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Wednesday, 24 February 2010
Page: 1701

Ms LIVERMORE (1:24 PM) —It feels great to be here today as part of a government that has introduced this very important piece of legislation, the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009. This bill will amend several acts relating to the income management arrangements and the Northern Territory Emergency Response. Importantly, it implements a government commitment to reinstate the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 in relation to the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007 and other relevant legislation. The suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, allowed for under previous legislation, will be lifted from 31 December 2010. Similarly, the previous changes to the Queensland anti-discrimination laws in relation to Queensland’s Family Responsibilities Commission will also cease to have effect from 31 December 2010.

The income management arrangements introduced in this bill are therefore designed to be non-discriminatory for the purposes of the Racial Discrimination Act. In other words, income management can now be used in selected disadvantaged communities across Australia as a tool to support communities under pressure and build a protective environment for people at risk of disadvantage and their children. These measures will no longer be limited to Indigenous people living in remote parts of the Northern Territory, which was always discriminatory; rather, these measures will apply to people on certain Centrelink benefits right across Australia—Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.

A great deal of work has gone into the design of this bill and the measures contained within it. It is chiefly the result of the 2008 review of the emergency response and extensive consultations with Indigenous people in the Northern Territory. 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 majority of participants in the consultation meetings were Indigenous people who either nominated as individuals or were selected by their community or organisation to speak on behalf of the community or organisation. The engagement process was independently overseen by the Cultural and Indigenous Research Centre of Australia, and the government has publicly released their report on the FaHCSIA website.

It came out very clearly in these consultations that children, women, parents, families and older people were identified as groups who benefited the 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 also that children were looking healthier because of a better diet. The school nutrition program was mentioned several times as contributing to this.

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. People reported that more and better food is being eaten, there is improved budgeting, more money is being spent on white goods and furniture and less money is being spent on gambling. The most frequently identified benefits of income management for older people included better health outcomes and less need for them to take responsibility for caring for grandchildren.

Another part of the emergency response was the licensing of community stores. Improving food security in remote Indigenous communities is a key component of the government’s Closing the Gap agenda. Licensing the stores is the other side of the coin when it comes to income management, so consulting with the operators of the stores gives a fuller picture of the effects of income management. Income management obviously means there is more money for people to spend on food and items in the stores, so it is important to find out how that was actually seen from the other side of the counter by the operators of the stores.

The interviews, conducted in three rounds, were part of a process of routine monitoring of the first 18 months of store licensing. The findings in the 2009 monitoring report are based on 66 community stores that have been licensed. The interviews found, among other things, that customer shopping habits have changed significantly in most stores, with 68.2 per cent of store operators reporting an increase in the amount of healthy food purchased. This includes items such as fruit and vegetables as well as dairy foods and meat.

Responses suggest that sales of some goods, such as cigarettes, are unchanged. Community residents, particularly women, are telling store operators that they now have more control over their money, with greater capacity to avoid humbugging. Initial mistrust and confusion about income management has abated over time. Store operators are reporting that feedback is generally positive, especially from women, once people understand how it works. Most operators reported that people had a good understanding of income management, with perhaps the older people having the most difficulty in adjusting to those changes.

Consistent with the feedback received through the community consultations and the work with licensed stores, analysis of Centrelink data shows that during the first two years of income management around 65 per cent of income managed money was spent in stores that trade primarily in food. All of this data reinforces the government’s view that income management should be seen not as a punitive measure confined to Indigenous communities but rather as the basis for major welfare reform that can deliver similar benefits, particularly in the lives of children, right across the country.

It is clear from the outline that I have given of the extensive consultation that happened across the Northern Territory that the government has listened to Indigenous communities who have been living with the emergency response measures for more than two years. In this bill we have sought to fulfil our commitments with respect to the Racial Discrimination Act and to come up with a way that extends the income management component of the emergency response for the benefit of other Australians.

I note that there has been good support for the bill from some key groups. In its submission to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, the Australian Human Rights Commission welcomed our intention to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act and to redesign identified Northern Territory Emergency Response measures so that they are non-discriminatory and respect human rights. Their submission said:

The Commission notes that, overall, while the proposed changes to the NTER do not address all the concerns of the Commission, they will improve the measures that currently apply to individuals in prescribed communities in the Northern Territory.

… the Commission welcomes the following proposed measures included in the Bills—

and listed a number of points, as follows:

  • Lifting of the suspension of the RDA for the NTER legislation
  • Redesigning the income management measures so that they are not applied on a racially discriminatory basis
  • Redesigning the income management measures so that disability support pensions or age pensions are no longer being automatically income managed, unless the recipient is determined to be a vulnerable welfare payment recipient.

They also noted that—

  • Including provisions to enable affected individuals to apply for an exemption from income management where their circumstances so warrant as well as options for individuals to voluntarily participate in income management where they desire—

are positive changes. Their other points were:

  • Enabling a shift from the blanket imposition of alcohol bans to restrictions that are tailored to the needs of communities
  • Clarifying the objectives of five-year leases; and committing to move to voluntary leases through negotiations in good faith where requested
  • Providing greater transparency in the community store licensing scheme.

There was also support from the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory. The alliance represents 26 health services across Northern Territory communities. It called for the passage of this legislation, arguing that we should pass this bill and allow Aboriginal Territorians to be treated equitably.

Some have proposed that we reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act without making changes to the Northern Territory Emergency Response. The Australian Human Rights Commission expressly rejects this approach, arguing that legislation should:

… make the NTER compliant with the RDA, rather than leave it to individuals to challenge aspects that may be discriminatory.

The government’s legislation provides for the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act and the reconfiguration of measures to comply with the act, as called for by the Australian Human Rights Commission; the UN rapporteur on the situation of Indigenous peoples; and the independent review of the Northern Territory Emergency Response, led by Peter Yu.

Central to this bill are the changes to income management, as well as the important reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act. The government is proposing some improvements to the income management model after listening to the many communities in the Northern Territory. As I have said repeatedly, we want it to comply with the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act. That is fundamental to us. We also know from the experiences that so many Indigenous Territorians shared with the consultation teams that income management can have real benefits for families and right throughout communities. We want to take away the inequity of the current scheme of income management and instead see it as a tool for supporting struggling families and disadvantaged communities.

When meeting after meeting throughout the Northern Territory was told of better school attendance rates, less money spent on grog and gambling, and more money spent on fresh food, why wouldn’t the government want to give this a go in other parts of Australia. Therefore the new scheme will be non-discriminatory and will commence across the Northern Territory as the first step in a national rollout of income management in disadvantaged regions. The rollout in the Northern Territory will begin in July 2010. There will be a national evaluation of the income management scheme at the end of 2011 before it is rolled out to other Australian disadvantaged regions.

There are some changes to the scheme. Previously the scheme applied in a blanket fashion across all welfare recipients. Under these proposed reforms it will instead apply to at-risk groups and be linked to specific social policy objectives like school attendance, the ‘learn or earn’ policy for school leavers and addressing long-term unemployment. For example, under this legislation income management will apply to young people aged from 15 to 24 who have been in receipt of youth allowance, Newstart, special benefit or parenting payment for 13 weeks in the last 26 weeks. To gain exemption from income management, a young person receiving one of those payments will need to demonstrate to Centrelink evidence of work or study or, if they are a parent, that their children are attending school regularly and that they are in stable housing.

Long-term welfare recipients aged over 25 will be subject to similar requirements and will have similar pathways to exemption from income management. In a significant change, age pensioners, disability support pensioners and veterans will no longer be covered by compulsory income management unless they are identified as vulnerable or at risk, for example, through involvement with the child protection system or for other reasons determined by the appropriately qualified staff at Centrelink.

Those people who are compulsorily income managed will be supported to save money with a new matched savings program. There are also generous financial incentives for people who wish to volunteer for income management. These arrangements reflect the government’s view that income management can provide substantial benefits particularly to vulnerable families and they are in no way intended as a punishment, as some have claimed. In addition to these reforms, the Australian government will invest an additional $53 million in financial literacy support, to help those people who find it difficult to control their finances—giving people education, power and control over their finances and over their lives.

This is a huge change that will take time to implement. To make sure that we get it right, the new scheme of income management will commence across the Northern Territory as a first step. Following an assessment of that trial, the government will look to a future national rollout of income management to disadvantaged regions more broadly, which could include places in Central Queensland such as Rockhampton.

These are major welfare reforms which we believe can extend the clear benefits of income management to more vulnerable families—and there are plenty of those in places like Rockhampton and Mount Morgan in my electorate. It is the case, and we know this from the Northern Territory experience, that our reforms will make sure people’s welfare payments are spent on the essentials of life, like food and rent, and not on alcohol and gambling

This is about creating a system that promotes people taking personal responsibility, that helps people to take control of their budgets and their lives, and that is all about making sure that we do everything we possibly can to get children to school and to get young people engaged in work and training. The opposition talks a lot about those things, but this bill actually puts in place welfare reforms that will give people meaningful support and incentives to make those changes in their lives.

Through this reform the government is sending a clear message to welfare recipients that there are incentives for responsible behaviour. If you are in full-time study, if you have a sustained pattern of workforce participation, if you can demonstrate proper care and education of your children, you will not be subject to income management. But if you need the additional assistance that income management has been proven to provide then it will be part of the welfare system.

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, that they continue their studies and that they go on to work and make a meaningful contribution to our society and have productive lives. I will be watching the rollout of this reform in the Northern Territory very closely to see what difference it makes to communities there. I know that there is great interest in including Rockhampton and surrounding communities in the income management scheme as soon as the program spreads beyond the Northern Territory. I believe that we are a region that could benefit from this reform and I will push for us to be included at the earliest possible opportunity.

Coming back to where I started, at the heart of this legislation is the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act. It is an important part of the government’s commitment to a new relationship with Indigenous Australians. It is a commitment that is also being given practical effect through the ‘closing the gap’ agenda and especially through efforts in the Northern Territory. For example, since coming to office, the Australian government has delivered, throughout the Northern Territory, extra police, safe homes, creches, school nutrition programs, new stores and store upgrades, child health checks and follow-up surgery. Over 2,000 CDEP positions have been converted into properly paid jobs with superannuation and entitlements.

All of these changes complement the government’s ‘closing the gap’ strategy, which is delivering unprecedented investment in early childhood development, education, health, housing, jobs and remote service delivery to the Northern Territory. As an additional example, parents are also getting extra support for their children through funding for creches in remote communities in the Northern Territory that previously had little or no access to early childhood programs for children less than five years of age. Early intervention services, which draw on kinship ties of Aboriginal people to build strong families and protect children, are being established in Alice Springs under the Alice Springs Transformation Plan.

None of us in the House is under any illusions about the enormity of the challenges that we face. Closing the gap will take a long time and it demands perseverance from all of us. We see it as a national priority and we encourage all Australians to find ways to acknowledge and support the many unsung heroes in our community who are supporting families and children every day to close the gap and to build a future where we all feel valued and included.