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Wednesday, 22 August 2012
Page: 6132

Senator PAYNE (New South Wales) (16:51): In participating in this debate on the matter of public importance moved by Senator Siewert this afternoon, I want to acknowledge, as Senator Scullion did, what the government has done thus far in this process in bringing forward the legislation that was recently debated in this chamber. I also want, as I did on that occasion, to continue to raise concerns—to use Senator Scullion's words again—in part about the government's drifting approach in this area of circumstances in the Northern Territory under stronger futures for Indigenous Australians, despite the passage of the legislation. I listened carefully, as Senator Sterle did, to all of those who have contributed to the debate this afternoon. I heard Senator Crossin speak on aspects of the SIHIP housing construction program, and I also noted Senator Scullion's response to that. But I see again in today's Australian another series of concerns being raised in relation to the state of some of that housing, and individuals who are not actually living in public housing having rent deducted from their welfare income, which would not seem to me to indicate the strongest possible approach to dealing with that at the moment. I also note the call of the Northern Territory Ombudsman for a review of every single rent collected by Centrelink since the start of the intervention in 2007 in that regard.

The coalition has indicated, both during a previous debate on the legislation and again today, that while this legislation is a step in the right direction we do not believe it solves the broader problem of what is a less than fully adequate approach to Indigenous affairs from this government. There was much that could have been taken from the work of the intervention—which was introduced under the previous coalition government—but has not been taken and consolidated by this government, and that remains of concern to us. For example, in terms of that drift—I think Senator Scullion used a very effective word in that regard—why would it take four years to realise that those emergency response measures, which were designed to basically enforce the rule of law, if you like, to get children to school and to create economies in remote communities, were indeed urgent and worthwhile measures? There is no excuse for any drifting on those sorts of things as far as we are concerned, and it has the effect of hampering the progress of those individuals that it was meant to support.

After almost five years and a massive investment of funds, we should be at a point, as Senator Scullion said, where the community leaders are now those who are leading reforms and where passive welfare—for want of another turn of phrase—is not seen as life as it happens, as is still too often the case in remote communities. But, unfortunately, we still have school attendance rates which are far too low. We still have alcohol related crime and assaults which are far too high, and Senator Crossin also referred to those. We have persistent preventable health problems and a lack of economic opportunity which only ends up continuing to lead to frustration and despair in the communities.

I recall that on the evening of the passage of the legislation Senator Boswell came into the chamber and made a contribution in this debate as well. I am paraphrasing, not reading from the Hansard, but he said that after seeing report after report—and he is an individual of long standing in this chamber, so he would have seen many—showing that there has been limited and insufficient improvement in the welfare and care of children in remote communities, this remains, notwithstanding the legislation we dealt with then and the work that has been done previously, one of the most extraordinary challenges that we face as a nation. We have the challenge of dealing with languages—the challenge of many Indigenous children still speaking a language understood by a few in their own community—and the balance of engaging them in English instruction as well. So it is obvious that, notwithstanding that investment, we have seen insufficient improvement. This is only an early step, it would seem, in the progress to combating disadvantage. We supported the stronger futures legislation on that occasion because real reforms are and will continue to be needed, but we will continue also to vigorously and energetically hold this government to account if they do not provide the leadership, backed up by real commitment, to end this disadvantage and disconnection.

In speaking about some of those issues, we come again to the issue of alcohol abuse and its devastating impact on both families and local communities. We do not see the government outlining any real vision to work cooperatively with the Northern Territory government to tackle that alcohol abuse. In fact, over the period that preceded the introduction of this legislation, much of the heavy lifting in that area has been left to the Northern Territory government. So, if you are looking for fresh ideas on how that problem can be solved, one imagines that we might be better advised to watch the progress of the Northern Territory election campaign that is currently underway rather than looking to the government for inspiration.

The problem with the measures that were contained in the stronger futures package is that they were essentially only duplicating existing measures so that this government appeared to be taking stronger action against alcohol abuse rather than new and innovative approaches. As I mentioned in this chamber during that debate, the government at the time agreed to an opposition amendment which clarified the power of the federal minister in relation to those specific measures. It made it clear that, prior to modifying, suspending or cancelling a liquor licence or permit, the federal minister must first write to the Northern Territory government requesting that the Northern Territory liquor commission take action. If, after those steps are taken, the Northern Territory authorities will not act then that Northern Territory minister must provide a written response detailing why they will not take the requested action. After the consideration of that response, the federal minister can then exercise the powers provided in that legislation to suspend or cancel liquor licences. We have over time also supported township and community living leasing arrangements in the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Act, but again the fact that those measures were only being implemented at the time of that legislation is another example of the slow pace of these reforms in this area.

The Northern Territory emergency response monitoring report from October 2011 indicated the following:

Following feedback from the land councils on these proposals, township leasing is now being pursued as a longer term priority, unless traditional owners initiate discussions.

I really do not believe that the government has shown the urgency that this issue demands. If those actions in relation to land and leasing are delayed, that delays the aspirations of prospective Indigenous homeowners and business operators, because without township leases you cannot achieve the level of private homeownership or commercial development that has been identified as necessary.

We have also spoken previously on the food security measures contained in the package, which continued aspects of the coalition government's previous program. The 10-year timetable for improvement that has been set down, though, is something which we identified on that occasion as very frustrating. It needed shorter interim targets, and can only slow down the reform process yet again. How can you know if they are actually working in any substantive way if you have to wait that long for results?

So we are concerned about interim targets on a number of those levels, not just in relation to the food issues but also programs in relation to school attendance and enrolment data—so, the SEAM measure in particular. I think that having those reviewed earlier is a particularly important aspect which was raised in the previous debate.

In conclusion, I refer briefly to the homelands issue. I stand to be corrected, but I understood Senator Crossin to say in her remarks that the Northern Territory government had contributed $300 million, bringing the total contribution for the homelands to $500 million. But my understanding from Chief Minister Paul Henderson's statement of last week is that the new homelands policy of the government and this government includes a commitment of $200 million from the Australian government and $100 million from the Territory government over the next 10 years, which in fact will total not $500 million but $300 million. Again, we are concerned—as I said at the beginning of my remarks—about the aspects of drift in the government's policy. We would like to see a stronger approach.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Cameron ): Order! The time for discussion has expired. We now move to tabling and consideration of committee reports.