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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 1795


Mr RAMSEY (Grey) (16:21): I rise to address the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 and associated bills. I find myself in the strange position of supporting a bill which subsumes individual responsibility and moves it to the public. It is something of which I would normally be extremely wary but, in this case, I find myself with little option but to support it. I would be the first to say I am not a supporter of the nanny state, where the state progressively removes an individual's responsibilities to make decisions in what the state presumes is their best interests. There are scores of examples where government imposes itself in this manner on the general public, in areas like compulsory superannuation, seatbelts, OH&S arrangements—which are very onerous on business and in some cases discourage them from employing workers—and smoking laws. That is not to say that any one of these laws in isolation is a bad thing; it is just an area where government has taken individual responsibility away.

Even the messages of incentives/penalties that government and bodies of government send people regarding personal health care—things like obesity, alcohol consumption and tobacco use—assume that it is not really the fault of the individual. In the case of obesity or alcohol abuse it is the fast food sellers or the alcohol advertisers who are at fault. We are not very honest with people when we fail to tell them if they are overweight, if they drink too much or if they smoke too much that it is in the individual's power to address the problem. Unfortunately, this comes through much of the legislation that we do in the public healthcare or the public benefit sector.

As I have said, this is not an area that I would normally be drawn to. One of my favourites, as an example of where we fall down in terms of the individual's responsibility, is breakfast programs in schools. I would be the last to say that if kids are coming to school hungry that we should not do something about it, but the downside of that is that as soon as we provide this assistance to the children we are absolving parents of their essential responsibility, which is to feed their children before they go to school. I know of a small middle-class country town where the local school had two or three children coming to school who were hungry, and the school felt it had to do something. It addressed the problem and put in a breakfast program but before long it had 20 or 30 children coming to school for the breakfast program. You have to try to strike a balance between the public good, the child's good and the individual's responsibility. That is not to say that any of these programs are necessarily good or bad, but we need to consider this when we make decisions—as we are with these bills—about absolving individuals of their responsibility and trying to put state pressure on them to achieve social outcomes. For me, the threshold is where the individual's actions impact on others, particularly children.

Today, we are debating that area where we are using the strength of government to manipulate people's welfare income to achieve outcomes for their children that they may not otherwise necessarily take. The Howard government's intervention in the Northern Territory has always had its detractors, and normally it is couched in terms of offending human rights. This has always been a poor criticism. The weakness of the intervention was that it further removed individual responsibilities and the ability of individuals to manage their own lives. So while we take this short-term action we must have a clear eye to the future about how we empower people to take back control of their lives.

The intervention's genesis lay in the appalling levels of abuse and neglect within the remote Indigenous communities revealed in the Little children are sacred report by Rex Wild and Patricia Anderson, released in June 2007, where it established that the inability of individuals, parents and communities to exercise their individual responsibilities was seriously impacting on innocent parties—that is, the children. While significant sectors of the Indigenous community and the community generally remain opposed to the intervention, on balance I believe it has been positive. It was essential to take some control of a situation that was out of control.

Until now, these programs have been aimed at Indigenous communities—firstly in the Northern Territory and then to trial sites in Western Australia. Parts of the program, namely, the income management procedures, are to be rolled out in five new communities in mainstream Australia. One of these is in South Australia in the Playford City Council area, within the federal electorate of Wakefield. It is about time. One of the chief criticisms of the intervention has been that it was essentially racist. There is no reason for it to be so. If the programs are good and the right thing to do then, surely, where the same triggers exist—I mean anywhere; not just in the Northern Territory and not just in the city of Playford—the same measure should be appropriate.

There are also provisions to extend and refine the Northern Territory programs and include the School Enrolment and Attendance Measure, or SEAM. I support these moves too. But my question to the government is: if now, after 4½ years of operation, the programs are to be extended and refined, if the assessment is that the programs are of net benefit to the communities and if the Northern Territory intervention has been a success, then why have the programs not been rolled out just over the border into the APY Lands of northern South Australia? For all intents and purposes, these communities are one and the same people who live in the southern sectors of the Northern Territory.

You are well aware, I know, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, that the northern lands of South Australia are in my electorate. It is confronting, every time I go there, to see the disadvantage that these people operate within and how difficult it is to get kids into the schooling system. I accept that there has been another raft of public moneys going into improving housing. Certainly, the schools are at a very good level when you look at their amenities. Their health centres are also very good. And yet in so many ways we seem to be going backwards.

School attendance in these communities is one of the great concerns that we have. We have the difficulty of children not rolling up on time in the morning or not rolling up on a specific day but we also have another great problem in these communities: the influence and impact that cultural practices such as sorry days are having on communities. If a community was having a period of sorrow 100 years or 200 years ago, that period would only have been for a limited amount of time because the body would have had to be disposed with. Now we can have bodies stuck down in Adelaide for weeks at a time, with communities in sorry camps. We have children hundreds of kilometres away from their homes in sorry camps.

Traditionally, anything over 20 kilometres or 30 kilometres would have been out of that community's reach. With the way that they live their lives now, sorry days are having a much greater impact now than they would have had 100 years or 200 years ago. That is one of the reasons that school attendances are so bad throughout the lands. It is not necessarily that the kids are not rolling up on any specific day, although I know that we have issues with that as well. Some compulsion from the Commonwealth such that to get welfare payments your children should attend school is well overdue.

The acceptance of income management is varied. I know many are implacably opposed. I met with the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples a few weeks ago and they are opposed. However, as the member for Grey I regularly visit remote Indigenous communities and as part of that work have met in the past with representatives of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women's Council, which covers communities encompassing 350,000 square kilometres in Central Australia and straddling three states. I well remember the points that they made to me. Essentially, they said: 'We didn't want income management; we were totally opposed. But now we don't want you to take it away.' That is because it has empowered women to stand up for themselves and their families. One of the great strengths and weaknesses of Aboriginal society is their tradition of sharing whatever they have. However, as community structures have broken down in these remote communities, the tradition of sharing has become simply agreeing to demands from dysfunctional members of the communities to supply them with food and money for drugs and alcohol.

When I met with them, the women told me this: 'Now when people come to the door and demand food we can say, 'You cannot be hungry because you have the same food as me.' That is because part of their welfare cheques under income management cannot be spent on alcohol, drugs, cigarettes or other non-essential items. It must be spent on the essentials: food and shelter. While, as I said earlier, I am very reluctant to endorse laws that take away personal responsibility, unfortunately there is a tipping point at which it affects others in the community—namely, the children—and at that point you have to take a stand and be counted. My observations in the communities where this resistance is strongest is that the male population is much more strongly opposed to income management than the female population. I point out that these are still very much male dominated societies and the males with influence in the society have a fear of the unknown.

I endorse the government's moves in this area. I hope that they are going to make a difference. Of those of us who are in these communities and face these issues on a regular basis, none are foolish enough to say that this is the answer and that it will fix the problem. It is not that simple. If the problem was that easily fixed, it would have been fixed 40 or 50 years ago. We hope that this policy will make a difference. In the medium term and the longer term, if it does provide the circuit breaker, we also have to find mechanisms to re-empower people to take control of their own lives, get back on track and make the decisions for themselves to give them the lives that the rest of Australia basically take for granted. As I said, this is not just an Indigenous issue. I am pleased to see this roll out in another five communities within Australia. If those circumstances exist there, so should the solutions.