data relied upon was highly inadequate.

Overall, the report indicates that the government is a long way from achieving the targets that were set in 2008. The fact that the Prime Minister did not even meet his target to report on the first sitting day of each parliamentary year is an illustration of the problem. It is another case of Mr Rudd promising much and delivering little. In these circumstances, the coalition is not prepared to take Mr Rudd at his word. His government has promised much but delivered little. It is all talk and little action. The coalition will not stand by and allow the success of income management to be undermined by this government. We have suggested that the government split the bill, but that suggestion has been rejected. Accordingly, we will oppose this bill when it comes to a vote in this House.