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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 1742

Mr WYATT (Hasluck) (12:41): I rise to support the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011. I acknowledge the comments made by the member for Page because I think she made a very salient point in noting the fact that a learning process occurred for her through our interactions with some of the Indigenous leadership who sat around that table. But there were not only Indigenous people; there were non-Indigenous people whose contributions have been significant to the debates over probably the last decade. There are many others who, in the past, also contributed to some of the direction setting that has occurred in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

This bill proposes some key reforms that I think are fundamental not only to the shift in the way that services are delivered but also to creating the opportunities for people within those Northern Territory communities to become part players within the process of the reform. The next stage is the part that concerns me—that is, the red tape that applies in the way of regulation and guidelines. It is there that the intent of parliaments and ministers becomes murky, with the interpretation and application of the fairly broad initiatives within this. If we do anything at all—if we want to make a difference—we have to involve Aboriginal communities as equal partners in the process of reform and change. They have to be able to sit in that process and have access to information and knowledge that enables them to make informed consent decisions collaboratively with the senior bureaucrats who will be sitting with them. I note the Senate is doing a series of consultations, and it is a pity this consultation is occurring after this bill has been introduced into the chamber. I would have preferred to have argued that we consult first and then frame the legislation so that we had a process embedded that would require government agencies, in working through and implementing these solutions, to be imbued with the mindset of those who deliver.

Change through legislation does not occur easily. There is always a time lag. But anywhere you have an equal basis of decision making—and where you contribute to the debate through the way that you shape and form your own aspirations and so contribute to the direction setting of the legislation—it is much more enduring and effective. I commend the minister for focusing on some key areas, particularly the alcohol and substance abuse element. Alcohol, taken in moderation by any individual, is a good relaxing agent; it enables you to lose some of those inhibitions and at least have conversations. But the challenge is when it becomes a destructive habit that harms and ruins families and communities, so I would certainly support those measures.

On land issues, the debate in this country has never before gone to the extent that we are taking it now—where the consultation involves talking about the subdivision of Aboriginal lands to enable families to build homes of their own in the communities where they have lived for some time. In fact, what we have done—and all governments have done this—is enter into housing programs, put them in place and then expect change to occur. But we have to remember that we have here the oldest living culture which has never really lost many of the threads and elements that have been significant and important to it. In that context, change does bring conflict. Change also brings about disproportion in the way in which engagement and planning occur. I think the cultural practices that have long prevailed and have at times been used as a reason not to proceed should never prevent what needs to happen—and that is that people should sit face to face, work through the issues and reach real solutions that make effective and efficient use of the resources that Commonwealth, state and territory governments provide, in the context of the change being mooted.

I would also urge very strongly that the provisions in the legislation to do with alcohol and controls around the distribution of alcohol have built into them a better evaluation process. When we implement a framework for change to reduce the abuse of alcohol and a process which we hope will significantly improve the outcomes, we need to evaluate the things that work and ensure that people within a community can use best practice to determine how effective their community is in taking forward measures that will make a difference.

In reading the bill I was quite heartened by the fact that there are some constructive aspects to it. The enforcement of food security has always been a concern to me, given what I have witnessed over a long period of time. I know from working in the health area that you try to encourage community stores to provide a nutritious and balanced range of foods, but you also try to encourage community stores to be effective in providing an avenue for food on a regular basis. Often I have read stories about or been involved in discussions about a community store having collapsed because the manager has had problems—and the community has then had to struggle.

I think alcohol and housing, the community land approach, and food security and community stores are three critical areas that for some time have languished. Let me say that from a bipartisan perspective, in fact in this House from a tripartisan perspective, the approach to these is a common one and there is that support. So I anticipate that if we do this well we will see the types of changes we all have argued for. I have listened to Noel Pearson, Mick Gooda and many other leaders around this country who have argued for reform that will ensure the security of pathways not only for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities but for families and children—so that we break the nexus with ills and dysfunction and we strengthen the role of the family within the community. I see elements of that in this legislation if it is implemented in concert and in partnership.

I referred earlier to informed consent decision making. I think that is one of the things that is missing in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs. What we tend to do is establish the legislation, develop the programs—or cobble together many of the existing programs—and look at how we can better deliver them given the circumstances. While the intent is good and it is driven from Canberra, it nevertheless is an imposition of a framework on top of people whose daily lives are often influenced by those who make decisions from afar.

Let me reflect back to the Reformation period in the history of world civilisation. When people had access to knowledge and information, they were then able to influence their own destinies and become strong by becoming a voice in that process. I think we as Australian governments over the periods to come have to adopt a different approach. In the apology the former Prime Minister said, 'If things aren't working then let's look at alternative solutions, let's look at different ways of doing business.' I would hope that those elements within this bill are considered in that context because I can see that, at the end of a 10-year moratorium, for a couple of the areas that are referred to, change will not be as significant as we would have hoped.

No community, no family and no individual have really progressed when you provide a nanny state framework. If we empower them to become the shapers of their own destiny, if we empower them to be part of an equal decision-making process and if we give them the capacity to change their own circumstances while providing support from the expertise of the agencies that prevail at both Commonwealth and state levels, I think we will see real and meaningful change. I am optimistic that there are many elements of this bill that will achieve that, and that is aided by the inclusion of other matters such as information about criminal history. I can take people to reports in which the criminal history of some individuals running Aboriginal communities or running community stores has not been a factor that has helped any community at all.

I think the other thing we have the opportunity to do is to build the human capacity of those within communities to contribute to the shaping of what is delivered within their community through this process. It is the front end, in many aspects, to significant reforms that can occur within education and health. The only thing that I find slightly distracting is when we apply a whole-of-community approach to income management. Let me say that there are people within those communities whose income management skills are equal to those of any other person who lives in this country. I would rather see us give more focus to providing some upstream work around the understanding of financial literacy, budgetary processes and budgeting, and costs—and then working that through.

I do not resile from the fact that this legislation will support those who have aspirations for their children, those who want the circumstances in which their families live and reside to be better than what they currently are, those who want to provide the pathways to a home environment in which there is the support and love that leads to educational opportunities and leads to a place where their children feel safe and comfortable—where alcohol is not a factor in the abuse that some experience. This bill will provide the legislative framework that will enable some of the change that is needed.

I ask the minister to give serious consideration in the implementation process to her agencies looking at the way in which state, territory and Commonwealth senior public officers negotiate and work with communities. I also ask the minister to consider the outcome of the detailed consultations that will occur in the Senate inquiry—what they bring back in the messages from Aboriginal communities. I have seen in the media reports that there is some anger about the lack of consultation. There is an expression that is often used in Aboriginal communities of 'seagulls' who fly in and fly out but who never leave a solution. They talk and then disappear. I would hope that we do not contribute to that concept in the implementation of the programs that support this bill.

I do support the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011. I think that we have the opportunity, with a tripartisan approach, to make an incredible difference in working far more effectively with the Northern Territory government and, certainly, far more effectively with Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. I commend the bill to the House.