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Thursday, 28 June 2012
Page: 4874

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (18:14): I regret that I have to rise tonight to speak to the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011. I spoke briefly about the reasons for that regret at two o'clock when we were debating the motion as to whether this bill would be debated tonight at all. I suspect when government senators come to their feet during this debate we will hear some arguments for urgency. I suspect we will hear some arguments for why this bill could not have waited until after the winter break. My reasons for strongly preferring that this debate was not occurring are twofold: first, it is a terrible bill that should not have been presented to this chamber in its present form in the first place; second, the person who has done the most in this building to champion the voices against the propositions being put in this bill is on the other side of the country tonight and is not able to be here.

I spoke earlier of the goodwill that I am very happy to acknowledge on behalf of the government and the whips and I suspect the minister in preventing this bill from coming forward last week when it was originally scheduled for debate. But here we are, Thursday night, with everybody probably pretty exhausted after a big couple of days in this parliament. We come here to work and nobody will complain about that, but we are expected to simply shunt this legislation through tonight without the key advocate for the reasons this bill should not pass in the first place being present.

I am sure that many senators have received a huge volume of email and traffic that I have received expressing profound opposition and deeply held concerns from people all over the country about extending the Northern Territory intervention with this bill. My friend and colleague Senator Rachel Siewert from Western Australia knows probably more intimately than most of us in here just how strongly felt that opposition is. Before I proceed, I would like to, if I may, seek leave, by agreement with the whips, and understand this has been cleared, to incorporate into Hansard at the end of my speech Senator Siewert's second reading speech.

Leave granted.

Senator LUDLAM: I thank the chamber. I encourage senators to read the speech because it is a great deal more eloquent than the contribution that I will make now, but on Rachel's behalf I will do my best.

The Greens opposed the intervention when it was introduced in 2007 and we oppose it now. You can change the name but the underlying intent of the legislation remains the same, and the failure of the intentions of the original intervention, even with the best faith in the world. If you look back over the time since the original bills came into force in 2007, we have now had some time and some opportunity to assess whether or not it has succeeded—and it has failed. The legislation we are going to knock through tonight, presuming the coalition and the government will vote together, does nothing to address the failures of the original NTER. Instead, it entrenches them for another 15 years. That evidence was given to the Senate committee that travelled far and wide around the country to interpret the messages that were coming back, and I will speak a little bit about that experience down the track. We are not alone in opposing this legislation. We are joined by the Human Rights Commission and by the Catholic bishops. The intervention, and its continuation through this bill, has brought international shame upon Australia at the United Nations. The Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights and the Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous People found that it was 'racially discriminating and infringes on the human rights of Aboriginal people'.

So here we are. The intervention has not worked. The gap is not closing. Probably most of the people here tonight if they were able would have attended the original Closing the Gap ceremony. I can remember it was an event free of politics. It was something that was welcomed and was the culmination of an amazing grassroots campaign that had been working through huge efforts from largely volunteer community groups and Aboriginal leaders and people throughout the communities. It made its way into this parliament and made its way onto the Prime Minister's desk and promises were made, announcements were made, programs were set in place. The intervention as a vehicle for achieving some of those things was a pretty clumsy and warped way of effectively hijacking the Closing the Gap debate. Use the bumper sticker, use the slogan, and insert these failed and coercive policies into that frame, which does an enormous injustice to the people who got that campaign onto the front page.

There are no Aboriginal people in the chamber tonight for this debate and so as a white guy from Fremantle I am going to quote somebody who is not here. This is entitled 'A letter to the politicians of Australia who will debate the Stronger Futures Legislation, June 2012'. The writer says:

Palya Everyone,

I never thought I would be so affected by this statement from Rosalie and Djiniyini. It is like having everything I dreamed of disappearing from my sight. I am so upset at this happening to us and after all the hard work we have put into trying to stop the Stolen Futures Legislation getting passed in Parliament and becoming Law.

I don't know yet if it has been voted on in the Senate, but when I think of politicians in Canberra, who never bothered to get to know First Nations People or understand our Culture and simply don't care that we are human beings as they are, it makes me very sad and my heart aches for all those who have never known freedom in their lives and the deaths of the children who saw nothing but despair in their future lives and ended it with a rope or other form of suicide. I can only cry from the pain they felt and the hopelessness they looked forward to.

I can only ask those politicians who don't care for their fellow human beings, "Do you feel good about what you are doing to the First Nations People today? Does this power you have over our lives make you a better person? But most importantly, will you tell your grandchildren, what you did to the First Nations People this day and how you destroyed the lives of so many First Nations People and caused their deaths prematurely? Will you have the guts to admit what you have done, to your grandchildren, or will you hide this truth from them when they ask you, that question of curiosity, 'Who were the First Australians in this Land?' Will you feel the shame of Generations of First Nations People being trampled underfoot by your political policy of Racism and Discrimination and greed and how you used your power to keep them forcibly shackled to a yard or fenced-in area away from their Country and Communities, all because you wanted their wealth in their Land ownership, the wealth you will never know!

She concludes:

I wonder how you will tell your grandchildren these atrocities you did to the First Nations People.

If you will tell the truth to them.

If you will finally say you are sorry for what you did and mean it.

If you will shed a tear for the People who only wanted to live their old age in freedom on their Traditional Lands and teach THEIR grandchildren the wealth of knowledge they had.

These beautiful People are no longer with us now. They died of broken hearts and Stolen Dreams by politicians who never cared to treat us like human beings.

You will have to look into your grandchild's eyes and see the emptiness they feel of losing such a wonderful Heritage and Culture forever, for your greed.

DENI Langman

Traditional Owner of Uluru

Those words come from the centre of the country. She obviously cannot be here tonight, but, through the clumsy mechanisms that are available to us, after the kind of evidence-gathering processes that we can avail ourselves of in the parliament, mostly just sitting down and listening, we will put these views as best we can.

The failed strategy of the intervention will be set in concrete for 15 years by this legislation. It is interesting that you would stand up and critique that, because actually what this area of policy needs most is some continuity. Steady resourcing of programs and long-term commitments are welcome, not just in this portfolio but in many cases across the board, but what happens if we get the original settings wrong? What happens if we look at the evidence that has accumulated since 2007 and conclude that we can set it aside and just plough on as though we did not know? Funnelling resources through a policy framework that is flawed is not defensible. It is not defensible, particularly when there are alternatives, and of course there are.

Ideas for such alternatives have been emerging, but not really through the inquiry process, which was mishandled. Inadequate notice for people, time frames that were crunched and, very importantly in this area, lack of translation were major problems. Some of the alternative paths—and I suspect Senator Wright, when she comes to her feet a little later in the evening, will speak of them; I know this is a passion of hers—include justice, not jail; building communities, not prisons. The phrase that has come to be used—and I came across it first after having my eyes opened by former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma at an event in Sydney—is 'justice reinvestment': schools, youth workers, child centres, counselling, drug and alcohol work, not incarceration.

I put up a reference to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee—and I was to be pleased to have it supported—for an inquiry into access to justice. I have some insights on this issue, and it is wonderful to see the idea taking hold. Before former Attorney-General McClelland was moved into a different portfolio, there were very interesting signs coming out of the Attorney-General's office that this was an idea that could be taken up—putting the money at the front-end for treating people and treating the reasons why there are such catastrophic levels of incarceration of Aboriginal people, particularly young people. I will leave those issues to Senator Wright to address later in the debate.

In the area of education, an alternative approach to that taken by the government suggests that education should be used for empowerment, rather than punishment. Why exactly is there a ban on bilingual education in the Northern Territory? It is shameful that people cannot learn in their own language, where requested, in addition to English. Schools can be centres of culture and community but not without properly resourced staff and equipment. The Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure is a punitive program that links welfare payments to school attendance, and does not make coming to school an empowering or happy learning experience. The Greens oppose it.

Compulsory income management is one of the headline issues around the intervention. When you come off a plane in Alice Springs or in the Top End, that is one of the first things that you will hear about if you stop and listen. It is being expanded under this legislation. Jimmy Wavehill, one of the old men who walked off the Wave Hill station and helped spark the original land rights movement in this country, in the action celebrated in the Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly song From Little Things Big Things Grow, told a staff member of ours that the income management BasicsCard reminded him of the ration card. That is how demeaning and insulting the system is to people. You turn up at the shopping centre and you stand in the blackfellas' line with your BasicsCard, because you are being told that you are not grown-up enough to look after your own affairs. These people are being treated like dirt. Jimmy in particular fought for his rights and, in old age, after raising a family of children with his wife, is being treated like an infant again. There is no evidence that income management actually works to improve budgeting or any other outcome. I challenge members of this parliament to describe to us whether they would submit to this kind of thing—if somebody in Canberra was going to hold onto half your cash for you and work out what it is that you can and cannot buy, at certain kinds of shops that might be a long, long way from where you live.

I will be moving, at the request of Senator Siewert, a second reading amendment that catches the issue of alcohol. I know this is a vexed issue, that it is complicated and that there are no simple solutions, but there are alternatives to blanket alcohol bans. Some of the best places in the north-west, which I am a little more familiar with, are the ones where solutions bubbled up from the grassroots, from the communities themselves. In some Kimberley communities, there are solutions that have been brought to bear, but none of them are alike. In every area where it has worked, it has been slightly different. Communities need resources to develop local solutions to alcohol misuse and abuse. There are culturally appropriate and accessible alcohol treatment programs. But the approach under the intervention is to put up signs, at the edge of which people drink. I have seen these. I have spent a fair bit of time in the Territory, and you can see these monstrous great signs by the side of the freeway saying, 'You are coming into a prescribed area,' with a whole lot of fine print about things you are not allowed to do. There are serious problems associated with alcohol around the country, through every racial group in the country. Putting up signs—if that is considered to be some form of rehabilitation—is not considered, in those prescribed areas, as a sign of support. It is not setting any kind of floor price. It is not implementing alcohol-free days. These are some of the answers that we should be experimenting with—or supporting the experiments that exist. Gigantic billboards are not.

I would like briefly to foreshadow some of the amendments that the Greens will be moving to these flawed bills. I will speak at much greater length on the amendments when we get to the committee stage of the legislation. And, as I said, I will be moving a second reading amendment, which I believe has been circulated to the whips. It reads:

At the end of the motion, add:

   but that the Senate recommends that, after community consultation, the Government develop a policy for the implementation of take-away alcohol free days, and a floor price for alcohol.

These are two of the measures that have come through the process which those who have been closer to this legislation and this debate than me would be very familiar with. Senator Siewert's amendments in the committee stage, which we will discuss, go to a number of issues. One will ensure that the Australian Human Rights Commission criteria for meaningful consultation go into the definition in the legislation. There are also amendments to the objects clause referencing effective participation. There are amendments to remove the entire schedule containing SEAM. If that schedule is not removed, we will then move amendments to improve community and family involvement in the drafting of attendance plans and ensuring that parents understand fully their obligations under those plans.

We are proposing amendments to remove the schedule containing income management from the legislation entirely, for reasons that I just described. If this schedule is maintained, we will move amendments to remove the power to refer by state and territory agencies and reduce the amount of money that can be quarantined. So, if we cannot get rid of that obnoxious schedule from the bill, perhaps we can at least condition it and wind back its impact on people somewhat.

There are amendments to remove the ability to make new alcohol protected areas and requiring all present bans to sunset in three years, unless of course communities choose, through their free will, to maintain them. This will allow alcohol protected areas to be transitioned into alcohol management plans. We will discuss amendments to remove harsher penalties for possession and consumption of alcohol and amendments to ensure that judges can consider customary law and culture in bail and sentencing for all offences in the NT—and take a look at some of the experiments and the degree to which these ideas have been tried in Western Australia, where very similar issues are obviously prevalent. We propose amendments to sunset the legislation in five years rather than 10, and I hope that this is something, at least, that we can carry.

I am not familiar enough with this legislation, having been dragged into it kicking and screaming, quite literally, to know whether we have coalition or perhaps even government support for some of these amendments, but I hope to test some of these propositions later in the evening. We have also an amendment which will change the requirement for investigating premises from 'causing substantial harm to Aboriginal people' to 'causing substantial harm to the community'.

It is five years since the NTER insulted Aboriginal people. I can remember quite clearly the day that Prime Minister Howard announced it. I was at the place of a friend who actually ended up being my campaign manager, because we were in the early stages of the campaign that would eventually, for better or worse, bring me here. My friend and dear colleague burst into tears, because it was so clear what was being done. The politics of it were so brutal—the way the announcement was made, ripping off the Little children are sacred report and pretending that that was what this was all about. I can also remember quite clearly sometime later the original authors of that report reminding the public and reminding the government that not a single one of the recommendations in that report was acted on. Their report was hollowed out and used as a political shell to advance an agenda of control and coercion that is absolutely inappropriate for us to be entrenching and consolidating in 2012, for heaven's sake.

The result, which was described in a recent issue of Arena magazine, is pretty messy and disturbing. I commend this to the chamber, and perhaps we might even, by leave, once it has been to the whips, seek to table a copy of that document for the permanent record. By the government's own measures, outcomes and indicators, this policy is failing. Unemployment and welfare dependence in many cases are worse than they were before the NTER was instituted. Children are being hospitalised and school attendance has not improved. Suicide and self-harm rates have doubled since the intervention. I believe that some of the senators who will come in here later this evening and vote for the bill profoundly wish that they were not, but perhaps some contributions could be made about why, when the indicators are all going in the opposite direction, we are insisting on carrying on. These are not results that should be simply continued; they are results that should be heeded, understood and not perpetuated.

I am also not claiming that there was nothing good in that package, because clearly there was. I believe that the senators who took evidence on the way around the country heard evidence that there are measures that work. Let's take those and let's continue them, but let's not continue the false hope of a continued coercive approach that has made people in the NT and across the country feel even more powerless than they already did. We owe these people better. The government came in and provided a moving apology. We do not want it to conclude its time owing more. I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

   but that the Senate recommends that, after community consultation, the Government develop a policy for the implementation of take-away alcohol free days, and a floor price for alcohol.

I now incorporate into Hansard Senator Siewert's second reading speech.