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Thursday, 28 June 2012
Page: 4909

Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia) (20:18): Along with my Greens colleagues, I wish to speak in opposition to this Stronger Futures legislation which is being rushed through the Senate today. Today has been a pretty big day for us. It has been pretty emotional. It has been quite intense. We have dealt with a number of issues. This morning the government had not even flagged that this legislation would come before the Senate. This morning the government wanted us to deal purely with Mr Oakeshott's bill and the withholding tax legislation. Somehow during the morning the government decided that what it had agreed to previously—not rushing this legislation through the parliament—somehow could now be forgotten. So here we are, 8.30 at night at the end of a very long sitting week, and we are talking about an important piece of legislation that affects some of the most vulnerable people in our country. I guess the government is hoping that this can simply be rushed through and brushed under the carpet, with no-one noticing because there is a big media storm over the asylum seeker issue.

The truth of the matter is that this legislation is simply extending a program, if you can call it that—the intervention introduced by the Howard government—that has failed at every corner. It has been proven to have failed at every stage. The government's own statistics prove what a failure the intervention has been. We have the nice spin of calling this intervention Stronger Futures. We know that is part and parcel of these things. It reminds me of calling Work Choices Work Choices when we all knew it had nothing to do with work choices. The intervention is not about stronger futures; it is about entrenching the weaknesses and the mistakes of the past.

There is no evidence, even in the government's own review and consultations, that the intervention has worked. If the government believed that the intervention was working, therefore justifying its extension for another 10 to 15 years, you would think it would have been promoting good news to justify extending this program. The government would be swamping us, as Malcolm Fraser has put it, with statistics about fewer people in jail, more people in decent housing, improved health, better performances in schools, higher attendance in schools and better health outcomes for children. But, instead, the statistics the government are using to try and justify the extension of this program include a 41 per cent rise in Indigenous imprisonment, lower school attendance, inadequate housing, 38 per cent more children having been removed from their homes by social services and a doubling of self-harm and suicide. Where are the facts? Where is the evidence that the intervention has worked? It does not exist. What does exist is the absolute failure the intervention has been.

I want to go to the issue of consultation. The government keeps talking about the consultation that they ran. The consultation was a sham. They did not listen to what people were saying. They did not involve Indigenous people and local communities in the drafting of this legislation. In fact, this legislation pretty much mirrored the document that they took to the consultations, despite hearing very clearly from the very people this intervention has impacted on for years that it does not work and that they need a new way. There was no standing by the needs of communities, having a basis to policy that is entrenched in human rights and dignity, believing that lifting education standards should be not just something that you talk about but something you deliver on, and ensuring that you look after the health of young Indigenous people—not just talking about it and then trying to pretend that the statistics do not matter in order to justify your own ends.

My colleague Senator Wright pointed out how damning the independent analysis and reviews have been in relation to the intervention. Amnesty International have condemned the intervention and the consultation period used to justify the extension of the intervention. Around the world, not just directly to our government ministers here in Canberra, they have said that Australia does not know how to treat its Indigenous people with the respect, dignity and human rights that they deserve. Rather than listening to expert opinion and listening to the communities who are affected directly by the negative impacts of the intervention, the government has brushed all of that advice away and gone ahead—steamrolled ahead—with keeping a program that is fundamentally flawed and, in fact, is resulting in worse outcomes for Indigenous children and their communities. There has been a 41 per cent increase in imprisonment and a doubling of self-harm and suicide.

The most alarming thing about the government's approach is that, if they are so blinded now by the evidence that stares them in the face, what makes us think they are going to be any more equipped to deal with the realities facing Indigenous people in the Northern Territory any time soon? They have had the opportunity to fix this and they have got the evidence they need, and they have absolutely ignored it. One of the strongest arguments for implementing the intervention in the first place was to deal with the health issues of children, the safety of children and the alarming levels of self-harm and suicide, particularly in relation to young Indigenous kids. The fact that those statistics have doubled since 2007 should have been enough to wake this government up to the fact that a different approach was needed.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children have a child mortality rate that is three times that of their non-Aboriginal peers. Aboriginal children aged 10 to 17 are 24 times more likely to be jailed than non-Aboriginal children, and Aboriginal children are almost 10 times more likely to be in out-of-home care. Nothing that the government is proposing in this legislation will fix that. In fact, it is going to make it worse. If the last six years are anything to go by, the statistics will double, because that is what we have seen since the intervention was first introduced.

This legislation will mean that the intervention will be in place for 15 years. They are going to fund some programs for up to 10 years. Why would a government who took such a remarkable and historic step of apologising to our Indigenous people miss the opportunity to put that apology into action when they have all of the evidence they need to fix the problems and to do away with what is such a damaging intervention? The intervention has not worked. I was not here when the intervention was first passed into law but my colleagues Senator Milne, Senator Bob Brown and Senator Siewert were. They all warned in this very place, standing here in a rushed debate, that this would not fix the problems and that we needed proper consultation with Indigenous people about how they could work together to deal with the very serious issues in their communities, particularly when it came to children. That advice and those warnings fell on deaf ears.

A number of people have written on this issue because they were very disappointed that this Labor government was not taking the opportunity to scrap what had been such a flawed program which inflicted so much pain, so much hurt, so much disingenuous support. There was a hope that this government might do something about dealing with these issues, but it has not of course. So many people have written about this. I have already mentioned that former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has condemned strongly not just the lack of evidence base for extending this program but the lack of proper consultation that was run.

A number of other people have spoken about this because it is an issue which concerns many Australians, particularly those who believe that our values of a fair go are entrenched in our communities but must be reflected in the laws we pass in this parliament. If they are to mean anything, we need to understand the values of looking after each other, standing up for the most vulnerable, listening to what they need and giving them a fair go.

One commentator and expert in relation to this issue, Nicole Watson, poses a very clear question and I think it is worth us pondering it or at least putting it on the record for this rushed debate:

One day the generosity and patience of Aboriginal people will surely run out.

Perhaps the questions that need to be asked should begin with: why do governments go to such lengths to avoid meaningful engagement with Aboriginal people? That question has not been answered in this place. It has been ignored by this government and from the other side as well. When the intervention was first introduced, it was not based on the evidence presented or on the support of the expert advice on how to engage with Indigenous people to tackle these issues. The report often quoted as the reasons and the motivations for the intervention—we all remember it—is the Little children are sacred report. We know the horrific statistics, stories and horror contained in that report, particularly for our Indigenous children. The report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse, which was publicly released in June 2007 and quoted as the motivation for why we had to strip away the rights of Indigenous people and their communities—to make their own decisions, to work with them, to listen to what it was they needed—said that everything the intervention did, the motivations and methods and how they went about it, was exactly what you should not do. So we were warned in 2007 that this is not how to go about it. It was unequivocal in its demand that government abandon imposed solutions in favour of working in partnership with communities.

That very same report was used by the Howard government at the time as the excuse for the intervention. They liked the title; they ignored the content. It said that there was sufficient evidence to show that well-resourced programs that are owned and run by the community are more successful than generic, short-term and sometimes inflexible programs that are simply imposed on communities. Even back in 2007, the Howard government was warned that if you just go in, impose, take away people's rights, threaten them, endanger them and take away their necessities you will have an absolute failure for an outcome when it comes to dealing with issues facing young people, children, prison rates, self-harm and suicide. It was all there in black and white warning the Howard government at the time that that was not how to do it. I do not blame this government for what the Howard government did but I do blame this government for not taking the opportunity to fix past mistakes when the evidence now before us shows that all those warnings were right. Children are no safer in those communities in 2012 than they were in 2007. In fact, they are in more danger, having had restrictions imposed on their safety and their welfare. All of the evidence that the government needed to reverse the mistakes of the past they have ignored.

Then, when they went out to consult with the community, it was an absolute farce. The report that they took to those consultations is virtually the same as that for the intervention itself and for the extension of the intervention through this legislation. They have not learned from the past. They have ignored the statistics: a doubling of the incidence of self-harm and suicide amongst children, a 41 per cent increase in imprisonments and a decreased school attendance rate—which we know was constantly used as the key thing the intervention would fix, but it failed to do so, as all the warnings and advice said it would.

Throughout this debate, the Greens have been very clear that we oppose the further extension of the intervention. We know that, despite the name of this bill, it is not about 'stronger futures'. It is about weakening the future because the government have not learnt from past mistakes and have their heads in the sand. (Time expired)