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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 1748


Mrs GRIGGS (Solomon) (13:07): I listened with great interest to the member for Melbourne. I have actually spoken to a number of Aboriginal women in the communities who receive the BasicsCard. They think it works really well for them. They know that they have guaranteed money that cannot be touched. So for them it is working quite well.

I rise to contribute to the debate on the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011. The debate on this bill encompasses a compilation of legislation known as Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory, which includes the social security bill and other legislation amendment bills. These bills amend aspects of the Northern Territory Emergency Response, or the intervention, as it is more colloquially known, which was introduced by the Howard government in June 2007 and is subject to sunset in August this year. In essence, this bill has three focus points: to introduce various measures for the control and regulation of alcohol in protected areas of the Northern Territory; to provide the Commonwealth with powers to regulate town camps and community living areas in the Northern Territory; and to provide the Commonwealth with the power to regulate community store licences in the Northern Territory, including the power to impose conditions on licences granted to store managers and owners. In addition, this suite of bills amends the social security law underpinning the government's school enrolment and attendance measure, thus allowing for the suspension of income support to parents who fail to meet certain compliance arrangements.

Tackling alcohol abuse is a significant portion of this bill. Alcohol consumption and abuse levels are extremely high and have been identified and reported on many times as primary factors associated with child abuse, assaults, domestic violence, social dysfunction and numerous other problems plaguing Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. I acknowledge that there are critics of this bill with respect to measures directed at alcohol misuse in the Northern Territory, who indicate that without a floor price on alcohol these measures are unlikely to be successful—that is just one opinion.

Land reform is a means to provide the government with a platform to secure tenure, economic development and homeownership opportunities within Indigenous communities across the Northern Territory.

The largest portion of this bill relates to food security. It has been recognised that, over time, the question of food quality has become a major issue, one that is being linked with health concerns. Part of the intervention saw the introduction of a licensing system for community stores. The Stronger Futures bills seek to expand on this original premise and extend the licensing scheme to cover all shops that are a key source of food, drink and grocery items to Indigenous communities. Having been to some of the communities prior to and during the intervention, I can say that there has been a significant change to the food that is being provided in the communities. The intervention measures have been revisited over the past four years, including a subtle rebranding to Closing the Gap, resulting in the reversal or softening of some of the original measures, including reversal of the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, the removal of the process to suspend the permit system for access to Aboriginal land and the redefinition of the term 'income management' in the Social Security and other Legislation (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Act 2010.

In June 2011 the government released its discussion paper Stronger Futures for the Northern Territory, following which, between June and August, a consultative process was undertaken within the Northern Territory. The minister has said: 'There were more than 470 consultation meetings in over 100 hundred towns and communities.' The member for Melbourne suggested that consultation was not occurring—that is evidence that it was. In research as a result of the consultation and provided by an independent analysis of data relating to the intervention to September 2011, the government identified several key areas as issues requiring urgent attention. It will be not be a surprise to members to learn that school attendance and educational achievement were two of those areas, along with economic development and employment and the tackling of alcohol abuse.

The then Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Ms Macklin, in a policy statement issued on the day that this legislation was introduced into the parliament, stated:

The Australian Government, in partnership with the Northern Territory Government, is now acting on the issues people said were the most urgent—

this was identified four years ago, but it is good that the government has come on board now and says that it is tackling it. She said it was looking at:

getting children to school to get a decent education

tackling alcohol misuse

providing decent housing, and

building strong local economies and increasing job opportunities.

They are all part of the reason the intervention was introduced under John Howard. I note that the minister has also said:

The Australian Government is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past but to work together with Aboriginal people to build stronger futures together.

I think we all want that.

This bill is another example showing that this Gillard Labor government is desperate to be seen to be doing something. While supporting the introduction of these measures, the coalition also highlights the need for a proactive approach to welfare, not a reactive one. We on this side of the House support comprehensive policy development followed up with strong management and implementation measures, not quick fixes or patches that are designed to gloss over endemic issues and that result in mismanagement, waste and a failure to achieve the desired outcomes. Too often the Gillard Labor government has tripped at the implementation stage and failed to deliver on its promises.

The intervention in the Northern Territory as introduced by the Howard government remains an issue of contention; there is no doubt about it. There is division and misunderstanding, not just among Aboriginal people, within the communities, but among their supporters and their opposition, who are broadly spread across all facets of the Northern Territory and Australian populations. As we heard, the member for Melbourne is one of those critics of the intervention. But, as I said, I have seen the results of this. While there is still a long way to go, it does seem to be working. That is why I encourage more agencies to work together to build on what has been learnt and why I encourage more people to get results. But you are only going to get that by learning the lessons of the past. Reverend Dr David Gondarra, a Northern Territory elder, is reported in an article by Amanda Midlam on the On Line Opinion webpage as saying:

The recent consultations report shows that Government has failed to take seriously our concerns and feelings. This report is simply a reflection of pre-determined policy decisions …

He goes on to say:

The Stronger Futures report has created a lot of anger and frustration due to the lack of process and the ignorant way in which the views of the people have been reported. We therefore reject this report.

However, within the same article, an Amnesty International spokesperson is reported stating that Amnesty International has:

… called on the Gillard government to move on from the mistakes of the past, warning its Stronger Futures legislation is just a re-badged NT intervention …

Further:

Amnesty International is concerned Labor hasn't done enough to remove the discriminatory aspects of the intervention in the new legislation.

In the same vein, the Northern Territory elders and community representatives group claimed the consultation report 'is simply a reflection of pre-determined policy decisions'. They say, 'This is shown clearly by the absence of any commitment to bilingual learning programs as well as the proposal to introduce welfare cuts and fines to parents of non-attending school children.' However, on the contrary, many Indigenous leaders, including Noel Pearson, Marcia Langton and Bess Price—a good friend of mine—have called for a 'move forward instead of backwards' building on the measures from the intervention, accusing critics of the intervention of 'imagining an ideal Aboriginal society without any of the dysfunction that is actually suffered on the ground'.

The coalition amendments proposed by my friend and colleague the member for Menzies are designed to tweak and improve on the measures already in existence and being introduced by the Stronger Futures legislation. One such point is that relative to the power of the federal minister to modify, suspend or cancel liquor licences and permits—a power that essentially duplicates that of the Northern Territory minister and Northern Territory licensing commissioner. The coalition amendment in this area specifies that prior to issuing a determination to modify, suspend or cancel a liquor licence or permit the minister must first write to the Northern Territory minister and the Northern Territory Licensing Commission setting out the issue and the proposed action and that a written response be invited from the Northern Territory minister and the Northern Territory licensing commissioner within the specified consultation time frame, with appropriate comment or action. At this point, any decision by the federal minister must have regard to the comments and actions as advised by the Northern Territory minister and the Northern Territory licensing commissioner.

The amendments recognise the right of the federal minister to make determinations where the Northern Territory government is unable to or fails to take appropriate action to address the harm caused by alcohol abuse. The amendment in this regard clarifies when the federal minister may act. The last thing we need is more buck-passing between the state and the Commonwealth. Territorians are very parochial about the Commonwealth telling them what they need to do.

From my own experience it is very evident that the intervention, Closing the Gap or, as is being proposed, Stronger Futures for the Northern Territory are issues which will remain contentious regardless of stakeholder involvement. In talking with constituents and Aboriginal representatives, I find that many support the measures currently in place, contrary to what the member for Melbourne says. But, in fact, from my experience, many of the women particularly see the value of welfare quarantining, which enables them to know they have money available for the purchase of food, clothing and medications. It is not perfect but at least it is a step in the right direction.

Recently I spoke to a group of Indigenous mothers in the Palmerston area of my electorate. Several women volunteered for income quarantining for no other reason than to ensure they had money to spend on children in their care each fortnight, to make sure they had food and clothing. Without intent to offend, the level of education across not only the Indigenous population within my electorate is cavernous. There are those that actively engage in education systems and encourage kids from preschool through to university and beyond. On the other side of the coin, there are those dysfunctional family units, a large percentage ravaged by alcohol and drug abuse, which fail their kids by not taking the appropriate responsibility, by not seeking out a better life for them or by not, in some cases, providing basic needs.

Behavioural issues are largely as a result of alcohol and drug related activities. It is my observation that unfortunately the level of abuse increases with a falling level of education standard. This has a twofold effect. Not only does it require intervention in terms of the income quarantining in many instances, but from a generational perspective the risk of repeating and prolonging the circumstances which invoke such action remains.

Introduction of the school enrolment and attendance measures, along with many local state and Territory programs set in place to work with and adjunct to this legislation, has broadened the initiatives in place for income management. As already indicated, the coalition amendments in this area are designed to tweak and improve on this already viable program. Hopefully the result will be more kids attending school.

Within my electorate there are a number of Aboriginal communities, as I have said. As is the case across the Northern Territory and broader Australia, the residents within these communities are not static in number. Resident numbers ebb and flow with family comings and goings. Often visitors remain for long periods, and it seems to happen more when the wet season is upon us. I have been to the Bagot community a number of times. People there have told me that when visitors come it causes problems for the community, because they drink alcohol. It is an urban community and often the police do not come and police it, despite the fact that there is an alcohol prevention sign there. The police do not want to come and fine these people, who are already disadvantaged. This issue is putting pressure on the council. I encourage the community and the relevant agencies to work together to come to a solution. They need to work together to build on what we have already put in place.

I think everybody wants to make sure that this situation gets better, but there is no quick fix. The more that we learn from pilots that we have undertaken in the past and other measures, the more we can build on them for the future. All stakeholders need to work together. This is not going to be fixed overnight; it is a long process. The statistics that we have seen are encouraging, giving us cause to be positive and to work together in this area.