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Thursday, 21 June 2007
Page: 73

Mr TOLLNER (2:02 PM) —My question is also addressed to the Prime Minister. Would the Prime Minister advise the House now of details of the Australian government’s response to the emergency outlined in the Northern Territory report into the protection of Aboriginal children from sexual abuse?

Mr HOWARD (Prime Minister) —I thank the member for Solomon for his question and I also thank him for the advice and counsel he provided to me and to the relevant minister regarding this matter prior to the government’s final decision. The measures are essentially as follows, and they are couched against the background of believing that this is a national emergency. The Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs put it to me very powerfully yesterday when he said that if this report had been about events in the suburb of Dickson, here in the Australian Capital Territory, there would have been a massive and immediate community response and a demand that something along the scale that I outlined a few minutes ago be undertaken by the government. We take the view that the same attitude should be adopted in relation to the Indigenous children of the Northern Territory.

The actions that the government has announced will be overseen by a task force of eminent Australians, including logistics and other specialists and child protection experts. I am very happy to announce that Dr Sue Gordon, the eminent Western Australian magistrate, has agreed to assume a leadership role in the task force. Essentially, what the government has in mind is the introduction of widespread alcohol restrictions on Northern Territory Aboriginal land for six months—banning the sale, the possession, the transportation and the consumption—and broader monitoring of takeaway sales across the Northern Territory. We will be appealing to the Australian Medical Association to encourage the provision of doctors to undertake a medical examination of every Indigenous child in the Northern Territory under the age of 16. The federal government will bear all of the additional costs involved in relation to those health checks. I have no doubt that the Australian Medical Association, given its longstanding interest in this issue, will respond very enthusiastically to what the government has in mind.

We propose a major change in the area of welfare in order to stem the flow of cash going towards alcohol abuse and to ensure that funds that are meant to be used for children’s welfare are actually used for that purpose. The main intention here is that 50 per cent of these welfare payments will effectively be quarantined for the purchase of food and other essential items. That will apply to all families receiving these payments anywhere in the affected areas. We will be enforcing school attendance by linking income support and family assistance payments to school attendance for all people living on Aboriginal land. We will be ensuring the provision of meals for children at school, with parents paying for those meals.

The Commonwealth government will take control of townships through five-year leases to ensure that property and public housing can be improved. That will include, if appropriate, the payment of just terms compensation. We will be requiring intensive on-ground clean-up of communities to make them safer and healthier by marshalling local workforces through Work for the Dole arrangements. We intend to scrap the permit system for common areas and road corridors on Aboriginal land. We intend to ban the possession of X-rated pornography in the prescribed areas and we will check all publicly funded computers for evidence of storage of pornography.

In the area of law enforcement, there will be an immediate increase in policing levels, which have been woefully inadequate for many years in the Northern Territory. We will be calling on the state police services to provide at least 10 additional officers at Commonwealth expense, and they will be sworn in as Territory police officers to assist with the policing task. We will provide additional resources to set up an Australian government sexual abuse reporting desk, and we will appoint managers of all government businesses in all of the relevant communities. Next Thursday there will be a meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee on the Australian Crime Commission, and the federal representative on that body, the Minister for Justice and Customs, will ask his fellow ministers to refer to the Australian Crime Commission a reference to allow the commission to identify and locate perpetrators of sexual abuse of Indigenous children in other areas of Australia. After the identification of those perpetrators, that will lead, hopefully, to the prosecution of those people.

I also indicate to the House that the minister will be bringing to cabinet at its next meeting proposals for further extending the conditionality of welfare payments to all Australians receiving income support, to ensure that these payments are used for the benefit of their children. I should put the House on notice that it may be necessary for parliament to be recalled from the winter break in order to pass the legislation needed to give effect to this package. That legislation will involve amendments to the Northern Territory (Self-Government) Act and to the Northern Territory land rights legislation. At this stage I am advised that amendments to other pieces of legislation will not be required.

Many in the House will know that the terrible, sad and tragic set of circumstances revealed by this report in Northern Territory is duplicated in other parts of the country. The difference between the Territory and other parts of the country is that this parliament has the constitutional power and authority to do something about it in the Territory. We do not have the constitutional power to act in the same way in the states. I would appeal directly to every state Premier who has got the same problem in some part of his state to do the same as I have announced this morning. I appeal directly to the Premier of Queensland, to the Premier of New South Wales, and particularly to the Premier of Western Australia. They know that they have the same problem, and many of them have had reports saying that. I am asking them to do the same for their Aboriginal children as we have today announced a willingness to do for the Aboriginal children of the Northern Territory.