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Wednesday, 9 May 2012
Page: 2908


Senator SCULLION (Northern TerritoryDeputy Leader of The Nationals) (12:31): I rise to contribute to the debate on the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill and related bills. I am very disappointed at the environment in which we are having this debate. I will acknowledge that there have been some improvements in the circumstances which existed prior to the intervention. We have had improvements in some of the law and order issues, in the consumption of alcohol and in domestic violence—the horror stories associated with those. Community stores have certainly improved and access to the sorts of groceries we all take for granted has improved somewhat. But, sadly, here we are 4½ years later and for many of those communities the fundamentals have not changed. The Bath inquiry reported domestic violence continues to the extent that an Aboriginal woman has some 80 times more chance of having to be hospitalised in the prescribed areas than in other parts of the Northern Territory. That saddens everyone who has been involved in this process.

In my view it is clear that Labor never had it in their heart to actually do what was necessary to effect change, to better these Australian communities. They have allowed many of the Northern Territory Emergency Response measures to just drift aimlessly. There was no real leadership. There was no genuine commitment behind these sometimes difficult and sometimes unpopular initiatives. By now we should have reached the point where we could end what is regarded as the intervention and we should by now have seen vast changes in these communities—improvements in engagement, employment and health outcomes. Sadly, that is not the case and, whilst the Northern Territory Emergency Response legislation in effect ends when we eventually pass this legislation, some elements of the intervention are going to be continued.

As you would be aware, Madam Acting Deputy President Moore, I was personally reluctant to assist the government in trying to explain what this legislation is all about. In the places I visited, the consultation process was so completely hopeless that it stands as a damning indictment of the government and those organisations who sought to claim to parliament that they had in fact consulted and that everybody understood what Stronger Futures was about. Sadly, as you would also be aware, Madam Acting Deputy President, upon revisiting some of those communities, where apparently up to 10 days of consultation had been held, we found that, in many cases, they had never heard of Stronger Futures. The great tragedy is: if you do not consult properly and you leave an information vacuum in these communities, and that vacuum will be filled with misinformation and rumour. That is not a very good environment in which to be putting legislation forward.

It is widely thought that this legislation deals with the Northern Territory councils. The Northern Territory Labor government, in a moment of madness and with some malice, in my view, sought to hide their very unpopular 2007 decision to amalgamate the councils—disempowering communities by gutting their leadership of the councils and saying, 'You all get one representative.' That caused a huge furore and we know now that it has failed not only on an economic basis but on a social basis, because there is no leadership process within these communities. As we go around these communities, people are asking, 'What about that?' This legislation actually has nothing to do with that issue. Then people ask, 'Isn't this going to have an effect because it will mean that people are going to mine the homelands now?' We hear all these really weird stories. We are having to explain to people that the Stronger Futures legislation is fundamentally about the three issues of alcohol management, community stores and headleases in communities, and that it is not about movement into hub towns and it is not about a whole range of other issues. The fact that we are having to explain that is an indictment of the complete failure of this government to consult. We seem to have to spend a lot of our time trying to correct people's understanding of what this legislation is actually about. Even with those efforts, I have to report that, sadly, as I stand here today many of the people who live in the areas which are going to be affected by this simply do not have a clue what this legislation is about. They talk about it being about everything from home ownership to aspects of income management. It is very sad that we are in that position.

We have some associated legislation here dealing with income management and suspensions. It is an associated bill but it is not part of the bill. If the government had actually explained and had a process to help communities understand which piece of legislation dealt with which issues, it certainly would have been a lot easier for all concerned. I have acknowledged publicly—and it is very easy to say this in hindsight—that one of the things we could have done better with the Northern Territory intervention was in letting people know exactly how it was going to affect them. It was an emergency at the time, and I know we have gone over that ground, but we knew then that, if we ever did something like this again we would ensure we allowed the time—and we did have a great deal of time; we had three years—to talk about what we were going to do. Very sadly, those opportunities have been lost. There was no learning from earlier mistakes.

This time the Labor government are proposing a 10-year policy and apparently we are only going to have a look at that 10-year policy in seven years—as if nothing is going to happen in seven years! You must not have a lot of confidence in yourself and your policies if you believe that nothing is going to change as a result of Stronger Futures in seven years.

We will be introducing amendments to deal with that, and we will be looking at amendments that can review it in three years, which is appropriate. Things should have changed in three years and if they have not we need as a parliament to inform ourselves so we can move forward and ensure we make the adjustments to programs so that we get the outcome that motivated those programs in the first place.

These bills tackle the issue of alcohol. The legislation increases the powers of the minister for Indigenous affairs to suspend, modify or cancel liquor licences and individual permits issued in the prescribed areas. The current laws provide that, once the minister grants an exemption from a permanent licence to be issued, the terms, conditions and enforcement of such are the responsibility of the Northern Territory government as legislated through the Northern Territory Liquor Act. This measure also provides power to the minister to request the Northern Territory government to appoint an independent assessor to examine any licence or premises where the minister has reasonable grounds to believe that a particular licensed premises anywhere in the Territory is linked to substantial harm to Aboriginal people.

A further initiative is that the federal minister will now approve all alcohol management plans for communities. The measures proposed in this bill are already the policy or laws of the Northern Territory government. There is nothing new. We support the measures because we think the current Northern Territory government are sound asleep. The snoring keeps us all awake. They live there, they are fundamentally responsible for this, they know what is going on but they just seem completely incapable of sensible legislative action that will protect the vulnerable and will ensure that the perpetrators of either the trafficking or the misuse of alcohol are brought to justice and are removed from the system.

When people talk about alcohol management plans they say, 'Oh, it's another imposition.' It is quite the contrary. The new alcohol management regime is a function of the consultation that does make some sense. People in the communities have been able to tell us that this is the sort of alcohol management plan they want. We have heard of an excellent framework for a management plan from Mount Nancy. The people can have ownership of it; they are going to be able to assist with the compliance themĀ­selves. That is the sort of management plan we need. But when I go to Ramingining, they think a management plan is an additional plan that we are going to belt them over the head with. So, again, there is total confusion and a complete lack of understanding about any of the processes that we are debating and in fact inflicting on Territorians.

I will be moving a number of amendments. First, prior to modifying, suspending or cancelling a licence the minister must first write to the Northern Territory government, given that it was their legislation in the first place, requesting that the Licensing Commission take appropriate action. Nobody who lives in a state or territory would think that in terms of alcohol licensing the Commonwealth should be leaping in and micromanaging something that fundamentally should be the responsibility of the states and territories. I know it is all wonderful for the minister to assume new powers over these things, but with those powers come responsibilities and the responsibilities of course will be released from the Northern Territory government. They will not care about this anymore. Every time we do that, the Territory becomes more and more of a mendicant state. Our amendment will make it very clear that, if the federal minister has a particular wish, the minister will be required to get in touch with the Territory. You would think the normal thing would be to pick up the phone anyway.

We also have an amendment that ensures that any federal activation or enforced intervention in the management of the Northern Territory Liquor Act does not just duplicate the Northern Territory government's actions; it provides a response where the Northern Territory government is unable to or fails to take appropriate action under those existing laws to address the harm caused by alcohol abuse. It should again be noted that the government has not proposed any new or additional alcohol control or management initiatives that might enhance the situation—it is simply duplicating existing measures in order to appear to be taking a stronger stance on alcohol. If you read it, we have Commonwealth law that now reflects the liquor-licensing law. It is almost like the Commonwealth saying, 'Let's just reflect the parking legislation of the Northern Territory and say we are taking stronger action on traffic.' Well, it is just the bloody same! It is pathetic that the Northern Territory government has not taken the opportunities that it has had, having been in power for the time that it has been.

The last point is critical in determining how to proceed with the Stronger Futures legislation. The government proposes to retain the power to implement current Northern Territory liquor-licensing laws for a period of 10 years and only review how they are working after seven years. It maybe the case that the reason why there are suddenly alcohol related issues in the Northern Territory is that the Northern Territory Labor government has not been enforcing any of its own laws. There may be other reasons or even deficiencies in some of the existing laws that they have there at the moment. Under the government's proposal we will not even know the answer to that question for seven years. Seven years is more than two terms of a federal government and longer than the term of every senator's appointment to this place. Seven years may mean a further generation being lost to the ravages of alcohol abuse. I know I like to belt the Labor Party, but every person in this place will agree with me. It is not a political issue. We all agree that the circumstances we find ourselves in in the Northern Territory and other places are unacceptable. That is why I trust the Senate will support my amendments.

Debate interrupted.