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Thursday, 20 September 2007
Page: 193


Senator BARTLETT (5:02 PM) —I will speak only briefly to this legislation, which is indeed non-controversial. The Indigenous Education (Targeted Assistance) Amendment (Cape York Measures) Bill 2007 provides an extra degree of assistance for Cape York measures with regard to schooling and the like. I note that this is another example of the curious state of play that has occurred with regard to our Senate committee processes, where comprehensive legislation that is controversial and complicated is not referred to Senate committees or is referred to committees with ridiculously short and inadequate time frames, whilst legislation that is extremely straightforward and not controversial at all is sent to committees for a leisurely examination. I think, Acting Deputy President Marshall, you are deputy chair of the committee in question.

This particular bill was referred by the government to the Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Education despite nobody from the non-government side having any concern about it or thinking that it needed referral. It is interesting to note the report of the committee on this piece of legislation, which concluded:

The committee is surprised to have received this reference—

that is, the reference of this piece of legislation—

As it has noticed previously, the reference of supplementary appropriation bills directed at specific programs has only a limited usefulness. The amounts of money involved—

in this particular piece of legislation—

represent no more than what would be expected for the continuation of a policy which the Parliament has previously approved.

The committee does not see its role to review a policy which has obvious community support. Nor does it see itself as equipped to assess whether the appropriation is sufficient or otherwise for the purpose of the program which is proposed in the bill. However the committee is not in a position to assess whether the appropriation is sufficient or otherwise for the purpose of the program in the time allowed for consideration of the bill.

That, I think, is a very polite way of saying: ‘Why the hell was this bill referred to this committee in the first place? It is inappropriate and unnecessary. Even inasmuch as there is any issue for us to consider, we do not have the capacity or the time to look at it.’ I really do need to take the opportunity to point out just how perverted our committee process has become when bills that are not appropriate for referral, dealing with a matter that is not necessary to examine, are sent to committee. Indeed, at one stage consideration was given to the committee visiting areas of Cape York. As a Queenslander, I would like as many senators as possible to visit Cape York and examine some of the issues there. But, at the end of a week in which 500 pages of legislation which will have massive impacts on Aboriginal people across the Northern Territory was railroaded through this place without any opportunity for proper consideration—it had a one-day hearing on one day’s notice in Canberra—to have a bill that deals with, from memory, about $2 million of appropriation given two or three weeks time for examination, with consideration given to senators travelling to Cape York to check things out, just shows how totally perverted the role of Senate committees has become. That, I think, is a real shame.

Having said that, the Democrats support the legislation. There is no reason not to support it. It is part of a much wider range of measures that are being implemented in Cape York. They are in part controversial; I certainly acknowledge that. My response as a Queensland senator and as the Democrats’ Indigenous affairs spokesperson has been to watch them closely to try and get as much information as possible. I have received briefings from the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership about the quite comprehensive plan they have for a range of measures in that region. As is regularly stated, this is a trial. It is being done, at least to a reasonable degree, with the involvement of people at the community level and with the intent of trying to empower people locally: to get them to take control over and have ownership of decision making, to restore lines of authority in communities around the cape and to monitor progress and assess it in an evidence based way. It may be that some of those measures are not ones that turn out to be effective. There are some that I am not convinced will be effective, but I certainly support efforts to give them a go. I also support those efforts being properly resourced. That is what is being done here.

I think it is very unfortunate that what is being done in Cape York is being treated as though it is parallel to what is being done in the Northern Territory, because the similarities are nowhere near as great as the differences. We have had the Northern Territory debate a number of times in this place, so I will not deal with that here. The Democrats support this legislation. The measures are, on the whole, welcomed and supported by us, particularly in the context of a trial that is being assessed continually and with the stated goal of empowering people at the local level by involving them in the development and implementation of the program and the decision making along the way. That is clearly different from what is being done in the Northern Territory. How well that will work is still to be seen, but I think the measures need to be commended as a genuine attempt to develop evidence based solutions to entrenched problems and to do so in a way that gives ownership to people at the community level and that has a clear goal of ending it all with greater empowerment at the community level. For that reason, the Democrats congratulate the government for their willingness to provide that support in the scope and nature that they have.

I just wish that the commitment shown by the government in enthusiastically referring this piece of legislation to a Senate committee when it was not controversial or complex—it is basically just some extra funding to continue a pre-existing policy—had been matched by their desire for its much more comprehensive, far-reaching legislation dealing with Aboriginal people elsewhere to be given the opportunity for some proper examination. We know that a lot of the issues that are seeking to be addressed are similar. There are some differences, but there are some similarities, particularly on the issues of child safety, child sexual abuse and child protection in the cape. They are serious problems that have been identified a number of times, not least in reports by Professor Bonnie Robertson some years back. That is part and parcel of the landscape which led to and informed some of the actions there.

In Cape York, these measures were able to be scrutinised, debated, examined and developed with the involvement, at least to some extent, of people at the community level. I still cannot see why the same could not have been done in the Territory, but we will continue with that debate and continue to try and get some of those principles married with and folded into the action in the Territory over time. I know there are some in the government parties themselves who are keen to have a greater degree of emphasis on some of those issues and be more fully involved with what is happening in the Territory. Regardless of who ends up in government, if there is one thing that changes after the election, I hope it is that the Senate committee process does its job in a much more rational and appropriate way than has occurred far too often in the last year or two.