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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 1792


Mr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (16:09): In introducing this package of bills to the House, the then Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs spoke of the government's vision and objectives that are driving us in our plan to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage. She said:

A stronger future, grounded in a stronger relationship between government and Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

A relationship built on respect for Australia’s first peoples, for their custodianship of the land, for their culture and for their ongoing contributions to our shared nation.

This is a respect that is about much more than sentiment. It is about the approach we take to our work, and the approach we take to working together.

This is the approach we took to consultations after we first came into government.

These conversations revealed the depth of hurt felt by Aboriginal people by the sudden and rushed implementation of the Northern Territory Emergency Response.

And informed our amendments, including the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act in the Northern Territory.

I can find no finer words with which to enter this debate on this important package of legislation.

I am very pleased to speak today on the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 and associated bills. Together, these bills form a part of the government's next steps in the Northern Territory, undertaken in partnership with Aboriginal people and the Northern Territory government. The Gillard government is working with Indigenous people to improve services in areas such as health, education and housing, as part of an unprecedented effort to improve life expectancy and opportunities for Indigenous people. Ending this unacceptable disadvantage will take time. It will also require a sustained effort by all governments and by businesses, not-for-profit organisations, Indigenous Australians and the wider community.

The Closing the Gap report tabled in this place by the Prime Minister recently shows that the foundations are now in place to build lasting changes right across the country. Progress made so far, as outlined in the report, includes the fact that we are on track to meet the under-five mortality target, with a continued decline in mortality rates for Indigenous children—falling by 48 per cent from 1991 to 2010 across the three jurisdictions in which long-term comparisons are possible. That is something I am sure all members in this place would rejoice in. Overall Indigenous mortality rates have declined by 36 per cent from 1991 to 2010 in, again, the three jurisdictions for which reliable data are available for this period. Indigenous children are doing better at school, with strong improvements in NAPLAN results for Indigenous students in seven of the eight areas in which we can assess progress at the national level. Again, I am sure that these are improvements all members in this House would rejoice in.

The introduction of these bills follows extensive consultations, as the minister set out in her second reading speech, with the Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory on how the Australian and Northern Territory governments might work with Aboriginal people to expand their opportunities and build stronger futures for themselves and their children. In the consultations, Aboriginal people said that getting more children to school, increasing the number of Aboriginal people in local jobs, improving housing and reducing alcohol related harm were the communities' top priorities.

The Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory package of bills is one element of the government's response and continued commitment to meeting these top priorities. The Stronger Futures Bill provides that the Northern Territory Emergency Response alcohol restrictions will be continued and strengthened. It also provides that alcohol management plans established by local communities be directed at minimising alcohol related harm. The bill also provides for the Commonwealth to require the Northern Territory Licensing Commission to provide reports to the Commonwealth minister on levels of alcohol related harm and the impact of policy measures in the Territory. Getting this information ensures we are able to make the right policy decisions in the future. The bill also provides for a joint Commonwealth and Northern Territory review to be conducted in two years from commencement of the Stronger Futures legislation. The review will examine the impact of the Stronger Futures and Territory strategies to address alcohol related harm. This will allow both governments to continue working together to make real progress. The member for Murray spoke about her experiences in relation to some of the stores in the area covered by this legislation. It goes to the issue of food security. A consistent message in the consultations with the minister and the government and in evaluations was that the remote community stores have improved over the past four years. They are now offering a healthier range of food and are generally better managed. We will continue to improve licensing arrangements for community stores by replacing the current system, in which the only remedy for noncompliance is licence revocation. We will introduce, through measures in this bill, daily penalties for noncompliance of up to $2,200 to encourage stores to improve their performance and improve it quickly. Licensing will be more clearly focused on supporting food security in remote communities. In the future a community store will be required to have a licence to operate if it is an important source of food, drink or grocery items for Aboriginal communities.

The Australian government has made a clear commitment to negotiating voluntary long-term leases in the area of housing and land reform and will not be extending the compulsory five-year leases acquired under the original NTER legislation. The Australian and Northern Territory governments will continue to negotiate leases with Aboriginal landholders that will enable the Northern Territory government to manage housing in remote communities. The aim is to enable the Aboriginal landholders of town camps and community living areas to have the opportunity to make use of their land for a broader range of purposes, including economic development and private home ownership.

We are also taking steps, through the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill, to make improvements to the Australian government's measure on improving school enrolment and attendance through welfare reform. The social security bill will amend the income management legislation to allow referrals by recognised state or territory authorities to trigger income management. In the Northern Territory people could be referred for income management by the Northern Territory Alcohol and Other Drugs Tribunal. The social security law amendments will apply to all people on income support in the relevant areas on a non-discriminatory basis.

Income management is a key part of the government's commitment to ensuring that welfare payments are spent in the best interests of children. It provides a tool to stabilise people's circumstances, easing immediate financial stress while limiting expenditure of income support payments on excluded items, including alcohol, tobacco, pornography, and gambling goods and activities.

The social security bill also enables the introduction of targeted income management in five disadvantaged communities across Australia, including Playford in South Australia, Bankstown in my own state of New South Wales, Shepparton in Victoria, and Rockhampton and Logan in Queensland. In these communities from 1 July this year income management will apply to vulnerable families and individuals, including parents referred for income management by a state or territory child protection authority; people assessed by Centrelink social workers as being vulnerable to financial crisis—which could include people referred by housing authorities—who are at risk of homelessness due to rental arrears; or people who themselves volunteer for income management.

New support services will also be available to help families on income management get their lives back on track. These include money management skills training to help people better manage the family budget and new Communities for Children services, including in my own electorate in Throsby, which will support parents and their children through playgroups, parenting education classes, mentoring and support groups, and early learning programs. Each of these measures will take effect from 1 July this year.

In concluding I will say a few words about school attendance and school attendance patterns, as outlined in schedule 2 of the social security bill. The government's school enrolment and attendance measure, SEAM, supports parents in their responsibility to ensure that their children go to school. All the best teachers and all the best curriculums in the world are of no use unless children are actually attending their local school. So, under the measure, people may have their income support payments suspended if they fail to enrol their child at school or fail to make every effort to ensure that they attend regularly. Indications to date are that SEAM and the accompanying social work support provided by the government are having a positive impact on enrolment and attendance. This bill enables some local tailoring of these measures too so that the operation of SEAM can be integrated with the Northern Territory government's Every Child, Every Day initiative to support greater improvement in school attendance, and this package of measures will take effect from 1 July this year.

This is a comprehensive package of bills as part of the government's ongoing commitment to working together with communities in the remote parts of the Northern Territory as well as with other vulnerable communities throughout the country to ensure that we are doing our best to provide income support, life opportunities and quality education for each and every Australian child whether they are living in a remote community in the Northern Territory or in the community of Playford in South Australia or in one of the other areas targeted in this package of bills. Income support will be provided to families who are without jobs or who are relying on welfare support, but at the same time we will be delivering what we now call 'tough love'. That is to ensure that the adults in those families to whom the government is providing income support are doing everything within their power to ensure that their kids go to school and that their kids have every opportunity in life—opportunities that perhaps their parents did not have—to get a fine education and to ensure that they are able to participate in the workforce and in the wider community.

This is an important package of bills. I hope it enjoys bipartisan support. I know the report that was delivered by the Prime Minister in this chamber two weeks ago on the closing the gap statistics is something that would be welcomed not only by all right-thinking people in this place but by the community at large. Yes, progress has been made, but there is still much more to be done. I commend this legislation to the House. It is another step in the right direction in closing the gap.