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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 1808


Mr LAMING (Bowman) (17:19): In wrapping up this debate, I note that it has been disjointed because we are debating the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 and the cognate bills, Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011 and Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2011, together. For those who are listening to this debate and find us hopping from income management in urban Australia to alcohol management in the Northern Territory, the best way I can summarise where we are at is that we have had both an apology and a commitment bilaterally from both sides of this chamber to closing the gap. But, today, this government has brought to this House a series of bills that do little more than duplicate or timidly expand what already exists in the area of alcohol and income management.

In Stronger Futures, the Commonwealth government is duplicating the abilities of the Northern Territory government to make certain determinations around alcohol management. All things considered, that is a fairly timid move into this greatly distressing area. Worldwide, right across humanity, we know that around five litres of pure alcohol per person aged over the age 15 is drunk, and in the Northern Territory it is three times that amount—50 per cent higher than it is for the rest of Australia, more than three standard drinks per person, whether they are drinkers or not, over the age of 15. These are greatly concerning figures that well-meaning groups like the People's Alcohol Action Coalition have emphasised must be addressed through supply reduction. You simply cannot wait for demand changes to take root in the context of complete dysfunction.

Having been warned of this and the important steps that were taken with the Northern Territory intervention, it is ironic that today we are debating transitional and consequential provisions that will end those five-year periods for the Northern Territory intervention and replace them with alcohol plans that, for the most part, are agreed by both sides of this chamber. My great concern is that, with these reforms that run for another 10 years with review at seven and then ultimately reporting at eight years, we will find little difference on the ground at the end of that period. That is why we need to be very frustrated about what is being debated here today.

What has been put before the chamber will make almost no difference to what happens in Alice Springs. It will allow the federal government, if it chooses, to ask an independent assessor to identify whether there are breaches of the Northern Territory act. It will allow the federal government to introduce regulations that will become an amendment to a piece of Northern Territory legislation, in the hope that the Northern Territory does not remove those amendments in their own parliament.

In the grand context of alcohol abuse and in the context of child abuse and foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, this legislation does not take us even a few millimetres closer to a solution. To use that metaphor of the duck gliding across the water but paddling underneath, on this side of the House we have the inverted duck: lots of flapping above the water but no propulsion under the water. No, because this is a government appealing to both sides of the street. We have many people in the House today; we have many of them down from the Northern Territory deeply aggrieved by the Northern Territory intervention and, still to this day, deeply wounded by the lack of consultation. This government has now had five years to do the consultation, but that has not occurred. Sure, there have been chartered flights up, with ministers dropping in to talk and sympathise about the intervention, but there has been little more than that.

On the same side of this debate, this is a government that wants to travel around the rest of Australia and flex its muscle to show how much it has done in welfare reform. So, if you are looking for those little clues, where you talk tough to the rest of Australia and are then very apologetic to those in the Centre who complain, then look no further than this social security amendment. The Northern Territory emergency intervention, flawed as it was in its lack of consultation, rolled out clear indications about reductions in trauma and improvements in school attendance. We have had, thanks to Noel Pearson, the interventions in Cape York that have shown distinct improvements in attendance at school and reduction in presentations to magistrates. We have seen in Cape York, after Family Responsibilities Commission hearings, 50 per cent of people having their income quarantined only to move through the quarantine and come out the other side adhering to the positive social norms that we desire to cultivate all around Australia. These are self-imposed, self-agreed social norms like sending your kids to school, not harming them, paying your rent and staying out of court. They are simple things that most parts of the world can agree on, but we have not gone beyond Cape York at this stage.

Under this government we had a two-year trial in two Western Australian locations: one in the Kimberley and one in Perth. That trial was evaluated by ORIMA, who found virtually no fault in the application of voluntary income management and income management under conditions where child-welfare is at stake. It is almost a no-brainer. As controversial it might have been 10 years ago, even the government's own assessment and evaluation says that it works.

So what does the pea-hearted mob on the other side of the chamber do? They design another two-year trial with exactly the same intervention; having just had the trial evaluated and found to be effective! They are rolling it out in five tiny communities around Australia—that is what we are debating today—which make up less than one per cent of the population. It will not include anyone in the Prime Minister's electorate, anyone in the health minister's electorate, anyone in the previous health minister's electorate or anyone in the Treasurer's electorate. No, this trial involves just five urban communities. Sure, these communities are vulnerable, but what are they going to do there? They are going to allow social workers to determine if someone is vulnerable and, if so, they will be offered the opportunity to have their income managed. We may be dealing with a couple of hundred people in those areas.

There is nothing left that is complicated or controversial about this anymore. We have had years to evaluate this. But this timid step, which is barely forward, just shows a government that is unable to really grasp the issue of welfare reform. In fact, they are being left behind by the community. If you ask them, most of the community would say, 'If you're abusing kids, probably the first thing you should do is quarantine some income, manage it with the assistance of a social worker, and make sure the child does not miss out.' How does this party over here, with its heritage of looking after low-income earners and highly vulnerable in Australia and our community, rest and reconcile that with this piece of legislation that just creeps along with another two years of pilot programs? What would anyone say to the other 99 per cent of Australia, where there is no income quarantined, about people who are either abusing or threatening their kids through poor use of income and government welfare? It is utterly appalling that this is not rolling out nationwide. It is appalling that the rest of Australia is denied that basic service of voluntary income management, particularly for those that have child welfare notifications that come from state governments.

This is beyond being even remotely interesting for researchers now. The proof is in. The government funded research, the government funded evaluations and the time of this chamber, on I admit a day of great distraction, is being consumed moving a bill to allow another two years of pilot programs. The time for pilot programs must surely be coming to an end. Five locations in five tiny suburbs, under these provisions, is nowhere near what is required in a context where it has been evaluated, re-evaluated and re-evaluated again.

I admit that the BasicsCard has had some teething problems in the Northern Territory. It is effectively a value-storing card that is PIN-protected and from which you can only use between 50 and 70 per cent of your income on essential services. But we have reached a point now where there is enough diversity and enough providers that in most parts of Northern Territory there is no problem with the BasicsCard or a need to continue evaluating it. We are moving to the point now where we need greater debate about whether all welfare recipients, in fact all people who are on DSP, on Newstart or on various forms of parenting payment, should be subjected to 50 to 70 per cent income management to ensure that they are spending that welfare wisely. After all, it is government money, and is therefore for the provision of services to family and their children. But, no, what we are debating today is another pilot program.

In the Northern Territory, there are some sensible changes, which will allow the minister to make exceptions where alcohol is being carried over waterways, particularly for commercial or tourism purposes, and that makes good sense. I know also that the Australian Hotels Association's Northern Territory branch have articulated their utterly reasonable concerns about which level of government they answer to. I concede that they would have a concern that the federal government might be acting blindly without understanding the conditions on the ground. But I think the amendments that have been proposed by the member for Menzies are common sense. They propose that the first intervention for the federal government would be writing to the Territory equivalent responsible for NT liquor licensing, indicating their desire to have that particular area independently assessed. That makes good sense. It reduces, to some extent, the duplication that we are so concerned about on this side.

In the Northern Territory at the moment they are simplifying what is going on. Woolworths and Coles have agreed to remove some of their cheapest versions of alcohol. That is right, the flavoured metho is no longer on the shelves in Alice Springs. That has to be a good thing. But, regrettably, there are still licensed premises that sell the cheapest forms of fortified and non-fortified cask wine. We are talking about alcohol priced in the vicinity of less than $1 per standard drink. Most recommendations have shown that if we can raise the minimum for a standard alcoholic unit to $1.20 we are some way towards reducing availability.

We also have the great difficulty that hotels in Alice Springs trade seven days a week—whereas at least we know that shopping centres often are not trading on a Sunday—which means seven-day availability. Centrelink payments can be on any day of the week and that means there is no 'thirsty Thursday' anymore of the kind we used to experience in Tennant Creek. The arrangement was that on the day welfare was provided they would close the licensed premises. It gave mums and primary caregivers a chance to buy food on that day and not have much of it humbugged away into alcohol purchase and consumption. The great concern we have at the moment is that absolutely there is the supply, possession and consumption of alcohol to the degree that will always need alcohol management plans and at times federal prescribing of areas to have alcohol restrictions.

There is no debate about that. The only concern is whether this federal government will work with and give notification to the Territory government. I do hope the minister who has entered the chamber now will consider that well-reasoned amendment, because it simply requires a letter to the NT minister to indicate that the federal government wishes to have an independent assessment, and for a vendor or a business to be given notice and a reasonable chance to respond. And of course there should be a chance for the Northern Territory government to respond if they think that there are financial or other reasons that make it difficult for them to comply or concur.

In conclusion, what we have here is a timid step forward in the great fight against alcohol consumption in Central Australia. We know how important it is, as the member for Aston articulately put it—and the member for Durack has said it is well, as did the members for Murray and Hasluck. Without being trite, there has been a series of speeches given on this side of the House that I thought were insightful. I thought they showed a clear understanding of how things work in Indigenous communities. But all that we have had from the government, from the great party looking after the vulnerable and the poor, were these fairly ordinary superficial responses that this is part of the government agenda to move things along.

Mark my words—with this legislation rolled out, I challenge the government to say whether there will be any change in five years. Is there any change in simply replicating the powers of the NT government in Canberra? Little. This government has failed to actually stand up to the forces that are making alcohol widely available in areas like Alice Springs. They have failed to set up the training arrangements that obligate young working-age Aboriginal Australians to undertake training, and to take jobs when they are suitable. They have failed to engage the people in town camps around Alice Springs, who remain wholly and solely, in many cases, utterly dysfunctional and dependent upon alcohol provision. It gives me the sense that it is a government that has just run out of ideas.

History shall record that this government, when given the chance, could think of nothing more than duplicating the powers of another jurisdiction. This is a government so timid in their moves towards welfare reform that we have had not one trial in the NT, two in Cape York and three in WA fully evaluated at government expense—yet they have announced another five trial sites. This is a government where the warm embrace of welfare reform is nothing more than cold and chilling. Welfare reform threatens the key constituencies of this government and that is why they will do everything they can to make it look like they are flapping wildly—but moving ahead they will not be. No, they will simply announce trial after trial and make glib announcements and give press conferences about the hard work they are doing. But I can assure those at every level in the government that years from now this slow progress will have done nothing for families who struggle with alcohol consumption, for families who struggle with the implications of that, and for the children who need our protection. This government could do far worse than take on some of our recommendations and move far faster than they have