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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 1752

Mr PERRETT (Moreton) (13:22): I rise to voice my support for the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011, the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011 and the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2011. The Gillard Labor government, like the Rudd government of the 42nd Parliament, is committed to working alongside, for and with Indigenous communities to build a better future together. My first day at work in this parliament was the day the member for Griffith gave an apology to the stolen generation. It was an incredibly moving day. That was after parliament had started with the welcome to country outside the parliament for the first time in the history of Canberra. It was a great way for me to start my work in this parliament.

The Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011 has three main aims: tackling alcohol abuse, reforming land rights and promoting food security in the Top End. As the Chair of the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs that is currently conducting an inquiry into foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, I have gained already, with the hearings that we have had, an insight into how important it is to tackle alcohol abuse throughout Australia, particularly in those communities where it is a problem, and, unfortunately, that is often Indigenous communities.

We should all be encouraged by Closing the gap—Prime Minister's report because Indigenous lives are slowly being changed and communities are slowly being transformed. As the Prime Minister said, the progress is gradual but it is progress nevertheless. They are slow and steady steps in the right direction that we need to make as a nation. We are increasing access to early childhood education for Indigenous four-year-olds in remote communities and we are confident that we are on track to halve the infant mortality rates for Indigenous children under five by 2018. Anyone who has young children knows how these dry statistics take on a completely different meaning when one think of one's own children and what it would be like to have the sort of mortality rates in our suburban areas that are being experienced in some parts of Australia. Also, NAPLAN results show that we are making good progress in halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy, and retention rates to year 12 are now nudging 50 per cent—steps in the right direction. I remember when I was a union organiser working in private schools at Wadja Wadja High School in the Woorabinda community and seeing the work that went into those communities to make sure that kids stayed at a private school and an Aboriginal community college—and other Aboriginal schools around Queensland. I commend all the teachers and teachers aides who work in these schools.

But there is still much to be done to improve education, employment and health outcomes for Indigenous Australians. There are still lessons to be learned and things we can do better, and that we must do better. The Labor government is committed to consulting fully with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory regarding the Northern Territory Emergency Response. The report into the Northern Territory intervention Stronger futures in the Northern Territory found that people continue to feel hurt at the way the Northern Territory Emergency Response was initially implemented, irrespective of the motivations for it. But the report also found that Indigenous people do want government to strengthen measures to boost school attendance, create employment opportunities—thus giving the dignity of work—reduce alcohol related violence and improve housing. This bill will help support Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory and continue our efforts to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. It introduces measures to tackle alcohol abuse, ensure food security in remote communities and assist economic development in town camps and community living areas.

The related bill, the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2011, will also make some amendments to improve the operation of restrictions on extremely violent or sexually explicit material. Alcohol abuse sadly remains one of the biggest challenges facing Indigenous communities. We know that in remote communities in the Northern Territory consumption of alcohol is 1.5 times the national level. Alcohol contributes to 30 per cent of domestic violence incidents at least, and alcohol related crime is four times the national level. This bill will enable an independent review of the effectiveness of various laws that are concerned with alcohol related harm. The joint Commonwealth-Northern Territory review is required to ensure that the laws are working together and achieving a safer and healthier community. The bill also empowers the minister to direct the Northern Territory government to appoint an assessor to investigate particular licensed premises when the minister has reasonable grounds to believe that the premises are linked to substantial related harm.

The bill will also ensure that alcohol management plans put in place by local communities are more effective in reducing alcohol related harm. By working directly with communities and empowering them to develop their own plans, Indigenous communities are able to develop solutions that work for them and that are particular to their own needs. I have seen that already in the FASD inquiry where local people have come up with plans—some of them based on personalities—and in the local situations they have already achieved some success. I am confident that these measures will improve upon efforts to tackle alcohol abuse and harm in the Northern Territory.

The Stronger futures in the Northern Territory report also found improvements in food security over the last four years with a healthier range of food available in remote community stores. This builds on that success. We want to further improve access to healthy food in remote communities. The bill removes the heavy-handed approach to licensing where any non-compliance would result in a licence being revoked. Instead, this bill will introduce a daily penalty of up to $2,200. This will encourage stores to improve their performance but will not close a store altogether, with sometimes disastrous consequences and flow-on negative impacts on a community.

This bill also improves opportunities for private home ownership and economic development in Indigenous communities. The Northern Territory government has an opportunity to amend its legislation to enable Aboriginal landholders to use their land for a broader range of purposes. If the Northern Territory does not do this, the Commonwealth minister will have the power to amend Northern Territory legislation to enable the government to grant individual rights to land. Any economist or student of society would know the benefits that come from land being able to be passed down as it gains in value. It means that wealth can be passed down through generations. This will enable title holders to build their own homes and run businesses in town camps and community living areas, further empowering Indigenous communities.

The Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 strengthens our efforts to improve school attendance. It enables the government to implement income management in five new sites in disadvantaged communities in South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland—in fact, just down the road from my electorate of Moreton. Income management has proven to be a valuable tool for government to use to help to nudge families back on track.

Obviously, this is a tough and confronting area for governments to delve into. On the one hand, Australians have the right to spend their money however they so choose, as long as they are not breaking any laws. But on the other hand vulnerable Australians, particularly children, need to be able to live in houses where the rent is paid, where there is food on the table and where they have all those other fundamental rights that any decent society would agree are part of a minimum standard. When the individual rights and the group expectations are competing with each other, the government must act to find the right balance. In these communities, income management will apply to vulnerable families and individuals, including parents referred by child protection authorities, people assessed by Centrelink as being vulnerable to financial crisis or at risk of homelessness and people who volunteer for income management.

This bill also includes measures to support parents in their efforts to ensure that their children attend school. People may have their income support payment suspended if they fail to enrol their child in school or make every effort to ensure that they attend regularly. The government will provide social work and other support services to assist families. However, if they do not comply with the attendance plan or access the help available then their income support payments will be suspended. Once a person engages with the school or complies with the attendance plan then payments will be reinstated—a bit of a carrot and a little bit of stick.

In a former life, before going to the dark side and becoming a lawyer, I was a teacher for 11 years. I know the opportunities that come from education. When I see the schoolchildren who come to Canberra to have a look at democracy in progress, I think of those remote Indigenous communities that do not have these opportunities that education brings. So many people, on this side of the House particularly, have only received their opportunity in life through education.

As I said at the start of this speech, it has been four years since Kevin Rudd delivered the apology to the stolen generation. It is just about four years since my first speech. In my first speech, I talked about a lot of friends from my home town of St George. I talked about a lot of my Indigenous friends there—some of them people who I played football with—who had died. In that four years, the list of people from my hometown—relatively young people like me—who have died has got longer and longer, with people like Jockey Weatherall and Cecil Long dying. Jockey Weatherall died only last week. Cecil Long is part of the Long story of family tragedy, being the third of three brothers who I knew and played football with who have died.

Obviously, much has to be done in the Northern Territory. Much has to be done around Australia. Much has to be done by this government to ensure that we get the balance right. It is a balancing act. It is tough. There are tough decisions for government to make and we are balancing those against tough personal decisions. People make individual decisions as to how they are going to act in their communities, but obviously government needs to get the settings right. I commend the bills to the House.