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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 1740

Ms SAFFIN (Page) (12:30): I rise to support the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 and cognate bills. Firstly, I recognise and applaud the work of the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs for working with a commitment and a will to consult and to improve people's lives in an area that is not an easy area to legislate for. That is what it is about, but it is not always easy to achieve when we are dealing with laws in this place. The minister has put a lot of time and both intellectual and physical effort into achieving that. I start by commending her for that work.

I listened to the member for Menzies giving his contribution. I reject the notion that the government is playing politics on this. That is nonsense. This legislation is about people's lives. It is an area that has challenged all governments. I reject outright the member's glib words, which can be thrown around so easily. There was a lot of consultation. As with any consultation, some people said they were not consulted enough. The reality is for this legislation meetings were held in more than 100 communities and town camps, together with public meetings in major towns. There were hundreds of discussions with individuals, families and other groups across the Northern Territory. Those meetings were held from the end of June to mid-August 2011. The consultations were overseen by the independent Cultural and Indigenous Research Centre of Australia. The centre's assessment was that the consultations were fair, open and accountable. What more could you ask for? At the end of any consultation, having such a report done by an independent body means that something was done right.

In the consultations, Aboriginal people said that getting more children to school, increasing the number of Aboriginal people in local jobs, improving housing and reducing alcohol related harm were top priorities. Indeed, they are top priorities for communities across our nation. They are priorities that Aboriginal people identified in these consultations for which meetings took place regularly over several months. They rightly want those things. There were meetings with the Northern Territory government's Chief Minister and other ministers and officials working to develop a forward-looking policy approach. The legislation had to align with the range of reforms the Northern Territory government is taking to lift school attendance, tackle alcohol abuse and improve housing. The Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory package of bills is one element in the Australian government's continued commitment to Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

Turning to alcohol, the legislation provides that the Northern Territory Emergency Response alcohol restrictions be continued and strengthened. It also provides that alcohol management plans established by local communities be directed at minimising alcohol related harm. Whilst this is about Aboriginal communities, in looking at these alcohol management plans, something may be gained by all of us. Alcohol does contribute to a lot of harm across Australian society and in communities. Where an alcohol management plan is approved and in place, consideration will be given to lifting the restrictions under the Stronger Futures legislation. If restrictions are lifted, the Northern Territory Liquor Act will apply, including for enforcement. But where communities want to retain the Stronger Futures restrictions, they will be able to do so.

The legislation also provides for the Commonwealth to require the Northern Territory Licensing Commission to provide to the Commonwealth minister reports on levels of alcohol related harm and the impact of policy measures in the Territory. From the government's perspective, being able to get the information needed to make good decisions in the future is particularly important to knowing how we are tracking and to honing the policy settings to achieve better outcomes. That is what it is about: achieving better outcomes. The legislation also provides for a joint Commonwealth-Northern Territory review to be conducted in two years from commencement of the legislation. The review will examine the impact of the legislation and the Territory's strategies to address alcohol related harm. This will allow both governments to continue working together to make progress.

Another key feature of the package is that there is a clear commitment from the Australian government to negotiating voluntary long-term leases. The government will not be extending the compulsory five-year leases acquired under the original NTER legislation. As a separate issue, the legislation provides the Australian government with the ability to address land tenure restrictions in Northern Territory legislation. The aim is to enable the Aboriginal landholders of town camps and community living areas to have the opportunity to make use of their land for a broader range of purposes, including economic development and private home ownership, which are really important. There are also key review and sunset provisions in the legislation.

In closing, I would like to make a few points. I have here a copy of a statement that came out of website of the Australian Human Rights Commission. There are comments from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Gooda. I would like to quote a couple of them because they are quite telling and, coming from someone such as Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda, it is a key view and an important view from a key person. Commissioner Gooda said:

I call on Parliament to work constructively in a bipartisan way to address the issues confronting our communities in the Northern Territory.

I hope that bipartisanship is a key feature of this package of legislation because we owe it to people to turn our minds to working in the best and most constructive way we can. To quote Commissioner Gooda further, he says:

… every child has the right to be educated. We need to make sure we provide every opportunity for this to happen. It’s critical for our kids to attend school.

I cannot see anyone in this place disagreeing with that statement. He went on to say:

The implementation of any proposed measures under the Stronger Futures Bills, such as school attendance and alcohol management, must be done in a culturally safe and culturally secure way.

I agree with the commissioner in that regard.

I would like to say that, having spent the last year being part of the Expert Panel on Constitutional Recognition for Indigenous Australians, as it was called, I probably had to turn my mind a lot more to some of the issues in the legislation than some other members might have had to. I note that I served on that panel with the honourable member for Hasluck, who is sitting ready to speak in this debate as I expected him to. It was a good experience for all sorts of reasons, but one of them was that it also challenged some of the views I had about ways we could achieve better outcomes and help in that area. Even though it was on constitutional recognition, all the other issues were still brought up. As the honourable member for Hasluck would know, it was at times challenging to listen to such forceful people—well-published people with strong, compelling and known views. It was an enriching experience that certainly helped me better understand—beyond the issue of constitutional recognition—and to bring that understanding into this place.

I also thank the minister and Prime Minister for having given me the opportunity to serve on that panel. I will close there. I do not think my voice will hold out much longer. I have been challenged with laryngitis but was listed to speak. I thought it was important to do so today. I will leave it at that.