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Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Page: 1694

Mr HALE (12:51 PM) —I rise to support the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009. In 2008 the government promised it would lift the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, and this bill gives effect to that commitment. The exemptions that will be repealed are the provisions that suspend the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act and the Northern Territory anti-discrimination laws in relation to the Northern Territory emergency response and related legislation. The Northern Territory government has been advised of the range of measures included in this bill. Northern Territory officials have been closely involved in the development of the amendments to the alcohol restrictions, and Minister Macklin has briefed the Chief Minister on the proposed changes to the income management arrangements in the Northern Territory. The repeals will take effect from the end of 31 December 2010. The time frame will allow the redesigned NTER measures, which will be implemented from 1 July 2010, to be rolled out.

Reinstating the rights under the Racial Discrimination Act of Territory Indigenous people is something I am very proud that our government is in the process of doing. An example of the importance of this measure was reported in an article in the Koori Mail:

Aboriginal Medical Service Alliance NT CEO John Paterson told a hearing in Darwin that 40,000 Aboriginal people in those communities currently had fewer legal and civil rights than any other Australians.

John was reported as saying that ‘the already poor health of Aboriginal Territorians will worsen unless the Racial Discrimination Act is reinstated immediately in NTER communities’.

This legislation will enable a non-discriminatory income management model that targets categories of people that have been identified as being at risk of exceptional disadvantage. The legislation will specify that this new scheme of income management will come into effect from 1 July 2010. It will be rolled out on an area-by-area basis across the Northern Territory. There will be a 12-month transition period which will be completed by the end of June 2011. Initially, income management will be extended to all of the Northern Territory and will be rolled out on an area-by-area basis, the same way that the existing income management scheme was rolled out in 2007. The new scheme of income management will commence across the Northern Territory in urban, regional and remote areas as a first step in the future national rollout of income management to disadvantaged regions.

The operation of the new scheme of income management in the Northern Territory will be carefully evaluated. The first evaluation progress report is expected in 2011-12. The other income management trials currently underway in Western Australia and Queensland will continue to be evaluated as well. Future rollout elsewhere in Australia will be informed by the evidence gained from the evaluation activity. Future implementation will also be informed by other criteria, including evidence of disadvantage in Australia and consideration of where income management could benefit individuals and families. The Northern Territory has been chosen as the site for initial implementation based on the persistence of high levels of disadvantage and the existence of BasicsCards and income management infrastructure.

The groups that will be subject to income management under the new model are disengaged youth, long-term welfare payment recipients, vulnerable welfare payment recipients, people referred to for income management by the Northern Territory child protection authority and people who voluntarily opt into income management. Let me look at some of those initially on a case-by-case basis, the first one being disengaged youth. These are people aged between 15 and 24 who have been in receipt of the following payments for 13 weeks of the last 26 weeks: youth allowance, Newstart allowance, special benefit or parenting payment. There are pathways for exemptions for disengaged youth. This is an important thing we need to realise—some people, while disadvantaged, are still doing the right things in regard to how they are spending their money. I am a firm believer that anyone receiving a parenting payment is receiving it because they have a child in their care and they need to be spending this money to look after that child. I think that is the sort of thing that this bill is there to address—making sure that children are being looked after properly by people who are receiving taxpayers’ money for that purpose. Exemptions will be determined by assessment against objective criteria, including that a person can demonstrate personal responsibility, life skills or socially inclusive behaviour for themselves and their children.

School-age children come under part B of the parenting allowance, which requires regular attendance at school. There must be no more than five unauthorised absences per school term for the last two terms. Parents also need to pass a Centrelink financial and housing stability assessment. Parents of children under compulsory school age need to show evidence of responsible parenting such as regular attendance at playgroups or other early childhood activities or evidence of regular participation in child health checks, combined with an up-to-date immunisation record.

I will turn to part B, non-parents—for example, Newstart and youth allowance recipients. They must show evidence of work or study. In regard to work, people must have worked 26 weeks in the last 52 weeks or at least 15 hours a week at the minimum wage. In regard to study, people must be studying full time. Part-time study would not qualify. Long-term welfare recipients are defined as people aged 25 and above but younger than the pension age who have been in receipt of the following payments for 52 weeks of the last 104 weeks: youth allowance, Newstart allowance, special benefit or parenting payments. There are pathways for exemption for long-term welfare recipients. People in this category will also be able to seek exemption from income management. In the case of parents, the pathway will be the same as for those in the disengaged youth category. For non-parents, the pathway will be the same as for the disengaged youth category as well.

I will turn to referral for income management by child protection authorities in the Northern Territory. This applies to all social security pensions and benefits, including Austudy, Abstudy where the payment includes living allowance, and DVA service pensions.

Australia needs welfare reform to protect the most vulnerable and to link welfare to school attendance, study and work. We want to start in the Northern Territory but we want to be able to extend income management to other vulnerable Australians across the country. Our reforms will make sure that people’s welfare payments are spent on the essentials of life: food and rent, not alcohol and gambling.

There are now 16,000 people on compulsory income management in the Northern Territory. That compares with around 1,400 people who were on compulsory income management when we came to government. The number of people on income management in the Northern Territory with our reforms is estimated to be 20,000.

This is all about personal responsibility and making sure that we do everything we possibly can to get children to school and young people engaged in work and training. We want to fight passive welfare and link the payment of welfare to making sure that children go to school on a regular basis and that young people continue their studies or go to work. These arrangements do not apply at the moment. The changes that we have proposed will make sure that income management can be rolled out in towns in the Northern Territory—Tennant Creek, Katherine and the suburbs of Alice Springs and Darwin—where there are significant and desperate circumstances for many people.

There are many Australian families across Australia who could be really assisted by income management. 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.

This is an important piece of legislation because it goes to the heart of the discussion that we have had over a number of years regarding Aboriginal disadvantage. It goes to the heart of the Closing the Gap programs that have been put in place by previous governments and picked up by our government, including on the disadvantage in health and education outcomes for Indigenous people against those of non-Indigenous people.

This bill goes to the very heart of reconciliation with regard to the apology. For Indigenous people in this country the suspension of the RDA is probably the most hurtful thing that has happened to them. They have put up with a lot of injustices over a long period of time—over 200 years of Indigenous injustice and Indigenous people not being treated well in this country—but the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act is probably the lowest point that we have ever hit, regardless of the reasons that it was put in place. I know at the time the government of the day saw that there was a need for an emergency response in the Northern Territory, and the RDA was suspended. We understand that but we are moving on from that. For true reconciliation with Indigenous Australia and a real effort from this parliament for Indigenous people, we need to make sure that this piece of legislation is supported and that it goes through this House into the Senate so that it reinstates the Racial Discrimination Act. I commend the bill to the House.