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Community Affairs Legislation Committee

BARTJEN-WESTERMANN, Ms Christa, Acting Coordinator, Northern Territory Council of Social Services

GELL, Ms Pru, Policy Officer, Northern Territory Council of Social Services


CHAIR: Welcome to officers from NTCOSS. Your contributions are always valued in these processes. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses is available, and you can get more information from the secretariat if you would like it. Do you have any comments on the capacity in which you appear before us?

Ms Bartjen-Westermann : Good afternoon, everyone. I was not so much part of writing the submission; it was mainly Pru. She will do the introduction and then I will be there for questioning afterwards.

Ms Gell : Thank you, senators, for the opportunity to speak with you here today. NTCOSS is a peak body of the community sector and an advocate for those who are most affected by poverty and disadvantage. We have over 100 member organisations. As in our submission, which we co-wrote with ACOSS, we would like to confine the scope of our discussion here today to the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 and, within that, particularly SEAM and the link between school attendance and income support payments, so schedule 2. Our capacity can be limited, so, regarding commentary on the other bills, it is great to know that other organisations well placed to do so have made and will make comment, particularly Aboriginal organisations and leaders. From our submission, I will just talk to points 1, 3, 4, 7, 8 and 9 and ACOSS will expand on the others when they present in Canberra.

Before talking about the specifics of the bill, I want to highlight a few key overarching points on what NTCOSS see will support educational outcomes. Firstly, it is encouraging to see significant investment in Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory after decades upon decades of underspending and neglect. However, policies and resource allocation need to be based on ways forward that work so that there is a really good chance of achieving positive and long-lasting outcomes. This funding needs to be adequate, increased, streamlined and ongoing.

Secondly, as has been raised many times today, Aboriginal people must be involved in decisions that affect them. Governments need to work in partnership meaningfully with Aboriginal people. As article 18 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states, Indigenous people have a right to participate in decisions that affect them. Furthermore, NTCOSS greatly believes this will support achieving the positive and long-lasting outcomes required. To tie these points together: complex intergenerational problems that stem from systemic disadvantage require complex solutions. Governments and NGOs need to work with communities and, alongside this, need to rethink and improve how they conduct their work and business so that good practice models and processes of engagement are used. To achieve this, policies and processes need to be accountable and come from a strong evidence base. They need to be clearly guided by ideas that are driven and owned by the community and act on them where possible. Without this, funds will be spent without goals being met and policies will be set to fail.

From consultations with our members, research and evaluation of a range of successful community driven school projects around the country, rather than punitive measures like SEAM, the goal of improved attendance can be better achieved by the introduction of strategies—and I am guessing that this list is not anything new to the senators—such as programs to bring Aboriginal community, especially elders, into schools; breakfast and lunch programs; Aboriginal teacher aides and Aboriginal teachers; curriculum that engages Aboriginal children; and programs that blend the development of self-esteem and confidence through engaging with culture with programs that focus on academic excellence. In addition, NTCOSS advocates wraparound services for families with complex intergenerational issues to be addressed.

These effective programs and strategies show the importance of building a relationship of trust between Aboriginal families and the school in order to target attendance and performance. Community members at the Stronger Futures consultation suggested a raft of measures to improve school attendance. These included introducing Aboriginal culture in the curriculum, involving elders and parents more in school activities, developing mentoring programs for parents and doing more to attract and retain good teachers. Interestingly, what Aboriginal people and community members said and also what Education Minister Garrett said in a speech on 18 October—what they advocated—actually matches with what research and practice show works.

In addition, a useful framework uses a checklist when developing policies that can actually achieve long-lasting outcomes. These are social determinants of health, which were referenced by Congress's presentation earlier. The World Health Organisation established a Commission on Social Determinants of Health in 2005 to provide advice on how to reduce them. Three overarching recommendations are (1) improve daily living conditions, (2) tackle the inequitable distribution of power, money and resources and (3) measure and understand the problem and assess the impact of action.

I will now talk briefly to the points in our submission. No. 1 is appropriate consultation before policy. The government has not consulted properly with the communities most affected by these measures. NTCOSS appreciates and supports that there were an extensive number of meetings held in almost 100 NT communities and town camps and that this is a good step forward re how to consult. However, we believe that the consultations were inappropriate in a number of ways—namely, in the length of time; in planning and information sharing; and in format, nature and process, including that the intervention and income management were not encouraged to be discussed. Therefore we see the consultations as inadequate.

A very brief story shared by a community worker who worked in communities in the 1970s that I was told last week was that in the 1970s, in regard to community consultation, a letter would be sent to the community. There would be one if not two weeks for the community to work with themselves to work out what their response was going to be and then a meeting would be held. Obviously, this varies greatly from how consultation is done today. This fits in well with research in relation to intercultural communication. Out there, there are a range of models used for meaningful consultation that could be used.

Participants at the Stronger Futures consultation were asked about what would support school attendance, and a range of views were expressed, but NTCOSS does not believe these responses constitute a mandate for the extension of SEAM.

No. 2 is the delegation of social security powers. I will not touch more on this because this was covered well by CAALS this morning and I know is covered in CAWLS's submission as well.

Cost for benefits is questionable. For measures that have no evidence base, they appear to be a costly venture. To begin to respond to decades of neglect, funds are required; however, they need to be directed effectively. The average cost of SEAM, that being $200,000 per school, could be spent on intensive wraparound case management for families whose children do not attend school regularly and on improving the quality of schooling. As an ex-teacher in the Northern Territory in urban and remote communities, I can attest to the need for this. No. 7 is that it is not evidence based policy, which I touched on briefly just then. The extension of the scope of SEAM sites facilitated by the bill would come despite a lack of hard evidence on whether these measures actually work. A trial in Halls Creek was evaluated and failed largely due to the lack of engagement between the school and the community.

There are a number of points that member organisations raised with us through our consultations with them. There could be a scenario where all children in a family apart from one are attending school and yet the caregiver's payments for the entire family are suspended. There could be a reluctance from carers to take on children or continue to care for children if they worry that their payments might be suspended. There could be an issue of opportunity loss. The money spent on SEAM could be spent on other things we know will improve educational and other beneficial outcomes. In addition to what was mentioned earlier are bilingual education, hearing-modified classrooms and increasing teaching numbers. Also, are schools currently set up to manage every child attending every day? Clearly, we want all children to attend, but we must address resourcing issues that would be then in the picture.

No. 8 is that it is unclear just how this bill interacts with the existing Northern Territory government's Every Child, Every Day strategy. At a consultation a few weeks ago, we got some information from DEEWR, which was useful, about how this will work, but still what will be in place is two parallel legal processes. It is unclear and it appears to have potentially double fiscal consequences for children and families. I must say that, after the rollout of income management and how we saw that federal and NT agencies clearly had not talked to each other in the development of their policies, the community sector is quite concerned that similar gaps could appear.

The discriminatory aspect is also covered in the submission.

In closing, I have five brief points. Aboriginal people want effective and reliable services driven by community owned ideas, schools and jobs in their own communities across the Northern Territory. This is the clear message and one that was also spoken in the Stronger Futures report. NTCOSS believes this is what is required to grow the NT fairly. If governments and departments want to invest in and develop policies that will have positive and long-lasting outcomes for the livelihoods of Aboriginal people, then Aboriginal people need to be involved in decisions that affect them in a meaningful and ongoing away.

NTCOSS shares the widely held concerns in the community that too many children are missing out on a good education and that, to improve educational outcomes, school attendance needs to increase and community engagement and the quality of education to improve. NTCOSS believes that policies in this area need to recognise and respond to the fact that parents, communities and governments are all responsible to ensure children get a good education.

Lastly, community measures suggested a raft of measures to improve school attendance. Governments must use this feedback from Aboriginal communities and work in partnerships to find a way forward. Thank you.

CHAIR: Do you wish to add anything?

Ms Bartjen-Westermann : No.

Senator SIEWERT: Could I just go to the figure you quoted of $200,000 per school. Where did that come from?

Ms Gell : The $31 million that was invested in the trials across the 44 sites. On our calculations, breaking that down and using some new figures that we got from DEEWR as well, that was the figure we came to.

CHAIR: Have DEEWR confirmed that figure?

Senator CROSSIN: So you have just taken the raw number of schools with the amount of money and divided it—is that all you have done?

Ms Gell : The person who actually did that calculation is my coordinator, Jonathan, who is on six months leave at the moment, but I could provide that breakdown. It is more detailed than that. I am happy to provide that on notice.

CHAIR: I just wanted to check whether DEEWR had confirmed that figure, because it was a new figure to us.

Ms Gell : DEEWR provided some figures. They did not provide the $200,000 figure but they did provide some information that helped us create that figure. We are happy to provide that breakdown.

CHAIR: That would be great.

Senator CROSSIN: Does the figure DEEWR provided you with go towards the amount of money that was put into Centrelink, brochures that were produced, attendance officers that were funded or the extra 200 teachers that were funded? What does that money consist of?

Ms Gell : I would need to give you that on notice. I am happy to.

Senator SIEWERT: I want to go to other costs as well. One of the things the government have announced as part of the funding—they have not announced all the funding that is going to go with Stronger Futures—is that they are looking at putting in more intensive case management and social workers. I am trying to get my head around how many social workers would be needed to properly implement something.

Senator BOYCE: How many per hectare in the Northern Territory?

Senator SIEWERT: We are talking about rolling this out. It is a significant step from where it is at the moment. I am wondering if you have given any thought to the intensive case management. Certainly, if you look at the evaluation you see one of the things that do get a bit of a tick is case management. In fact, my reading of it—and, of course, it is my interpretation—is that what has really made the difference between the 2009 process and the 2010 process has been contact with social workers. So I am wondering if you have given any thought to what you would recommend in terms of how much one-on-one you would need with caseworkers and therefore how many caseworkers you would need to implement it properly.

Ms Bartjen-Westermann : There are some models, such as a family support centre as well as the type of family support, and they work with approximately six to nine families depending on the complexity of the situation, so some situations initially need a lot of intervention and then it can be monitored with reduced intervention and then you can withdraw and maybe leave it to other agencies that you refer to. That seems to be the manageable number of families to deal with, to deal with all the complexities that come across to a caseworker. It is often not caseworkers by themselves; caseworkers need to link in with other agencies intensively and cross-sectorally as well, so that means with education, with alcohol and other drugs and with health as they have a major impact.

Senator SIEWERT: So where would you suggest that those workers could be located? I do not mean physically. Yesterday and today we have talked a lot about wraparound services in dealing with all the complex issues that you have, in fact, just touched on. So I do not actually mean that you put one in this centre and one in that centre; I mean it in terms of the sorts of services that you have just been talking about. I am happy for you to take it on notice if you would prefer to.

Ms Bartjen-Westermann : We might do so. There are some thoughts and ideas, but to have some really solid feedback I would rather do that.

Senator SIEWERT: Okay, thank you. This is in terms of the consultations and the additional things that people said they wanted—monitoring, more teachers and engagement. Did you go to any of the consultations that were held, so that is for a start? Secondly, have you had other processes of surveying people that you work with to get that information in order to come to those conclusions?

Ms Gell : I was able to attend two, one in Alice Springs and one in Mutitjulu. Because I work part-time and cover six policy areas, I was really keen to get—and at the same time they were really keen to get—as much information from the consultations as possible. So I asked a number of colleagues that work in different NGOs if they could please feed back any information, and we did have a good information share across a number of NGOs in Darwin and Alice on the length of time, the number of people in attendance, the issues discussed and the format where interpreters were used. I got information in the end from about 15 or so different consultations. Senator Siewert, were you asking in particular as to the format or what people were saying?

Senator SIEWERT: It is more about what people were saying. You made a comment about those three things and it was if people said more than was reported or if people were saying they just do not want SEAM as they want other things. Sorry, that is where I am at.

CHAIR: So it is not more than was reported; it is that they offered alternatives.

Senator SIEWERT: Sorry, yes; I beg your pardon.

Ms Gell : The list that I gave was actually cut and pasted from the Stronger Futures report, so that is where the information came from.

Senator SIEWERT: So were there other things as well?

Ms Gell : I do not have a list of them with me, but I could go through transcripts and pull those out. I know there is a number of transcripts of at least eight of the consultations that therefore have word for word what people asked for. I know that things that were raised seemed to be some of the dominant things. I am not sure at this stage but I could provide on notice additional things that were raised as ideas, if that is useful.

Senator SIEWERT: Yes, thank you.

Senator BOYCE: To follow up on the anecdote that you used, Ms Gell, about a letter going out to communities in the seventies and a pre-consultation consultation being held. What is different? What would prevent that from happening now?

Senator CROSSIN: What evidence do you have that it did not happen now?

Ms Gell : For these consultations?

Senator CROSSIN: Yes.

Ms Gell : It is the nature of consultations now—the status quo. I am answering two questions at once here. I will focus on your question first, Senator Boyce. What stops that from happening now? I guess it is just that what has become normal process for how to engage with community looks very different. For a bunch of different reasons and practicalities it could not happen in the way that it does now in the 1970s, is one thing.

Senator BOYCE: Because?

Ms Gell : In the 1970s there was no email or GBMs positioned it in communities, so there is a range of different things—practicalities.

Senator BOYCE: I see, yes.

Ms Gell : Practical things that could not have happened back then as they do now. Does that—

Senator BOYCE: You were suggesting that it was a preferable model, where a letter had gone out, the community consulted themselves and then spoke at a consultation with whoever it was who wanted their input. You are saying that the difference now is that the pre-consultation does not happen? Is that the only difference you are saying? Are there other differences both to the quality and quantity of a consultation process?

Ms Gell : I do not know in detail how it would have looked exactly back then, and I wanted to put it in—sort of—a warm way of saying how different consultation looks now. It was interesting, and a reminder for me too, of how different consultation looks now in the way the government is doing it.

The current dominant way of doing consultation does not often have a meaningful stage of information sharing so that people can actually come to a consultation with very well thought-through informed decisions. The status quo tends to be quite a rushed way of working. If people hear about a consultation—and they may do or they may not—they are then in attendance and get asked some questions. After two or three hours the meeting wraps up and that is the end of that. I know that there was information shared back—I heard it was at two communities.

Senator CROSSIN: I just wanted to ask if you actually had a briefing from the NT Department of Education and Training about their Every Child, Every Day policy?

Ms Gell : Personally or as the—

Senator CROSSIN: Either.

Ms Gell : No. We just—

Senator CROSSIN: So you just relied on DEEWR's information about how this was all going to work?

Ms Gell : I was told that this policy sits with DEEWR; I asked questions first of Centrelink and was told that this policy sits with DEEWR. Then I contacted DEEWR and got some information back from DEEWR. At a consultation run by FaHCSIA it was raised that it would have been great to have DET in attendance to be able to explain that interaction.

Senator CROSSIN: That is what I feel is missing from your submission. There is a lack of understanding about how this is so vastly different to the trial—that is, that it links in and integrates incredibly well with the Every Child, Every Day Northern Territory education department policy. They emphasise having attendance plans, which are negotiated between families and school. It is an attempt to do everything possible to get those children to school. I do not see a grasp or understanding of that integration in your submission before us.

Ms Gell : At the consultation run by FaHCSIA I put forward a question. Apart from the findings from Every Child, Every Day I asked about the processes. Obviously Every Child, Every Day has its own set of processes that the family has to go through and so does this bill. There is a set of quite thorough steps that people have to go through. I put this question forward: do people have to go through both of these—I assume that they do not? But when I put the question forward the response was, 'We're talking about it and we're talking with DET about this.' It did not seem like that had yet been tidied up. Where they intersect and how they relate still feels a little loose at this stage.

Senator CROSSIN: Is this the way to go? Do you feel that both governments should be moving policy in that direction, with the emphasis on Every Child, Every Day, school attendance plans and the school and social workers working with families?

Ms Bartjen-Westerrmann : There are certainly aspects in there that are very positive. They talk about the link between different departments that need to work together and different roles that need to come together as well. Confusion came in with the two parallel legislations which are still in place—how they will impact on families until that is sorted. We are talking about the interim phase; we know that is going to change, but we do not know how quickly and what the impact might be on the families.

Senator CROSSIN: I did not write it down quickly enough, but I think that in your introduction, Ms Gell, you talked about providing meals at school for children or incentives for teachers to stay in schools and additional resources—classrooms that are looped, for example. That is all happening out there. Gradually, classrooms are getting that assistance for kids with hearing disabilities. We have put 200 additional teachers into the Northern Territory that we have funded over and above the formula. Schools are being funded to provide breakfast and lunch every day. I know that the Northern Territory government has put attendance officers in the regions. All of that is still happening. My question to you is: what is the answer to get children to come to school every single day if we do not have this integrated policy and this sort of legislation before us? What is ACOSS's answer to getting at least 90 per cent attendance every day from every child in the Northern Territory?

Ms Gell : I would like Christa to comment as well, but I would say that I do not feel that we have an answer. But there are practices that have been proven to improve community engagement with schools as well as school educational outcomes. To build on what works is one way we would encourage as a way forward. I was very careful not to say that this is not happening. But let us build on what works and improve the potential of what can come when you invest in what is known to have good outcomes.

Ms Bartjen-Westerrmann : It is also important to have a lot of flexibility and different options for kids. There are kids who will attend school and reach that 90 per cent mark after initial intervention. Some other kids have very different needs, so we need to have a flexible approach in education out there as well. I just wanted to strengthen that answer.

Senator CROSSIN: Your submission does not make any comments about the alcohol provisions or the store licensing provisions. Do you agree with those aspects of the legislation, or is it not an area you want to comment on?

Ms Gell : It is not an area we looked at within the time frame to produce this submission. We wanted to give meaningful comment on a particular bill. Jonathan Pilbrow, the coordinator who is currently on leave, does a lot of work on the AOD sector, while I do not. The feeling was ACOSS and NTCOSS would try to get the submission in before the end of last year. Within the time frame we had, we decided to focus on one aspect and comment on that.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for your attendance and your submission.