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Thursday, 28 June 2012
Page: 4880


Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (18:34): The incorporated speech read as follows—

The Australian Greens oppose this package of legislation.

But we are not the only ones.

I read here from the statement of the Yolngu Nations Assembly, who represent the people of 8 Aboriginal nations in Western, Central, and East Arnhem Land:

To the Leaders of the Australian Federal and Northern Territory Parliaments:

The Yolngu Nations reject the Stronger Futures Bill (and those associated) and call on the Senate to discard these Bills in full. We have clearly informed you that we do not support the legislation.

The Australian Federal Government can achieve all its aims through partnership in our communities. They have no need to grant themselves the continued and new powers contained within these Bills....

The Yolngu Nations call on both the Australian Federal and Northern Territory Governments to end their interventionist policies and agendas, and return to a mindset of partnership based on the principles of Self - Determination.

Partnership and Self-Determination

I'd also like to share with you comments from the CEO of Malabam Health Board in Manningrida

Do you all know what a lorrkon is? It is a hollow log. We use logs for coffins. Since the intervention and since this new policy has come in that is all we are seeing. We are seeing hollow people walking around. This place is definitely different from the place it was before the intervention. That is not to say that we do not have our issues; we do, as do a lot of other communities. Personally, and again this is only my personal view, they seem to be exacerbated and have been since the intervention. I am not confident that Stronger Futures is going to rectify any of that, but that is what we have got to deal with.

Sentiments like this were expressed by many witnesses we spoke to during the Community Affairs Committee inquiry. I cannot overstate the opposition to these Bills. It came from Aboriginal leaders, Aboriginal people, Aboriginal organisations, community service organisations, the NT anti discrimination commissioner; teachers; social workers; academics and the Australian Human Rights Commission—our National Human Rights Institution. And just recently, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia issued a statement, calling on us—on Federal Senators not to pass this legislation

I could go on and on listing organisations and eminent persons that reject these Bills. Rarely in my time as a Senator have I seen such consistent, fierce and wide ranging opposition to a suite of legislation.

The Stronger Futures package effectively extends the measures put in place by Northern Territory 'Intervention'. The Australian Greens opposed the Intervention and we likewise oppose the Stronger Futures legislation.

There is no substantive evidence to show that the Intervention has had a positive effect on the lives of Aboriginal people in the NT. Rather, it is clear that the top-down, punitive nature of the Intervention is actually undermining and disempowering Aboriginal people and communities.

The ineffectiveness of these measures is not surprising considering international research on Indigenous economic development points to the success of community driven measures over top-down approaches.

Let me repeat—we oppose this legislations. Time after time we have criticised the Intervention, and this policy is no different.

I'll explain why.

Extension of an Ineffective and Expensive Approach

It became quite obvious during the Community Affairs Inquiry that the consultation process undertaken by the Government was totally inadequate.

Numerous problems were raised about the process throughout the inquiry: meetings were scheduled at times people could riot attend; inadequate notice was given, not enough time was given to discuss the issues; comments were misreported; there was no follow up and materials were not translated in local language.

Therefore, if as expected this Bill passes 2nd Reader vote, we intend to move amendments which incorporate the AHRC's criteria for meaningful consultation into the definition of consultation in the legislation, as well as amendments to the objects clause referencing effective participation in the objects clause.

It has been made clear during the inquiry that the NTER has caused erosion of community governance and disempowerment of Aboriginal people. In particular through: the manner in which Federal, State and Territory Governments engaged with Aboriginal communities; the 'top-down', punitive nature of NTER measures and their interaction with other reforms. The parallel changes to CDEP, remote service delivery, housing, homelands and abolition of Community Councils in the local Government reforms has "reduced control at the community level and increased centralisation of decision making."

The top-down, paternalistic, punitive nature of the Intervention from the outset has meant that its ability to improve the lives of Aboriginal people in NT was non-existent. Evidence of this can be found in the summary provided by Dr. Bath, NT Children's Commissioner, of ongoing child welfare issues in the NT:

The safety and wellbeing of children in remote areas and town camps is severely under threat in the Northern Territory and remains so. Their circumstances are perilous, even when compared to the circumstances of Indigenous children in other Australian jurisdictions. There is a mass of data supporting that contention. They have been documented widely. There have been a few improvements.

That is an F for failure.

The Australian Greens oppose the continuation of the current approach through Stronger Futures. It is disempowering, ineffective and expensive—with the total cost of the Intervention climbing above $1 billion dollars. We can only imagine what better outcomes would have been achieved if this money was spent on properly targeted, community directed programs.

School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure (SEAM)

Evidence indicates that SEAM has not significantly improved school attendance rates in the trial sites, and the Greens express serious concern that it was being extended across the NT without evidence of its effectiveness.

The APO NT note in their submission to the inquiry:

The official evaluation of the SEAM trials is incomplete. Nevertheless, the 2009 Evaluation Report makes clear that in 2009 there was no observable improvement in school attendance. On this basis, APO NT submits that the introduction of the Social Security Bill, seeking to continue and in fact extend SEAM, is unjustifiable.

Evidence cited during the inquiry pointed to the effectiveness of holistic, long-term, well designed, targeted and incentive based programs that are community led and community owned.

St. Vincent de Paul Society noted that numerous proactive solutions to improving attendance were provided by communities during the Stronger Futures consultations. It is deeply disappointing that these suggestions were not incorporated into the Bills. They included:

Development of programs to get elders to help parents get kids to school

Return of bilingual education

More language and culture in schooling,

Using local elders to teach culture in schools

homework centre in community where parents could help out at the centre

football programs

linking excursion and incentives to attendance

Full time parent liaison officers

More teachers and qualified youth workers to work in community to develop quality

programs for young people

Community activities to bring children and parents together

Local qualified teachers given preference over teachers from elsewhere

Recruiting local people into teaching profession

Specialised teacher training to work in Indigenous communities

Get teachers to do specific training about the community and local culture

Have the community involved in the process of hiring teachers

Parent support groups

School council

Improvements to early childhood education

mobile preschool

community childcare

community bus to get little ones into early education

The Australian Greens are very concerned that the Government intends to spend over $110 million over 4 years on a policy that cannot be shown to be effective when that money could be spent on properly resourcing schools in the NT and putting in place programs that will actually improve school attendance.

We will be moving an amendment to delete this schedule, and we encourage the Government to spend the allocated money on some of the initiatives I just outlined.

If the schedule is not removed, we will be moving amendments to improve community and family involvement in drafting of attendance plans and ensuring parents understand fully their obligations under those plans.

Income Management

The Australian Greens strongly oppose the continuation of compulsory income management in the NT, its expansion to five communities in other states and the broadening of referral power to State and Territory authorities — enabling the expansion of income management across Australia.

There is a complete lack of evidence that compulsory income management leads to better outcomes or improved ability to budget.

Ms Cox, an academic from Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at University of Technology Sydney, stated unequivocally during the inquiry: "My conclusions were that the studies and statistics available showed no valid or reliable evidence of measurable benefits of income management to individuals or communities."

We will be moving an amendment to remove this schedule from the legislation.

If this Schedule is maintained, we have serious concerns that allowing referrals from State and Territory agencies may raise access to justice issues. We will therefore be moving amendments to remove the power to refer by State and Territory agencies and ensure that decision making remains with the Secretary of Department.

Tackling Alcohol Abuse

The Australian Greens believe that blanket bans on alcohol, such as those imposed by the Intervention, are not the most effective way of tackling alcohol abuse particularly as the necessary supports such as adequate access to rehabilitation services have not been provided. This is consistent with the evidence—alcohol abuse has not decreased in the NT, and in many places it is worse than it was before the intervention.

We are concerned that that this legislation automatically transitions prescribed areas into alcohol protected areas, imposing alcohol restrictions without consultation.

We will be amending this aspect of the Bill, to remove the ability to make new alcohol protected areas, and requiring all present bans to sunset in 3 years, unless communities choose to maintain them. This will allow alcohol protected areas to be transitioned onto Alcohol Management Plans

There was a great deal of concern expressed throughout the inquiry about increasing penalties for possession, consumption and supply of alcohol. In particular that amounts under 1.35 litres could attract a penalty of up to 6 months imprisonment.

We will be moving an amendment to remove these harsher penalties.

What is sadly lacking from the Stronger Futures legislation is any attempt to reduce supply such as through setting a minimum floor price for alcohol and take-away free days. Evidence to the inquiry indicated strong support for this type of measure and provided strong evidence for the effectiveness of such measures.

Customary Law

The Australian Greens support the provisions which will allow consideration of cultural practices and customary in bail or sentencing decisions for offences related to cultural heritage. However, we believe the legislation does not go far enough.

I'd like to give a quote which has relayed to us during the inquiry, by Representatives from North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency:

There is an American academic, Patricia Williams she is a black woman who describes the majoritarian privilege of not noticing one's self. That is the danger with this sort of law, that we, being white fellows, do not recognise our culture and our custom as we think that is the status quo. When it is Aboriginal people it is custom and culture and it is excluded. That is why at the core of this law there is something that really should trouble us.

Prohibiting the consideration of customary law sends a clear message to Aboriginal people — their culture does not matter. This is a serious dismissal and stands in stark contrast to international law and best practice which shows the vital role culture plays in improving outcomes for Aboriginal people.

As such the Australian Greens strongly oppose these provisions and will be moving an amendment to ensure judges can consider customary law and culture in bail and sentencing.

Land Reform

The Australian Greens acknowledge that there is a genuine and pressing need for land reform in the NT to facilitate granting of leases for community infrastructure, utilities, home ownership and businesses. As such, we also support the intention of the legislation. However, we share the concerns of the Land Councils who considered that the NT Government is better placed to make the reforms and that the regulation making power in the legislation is very broad.

Permits

It is disappointing to the Australian Greens that these Bills do not address changes made to the permit system as part of the Intervention. We will be making amendments to repealing changes made to the permit system as part of the NTER.

Food Security

The Australian Greens are broadly supportive of a store licensing regime, which improves food security in Aboriginal communities and is community driven. However, we are concerned that the penalties in the legislation are unnecessarily harsh, and the monitoring powers are too broad.

It is of great concern to the Australian Greens that this legislation does not attempt to address the issue of cost of food in remote communities in the NT.

Considering the impact of high food costs across the NT on the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people, the absence of measures to mitigate it is a glaring gap in the legislation.

A call for a culturally competent approach which supports local governance

As is abundantly clear from my comments, not only to the Greens, but to many Aboriginal people and a huge number of organisations, that the approach taken by the Federal Government is wrong. It disempowers Aboriginal people and erodes community governance. Because of this it will never be effective.

Many submissions to the inquiry called for a new approach—a culturally competent approach which supports communities to achieve their own development objectives through proper consultation; local governance and cultural competency.

The Australian Green strongly support such an approach.

The first step that approach is to ensure proper participation of affected communities through improving the Government's dismal consultation process. We will be addressing this in our amendments.

Local Governance must also be supported, rather than undermined. As the national Congress of First Peoples writes:

There is extensive Australian and international research which consistently concludes that active participation of Aboriginal people in decision-making on issues affecting their communities is fundamental to effective governance and a precursor to sustained development ...

This is supported by research from the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, which demonstrates that when Indigenous communities: "make their own decisions about what development approaches to take, they consistently out-perform external decision makers on matters as diverse as governmental form, natural resource management, economic development, health care, and social service provision."

The Australian Greens strongly support such an approach, programs which do not foster local governance are bound to fail. To do anything else would not only be counter-productive but would fly in face of years of domestic and international research. It is disappointing that the Government has not dedicated more resources to this end.

Cultural Competency

Finally, for efforts in the NT to be effective it is absolutely vital that Governments and their staff have the cultural competency to effectively implement programs As the AHRC explains:

The Stronger Futures engagement mechanisms and consultation processes will be ineffective unless they are supported by a skilled and culturally competent government workforce. The NTER Review Board found that new attitudes must be developed to redefine the relationship between the bureaucracy and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples including a greater understanding of Indigenous cultures and world views.

Conclusion

The Australian Greens believe that the Federal Government must re-examine the approach they are taking in the NT. International research and best practice points to the importance of empowerment and local governance in improving outcomes for Indigenous people. Stronger Futures, rather than empowering Aboriginal people, undermines their governance and devalues their culture. Until we see a change in approach, until Aboriginal people are empowered to lead their own development, efforts in the NT will not be effective.

This legislation will mean that the Intervention will ostensibly be in place for 15 years. While we welcome the commitment of resources for a further 10 years, subjecting people to an ineffective and damaging policy for 15 years is completely unacceptable. If this legislation proceeds, we will move amendments to reduce the sunset period to 5 years.

The Government should abandon Stronger Futures. If neither the Government nor the Coalition can see the fundamental flaws in the approach of this legislation, substantial amendments are needed to mitigate the impact of these Bills.