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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 1745


Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (12:55): I rise on behalf of the Australian Greens to oppose the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011. We oppose the bill, not because we do not support stronger futures for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people but because we do.

We support stronger futures for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as we do for all Australians, not just in the Northern Territory but across the country. But stronger futures for Australia must be underpinned by equality and respect for our first peoples. This bill is not underpinned by equality or respect. It is an extension of the top-down, punitive, discriminatory and flawed Northern Territory intervention initiated by the Howard government and perpetuated by this Labor government. It is only a few weeks since the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition of Indigenous Australians presented their report recommending a series of changes to our Constitution which would go some way to righting the wrongs of the past and to recognising Indigenous Australians. Such a referendum would further challenge the false and damaging assumption that Australia was a nation born from a land devoid of people when instead we are a country first cared for by one of the world's oldest living cultures. Constitutional recognition would be another step towards healing this shameful legacy.

It was only last week that we as a nation had an opportunity to reflect on the fourth anniversary of the apology to the stolen generations, and still so much needs to be done to bring about true reconciliation in this country. We need to match the words of the apology with actions that deliver equality. This bill, however, is yet another example of the government's inability to extend the commitment to recognition, reconciliation and equality across its legislative agenda.

With this bill, the government is seeking to continue and expand the discriminatory measures introduced by the Howard government's Northern Territory intervention. It is an intervention which has failed to put in place measures that genuinely overcome disadvantage, an intervention which has failed to deliver better overall outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and an intervention which will fail to deliver stronger futures for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

One look at the Closing the Gap in the Northern Territory Monitoring Report shows how much work there is still to do: school attendance has declined since 2009; child hospitalisation rates have increased; incarceration rates continue to rise, with Indigenous people more than 17 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous people in 2008; and incidences of personal harm and suicide have doubled since 2007. There is no evidence that any positive changes in education and employment have come from this flawed intervention.

The use of spin to justify poor policies will remain a necessity until the approach in the Northern Territory changes. I am a big believer in the principle that you do not make people's lives better by taking away their rights. This expansion adheres to the long-held and ultimately flawed principle that punishing people will lead to changes in behaviour. These old approaches are typified by negative measures such as income management and the suspension of welfare payments, which are justified with the use of reports that are all too often derived from perfunctory consultations by government employed outsiders and framed to meet a predetermined outcome. They generally lack the quantitative rigour which is necessary.

Stronger Futures consultations have come under fire for poor process and reporting. Analysis based on independent recordings of the consultations reveals striking discrepancies between opinions expressed by communities and the view of opinions present in the report. A top-down intervention is unnecessary for effecting change in the community, and other ideas proposed by the communities themselves are being ignored by the consultation process.

The government point to some areas they say have improved, such as personal and community safety, to justify a continuation of the intervention. An increased feeling of safety is hardly surprising given that some policies associated with the intervention have seen money spent on more safe houses, police and Aboriginal liaison officers. These investments obviously produce results, they improve services and they address wider community disadvantage. The key point here is that an emergency intervention, with its discrimination and punitive approach, is not needed in order to make these investments a reality.

The Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure, or SEAM program, is another example of an unnecessarily punitive policy that achieves some benefit through the elements of investment contained within it that could be achieved in other ways. SEAM is now being extended, despite the fact that DEEWR have admitted the trials could not be directly linked to educational outcomes. It was made clear in Senate estimates recently that the positive and more consistent results from SEAM are delivered through case management and personalised involvement with families rather than any measures that punish parents.

Consistently better outcomes are delivered when the primary policies focus on engagement between parents and schools. The positive investments contribute to improving school attendance. More teachers, better training, bilingual education, community involvement, better parental engagement with schools, action to address children's hearing health and more investment in case management would all deliver better outcomes than SEAM is able to. It is these suggestions that were most prevalent in the Stronger Futures consultation with communities, not a preference for punitive measures.

Despite this, money is still being funnelled into truancy measures which alienate people and take an old-fashioned, punitive approach. This approach, aimed at punishing parents, does not build the trust or partnerships that are needed or build the ability of parents to take responsibility for their child's education in positive ways. The $1.5 billion spent so far would have delivered significantly better results had it been directed to service investments and programs rather than signs, bureaucracy and income management.

These programs are extremely costly. To date, the bill for the current income management process in the Northern Territory sits at around $450 million and the policy remains one of the most criticised across the NT. The money used to income-manage people would produce far better results if it were directed to services and programs based on collaboration and community involvement and partnership.

A recent report by the Equality Rights Alliance into women's experiences of income management in the Northern Territory, funded by the government, shows that, of the 168 surveyed, 74 per cent said that the BasicsCard does not make it easier to look after their families. Most women reported that it just added difficulties and costs to paying for goods and services. The report also showed that most women surveyed had an apparent lack of understanding as to the purpose of the program or why they were on it and 70 per cent said they did not feel safer since the introduction of income management.

In their submission to the Senate inquiry on this legislation, the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples highlighted the general lack of robust baseline data and evidence in support of policies initiated in the intervention. The government needs to be investing in policy measures that have solid evidence to support them, not repeating the same failed policies over and over. If we were to implement sound community based initiatives that we know are effective, that would provide communities with the ability and opportunity to control and improve their social and economic conditions—elements that are a key component of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Australia has endorsed.

Engagement in the Northern Territory and with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities must be fundamentally altered if the rights set out in the UN declaration are to be honoured. That will happen when we adopt policies that are considered and that originate from real, consultative engagement with a sound evidence base. When this occurs, a well-chosen set of statistics and a well-oiled PR machine will not be needed to justify the approach. The benefits for communities and individuals across the Northern Territory will be self-evident.

The government's stealthy expansion of income management measures is a sign they have failed to learn their lesson in the Northern Territory. In the words of Barb Shaw:

Loss of autonomy, resources and opportunities in communities is driving many people into the larger town centres. The overcrowding situation with housing has not improved. More and more Aboriginal children are being removed from families, another silent statistic. There is a deteriorating social situation in these larger towns, with crime on the increase.

The government remain unable to effectively develop and implement policies alongside communities in the Northern Territory that work. This legislation will only further entrench this, not just in the NT but now in other parts of the country as income management is extended to other states and territories to allow for the quarantining of income support payments.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities must be allowed to take responsibility for their own affairs. This legislation is a step in the wrong direction and the government is missing yet another opportunity to take a new approach in the Northern Territory. Extending ineffective measures is a waste of money. Punishing parents by cutting income support flies in the face of existing knowledge and opinion, including of the government's own departments. You do not have to be a rocket scientist to work out that by investing in community services you improve outcomes for communities and address disadvantage. The Australian Greens are committed to proactive and positive policies which deliver long-term benefits for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and not costly punishment schemes which diminish the ability of those peoples to develop the capacity to build their own stronger futures as they define them.

The government continues to act in a way contrary to the evidence and the opinions of experts and the community. This is precisely why we have seen more than $1.5 billion spent on the intervention without seeing the necessary improvements. The Australian Greens—in particular my colleague Senator Rachel Siewert, who has worked tirelessly to uncover the real impacts of government policies on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples—have strongly and consistently stood up to the government over the issue of the intervention. I have serious doubts about extending a program which is already operating and returning underwhelming results. That is why I will be voting against this legislation.