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Wednesday, 1 December 2004
Page: 70


Senator HUMPHRIES (2:55 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Senator Vanstone. Is the minister aware of a report released today that shows the rates at which Indigenous Australians are victims of fatal assaults are up to 11 times higher than the non-Indigenous population? Will the minister advise the Senate how the Howard government's new approach to Indigenous services will help improve the plight of first Australians? Is the minister aware of any alternative policies?


Senator VANSTONE (Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs) —I thank Senator Humphries for this question. Yes, I am aware of a report released this morning by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. It makes terrible reading. It reminds us that Aboriginal women are murdered at 11 times the average rate and Aboriginal men are murdered at seven times the average rate. Suicide rates are nearly twice as high. Deaths from transport injuries are almost three times as high. Deaths from fires, burns and scalds are 10 times higher than any of us could expect to suffer.

This report is not a surprise. It puts a spotlight on the problem. It is a very sad situation and it is not one that has happened overnight. It has happened over decades of disadvantage and of failed solutions of previous governments of all persuasions and at all levels. And it is, frankly, a failure of Indigenous leadership. There have been improvements in a number of areas that we should not shy away from heralding—if only to give encouragement to those who are working in this area. One I might mention in particular is that the rate of deaths in custody is reducing. Deaths in police custody have decreased by more than 50 per cent in this decade as opposed to the decade prior to the royal commission.

But today's figures just remind us of the situation, and recent incidents at Palm Island and at Redfern should remind us all of how far we have to go. These problems will not be resolved by merely tinkering at the edges. What we have been doing has not been working. We cannot just replace one set of representative structures with another and convince ourselves that we have done something useful. Issues like passive welfare, safer communities and jobs are far more important than structures and who gets the job. We do require radical reform. Incidentally, abolishing ATSIC is just a part of the story. Government assistance must be based on results and on mutual obligation. Communities must be helped to tackle their own problems. Government must offer support but work with communities so that they get a chance to shape their future.

We need to deal with the communities direct, not through intermediaries. To really give Indigenous Australians a voice we must listen to them directly, not through some structures that we create. We are moving away from no-strings welfare to a mutual obligation for individual welfare recipients in remote areas, as for other Australians. The activities that will be required will be developed with local communities so that they match the opportunities and the needs of those communities. I expect they will be vastly different from those services which are required and offered in the metropolitan area. We are going to help individual communities to take greater responsibility for local social improvements in return for federal Indigenous-specific funding. That principle will apply only to those special programs that are only available to Indigenous people. In other words, there will be no greater mutual obligation placed on Indigenous people for normal welfare services than there is on others.

We are looking at practical measures: the no school, no pool funding that we have put into the Northern Territory with the Northern Territory government, and I hope we will be able to extend that; working with the Fred Hollows Foundation and Woolworths to get nutritious stores and food available to remote communities; scholarships to enable Indigenous kids to board in good schools around Australia; and leadership programs for women and young people. It is all about sharing responsibility, showing respect to each other and allowing local people to shape their future. (Time expired)