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Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Page: 1686


Mr TURNOUR (12:22 PM) —I rise today to support the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009. I think that everybody in this House, whether they are Liberal, National, Independent or Labor, genuinely wants to see improvements in the lives of Indigenous people. They genuinely want to see that happen. Similarly, the Greens, Labor, Liberals, Nationals and Independents in the Senate want to see improvements in the lives of Indigenous people. The government is genuinely looking for bipartisan support for this legislation. I am genuine about that too.

I represent many Indigenous people, including the unique Indigenous communities in the Torres Strait. I want to work with opposition members, as I know Minister Macklin and the Prime Minister are, on striving to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This legislation is part of that. It is about making the Northern Territory emergency response sustainable in the longer term. It is also about looking at the real benefits that legislation has provided to some of the more disadvantaged in Indigenous communities and applying and transferring those benefits to some of the other more disadvantaged parts of Australia. It does not matter whether you are Indigenous or non-Indigenous, there are people who will benefit from reforms in the welfare system.

This legislation has at its core a move to make welfare reforms more sustainable in the longer term and to enable those reforms to be applied to disadvantaged communities across Australia. I appeal to the better angels in the opposition to not turn this into a partisan debate. I heard some inflammatory statements from the previous speaker. I gather that has been the theme in some of the speeches we have heard from the opposition in relation to this. We should not be playing partisan politics with the lives of young children and the lives of some of the most vulnerable in our community. We should look to work together to build a better nation for them and for all Australians. That is what is at the core of this legislation.

I support this legislation, which is designed to ensure those who are the most vulnerable in our community, particularly children and those struggling with addictions and substance abuse, get the help they need through income management. I will talk further about alcohol and some other parts of this bill. This is a historic reform that will change the way that welfare is delivered in this country. We need bipartisan support to get these reforms through and I ask the opposition to support this legislation. Let us put the politics away and get this legislation through because it will make a big difference to the lives of some of the most vulnerable in our community, particularly kids from disadvantage backgrounds.

This legislation is about tackling the effects of passive welfare on the most vulnerable in the community. Age pensioners, disability support pensioners and veterans will be brought onto compulsory income management where they are identified as being vulnerable by a Centrelink social worker. Families with at-risk children who are identified through the child protection system will also attract compulsory income management. It is the case that our reforms will make sure that people’s welfare payments are spent on the essentials of life—food and rent, not alcohol and gambling.

We want to fight passive welfare and to link the payment of welfare to making sure that children go to school on a regular basis and that they continue their studies and go on to work. The fact is that every child deserves to be given the opportunity of a decent education. The responsibility for ensuring that they get that start in life does not just depend on the quality of the education system, although that is critically important and that is why, through our Building the Education Revolution program, we are investing in new infrastructure and in improvements at low-SES schools to try to support and lift standards. If we are going to make a difference to the educational outcomes of young children in disadvantaged communities, whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous, we need to support welfare reform. We need to support this legislation, which will enable income management to be more sustainable over the longer term and also enable it to be applied to other disadvantaged communities in this country, beyond disadvantaged Indigenous communities.

Welfare reform will play a critical role in breaking the cycle of welfare dependency. If people can get a decent education, they are more likely to get a decent job. Statistics overwhelmingly show that. Arrangements to protect the children of welfare recipients and ensure that they get the benefits of these payments do not exist at the moment, so everyone in this parliament should support and welcome these long-overdue reforms. These reforms will also provide a way out of income management for those who are doing the right thing.

The arguments being put forward by the other side are about the Northern Territory emergency response. A blanket approach to welfare quarantining went on as a result of that response. In the end, if you want to move people beyond welfare and enable them to raise and manage their family independently, they need to learn to manage their own finances. This legislation provides funding to provide that support. It also provides incentives for people who may be outside of this to get involved in income management. Importantly, why should parents and others who are unemployed but who are doing the right thing, who are undertaking training and who are getting their kids to school, be subjected to a blanket approach to the way they manage their family? If we really want them to transition to real work, to an existence beyond welfare, we need to support them in that process. Part of that is enabling people who are doing the right thing to move to a system where they can manage their own incomes.

Support and incentives to enable people to transition to this state are important parts of this legislation. It will ensure that income management is non-discriminatory because those in non-Indigenous communities can also benefit from income management. We are reinstating the Racial Discrimination Act as a result of these reforms. I have communities in my electorate of Leichhardt who are currently experiencing income management through a different process, which I will talk about later. Although the problems being faced in Indigenous communities are statistically worse than in other parts of the country, it is important that we recognise that there are people in non-Indigenous communities who would also benefit from income management. This legislation allows us to look at those communities on a case-by-case basis and move these income management reforms across to those communities.

Having a blanket approach in effect provides no incentives for people to do the right thing and change their behaviour, and move away from income management. Having an approach based around discrimination is not the way that this country should operate. This legislation will enable income management to be rolled out over time to vulnerable communities across Australia. But, initially, it will be trialled and evaluated in the Northern Territory. There are 16,000 people now on compulsory income management in the Northern Territory. That compares to around 1,400 people who were on compulsory income management when we came to government. The opposition were in government for 12 years. They have been talking about us rolling back their reforms. They had 1,400 people on compulsory income management when they left government. We now have 16,000, and with these reforms that number is expected to increase in the Northern Territory because it will allow people in non-Indigenous communities who would benefit from these reforms to also experience income management.

The change we have proposed will make sure that income management can be rolled out in towns in the Northern Territory such as Tennant Creek and Katherine and the suburbs of Alice Springs and Darwin, where we have significant and desperate circumstances for many, many people. The Australian government wants to extend income management to other disadvantaged regions across Australia after a comprehensive evaluation of the new reforms at the end of 2011. I am sure there are communities in my own electorate of Leichhardt who would benefit from income management beyond those involved in the Cape York Welfare Reform trials currently underway. I will talk about these in more detail later, but evaluation of these trials and another trial in Western Australia will also inform the rollout of these welfare reforms in other parts of Australia.

The straight payment of welfare money to individuals and families has not achieved the social policy objectives when the original welfare system was set up and that is why we are looking to introduce these reforms. These reforms are based on extensive evaluation of the Northern Territory Emergency Response. In the second half of last year, the consultations involved thousands of people in all 73 Northern Territory Emergency Response communities as well as several other Northern Territory Aboriginal communities and town camps between June and the end of August 2009. The engagement process was independently overseen by the Cultural and Indigenous Research Centre Australia and the government has publicly released their report on the FaHCSIA website. So these reforms are based on significant consultation with Indigenous people in the Northern Territory.

Children, women, parents, families and older people were identified as groups who benefited most from income management. The most frequently identified benefits of income management for children included more money being spent on food, clothing and school related expenses. There were a number of comments that children were looking healthier because of a better diet. A benefit of income management frequently identified by women was that there is less humbugging—there were fewer people pestering them for money. In addition to the reduced incidence of humbugging, a frequently mentioned benefit of income management for parents and families was that it has enabled people to better manage their household budgeting, including planning for major items and utility expenses. Men also said there were benefits for themselves and their families as a result of income management. These benefits included more and better food being eaten, improved budgeting and more money being spent on whitegoods, furniture and other household items. There was less money being spent on gambling, alcohol, humbugging and other abuses. The most frequently identified benefits of income management for older people included the reduced incidence of humbugging, better health outcomes and less need for them to take responsibility for caring for grandchildren.

They are some of the overall outcomes that have resulted from extensive consultations with communities across the Northern Territory. We all recognise there are benefits from income management. I know there have been people who, ideologically, are opposed to the reforms that the former government put in place and were supported by this government. There are people who are concerned about our decision to continue with welfare quarantining and other approaches to support families, the young and the elderly in the Northern Territory in living a healthier and better life. The reality is that we have gone out and consulted broadly with those affected and the overwhelming advice which came back—and there has been a report published on this—is that the benefits are clearly seen.

The Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs had primary responsibility for some detailed evaluation of income management. The department developed their evaluation approach and methodology, and managed the data collection process. The two main data sources for the evaluation were a client survey that collected quantitative data and focus groups of key stakeholders that collected qualitative data. The client survey involved face-to-face interviews with 76 income management clients in four community locations. The stakeholder focus groups involved 167 stakeholders, including community representatives from the same four locations, and community sector and government employees from a wide range of locations. There has been a lot of consultation and a lot of evaluation of the benefits of income management.

The data showed that there had been improvements in child wellbeing since the introduction of income management. Of the parents interviewed, 62.5 per cent reported that their children were eating more, 57.4 per cent reported that their children weighed more and 52.1 per cent reported that their children were healthier. Three-quarters of people interviewed reported spending more on food—75.3 per cent—with 50 per cent buying more fruit and vegetables. More than half—63.3 per cent—of the people interviewed reported there was less gambling, 60.9 per cent reported that there was less drinking and 52.1 per cent reported that there was less harassment for money. Clearly, there have been benefits from the Northern Territory Emergency Response. We recognise that. We want to make this more sustainable in the longer term. I again appeal to the opposition to take a bipartisan approach to reforms and improvements in the lives of Indigenous people and to those more vulnerable in the community. There is not a great deal of politics to be made out of this; we genuinely want to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and those more vulnerable in the community. We need to work together on this.

The Leader of the Opposition has said that he wants to see income management extended to other welfare recipients. That is exactly what this government reform will do. The Leader of the Opposition has also said that he wants to see the Northern Territory Emergency Response become sustainable over the longer term. That is exactly what these reforms will do. We do need to have welfare reform to make sure the Northern Territory Emergency Response is sustainable for the longer term and the benefits of income management can be extended to other more vulnerable Australians. I say to those opposite, particularly the Leader of the Opposition, that the reality is that the reforms in this legislation bring into line the Northern Territory Emergency Response much more than those reforms going on in Cape York. The Leader of the Opposition is very keen to quote Mr Noel Pearson. He is a constituent of mine. He lives in Cairns and has representatives in Cape York Peninsula. These reforms bring into line the Northern Territory Emergency Response similar to the Cape York Welfare Reform trials and to the alcohol management plans. The reforms in this legislation—if you are effectively arguing against them—are from the model that Noel Pearson has brought forward for Cape York. They bring into line, in a much similar way, the reforms that are going on in Cape York at this time.

If the Leader of the Opposition thinks that Noel Pearson is a fantastic man who has great ideas, he should look seriously at this legislation. It does not enforce a blanket approach; it ensures that people are doing the right thing, that people can move to managing their own income and that communities can work together to develop models that best suit them, particularly when it comes to issues around alcohol management. It keeps in place the alcohol restrictions but it says to communities, ‘You can develop your own individual alcohol management plans.’ That is what the Beattie Labor government did in Queensland in partnership with Noel Pearson and the Cape York organisations, going back many, many years. And the former member up there was very critical of this approach. But we did not take a blanket approach in Queensland—we looked to work with Indigenous communities and that was what we will continue to do.

I think it is important to go into a little detail about the welfare reform process that is going on in Cape York and the trials there that Mr Pearson and the Cape York Institute have developed and that have been picked up by the Rudd government. We are working in partnership with them, the Queensland government and the four communities of Aurukun, Coen, Hope Vale and Mossman Gorge. As I have said, they do not apply our welfare quarantining in the blanket way it happened in the Northern Territory. The trials in Cape York are about working with communities to re-establish community norms. If income management is imposed on individuals and families then it is in response to an intervention already made by the Family Responsibilities Commission—and I will refer to it as the FRC—established under the Cape York welfare reform trials.

The FRC applies to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal community members who are welfare recipients and reside in or have lived in one of the four trial communities for three months since 1 July 2008. The FRC will be notified if: a person’s child is absent from school three times in a school term without a reasonable excuse; a person has a child of school age who is not enrolled in school without lawful excuse; a person is the subject of a child safety report; a person is convicted of an offence in the magistrate’s court; or a person breaches his or her tenancy agreement. The FRC has appointed local commissioners who are respected community elders, thereby rebuilding authority within the community. The FRC is made up of community elders and Commissioner David Glasgow, a former magistrate who chairs the hearings. The Cape York welfare reforms aim to address passive dependency on welfare and rebuild social norms in the community. There are 24 local commissioners across the four communities.

We are not introducing blanket income management in Cape York Peninsula as was done in the Northern Territory because we want it to be sustainable over the longer term. We put in place a Family Responsibilities Commission that can work with community elders when people are not sending their children to school, when they are having problems with their tenancy, when they are in trouble with the law or when they have problems with substance abuse. They can have a roundtable with the elders and the Family Responsibilities Commission. Then, if they do not change their ways, if they do not get their kids to school, there is an opportunity for them to be directed into income management. That, I think, is a good process. It is a process that was developed by the Cape York Institute and Noel Pearson and we are working in partnership in the rollout of that.

I cannot see how that differs greatly from some of the ideas that are encapsulated in this legislation, but all we are hearing from the opposition is a partisan attack on a rollback of the Northern Territory emergency response. I could stand here and criticise and complain about the potential political nature of the way that was introduced, but if we want to move beyond that then we need to put those issues behind us and work in a bipartisan way.

I could go on and talk in more detail about the Family Responsibilities Commission and welfare reform in Cape York, but the benefits are there. I have some statistics. In Aurukun, we have seen attendance at school pick up in the second term of 2009 to 63.2 per cent from 37.9 per cent in the second term of 2008. In Mossman Gorge, similarly, we have had an increase from 60.9 per cent in term 2 of 2008 to 81.6 per cent. Genuine benefits have flowed from welfare reform. We need to embrace it, we need to ensure that this legislation gets through and that benefits can flow not only to Indigenous people but over time to non-Indigenous people and disadvantaged communities.

I do not have time to talk about alcohol management plans but let me assure people that the model that is being proposed in this legislation is similar to that developed by the Cape York organisations led by Noel Pearson. The opposition should seriously consider taking a bipartisan approach to this legislation and working with the government, because everybody in this place wants to improve the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. (Time expired)