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Wednesday, 22 August 2012
Page: 6120

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (16:01): On the last sitting day in June, as this chamber knows, the Senate passed the stronger futures legislation, a policy for which there is no substantive evidence that it will be effective, just like its predecessor, the Northern Territory intervention, had no substantive evidence of its effectiveness. At around the same time that the Senate was considering the stronger futures legislation, results of the 2011 census were released. This stronger futures legislation and the government's policy approach is supposed to be closing the gap of Aboriginal disadvantage—the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians in life expectancy and socioeconomic indicators. I would have expected to see that the gap in those socioeconomic differences was closing. In fact, the census showed us that in those key socioeconomic indicators between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia it is not closing. That gap is not vanishing. In fact, there was very little difference between the 2006 and 2011 censuses. The latest data on Closing the Gap, the figures from the end of last year, showed escalating reports of self-harm and suicide. I will come to employment in a minute.

What is particularly concerning about those reports is that the feedback I am getting from those on the ground in the Northern Territory is of shell-shocked communities, a feeling of disempowerment, continuing reports of people talking about a loss of dignity and with extreme despondency about the way that communities have been promised a lot that has not been delivered.

We have seen some changes, of course. We no longer have government business managers; we have government engagement coordinators. But, again, as with the government business managers, people do not know what they are supposed to be doing or what has changed. What has changed is that around the rest of Australia we have seen a defunding of some programs in order to fund the stronger futures legislation. One of the things the government made communities understand is that in their 10-year commitment to ongoing funding—and 10-year and long-term funding is a good idea—there was little new money being delivered. There are some programs being continued. Money has been cut from other programs, such as the Indigenous law and justice programs, where we have seen $23.9 million over four years being redirected. We have seen money being redirected from the National Native Title Tribunal. We have seen money being redirected from the intensive literacy and numeracy programs for underachieving Indigenous students. We have seen community festivals and education engagement funding being cut. We have seen cuts to funding to the youth mobility and youth leadership programs, and to programs designed to address petrol sniffing—that critical element of youth diversionary programs.

Just last week at our inquiry into the Low Aromatic Fuel Bill, commonly known as the Opal fuel bill, the department confirmed that approximately $1 million a year has been cut from those very necessary youth diversionary programs. One of those programs does some work in the Northern Territory but the others are from around the rest of Australia. So what we have seen here is a cut in funding from other programs to prop up the government's commitment in the Northern Territory—a commitment to programs that are not working. They are not closing the gap. They are not significantly changing those socioeconomic programs. They are not delivering better outcomes for employment.

Some of the latest survey work from the Bureau of Statistics—Labour force characteristics of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians—shows that the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia in terms of the ratio of employment to population remains the same at 25 per cent. In fact, figures for the Northern Territory are worse.

In some states there has been stagnation but in the Northern Territory the figure is the lowest at 37.9. As Jon Altman points out in the article that he wrote recently about this issue, it is the lowest despite the intervention and the reputed creation of 2,000 public sector jobs in prescribed communities. The intervention—and I keep calling it 'the intervention' because, as everyone in the communities knows, 'stronger futures' is simply a rebadging of 'the intervention'—has disempowered people in communities and we all know that the first step to closing the gap is about empowering people, about making programs culturally appropriate.

Another recent report, from a team led by Professor Pat Dudgeon from the University of Western Australia, was released just the other day, Hear our voices. It also points out the extreme importance of making sure that you have strong community, that you are building a leadership capacity, that the programs are developed by the community and delivered in partnership with the community, that there is community ownership and that, importantly, we build cultural strength. One of the most overwhelming comments that people make about the intervention is the disempowerment of community, the top-down approach and the lack of consultation when the intervention was first imposed. Those are the key elements that we hear all the time from communities.

Just this week we had a delegation visiting this place from Utopia which reinforced the fact that people feel disempowered, that people were not consulted, that they feel an overwhelming sense of despondency because of strong futures and the approach the government is taking because the government, with stronger futures, has repeated the same mistakes from the intervention. There was a farce of a consultation process and I can name a number of reports and go through ad infinitum the number of complaints that my office has received and that have also been written up about the poor consultation process. I think there are enough to knock that fallacy on the head. There is also the evidence that the Senate Community Affairs Committee received when inquiring into stronger futures, which overwhelmingly criticised the consultation approach. So, again, communities were not adequately consulted about the future.

But the key thing here is that we are not getting those community driven programs that are culturally based. Importantly, there are homelands, and one of the constant complaints that we have been receiving is the failure of the government to support homelands. Yes, they have continued the funding for homelands—but at a minimum amount. What I was told yesterday as to what you see at Utopia is that you get $2,000 for a home refurbishment in a non-hub town or a non-growth town and you get $70,000 in a growth town. People feel overwhelmingly disenfranchised and that the government does not value homelands and is not investing in homelands. But it is the homelands that deliver connection to country where people feel at home and where people feel their cultural strength, yet the government's policy drives people out of homelands into growth towns, where you get a lot more social dysfunction, where people feel isolated and do not have their cultural strengths. So what the government needs to be doing is rethinking its approach to policies to deliver, and also to address Aboriginal disadvantage. (Time expired)