Save Search

Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 29 February 2012
Page: 1275


Senator JACINTA COLLINS ( Victoria Parliamentary Secretary for School Education and Workplace Relations ) ( 17:17 ): I table an explanatory memorandum relating to the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2012. I move:

That these bills be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speeches incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speeches read as follows—

SOCIAL SECURITY LEGISLATION AMENDMENT BILL 2011

This Bill makes amendments to social security law to improve the operation of the income management system, and to improve school attendance.

In regards to income management, the Government believes all Australians should be able to share in the benefits of this strong economy, and enjoy the financial and social benefits of work.

The Government's Building Australia's Future Workforce package addresses entrenched disadvantage in targeted locations by helping to stabilise families and remove barriers to participation in work and the community.

The amendments in this Bill will expand income management in five of the most disadvantaged locations in the country.

They will give greater flexibility to the operation of income management. For example, the refinements would allow the Vulnerable Welfare Payment Recipients Measure to be activated on its own in a particular area, instead of in conjunction with the Long-term Welfare Payment Recipients Measure and the Disengaged Youth Measure, as is currently the case.

A new external referral income management measure, known as Supporting People at Risk, is being introduced. This will allow referrals from a wide range of State and Territory authorities on a similar basis to referrals under the current Child Protection Measure, and will help ensure income management assists those people most likely to benefit.

For example, to support the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory alcohol measures, this Bill will enable people referred by the Northern Territory Government's Alcohol and Other Drug Tribunal to be placed on this new measure of income management, thus reducing the proportion of income available for alcohol.

Additionally, the rules applying to a person who is subject to income management in a declared area and who moves to another location will be clarified, as will the school exemption criteria for the Long-term Welfare Payment and Disengaged Youth Measures.

A second measure in the Bill amends the provisions in social security law that underpin the Government's Improving School Enrolment and Attendance through Welfare Reform Measure, or SEAM.

SEAM is one aspect of the Australian Government's strategy to improve school attendance and engagement. The amendments allow the possibility of an income support suspension to be integrated into the Northern Territory Government's Every Child, Every Day attendance strategy.

School attendance in parts of the Northern Territory is unacceptably low - as low as 40% in some schools. With such a level of absence, a child cannot build a sufficient foundation in literacy and numeracy to enable them to succeed in later schooling and in the modern world.

The Gillard Government has invested significantly to improve the quality of education in schools in the Northern Territory. On top of base funding provided to government and non-government education authorities, our additional investments in the Northern Territory include:

$16 million to expand pre-school services

$70 million in funding for Northern Territory schools in disadvantaged communities

$50 million for teacher quality and literacy and numeracy initiatives

$46 million for 200 additional teachers

$256 million under the Building the Education Revolution program for school infrastructure

A further $10 million for classrooms in remote schools, and

$12 million to build Trades Training Centres.

In four years we have made substantial progress in addressing shortages of early childhood services, teachers, teacher housing and classrooms in Northern Territory schools. The COAG Reform Council's recent report shows progress in being made in pre-school participation and early years literacy. The recent evaluation of the Northern Territory Emergency Response found that some 57% of people surveyed strongly agreed that the school in their community was better now than it was three years ago.

This work must continue, but it is clear that for these improvements in schools to translate into improvements in educational outcomes for students, regular school attendance is essential.

Improving attendance can never be done by governments and schools alone. For all the funding that governments invest and all the skills that teachers bring to their schools, we still ultimately rely on parents to get their children ready and to the school gate each morning.

While the overwhelming majority of parents understand the value of education and are making sure their children are in class and learning for their future every day, there are a number who do not.

The overwhelming opinion of Aboriginal people who participated in the Stronger Futures consultations in the Northern Territory was that they wanted action to hold to account those parents who do not send their children to school.

The amendments in the Bill enable a new, integrated approach to managing cases of poor school attendance in the Northern Territory.

According to this approach, if a child is not attending school regularly the school will convene an attendance conference with the family to talk through barriers to the child's education. The conference will agree on an attendance plan.

The attendance plan will include actions that the family commit to undertake, for example, walking the child to school in the mornings or providing a place for the child to study at home. Support from a social worker will be available to help the family meet their obligations under the plan.

Importantly, the attendance plan can also include actions that the school or other parties will undertake, for example, providing a school uniform or resolving an issue around bullying that may be contributing to the child's disengagement.

This is a collaborative approach that attempts to improve attendance in partnership with the family.

However, it is important that there be a lever to ensure families engage in this process. If a family refuses to participate in the attendance conference, or refuses to agree to an attendance plan, or fails to live up to their agreed actions in the attendance plan when other parties to the plan fulfil their commitments, then their income support payments may be suspended until they do.

If the family complies within 13 weeks, their income support payment can be reinstated with full back pay.

This is a sensible approach that apportions responsibility for school attendance appropriately between the school and family.

STRONGER FUTURES IN THE NORTHERN TERRITORY BILL 2012

The Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2012 is being introduced alongside its companion, the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2011.

The Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011, which complements measures set out in these Bills, is being introduced separately.

Together, these Bills form a part of our next steps in the Northern Territory, undertaken in partnership with Aboriginal people and the Northern Territory Government.

These are steps taken with a clear eye to the future.

A stronger future which sees a substantial and significant change for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

Where people live in good houses, and in safe communities.

Where parents go to work, and children go to school each day.

A stronger future, grounded in a stronger relationship between government and Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

A relationship built on respect for Australia’s first peoples, for their custodianship of the land, for their culture and for their ongoing contributions to our shared nation.

This is a respect that is about much more than sentiment. It is about the approach we take to our work, and the approach we take to working together.

This is the approach we took to consultations after we first came into government.

These conversations revealed the depth of hurt felt by Aboriginal people by the sudden and rushed implementation of the Northern Territory Emergency Response.

And informed our amendments, including the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 in the Northern Territory.

As we have built houses, as we have built health services and preschools, we have also set about rebuilding the relationship with Aboriginal people.

Let me be very clear: we must achieve real change for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

Because the situation in the Northern Territory remains critical.

Yes, important progress has been made.

The independent evaluation of the Northern Territory Emergency Response shows that there have been real and positive improvements over the last three years.

People have said that their communities are safer than they were three years ago. New police stations and night patrols have improved community safety.

The introduction of the basics card has been positive, showing that income management is a useful tool for people.

It has helped them to stabilise the family budget and make sure that money is being spent on housing, food and clothing for children.

More than 350 new houses have been built and another 275 are underway. More than 1,800 rebuilds and refurbishments of houses are also complete.

Our investment is delivering improved living conditions - better and safer houses - to more than 2,000 Aboriginal families in the Northern Territory.

And more people are working - in properly paid jobs - than three years ago.

But the fact remains that Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory continue to face significant levels of need on a daily basis.

Some children are still not receiving proper care, and that is completely unacceptable.

The child protection substantiation rate has doubled for Indigenous children in the Northern Territory since the start of the Emergency Response.

Three in four of these cases related to child neglect.

The increased rate in reporting reflects our increased investment, with the Northern Territory Government, in child protection services.

This includes additional funding from both governments delivered in response to the Bath Report last year, which recommended additional child protection workers in remote communities, stronger alcohol controls and new intensive family support services for families referred for child protection income management.

We have enabled referrals from the child protection system for income management in the Northern Territory to ensure all the tools are available to child protection workers in ensuring that children are not neglected, that they have food and clothing and housing.

With increased visibility of the extent of child neglect in the Northern Territory must come our reaffirmed commitment to do all that we can to ensure that children are safe.

Similarly, with our increased visibility of school enrolment and attendance, we must do more to ensure that children are going to school.

The Evaluation Report shows us that there has been no overall improvement in school attendance - and while we are starting to see good signs in reading, the Northern Territory still lags behind the national standards for reading, writing and numeracy.

Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory still experience the widest gaps by a large margin across the Closing the Gap indicators.

They have a lower life expectancy than anywhere else in the country.

And a higher infant mortality rate.

We see that much more needs to be done - and we hear it too.

Across the Territory, people have told us that more needs to be done to achieve the change we all want to see for Aboriginal people there.

People in the Northern Territory want for their children what each of us, right across the country, want for our children:

That they will grow up healthy and safe and get a good education.

That they have a bright future that includes a roof over their heads, food on the table, and a good job.

That they will be strong people, proud of who they are.

It is clear that, if we are to see these stronger futures take shape, we must not walk away and we must continue to work hard.

Existing legislation for the Northern Territory is due to cease in August next year.

But our efforts cannot cease, because we know - and Aboriginal people have told us - that much more work needs to be done.

Work to consolidate our progress to date.

And work to build on these achievements, to build a stronger future with the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory.

The measures I bring forward in these Bills today reflect our determination to continue this work.

All of the measures in this Bill have been designed to comply with the Racial Discrimination Act 1975.

They reflect our understanding that our efforts cannot cease with the existing legislation.

They reflect our appreciation of just how critical the situation in the Northern Territory is.

And they reflect the many conversations we have had with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory over the past few months, and the past few years.

Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory

In the six weeks of our Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory consultations, we held meetings in one hundred communities and town camps and public meetings in major towns.

Hundreds of smaller discussions with individuals, families and other groups took place across the Territory.

The consultations were overseen by the independent Cultural and Indigenous Research Centre Australia, who agreed that the discussions were fair, open and accountable.

The outcomes of these consultations have been recorded in the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Report on Consultations, which was released last month and which forms an important part of this Government’s policy statement on our path forward.

I personally participated in a number of these discussions, and want to place on the record my appreciation for the openness and the frankness with which people shared their stories and their hopes for a stronger future for themselves and for their children.

What is clear from these conversations is that we are united in our desire for change; and that there is much more work to be done.

What we heard in the course of our conversations is that the path to change is laid with barriers, which we must break down if we are to create that change.

The barriers people described to us in this consultation were about the lack of services, yes.

But they were also about attitudes.

They said that we as government had to do more, but that we must also expect more - that people would find a job and keep it; that children would go to school; and that people would sober up.

Because if children don’t go to school, the best teachers and the best classrooms can’t give them a good education.

The strongest work ethic and the most driving ambitions will be wasted if there are no jobs.

If people can’t get sober, they can’t set the best example for their children - a parent who goes to work each day and brings home a pay cheque each fortnight.

The measures in the legislative package I am introducing to the Parliament today help tackle the barriers to change. They clear the path for us to walk together and to work together for the change we all want to see.

They make clear our expectations of parents - that they will send their children to school to get a good education.

They support more jobs in the Northern Territory.

And they do more to tackle alcohol abuse.

The Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2012

The Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2012 contains measures aimed at breaking the back of alcohol abuse - to help individuals, their families and communities get back on their feet.

When people spoke to me of barriers, they spoke of alcohol and the havoc it wreaks on remote and urban communities alike.

They spoke of the harm caused by alcohol abuse - of loved ones lost to alcohol-related disease, road accidents and the violence it causes in families and communities.

Alcohol abuse is at the heart of dysfunction, violence and abuse in many communities.

There is extensive hard evidence of the harm being caused by alcohol in Aboriginal communities, and of the huge economic and social costs of alcohol to the Territory.

Communities have called for their ‘dry’ status to remain in place.

The hard evidence and what we heard during the consultations have persuaded the Government that the alcohol restrictions must not be relaxed.

The Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill provides for the current alcohol restrictions to be continued.

It requires respectful signage so that everyone is clear about the alcohol management arrangements in place, and communities will be consulted about signs.

It responds to the concerns people raised - their frustrations with grog runners undermining the restrictions. So we are introducing tough new measures to clamp down on grog runners.

We are proposing to increase the penalty for liquor offences under 1,350 millilitres, to include six months’ imprisonment.

Northern Territory laws will then permit the option of referral to the Substance Misuse Assessment and Referral for Treatment Court for this offence.

We have heard from people across the Territory that, if we are to break the back of alcohol abuse, we must empower individuals, families and communities to take control.

This Bill strengthens the ability of communities to take control.

The Bill provides that alcohol management plans established by local communities be directed at minimising alcohol-related harm.

To ensure that alcohol management plans are able to contribute to reducing harm, the Bill includes provision for rules on the minimum standards an alcohol management plan will need to meet before it can be approved.

In future AMPs will be approved by the Commonwealth Minister for Indigenous Affairs.

Where an alcohol management plan is approved and in place, consideration will be given to lifting the restrictions under the Stronger Futures legislation. If the restrictions are lifted, the Northern Territory Liquor Act will continue to apply.

Where communities want to retain these Stronger Futures restrictions, they will be able to.

This measure is designed to support communities get control of the drinking problem and forge their own path - to make the grog, the despair and the violence that comes with it a thing of the past.

To assist the Northern Territory Government to clamp down on alcohol traders who may be linked to substantial alcohol-related harm to Aboriginal people, the Bill provides that the Commonwealth Indigenous Affairs Minister may request the Northern Territory Government to appoint an assessor under the Northern Territory Liquor Act to examine their practices and report back on findings.

The Bill also provides for a joint Commonwealth-Northern Territory review to be conducted two years after commencement of the Stronger Futures legislation.

The review will examine the effectiveness of the Stronger Futures and the Territory laws in addressing alcohol-related harm to Aboriginal people.

This will allow both Governments to continue working together to make progress.

The review report will be tabled in this Parliament.

Alcohol-related harm is not confined to the Northern Territory.

The Government is also increasing the tools available to governments across Australia to tackle alcohol-related harm.

We are proposing to amend income management legislation to allow referrals by recognised State or Territory authorities to trigger income management.

This non-discriminatory measure is intended to commence in the Northern Territory as a first step, to support referrals for income management from the Northern Territory Alcohol and Other Drugs Tribunal.

These proposals are included in the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011.

Alcohol abuse is a serious problem in the Northern Territory.

It is causing real harm to individuals, to families and to communities.

And it is a barrier to the positive changes we all want to see.

We are responding with serious measures.

The Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 will also boost our efforts to tackle the barrier created by children not going to school.

A good education is a firm foundation for a stronger future.

And yet, we know that levels of enrolment and attendance for Indigenous children in the Territory remain unacceptable.

Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory have made clear their expectation that Indigenous children need to get a good education.

They have been equally clear about their expectations of parents.

Parents have a responsibility to send their children to school.

Parents of children everywhere.

Whether in a remote community in the Northern Territory, a regional town in Victoria or in the middle of Brisbane - parents have a responsibility to give their children the best start in life.

They have a responsibility to send their children to school.

The School Enrolment and Attendance Measure already applies to all parents on income support in some areas in the Northern Territory and Queensland.

The Australian Government will extend SEAM to the townships of Alyangula and Nhulunbuy, and to Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, and remaining schools in Katherine and the communities of Yirrkala, Maningrida, Galiwin’ku, Ngukurr, Numbulwar, Umbakumba, Angurugu, Gapuwiyak, Gunbalanya, Milingimbi, Lajamanu and Yuendumu.

Other measures in the Bill

The Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2012 paves the way for change by supporting strong communities.

We heard in consultations that remote community stores have improved over the past four years. They now offer healthier food and are better managed.

We will continue to improve community stores licensing arrangements.

Licensing will focus more clearly on supporting food security in remote communities. In the future, a community store may be required to have a licence to operate if it is an important source of food, drink, or grocery items for Aboriginal communities.

We will also introduce a range of new penalties to encourage stores to improve their performance and crack down on unscrupulous practices.

We have long been clear that secure tenure is a foundation stone for our work to improve housing in remote Indigenous communities.

We have been determined not to replicate the mistakes of the past that saw ownership and responsibility for houses uncertain and unclear.

In the past, no one made sure homes were maintained; no one made sure proper tenancy management was in place.

This is now being fixed through systemic reforms in the delivery of remote housing under the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing.

Leases which run for 40 years now form the foundation for housing in 15 larger communities. Tenancy management is now the clear responsibility of the Territory Government.

And tenants now have a clear responsibility to pay their rent, just like tenants anywhere else in Australia.

The Australian and Northern Territory Governments will continue to negotiate leases with Aboriginal land owners to enable the Territory Government to manage public housing in remote communities.

This means that there is clear responsibility for the upkeep of houses - and that no longer will they fall down around peoples’ ears through years of neglect.

In this Bill, we make clear too that the Australian Government will not be extending the compulsory five-year leases acquired under the original legislation, and instead will negotiate voluntary long term leases.

The Bill provides the Australian Government with the ability to make regulations removing barriers in Northern Territory legislation to leasing on town camp and Community Living Area land.

Currently, there are restrictions on how this land can be used - even where the community agrees they want to put it to different uses.

This will enable the Aboriginal land-holders of town camps and Community Living Areas to make use of their land for a broader range of purposes, including for economic development and private home ownership.

This Bill builds on what Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory have told us about the change they want to see, for themselves and for their children.

The measures have been designed for the long haul - to reflect our belief that over time these measures will provide better opportunities for Aboriginal people.

Over time, they will break down the barriers.

Over time, they will pave the way for the path ahead.

And, over time, they will achieve their objective.

These measures are designed so that, when they achieve their objective, they will not continue.

Accordingly, we propose that the new Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Act sunset 10 years after its commencement.

After seven years of operation, the Government is proposing a legislative review of the Stronger Futures legislation.

The findings of this independent review will be tabled in the Parliament.

The timeframe for the review has been planned so that we could reasonably expect to see changes in the key priority areas that were outlined in the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory discussion paper - outcomes such as education, jobs, alcohol related harm, and housing.

Across each of the closing the gap targets, the gap remains the greatest for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

Progress is being made but much more remains to be done.

This Bill is part of our next steps in the Northern Territory, steps taken in partnership with Aboriginal people.

STRONGER FUTURES IN THE NORTHERN TERRITORY (CONSEQUENTIAL AND TRANSITIONAL PROVISIONS) BILL 2011

This Bill is the companion Bill to the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2012.

This Bill amends existing Commonwealth legislation, and sets out transitional arrangements, to complement the new primary legislation established under the main Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill.

This Bill seeks to repeal the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007.

The earlier speech described our clear commitment to put new housing on firm foundations through secure tenure - so responsibility for maintenance, responsibility to pay rent and responsibility to build new housing is clear for the first time.

We have made clear our commitment to no new five year leasing arrangements, and our intention to move to long term voluntary leasing arrangements to give communities and governments certainty as we plan for the future.

This Bill includes savings provisions which make this transition possible. These provisions will preserve the current leasing arrangements as necessary until their planned sunset date - so that we can work with communities to transition to new, voluntary leases.

This provision also makes sure that rent can continue to be paid to the Aboriginal land owners of the five-year leases.

The Bill will also allow land owners of Community Living Area land to receive the help of Land Councils in managing their land, including negotiating lease arrangements.

This is designed to support the voluntary leasing arrangements - so that communities and governments have certainty and can accept responsibility for land and housing.

The measures we introduce today reflect our evaluation - of what is working and what is not.

They also repeal those measures in the existing legislation which haven’t worked or which are no longer needed.

This Bill repeals statutory rights provisions that provide rights to carry out works in a construction area, and to occupy, use, maintain, repair or make minor improvements to the buildings and infrastructures in the construction area.

These are not consistent with our approach to voluntary leasing, and have never been used.

This Bill also includes transitional arrangements for the measures to tackle alcohol abuse and to improve licensing arrangements for community stores that are considered in the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2012.

This Bill will continue measures which have helped make communities safer and to protect their most vulnerable members, women and children.

The recently released evaluation of our work in the Northern Territory showed that nearly three out of every four people said that their community felt safer than four years ago.

The Bill continues and makes minor changes to the restrictions introduced by the Northern Territory Emergency Response on sexually explicit and very violent material (the pornography restrictions) in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.

This measure will be subject to the 10-year sunset applying to measures in the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill and the review to be undertaken at seven years after the legislation commences.

The Bill continues the prohibition on taking customary law and cultural practice into account in considering the seriousness of an alleged offender’s criminal behaviour in bail and sentencing decisions for Commonwealth and Northern Territory offences.

However, some changes are proposed to exempt offences that protect cultural heritage, such as offences around damaging sacred sites and cultural heritage objects.

Debate adjourned.