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Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Page: 1692

Mr GEORGANAS (12:42 PM) —The Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009 will see the fulfilment of yet another election promise given prior to the 2007 general election. It should be a bill that is above politics but, unfortunately, here today we have seen that that is not the case. We have seen the other side try to politicise it and make out to be big political spin what should be a bill for the betterment of our Indigenous population and something that we should all be agreeing to.

We have seen a steady rollout of actions by this government that realise our commitments made to the Australian public prior to the last federal election. We are here again to address yet another one. We were elected to repeal the limitation placed on the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. It was a commitment we made prior to the last election and we are delivering on that here today. With this bill we honour this pledge made to the Australian public.

For far too long Indigenous people in the Northern Territory have been victims of racial discrimination, half-hearted reform, flawed social welfare and a health system that has often failed to address their specific and often very urgent needs. I will not go through figures and facts—we heard them all earlier from the member for Moreton. Those figures are still shocking, even though they have improved slightly. The Rudd government is determined to fix at least some of this situation by introducing this landmark change to the social welfare system. This will provide income management welfare and payments to Australia’s many isolated and disadvantaged regions. Actions housed within this bill include the start of giving tools to disadvantaged Australians particularly to help improve their family situations and to help them make stronger futures for themselves.

Amending the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007 and reinstating the Racial Discrimination Act will help us achieve the right outcomes for Indigenous people, who have long been victims of politicking. We remember the blatant scare campaigns of the past: TV advertisements claiming that native title would cause Perth residents to lose their backyards and underground campaigns warning that some part of Australia would somehow secede and become an independent Aboriginal nation-state. That was not that long ago; it was in 1996. Aboriginal Australians have too long been used within politics, mainstream and marginal, as a threat to elicit reactionary behaviour from those who are too easily deceived—and that must stop; it must cease. The issues underlying the place of Aboriginal Australians in this nation’s history, present and future, are far too important to be a simple vote-grabbing exercise.

The reforms contained in this bill are set up to help disadvantaged people by managing their individual situations, by making incremental changes to their situations and by developing the suite of requisites necessary for them to take maximum advantage of opportunities to climb out of welfare dependence. The replacement of the previous government’s social security income management arrangements is designed to be a productive tool, not a punitive measure. The combined elements of this bill are a result of sensitive planning between several government departments and, most importantly, extensive consultations with the Indigenous people whose communities will be affected As we heard earlier, they involve income management, restrictions in alcohol and pornography, five-year leases, community store licensing, controls on the use of publicly funded computers, law enforcement and business management. I am very pleased to see that the bill will continue the ongoing commitment to build the best practice model for the operation of community stores.

As part of an inquiry of the House Standing Committee on Health and Ageing, which I chair, we visited some communities together with the member for Parkes, who is sitting in this chamber. We saw what a role the community stores play in respect of the produce that they have and the prices that they charge. They have a big influence on towns. We heard stories from Indigenous communities in which they said it was cheaper to go down to the petrol station and get a bucket of chips for $2 than to buy fresh eggs or to buy something from the stores because their prices were so high. So I am very pleased that that initiative is an ongoing commitment of this government.

We have to do better—and we can do better. We so desperately need to do better, and we can start with the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act and, if necessary, policies and programs under its special measures provision. We need to do whatever is required, whatever we can do, to help people with limited financial literacy manage their money and, consequently, manage their lives much better. Income management has genuine benefits, particularly to children, women, older people and families in these communities. It has been shown that, through the good management of income, more money is being spent on food, clothing and school related expenses, and less money is being spent on alcohol, gambling, drugs and tobacco or cigarettes, with this money now directed into savings towards large-scale, essential household goods like fridges, washing machines and other things that we in the cities take for granted.

The routine of hopelessness is being shaken up for many people and it is being replaced with constructive help that gives people increased opportunity to have positive effects on their personal lives. But the pattern still exists in far too many cases. The pattern of alcohol misuse and abuse continues to be a threat to the safety of Aboriginal women, children and the elderly and is one of the most serious issues facing Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. An estimated 4,500 children of school age in the Northern Territory—almost exclusively Indigenous children—are still not receiving adequate education. On this point, the law enforcement powers of the Australian Crime Commission will be adjusted so that they can make use of the special powers under the NTER for the benefit of Indigenous victims of crime. One very important point needs to be made here. The NTER cannot achieve the necessary long-term outcomes if the Racial Discrimination Act is suspended. It needs to be reinstated and the benefits of income management need to be extended to the broader community.

This is no loosely designed amendment. It has been carefully and sensitively planned through consultation with the A-G’s Department, the Australian Government Solicitor, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and the Treasury. Most important, of course, is that it has been planned in consultation with the people who it will affect—that is, the Indigenous communities. The new income management scheme will come into effect from 1 July 2010. It will be rolled out on an area-by-area basis across the Northern Territory and completed by 2011. There will also be a 12-month transition period and its success will be closely checked, with the first evaluation expected in 2011-2012. The results of that evaluation, together with income management trials already underway in WA and Queensland, will go a long way to deciding future rollouts across Australia. The Northern Territory has been chosen for this groundbreaking initiative for good reason. That reason is that it already has a BasicsCard and an income management infrastructure in place. But, most importantly, it desperately needs this scheme. The high levels of disadvantage continue and they have to be corrected now. This amendment to the social security legislation is an important step in making that correction, and it cannot come soon enough.