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Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Page: 1677

Mr PERRETT (11:41 AM) —I rise to speak in support of the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009. Deputy Speaker, you would well know from your time in the chair that MPs stand in this chamber and speak for lots of reasons. Normally it is because they are passionate about the particular piece of legislation in front of them. Particularly if they are in a marginal electorate, members speak to inform the electorate about a particular government policy or initiative. I normally speak on something that I am going to send out to community groups to inform them about a government initiative or a member might speak because they are part of a committee, so they have knowledge of the subject matter and wish to make a contribution. Occasionally a member might get a tap on the shoulder from the whip, saying, ‘This might be something that you’re interested in.’

I have not prepared my speech on this matter for any of those reasons. I am speaking on this topic because it is something that I feel I have to do. This particular piece of legislation is a difficult piece of legislation for me personally, but it is something that I feel I have to speak on. It would be cowardly to retreat from a difficult topic like this. I know it would be of concern to some people in my electorate, but it has wider ramifications. As far as legislation goes, this is a pretty tough bill for the Rudd government and for the ALP, I would suggest—and, as I said, for me personally—not because it is complicated or hard to understand but because of the competing rights that are at play, competing rights that have been touched on by those opposite.

I was quite saddened to see that the opposition’s position is to oppose, oppose, oppose. ‘Oppose first and think later’ seems to be the guiding policy of those opposite, which is not a great way to work in a democracy. But a few of their speakers have touched on some of the competing interests. As we know, on the one hand, Australians have the right to spend their money however they choose, as long as they are not breaking any laws. You can collect beer coasters, stamps or cassettes and CDs, which is how I invested all my money. Investing in cassettes was not very wise, as it turned out. They did not turn out to be the boon that I thought they would be back in the seventies and eighties. In fact you can barely even play them now. But Australians have a right to spend their money however they choose, as long as they are not breaking any laws. I think we accept that as a first principle.

On the other hand, vulnerable Australians, like all Australians, also have a duty to put a roof over their kids’ heads. They have a duty to put food on the table for their families. That is the other fundamental right which we are balancing here. It is, as any lawyer or person with any common sense would tell you, a legal right and legal obligation to look after our families, so when these rights are competing with each other the government must act to help the vulnerable find the right balance. That is what this bill endeavours to achieve. That is what I mean about it being a difficult matter for me personally. There is the welfare expectation that I grew up with and that many people in the Labor Party have embraced, and we are now changing that assumption. I will come to that by looking at some of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander data later in this speech, because that informs the speech and why I am here today to address the legislation.

Income management arrangements were put in place in the Northern Territory by the Howard government, as acknowledged by some of the earlier speakers, as part of the Northern Territory Emergency Response. I think most political observers know that there was an element of political expediency, perhaps crossbred with good intentions and guided by election night considerations, when it came to the Northern Territory Emergency Response. There was an element of ‘red dirt Tampa’, you might call it, but I would like to think that Minister Brough was guided by the best of intentions. He certainly seems to have shown good intentions since then.

However, the Rudd government believes that the arrangements put in place by the Howard government could be better targeted. This bill removes the income management arrangement in the Northern Territory and extends the arrangements to selected disadvantaged regions throughout Australia to provide greater protection for people and their children. It will apply to disengaged youth, long-term welfare payment recipients and people assessed as vulnerable. Voluntary income management will also be available to all welfare recipients living in the Northern Territory. If that is something that they want to embrace—if that is a process that they felt worked for their households or communities—they can still voluntarily embrace income management.

These measures will make sure that welfare payments are spent on food and rent, not excessively on alcohol, gambling, drugs or the like. Welfare is supposed to support families and communities; it is supposed to empower the vulnerable, not create a cycle of dependency. I am not speaking as a wowser—I am familiar with alcohol and I am familiar with gambling—but I think we would all agree that welfare was never meant to be a permanent solution for most people. On occasions it can be the only way that society can support people. However, welfare is useless if it is not used to help people send their children to school, to get children educated and to get young people working or learning. My partner has worked in child protection for over 20 years. That and my having been a teacher are my experiences. In terms of what I have seen, I know that the state is not a great parent. The state is not even a great wage earner. The state stepping in is the last measure before someone hits rock bottom. For all the wonderful social workers that I have met and that are friends, they would still accept that a parent or carer connected to the child is the best person to care. The state is a very poor parent.

Obviously, we need to break the cycle of passive welfare dependence, and this bill links the payment of welfare to making sure that children go to school regularly, continue their studies and go on to productive work. Let us look at some of the data, particularly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. I turn to a speech that the Prime Minister gave in this chamber on 11 February: his Closing the Gap speech. Some of the data that is touched on in his speech we are familiar with now. When we came to government, the initial estimation of the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy was put at 17 years. Seventeen years is horrible. Now, with the better data that we have, it is suggested that it is only 11½ years for men and 9.7 years for women. I am loath to use the term ‘only 11½ years’; 11½ years is a long time, and if that is an average then there are still some pockets of horror spread throughout Australia.

I remember it was just over two years ago that I made my first speech in this chamber, and in that speech I talked about a lot of the kids I went to school with, grew up with, played football with. I look at those football photographs now—the beauty of Facebook is that you get to see those photos from your youth that you normally would only pull out of an old, dusty box; now they put them up to embarrass me, I am sure—and see the number of people who are missing. They are mainly Indigenous—they are mainly Murris—who are missing from those photographs. When you look at those gaps and think of 11½ years age difference, you realise what it means that three-quarters of your Aboriginal friends are going to be dead before they get to 65. I used to think 65 was old; now it seems quite young. A dashing 65 I can imagine. I look at those photographs and see personally what it means to have that gap and how it plays out in communities. My home town is one of them, but I am sure it plays out all across Australia.

When I look at those photographs, I am quite compelled to realise why we need to do better as a nation and a government to really make a difference. The apology was great, but the Closing the Gap activities make me particularly proud of the Rudd government because we are changing lives and saving lives. According to the data I have looked at, Indigenous children in Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory are 3.6 times more likely to die before they reach the age of five and only 47.4 per cent of Indigenous young people had obtained year 12 or equivalent in 2006. The employment gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians aged between 15 and 64 is 21 percentage points. When employment data comes out and we get hot and heavy over a 0.5, 0.6 or one percentage point change, can you imagine having a 21 percentage point gap in employment? Connected with that data are the sadness, alienation and poor life choices that come with not having the dignity of work.

In 2008, the gap in child mortality meant that 205 out of any 100,000 Indigenous children died before reaching the age of five. When you read this data it just flows off the page and, unless you are an accountant, probably your eyes glaze over. But 205 out of 100,000 is about two in 1,000 or one in 500 for those who are mathematically challenged like me. I have two kids so, when I think of those two in 1,000, I find it horrible. Indigenous children are twice as likely to die before reaching the age of five than white fella kids are.

I cannot finish that list of sad stories without pointing out some of the good things that are happening, not just the better data that can bridge some of that gap but I also want to particularly mention a great leader in the Queensland education community, Dr Chris Sarra who came very close to being an Australian of the Year. I was lucky enough to go to teachers college with him. He is achieving great results with the Stronger Smarter Leadership program. His ‘clear and high expectations’ philosophy is changing kids’ lives and producing remarkable results in the 44 schools that have signed up to it.

The last aspect I want to touch on using ATSI data is child protection. The rate of Indigenous children on care and protection orders is eight times the rate for non-Indigenous children. Of the 35,000 kids on care and protection orders, about 4,400 of them are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. For out-of-home care—children who have been removed—the rate is nine times the rate for non-Indigenous children. Those are horrible sets of data. That is why any level of unease that I felt about the idea of income management has been well and truly put to rest by what we are achieving, the ongoing consultation that the Rudd government has carried out with remote communities and the willingness of this government to respond to their needs appropriately. In practice it is a tool to benefit the whole community, not to punish individuals and I look forward to the new scheme getting under way from 1 July this year.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report shows that income management is an effective way to ensure that children have food on the table and to provide vulnerable and disadvantaged Australians with greater financial security, but those trapped in long-term welfare dependence, alcohol abuse and gambling addiction are on a long and difficult road to freedom. Income management will not solve all these issues, but it can provide the circuit-breaker some people need to begin to turn things around at home. It is estimated that these income management reforms will help around 20,000 families in the Northern Territory alone.

This bill also reinstates the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and the Northern Territory Anti-Discrimination laws in relation to the Northern Territory Emergency Response and Queensland anti-discrimination laws in relation to the Queensland Family Responsibilities Commission and the Cape York welfare reform trial. Despite the success of income management so far if it is not implemented fairly and equitably for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, it will only serve to create shame and hurt in the long term. This is not about race or colour, instead it is about providing assistance to the many Australian families in disadvantaged regions. That is why the Rudd government committed to lift the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act and why we are delivering on that commitment in this legislation. It is also why the opposition should support this legislation. I ask them to think about it and consider it rather than oppose it as a first principle. They should support this legislation to extend welfare reform to other welfare recipients and ensure the emergency response is sustainable.

This bill will also better target alcohol restrictions to tackle alcohol abuse across remote Australia. Alcohol controls are required to help counter the abuse that affects too many women, children and elderly people especially. This bill retains the existing alcohol restrictions, but rather than imposing blanket restrictions across Indigenous areas in the Northern Territory, restrictions will be tailored to specific regions. These restrictions will be based on evidence about alcohol related harm in the community, community consultation about the effectiveness of restrictions and consideration of proposed alternatives. This bill will also keep the existing restrictions on prohibited material including the possession and supply of sexually explicit and violent films, computer games and publications. Government consultation has yielded a lot of support for the contribution of these restrictions. However, people in proscribed areas will be able to apply to the minister to have the restrictions applying in their community lifted. The minister will need to consider the wellbeing of the people in the community and, if the lifting of restrictions is harmful, the declaration may be revoked.

This bill also includes measures to improve food security in remote Indigenous communities. A healthy diet and a healthy start to the day can do so much to improve education. The bill improves the licensing arrangements for community stores by extending the scope to cover shops that are a key source of food, drink and other grocery items for an Indigenous community. It modifies the range of assessable matters under the scheme, incorporating in legislation specific responsibilities of store owners and store managers and requiring owners of licensed community stores, where those owners are incorporated under the Northern Territory Associations Act, to become registered under the Commonwealth act. These measures will help develop local community stores as key partners in our efforts to improve the health and wellbeing of remote communities.

The government will continue to assess income management and will evaluate these reforms at the end of 2011 before extending the income management to other disadvantaged regions. These reforms go hand in glove with the Rudd government’s efforts towards closing the gap to improve Indigenous health, housing, life expectancy and education. I think that as a nation it is important that we get the balance right. We do not take on this legislation lightly. It is done with community consultation and with the proper balancing process in mind in terms of saving lives and changing lives around.

I think every Australian who has thought about the history of this nation would know that that shameful scar that is 220-odd years old has to be nurtured and supported as much as possible for it to heal properly. The Indigenous community has endured so much that I think that it is right that we get meaningful engagement and meaningful changes to lives, giving people the opportunities to access work that leads to dignity and an opportunity to leave something for their children. I think that if we can get that balance right—and this legislation goes a long way towards doing that—we might be able to have more Indigenous Australians, both Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, representing their communities and stepping up, and maybe we will do what we can to make sure that some of the 150 MPs in this House will be Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders—and maybe also in the Senate, but I think the House of Representatives’ record is not quite as good as the Senate’s, so we need to make sure that we create as many opportunities as— (Time expired)