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Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Page: 1673


Mr TREVOR (11:18 AM) —I thank the member for O’Connor for his worthy contribution. I rise today to speak on the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009. The bill will introduce changes, in my opinion, that are fundamental to the fight against the unacceptably high level of disadvantage in remote communities and town camps in the Northern Territory. This, I believe, will be achieved through a number of amendments in this bill. The first and foremost is the repeal of provisions that limit the application of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and state and territory antidiscrimination laws in relation to the Northern Territory Emergency Response and associated measures. In addition to this, the amendments include the redesign of core measures of the Northern Territory Emergency Response to improve and strengthen them so they are sustainable in the long term and are more clearly ‘special measures’ within the terms of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Another fundamental component of the amendments in this bill is the introduction of a new model of income management, to be used in selected locations throughout Australia, in relation to people who meet objective criteria. The bill represents a very positive step for the future of disadvantaged remote communities and town camps in the Northern Territory. Our government recognises the need to continually address this unacceptably high level of disadvantage and through this bill will ensure long-term action is taken to address it.

Our government’s commitment to addressing this issue is clear in our acceptance of the three overarching recommendations of the 2008 Northern Territory Emergency Response Review Board report. This report, in conjunction with a very extensive consultation process with Indigenous people in communities affected by the Northern Territory Emergency Response in town camps has allowed our government to make informed decisions about the changes that need to be made to best address the issues affecting these disadvantaged communities and town camps. Eight of the existing Northern Territory Emergency Response measures were discussed in this consultation process: income management, alcohol restrictions, pornography restrictions, five-year leases, community stores licensing, controls on the use of publicly funded computers, law enforcement powers and business management area powers. The consultations were unprecedented in scale and conducted intensively over more than three months, with a total of more than 500 meetings being held. The legislation today has been developed taking into account the views expressed in these meetings by the Indigenous people in communities affected by the Northern Territory Emergency Response and the recommendations of the 2008 Northern Territory Emergency Response Review Board report.

The first and foremost step towards a better situation in the remote communities and town camps in the Northern Territory is to reinstate the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and state and territory antidiscrimination laws in relation to the Northern Territory Emergency Response and associated measures. In 2008, our government made a commitment to do this and through this bill we are honouring that commitment. This is also consistent with the recommendations from the 2008 report that government actions affecting the Aboriginal communities should respect Australia’s human rights obligations and conform to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. Consistent with our government’s commitment and this recommendation, the amendments in this bill will repeal the provisions that limit the application of the Racial Discrimination Act and state and territory antidiscrimination laws in relation to the Northern Territory Emergency Response and associated measures.

This is also consistent with pressure imposed on the government by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Special Rapporteur, James Anaya, who when reporting at the end of an August 2009 visit to Australia argued in the Statement of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of Indigenous people:

… any special measure that infringes on the basic rights of Indigenous peoples must be narrowly tailored, proportional, and necessary to achieve the legitimate objectives being pursued. In my view, the Northern Territory Emergency Response is not. In my opinion, as currently configured and carried out, the Emergency Response is incompatible with Australia’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, treaties to which Australia is a party, as well as incompatible with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which Australia has affirmed its support.

As this statement shows, our government must repeal the provisions that limit the application of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and state and territory antidiscrimination laws in relation to the Northern Territory Emergency Response and associated measures in order to fulfil our international obligations and ensure that Indigenous Australians are not disadvantaged any further.

It seems irrational that legislation which is supposed to remove disadvantage does so by suspending antidiscrimination laws. We made a commitment to Australia to repeal these limitations on antidiscrimination laws to ensure the people affected by them are not put at any further disadvantage. Although the immediate aims of the Northern Territory Emergency Response measures were to protect children and to make communities safe, in the longer term they were designed to create a better future for Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. In order to commit to this intention, antidiscrimination laws must be reinstated. Our government must put in place measures to remove the high level of disadvantage present in remote communities and town camps in the Northern Territory and work towards a more sustainable future of long-term action on this issue.

Another step towards this sustainable future is the repeal and replacement of current income management measures. A new model of income management will be established by this bill to be used in selected locations throughout Australia for people who meet objective criteria. It will commence in the Northern Territory but will eventually be extended to other vulnerable Australians across the country. The operation of the scheme in the Northern Territory will be carefully evaluated before the national rollout.

We as a government understand that there are many families across Australia who could be assisted by income management. It is an initiative that has the potential not only to improve their lives but to break the cycle of passive welfare. For many families across this country, it represents a potential circuit-breaker that will help stabilise the whole environment by ensuring the basics of life are met. It is also important to remember that it is designed to be a non-discriminatory measure. It has been purposely designed to act as a beneficial tool and not as a punitive intervention. This is evident in the matched savings and incentive payments for opting in. It aims to target categories of people that have been identified as at risk of severe disadvantage. The target groups include disengaged youth, long-term welfare payment recipients, vulnerable welfare repayment recipients, people referred for income management by the Northern Territory child protection authority and people who voluntarily opt in to income management.

Our government is committed to progressively reforming the welfare system to foster individual responsibility and to provide a platform for people to move up and out of welfare dependence. Welfare should not be a destination or a way of life. By targeting these disadvantaged groups, we can have the most impact on curbing welfare dependence and encouraging them to demonstrate responsibility, such as responsible parenting, personal initiative through participation in education and training or personal money management and saving. It will also encourage these groups to learn important life skills and socially inclusive behaviour for themselves and their children. We as a government must ensure that we do everything we possibly can to get children to school and to get young people engaged in work and training. In order to combat passive welfare, we must link the payment of welfare to making sure that children go to school regularly and that they continue their studies and go on to work.

In addition to promoting these positive behaviour and lifestyle changes for the affected groups, the management of welfare payments will see numerous other benefits for them. It should be remembered that the welfare system has historically been about providing essential support for individuals in need and that it has been and will remain the government’s responsibility to ensure that income support is directed to meeting essential needs, particularly in cases such as those of the people in these groups, where recipients are vulnerable or unable to fend for themselves. A range of sources have suggested that income management is an effective tool to improve the conditions of children by increasing their access to food, clothing and school related expenses, and to provide financial security for vulnerable people in some of the most disadvantaged circumstances in Australia.

The reforms introduced by this bill will ensure that people’s welfare payments are spent on the essentials of life such as food and rent, not on alcohol and gambling. Alcohol has long been a scourge across remote Australia. Its misuse continues to be a threat to the safety of Aboriginal women, children and the elderly. It is one of the most serious issues facing Indigenous people in the Northern Territory. Through the extensive consultations that have been conducted, it has become apparent that many communities want the existing strong restrictions to remain in place but the current one-size-fits-all approach may not be the most effective way to minimise alcohol harm. The solution our government has provided is to retain the existing alcohol restrictions, but to work with the Northern Territory government to implement locally negotiated alcohol management plans which meet a number of criteria. By implementing tailored negotiated management plans, the specific factors in each community can be evaluated and taken into consideration to ensure the most effective and appropriate plan is formed to suit the community and result in the best outcome.

I implore those opposite to see the logic in the amendments present in this bill. We have the opportunity here, today, through this bill, to improve the lives of countless Australians and to make permanent changes to their way of life. It is the very reason why we are all here. By implementing these changes, the cycle of welfare dependency can be broken and the shackles of oppression lifted. We can, I believe, empower a huge number of people to take more personal responsibility, to have the advantages of reinforcement for positive behaviour and encouragement for self-improvement. We can give children the opportunity to grow up healthy and receive consistent education. It is not just about supporting the people in these disadvantaged communities, it is about encouraging them to seek out and learn ways and habits to help support themselves. We as their government have the power and through this bill the opportunity to do so. Opposing it is nothing but a blunt disregard for their wellbeing and the wellbeing of future generations born into situations in which they will require government support.

We as a government are determined and absolutely committed to placing children and families at the forefront of our welfare reform agenda. They are the focus, and through focusing on them we can break the cycle of passive welfare. It cannot be denied that the changes in this bill represent a better future for the disadvantaged people in remote communities and town camps. Its royal assent is the only sensible step in improving their lives. It is for these reasons that this bill has my complete support, and I commend it to the House.