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Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Page: 1682


Dr STONE (12:02 PM) —I rise to speak on the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009. The bill will amend several acts relating to the income management arrangements under the social security law and the Northern Territory Emergency Response. This very important Northern Territory Emergency Response, of course, was introduced by the Howard government when we had the most shocking reports of child neglect and abuse, when it was quite clear that no nation could continue to tolerate what was, for young Indigenous Australians but also for Indigenous families and communities, a reign of terror, abuse, shortened life expectancies and Third World conditions.

So I was shocked to hear the member for Moreton describe our Northern Territory Emergency Response as ‘red dirt Tampa’ and say that in fact it was political expediency which had driven us to bring about this very substantial set of measures which collectively are called the Northern Territory Emergency Response. I say: shame on the member for Moreton! I hope there are not too many others on the other side who share his political response to what is in fact a horrendous situation in Indigenous communities throughout Australia but, in particular, in the more remote parts of the country.

Unfortunately, a lot of the issues are or were as a result of being out of sight and out of mind. One of the issues which the Howard government tackled was the fact that, although there were public roads going through many Indigenous communities, access to these towns—their shops, fuel outlets and so on—was restricted very much according to who was given permission to travel through. So you did not have the grey nomads pulling off the track, dropping in to some of these tiny little outstations or bigger Indigenous settlements, so there was no collective understanding in Australia of just how shocking a lot of the infrastructure neglect was or of the conditions of the men, women and children living in such dire poverty and distress in many of these places. We, of course, attempted to do something about the fact that these places were too often out of sight and out of mind due to those extraordinary restrictions on access for all Australians.

I will never forget the scare campaign that was run by the member for Lingiari, who suggested that, in our trying to make these places more visible to the rest of Australia, all we were trying to do was allow Australians to trample on Indigenous sacred places. When I was in the Northern Territory in some of these small towns and settlements myself, I had respected elderly people saying to me, ‘Is it true that the Howard government is trying to open up our most sacred places for trampling by people who might come on through?’ I was able to assure them that that was ridiculous. It was in fact the political expediency and the desperate attempts of a then opposition party to smear the efforts of the minister of the day and, indeed, the coalition government, which was trying to do something urgently about the devastating and unacceptable conditions in Northern Australia.

Let me say that we as an opposition support the income management regime, which we put in place, where we tried to make sure that what income is received by men and women in these remote communities goes to food, clothing and essentials for families to survive and is not begged, borrowed or otherwise moved out of the pockets of the recipients to those who might gamble or drink away that income. These measures, unfortunately, are to be watered down in this legislation. Likewise, the very important measures we put in place in relation to restricting alcohol across many Indigenous communities are also to be watered down, as is the prohibition of certain materials, particularly pornography, which is a blight in a lot of these communities, where teenagers and even younger children spend their days confronted with the most inappropriate and vicious pornographic material, to the point where some think that it is normal and what life is really about. Unfortunately, again, this legislation waters down our prohibitions related to pornographic material in these communities.

Certainly, we were and are most concerned about the nutritional value of products sold in community stores. We introduced a community stores licensing scheme. This legislation aims to extend that licensing to improve and clarify the operation of that scheme. We would commend anything that does that. But I am certainly concerned that anything that Labor talks about rarely ends up in practical action.

For example, let me go back to the income management regime which we put in place because we knew that ‘humbugging’, as it is often called in Northern Australia, was rampant and rife. Women, particularly, were powerless in being able to keep income paid to them—often as welfare—so children were suffering without adequate nutrition, clothing and shelter. We established a model of income management that meant the vast majority of Indigenous recipients in Indigenous communities were helped to better manage their incomes through this income management process.

Unfortunately now the Labor government is going to exclude people on age pension, disability support pension, widow allowance and veterans service pensions from income management. The Indigenous recipients who receive those pensions are the ones who are most vulnerable to having that income stripped away from them by others in the communities, who are often desperate as drug dependent or alcohol dependent individuals. These amendments provide no improvement to what are currently the circumstances.

The Labor government has not done the work that had to be done in terms of financial literacy and helping the communities to manage their alcohol and drug dependency, which leads to this terrible misuse of what moneys are in the community. All it has done is to remove some who were being protected from the categories which will now be under income management. I think this is an extraordinarily narrow-minded and, indeed, irresponsible response to a very serious problem.

The scheme does intend to operate as a tool to support disengaged youth and vulnerable individuals. The explanatory memorandum provides no evidence of how that further protection of youth and others would be provided with, say, counselling or other additional support. All we know is that, due to this legislation, in the future certain welfare recipients will be excluded from income management: those who have been, up to this date, helped by having some income management support.

Even more worrying for us though is the fact that the vulnerability test of who should or should not have income management will be determined by social workers and child protection workers in Northern Australia. Let me read from the Australian newspaper on 18 February this year—just a few days ago. Let me tell you about just how effective and efficient the Northern Territory welfare workers, social workers and child protection workers are in dealing with the problems of Indigenous Australia. We have, for example, the former federal intervention chairwoman and retired Children’s Court magistrate, Sue Gordon, saying:

… the NT government must answer questions about what had happened to children whose cases had been “written off” and not investigated.

because—

The report identified 785 cases for which a child protection investigation was due but had not yet begun, including 345 at one office alone. …

Despite a 69 per cent increase in notifications last year,—

of children at risk and in need in families needing investigation and support, despite that 69 per cent increase—

no extra workers were put on, … the intake team had been relying on fewer than five workers instead of the usual eight. This had led to huge backlogs, rapid turnover and a highly inexperienced team.

They were trying to work with Aboriginal families and Aboriginal children and, quite frankly, this newspaper report is about the complete failure of the system of investigating and recommending in relation to vulnerable children in the Northern Territory.

And here we have this government saying that they are now going to subject those who should be placed into the income management stream to decisions made by social workers and child protection workers who apparently are magically going to appear. I would expect them to first deal with the 785 cases which have not yet even been commenced before they get stuck into this other work, which is quite unnecessary if you continued with the regime which the Howard government put in place. It delivered some protection, at last, for families, and particularly women, who needed some cash to go to their community store and buy food to put on the table in these remote places or to buy clothing or other essentials of life.

Again, this is an example of the Labor Party being totally unable to deal with realities and practicalities. It is great on spin, but when it comes to actually administering a program—and we have seen an horrific example of this in recent times with the insulation installation program—this government is totally unable to deliver practical measures, because either it does not know what is happening on the ground or it does not have administrative capability. We, as the coalition government, understood that you not only have to have the right policies but they have to be delivered efficiently and effectively.

Let me move on to the second area of great concern in relation to the watering down of measures that we put in place under the Northern Territory emergency regime, and that is the business of alcohol. As we know, there is a scourge of alcohol addiction and domestic violence abuse is associated with that addiction. There are lives being destroyed as a result of alcohol consumption and the violence and unemployment associated with alcohol dependency.

There is also the tragic circumstance of foetal alcohol syndrome, where the unborn is disabled as a consequence of the mother drinking during the pregnancy. It is even more tragic if the little baby born is female and alcohol has been consumed in the first trimester, as she may carry for her future children the foetal alcohol syndrome. This means that the intellectual and physical disabilities are passed on to yet another generation—even if that little girl never consumes alcohol during her entire life.

I particularly want to commend the women of the Western Australian town of Fitzroy Crossing. They were determined to save their town from the scourge of alcohol abuse, domestic violence and foetal alcohol syndrome. After 13 suicides in 13 months, they courageously decided that they had to put their foot down and say that enough was enough. They had the support of some strong men in their community. They knew that they had to stop alcohol consumption in their town and they had to educate and support women and men to understand what was happening as a result of alcohol abuse in their community. They in fact produced a film, Yajilarra, which was launched by Governor-General Quentin Bryce exactly one year ago and was shown at the United Nations in New York City on 4 March 2009. It was seen as a breakthrough for Indigenous women, empowered to deal with a very difficult problem.

The government’s amendments mean that in Northern Territory Indigenous communities the restriction on alcohol in the future will not apply universally. The government is saying that community restrictions will be:

… tailored to the circumstances of each area following consideration, on a case by case basis, of evidence about alcohol-related harm in each community, community consultation about the effectiveness of restrictions, and consideration of whether alternative restrictions, including alcohol management plans, are appropriate—

as an alternative to what we did, which was to restrict the bringing of alcohol into these communities—often at enormous profit to bootleggers profiteering from the dependency in these communities. So instead of communities being freed from the boot loads of grog brought in by the runners—making enormous profits at their expense—these communities have to argue their case. You can imagine that there will initially be, as there was in Fitzroy Crossing, a lot of concern from those who are alcohol dependent, particularly the men, arguing that there should be no restrictions. Why should communities have to argue to have a restriction on alcohol when, through what we currently have in place, women and children are protected? For the first time, some of the barbwire enclosures are being brought down from around the older people’s dwellings, because they are not attacked at night in the way they were before through alcohol-fuelled fury, especially when the latest van of grog had arrived the day or the night before.

I think this watering down of alcohol restrictions in these communities is absolutely unconscionable. Time and time again we have seen how very difficult it is for those in a community—and it is usually the women—to take up the case and try and defeat the much more powerful elements in their community, typically the men, to try to bring about a change in alcohol access. But this is what this legislation will do. It means that in the future, instead of there being a restriction, the people who are the victims of alcohol abuse will have to get out there and argue for assistance and support—and that is not good enough.

I also have to say that it is very, very disconcerting and concerning that pornography will no longer be automatically excluded from a lot of these settlements. Instead—a little like the alcohol watering-down amendments in this legislation—we are told:

Where requested by, or on behalf of people ordinarily resident in a prescribed area, the Minister may remove existing restrictions on the possession and supply of prohibited pornographic and very violent material.

So, again, those who profit from the sale of this ‘pornographic and very violent’ material simply have to make a request of the minister to have the restrictions lifted. The explanatory memorandum goes on to say:

Before making a declaration to remove restrictions, the Minister or delegate must have regard to evidence about the well-being of, and the views of, the people living in the prescribed area.

But why should these people have to try to argue against some of the most powerful elements in their community who are demanding that pornography and violent material be once again let loose on their youths and their children? What community would want that material to be reintroduced when we know that the sexual abuse and the grooming of Indigenous children has reached epidemic proportions? We know that the Northern Territory government cannot cope with the number of referrals to the Territory government for help for children who are being neglected or are in danger of abuse; yet here we have the watering down of legislation which was giving protection to families and taking off the television screens and the pay-TV channels—churning away in the corner of the shelter—the most disgusting pornography and violent material.

You just have to ask: what is this government up to? Who is it pandering to? Why does it not understand that the most important thing is the wellbeing of Indigenous Australians? They have suffered extraordinarily in the last 250 years. We need only read the statistics to remind ourselves of the Indigenous infant mortality rates, the morbidity, the violence and the experience of diseases which have virtually been eliminated from mainstream Australia. (Time expired)