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Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Page: 1662

Mr OAKESHOTT (10:21 AM) —I rise to speak on the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009 having only 15 months ago given my first speech in this chamber and my first words were in local language. My first paragraph was about the continued lack of acknowledgement of country alongside the daily prayers in this chamber. I rise to represent, from a local perspective, the very large—in fact, majority—Indigenous population on the east coast of Australia that continues to be lost in the perception created through the political processes that all things Indigenous happen either in the Northern Territory or in Cape York. That is factually incorrect. The largest Indigenous populations in Australia live where most Australians want to live—that is, right along the eastern seaboard, the window between Sydney and Rockhampton or maybe a bit further north. That is where the vast majority of the issues arise, within a very complex regionalised and urbanised Indigenous population blended in with the challenges facing local, state and federal government dealing with very rapid urban development in the same window.

It would be nice if that were to start to appear on the radar of government and in the language of government. For example, I did not hear a single word in the Closing the Gap statements about this majority Indigenous population. We continue to see legislation come through this place—for example the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007 put in place by the previous government—more because of a territory’s constitutional weakness than the factual trail of where the majority of people live and the complexities of this issue.

We continue to see both sides of the chamber wanting to get close to Noel Pearson in Cape York because of some perception that, if you are close to Noel Pearson, you have the voice of Aboriginal people in Australia. Noel Pearson does a great job for Cape York, but not for one minute should any of us as policymakers fall into the trap of thinking that Noel Pearson is the voice of all Aboriginal Australians. I ask government to consider its position in this continuous loop on reconciliation which focuses purely on the Northern Territory and Cape York. An awful lot else is going on in this country with regard to the Indigenous populations and it would be nice, if we are in an era of reconciliation, to acknowledge and support that.

I hope it is a sensible move to repeal laws that limit antidiscrimination laws. I understand the aims of changing the Northern Territory Emergency Response so that it no longer contravenes the Racial Discrimination Act as it has up to now on the grounds of treating a group of people differently based on their race. Whilst on that constitutional point, if we are serious we live in an era in which we need to reconsider that and perhaps even put it to a referendum about pulling out that constitutional reference to race. I live in a town with a bronze statue of Edmund Barton on our town green. He was a state member before becoming Australia’s first Prime Minister. I often look at that statue and think that if he were to shake out of the bronze and suddenly wake up, I would hope he and other forefathers like Andrew Inglis Clark and Samuel Griffith would look around and think some of the words that they put together in that Constitution—when they were floating up the Hawkesbury River on the great weekend in which they formed the Constitution—were misplaced and there is work still to be done. I think the continued use of race as a Trojan Horse to get into areas such as the Northern Territory is deserving of some reflection at a referendum. We need to pull that out as we have pulled out other racially divided questions such as whether or not Aboriginal people can vote. I hope the government considers that.

I am not one to say that any law in this country should not have exceptions and I heard Michael Kirby make that point. If we are going to step around any law—let us look at discrimination laws in this case—we need to be very clear and open about defining the boundaries. We need to be very clear about defining the who, what, where and why questions. I do not think we did that in suspending the RDA in the way that was done in an effort to somehow protect the integrity of the emergency response. I do not think the boundaries that were set were clear; therefore, I think it was an abuse of power to suspend it in the way that the previous regime did.

So I hope—and I keep saying ‘hope’—that we are seeing change for the better, because what we are seeing is, if you like, a redefining of the Emergency Response by saying we are introducing special measures in accordance with article 1(4) of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and that has been interpreted by Australian courts as having four elements:

  • a special measure must confer a benefit on some or all members of a class
  • the membership of the class must be based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin
  • a special measure must be for the sole purpose of securing adequate advancement of the beneficiaries in order that they may enjoy and exercise equally with others human rights and freedoms, and
  • the circumstances of the special measure must provide protection to the beneficiaries which is necessary in order that they may enjoy and exercise human rights and freedoms equally with others.

I note that in the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs’ second reading speech she assured us all:

The government believes that all—

Emergency Response measures in the Northern Territory—

are either special measures under the Racial Discrimination Act or non-discriminatory and therefore consistent with the Racial Discrimination Act.

So there is an attempt to redefine, and redefine for the better.

I hope—again I come back to that word ‘hope’—that this means that delivery of services in practice on the ground in the town camps and the many locations where the Emergency Response is taking place now starts to place a bit more respect on the individuals involved and on the very point of a Racial Discrimination Act in the first place. But we watch and we wait to see whether that is true, because I do not think any of us in this place can judge whether, with this changing from a suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act to a redefinition that these are now ‘special measures’, it is somehow in the best interests of Northern Territory communities to have the Emergency Response and therefore redefine the act. We need to see in practice how government is going to deliver this redefinition on the ground. I hope it is for the better, and I hope the keyword of ‘respect’ is involved in the future on the ground in regard to the activities in a weaker link, constitutionally, in the Northern Territory, which has an inability compared to the states to, if you like, defend its patch.

I might just make reference to some of the other commentary, because I think it is worth putting on the record some of the comments that have been made by others. The repeal of the laws on the RDA has been generally welcomed, and I acknowledge that. I hope it is for the better. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, has said that this would ‘send an important message that the government was genuine in its commitment to reset the relationship with Indigenous Australians.’ This change has also been publicly supported by the Law Council of Australia and a range of community sector organisations, such as ACOSS, the Australian Council of Social Service.

Whilst welcoming the reinstatement of the operation of the RDA—and I think this is a similar point to the one I just made—some have argued that the Emergency Response and income management provisions in the bill will continue to have a discriminatory impact on those affected. I put on the record a joint statement on income management from ACOSS and 11 other community sector organisations that have argued:

… the extension of income management will indirectly discriminate against Indigenous Australians in disadvantaged areas across the country, who are likely to be disproportionately affected by the policy.

The proposed changes will also discriminate against income support recipients across the country on the basis of income source, duration of income support and geography. Income managed individuals will have to use a card to purchase groceries and other essentials. This card reveals an individual’s income source to retailers and others and is likely to cause shame and discrimination, as it has to affected recipients in the Northern Territory.

I also put on the record that not all observers have welcomed the government’s objective of reinstating the operation of the RDA. From an ideological point of view, Howard government adviser David Moore has argued that this objective is ideological and puts at risk the effectiveness of the emergency response. So I just put that on the record to say there are a wide range of views on this topic.

Getting onto the issue of welfare reform, I would have preferred it if this bill were split into two. It implies in the very heading that this is entirely an Aboriginal issue. If we are serious about welfare reform in this country then welfare reform should be about those in need, all colours and all races, and we should be targeting those in need in lower socioeconomic communities and those who are welfare recipients who, in the eyes of government are doing the wrong thing. We should be doing all we can to assist them on an equal, fair and colourless basis. But to imply in the title of this bill that we are reinstating the RDA because there is an element of race attached in this—‘It is about Cape York and the Northern Territory, but we’re quarantining for everyone’—without being too confrontational, in my view, plays the race card. It plays the black card, and I think we have to get past that in policy development. I know the words and commitment of the Prime Minister are sound on that, but too often we still see it, and once again we see it here. So if we are going to expand an income management regime that is targeted at all and is about trying to make sure welfare goes to the right purposes—groceries, healthy meals and healthy families—then let us make sure that it is for everyone in this country moving forward.

I do not want to sound too down about it all, because I am going to support the legislation, but I continue to make this point: sure, we as policy makers have to do what we can about the Samson and Delilah culture of Australia in the dusty outback communities of the Northern Territory, WA and Far North Queensland, but what we also have to do is look at the facts. The facts are that there are enormous complexities and challenges facing the majority of the Indigenous populations and Indigenous nations of this country. The facts say quite clearly that more than 50 per cent of the individuals in question live in a window on the east coast of Australia roughly between, as I have said before, Sydney and Rockhampton.

We have to start to crack some of the stereotypes that are promoted into mainstream culture and we have to start to put together an evidence trail based on facts. The facts are that we need to spend more time and more effort working on those complexities around regionalised and urbanised communities where wealth is right in the face, where growth is right in the face, where issues around alcohol and abuse are right in the face, and where the added challenge of being forgotten and lost in an urbanised or regionalised setting is also a very easy one for us all to forget about.

I will continue to badger government about the Middleton Streets of South Kempsey, about the Purfleets of Taree and about what remain many of the forgotten, complex communities that deserve to have similar, if not more attention than we currently see. As we enter into a welcome new era of reconciliation there is a danger of these streets and communities remaining forgotten in some effort to paint a picture that government is fixing the outback Aboriginal communities in Australia today.

I will not oppose this. I will sit with the government, mainly because we are starting to see some direction on the RDA and some respect for the law—something that I would have thought was a no-brainer for every member of this chamber, but it seems that it is not. I hope that we do see this redefinition of the RDA as being a special measure now, rather than a suspension, one that makes a difference in practice and starts to put some meat on the bone of issues such as self-determination, some meat on the bone for issues around the apology, such as respect, and some meat on the bone around really wanting, being willing and doing the heavy lifting in and around the issue of closing the gap and reconciliation in Australia today.