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Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Page: 1669

Mr TUCKEY (10:58 AM) —The Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009 has merits and demerits, more particularly demerits. Notwithstanding the proven benefits of the Howard government’s Northern Territory emergency initiative—the clearly defined benefits and the endorsement by some Indigenous people, some of the most recognised and respected spokesmen—this legislation is designed above all else to weaken those earlier successful provisions. I am advised by our leadership that, notwithstanding our efforts to have the bill split and therefore maintain the best of the past, the minister’s office has arrogantly refused our solution to provide the best in the future—in other words, only she knows best. I am not really sure where she got her experience from.

I come to this House with a long experience of association with Aboriginal people and can count some of them amongst my best friends. I draw to the attention of the House that prior to 1967, when this parliament gained for the first time any right to legislate in any way for Aboriginal people, their circumstances were much better than they are today. I can draw on my own experience of arriving in the town of Carnarvon in 1958 to observe town residents of Indigenous background in employment, one of whom having the position of third in charge of an over 600-mile road construction program by the state main roads department. I knew well those who operated, with great skill, the machinery that was constructing that road. I can talk closely of my friend who owned his own taxi and drank with me more times in a week than many others as we discussed the prospects of the various horses we trained.

Out on the properties the people who chose to stay on their lands—notwithstanding that white man had leased that to pastoralists—also had employment. It was itinerant, they were a labour pool but they had every right they had before that property was made a pastoral property to go out and hunt and gather, as had been their sole source of sustenance before white man came along. There is a lot of talk about how much they got paid. I cashed their cheques when they came to town and they seemed to be at the hourly rate applicable on the award, but of course only when work was available. There was no help from Canberra and they did not need it. They were skilled horsemen and they were skilled in pastoral activities. That is what existed before this parliament got involved. I might add that there was no grog on the pastoral properties and there were considerable limitations on who could obtain it in the city or the townships.

Here we are looking at some of the issues arising. As I say, the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs does not philosophically believe in this legislation and is attempting to water it down. In that process she is excluding certain welfare recipients, such as those on the age pension, disability support pension, widow allowance and veterans service pension. In every group there are people who do not need to be told how to spend their money. In the Indigenous group there is one remaining cultural fact—that, notwithstanding the ability of some people to separate themselves from a lot of tribal law and things of that nature, wherever these people reside there is the responsibility to share. Those circumstances are not surprising. As a hunting and gathering community, it was difficult with the limited tools available to spear or trap a kangaroo. If one family member or one tribal member was successful, the obligation was that the food would be shared by everyone in the group.

Many of those people I have just mentioned, who had full-time, skilled employment and who were paid by cheque in the early days, would bring those cheques to my hotel to cash them in. We used to have a large amount of cash available on a Thursday and there had to be a substantial number of small denomination notes. It was patently obvious why they wanted small denomination notes. These were people who mixed in the general society of Carnarvon with full-time employment and families. They had rental—or sometimes privately owned—housing and some owned their own trucks and worked as contractors. But when they were confronted by certain relatives who knew they had just cashed their cheque they were still culturally obliged to give them something. Knowing the responsibility they had to their own family, they deliberately carried small denomination notes to meet that obligation. That obligation is probably best epitomised by a woman residing in Perth who won a lotto prize of, I think, $800,000 that disappeared in a month. She was in serious trouble because she was a welfare recipient. The welfare authorities believed that now that she had $800,000 she should not need the support of the taxpayer and they pursued her. When they asked her where all the money had gone she said: ‘I’ve got a lot of relatives. They all came around and asked and I was obliged to give.’

In those circumstances why would we not provide protection to pensioners or the other persons I have already named from having access to cash? They would be unable to respond to the requests or the demands of other people in their community to give them that money. It deteriorates to the lowest level when that elderly person is threatened with or receives physical violence to ensure they hand the money over. The protection is easy. The intervention provided it because they did not have to have money. They could say: ‘I’m sorry, you’ve come to me for money to buy grog, drugs and pornography but I haven’t got any. I can go down to the community store and get you some food with my entitlement if that’s what you want, but I cannot get cash because the new rules deny me access to that in any serious quantity.’

Why would we exclude pensioners, veterans and others from that protection? And what is wrong with it? The administrative difficulties have been overcome and the system was working. In terms of the removal of the Racial Discrimination Act provisions that applied to the NTER, I think that is a good idea. There are other people who should be operating under the same system. I believe, from reading, that if this were America and you were unemployed, your original financial assistance would come from your contributions whilst you were working, under the green card provisions, where your employer contributes to the social security pool. But when that runs out, if you have not regained employment, you go on sustenance. You get approval certificates—or whatever their present administrative arrangement is—to buy food, pay your rent and buy the necessities of life. That is a good idea, and I think it should be applied universally.

When I go to the explanatory memorandum, I read that the new scheme of income management will commence across the Northern Territory—not universally, but it does say ‘in urban, regional and remote areas’. I thought I read elsewhere that there might be about 70 of them. That will be the first step in a future national rollout of income management for disadvantaged regions. We are also advised in the explanatory memorandum that:

The other income management trials currently underway in Western Australia and Queensland will also continue to be evaluated.

This legislation typically applies, notwithstanding that reference to ‘urban’, to remote communities. Yet a matter that occurred in the town of Narrogin was drawn to my attention by the then police regional superintendent: an Indigenous child of about age seven was arrested for the umpteenth time. This child’s sin was breaking into houses to get food. Why did he need food? When the authorities visited the house where his parents resided, there was not one item of food inside that household. The welfare payment to the parents, who had a number of children, was $700 a week. There was no food in the house. In fact, the kid was guilty on another occasion of breaking into premises to find somewhere to sleep—presumably because he was too afeard to sleep at home. Why is that family not included? It is because they happen to live in a community of probably 5,000 or 6,000 people in the great southern area of Western Australia, considered to be civilisation, I guess. It is outrageous, and yet to this day those circumstances have not been addressed.

This is what we are talking about. Why would there be any watering down? If there are measures within this legislation to improve aspects of it, and the coalition admits there are, then good. But why was it necessary to exclude people such as I named where, in an Indigenous society, they needed that protection? If someone offers to beat you up, and you are young and physically able, you might be able to deal with that threat. But if you are an age pensioner and some younger and very fit person threatens to beat you up—and I have seen them do it, just to take their glass of beer off them—why should you not have the excuse ‘I haven’t got any money’ and let them know it? Of course, it has been the women in the communities who have been most supportive of these interventions.

It is not uncommon from a racial aspect to apply these types of provisions, and I think they should be extended widely. We now have all of the mechanisms and the technology for a credit card. Instead of posting cash entitlement to persons on welfare, more particularly in vulnerable areas, they get a credit card and it is just like Visa, Mastercard or anything else; it is a Commonwealth department. If a person goes over their entitlement, it gets bounced and they do not get the goods. But of course it is up to the store owner to make it very, very clear, and of course they have a legal responsibility not to include prohibited goods. But if there is no cash there is no pressure, and the capacity to purchase drugs, pornography and other things is considerably limited. So there is good reason for the coalition to request, as they have, that this bill be split. Let us get on with dealing with the good bits.

There are other aspects of this legislation; for example, it refers to land leases and other matters. I have always held the view that land rights to Aboriginal communities should be tradeable commodities. They should be freehold, leasehold or whatever is applicable in the wider community.

In one breath I am told that these people have this inviolate association with the land and that we the legislators cannot trust them to deal with it. I have had examples of people granted land from farming properties but no money for livestock or machinery. I have an example of a pastoral property being bought on their behalf and the government agency negotiating to have all the cattle removed from it, which was the only value of the property, because they did not think they would be able to handle it but would then have some land in which to receive their sit-down money. That is the sort of thing we do in this place. I think those circumstances arose under a Liberal government, so I am not picking on one side or the other.

This particular reference gives me the opportunity to talk about housing. Because of the redistribution, I have Aboriginal communities in my electorate who live closer to Alice Springs than they do, for instance, to the town of Kalgoorlie, where I was speaking to them on a phone hook-up the other day. I have had a longstanding view that, if we use tilt-up concrete technology, people in remote communities could build their own houses without having to do two or three years apprenticeship or anything else. I know how to do it and I have offered time and again—if someone is prepared to buy some building materials, which are limited—to help them construct and learn how to apply that technology. The principal requirement is to have available some coarse, washed sand, which occurs in creek beds even in the driest of areas. These houses would be durable and, in my view, designed to their desires. When I was speaking to this remote community, the spokesman said to me: ‘When can you come? That is exactly the sort of house we like.’ And it was my view that they could each be constructed completely for under $50,000. He said: ‘The last house they built for us cost $500,000, and nobody wants to live in it. More particularly, you cannot live in it at night-time. We don’t want all the mechanical bits. We don’t want the air conditioner and we don’t want the electric heater, because they break down and they just cause us grief.’ If houses were properly designed—with a wide covered breezeway, accommodation on one side, in a rectangular form, the other services on the other side, provision for an open fire—those people would find that more to their liking and more practical.

We have this view that, unless they have a McMansion—a European style house—it is racial discrimination. But they do not want them. In those societies, they want something that is comfortable for their lifestyle. And they can build it themselves. And they can learn very quickly. Don’t anyone tell me they cannot learn. I know they can. I have seen them perform at the highest level in all sorts of skills, including as linesmen in the local electricity authority. That sort of housing should be built. I hope I am personally closer to demonstrating that to the Australian people and to the department. People get a thrill out of ownership and they should have the opportunity of it.