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STANDING COMMITTEE ON LEGAL AND CONSTITUTIONAL AFFAIRS
10/08/2007
Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007 and four related bills concerning the Northern Territory national emergency response

CHAIR —I welcome representatives from the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, the Department of Health and Ageing, and the Department of Education, Science and Training. I remind senators that the Senate has resolved that an officer of a department of the Commonwealth or of a state shall not be asked to give opinions on matters of policy and shall be given reasonable opportunity to refer questions asked of the officer to superior officers or to a minister. This resolution prohibits only questions asking for opinions on matters of policy and does not preclude questions asking for explanations of policies or factual questions about when and how policies were adopted. Officers of the department are also reminded that any claim that it would be contrary to the public interest to answer a question must be made by a minister and should be accompanied by a statement setting out the basis of the claim.

Before I invite witnesses to make a short opening statement I wish to make two further points. Firstly, I remind all witnesses that, in light of the tight scheduling of the hearing and the large number of senators with an interest in the inquiry, opening statements should be kept brief to enable members of the committee to ask questions. I ask all senators and witnesses to be alert to the program that has been agreed by this committee. I place on record my intention to apply the rules of the Senate to ensure that we keep to the program.

Secondly, it would be appreciated if one or several department representatives could remain during the hearing so that they could either table a response to questions or respond verbally at the conclusion of the hearing. Thank you very much. I now invite the department representatives to make a short opening statement.

Dr Harmer —I do not wish to make an opening statement. What I wish to do is to indicate that I have got a number of senior officers here, hopefully to assist the committee. I have also with us, as you indicated in your opening statement, officials from the Department of Health and Ageing, the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations, and the Department of Education, Science and Training. I propose to stay at the table and to call witnesses from those departments to assist us as necessary.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. Mr Gibbons or Ms McKay?

Mr Gibbons —No.

Senator CROSSIN —Senator Ludwig and I predominantly want to ask questions about the costings in the supplementary portfolio statements. We might have a few other issues that go to the implementation later on in our questioning. My first question to you is: most of the PBSs we had a chance to look at overnight do not contain any specific information on the impact of these measures in the forward estimates years. Can you explain to me why that is the case?

Dr Harmer —The government, in putting the appropriation bill together for this emergency measure, appropriated funding for 2007-08. We and the government are still considering the implications of some of those measures into later years. That will be a matter for consideration shortly but is not included in the documentation at the moment.

Senator CROSSIN —To be really clear about that, are you suggesting, say, in the Health and Ageing portfolio—and I know we are probably going to jump across all six or seven that we have—where you might have an allocation for improving child and family health of $466,000, that at this stage you anticipate expending that by 30 June next year? If it is to move to another financial year, that information will come in the next nine months or so—is that right?

Dr Harmer —Yes. The money provided for in the appropriation bills that the senator referred to in his opening statement is for 2007-08. Some of those measures will clearly require funding into later years; some of them possibly will not. We have not yet established exactly which of those will and how much, and the government will be considering those shortly.

Senator CROSSIN —So, if we get to December and you find that certain measures will require an additional allocation or an ongoing allocation, we will see that before 30 June—probably, I suppose, in next year’s budget. Is that correct?

Dr Harmer —You will certainly see it either at or before next year’s budget, yes.

Senator CROSSIN —Has any provision been made for the measures into the forward estimates? It is just limited to the current financial year at this stage—is that right?

Dr Harmer —The appropriation bills that we are considering today are just for 2007-08.

Senator CROSSIN —What impact does that have on any contracts—for example, infrastructure construction contracts?

Dr Harmer —There will be some. Many of the departments have considerable funds in some of these outcomes which can accommodate longer term contracts, but the government will be looking at the implications of these first-year expenditures for the long term in the near future.

Senator LUDWIG —Does that mean a contract can only go up to 30 June 2008? How can you then make provision for a contract longer than that if some of these measures have to extend beyond that?

Mr Gibbons —Let’s take the case of maintenance on housing. In the budget this year there was $1.6 billion provided over four years for housing and housing maintenance, and a significant proportion of that will be spent in the Northern Territory. There is some supplementary funding in this appropriation bill, but we do have the ability to commit to contracts longer than this year in key areas like housing maintenance, infrastructure works et cetera.

Senator LUDWIG —But do you have any detail as to which contracts you can and you cannot extend—in other words, which contracts will extend beyond 30 June 2008, which contracts you can apportion this amount of money to from the existing budget and on what basis or which contracts you cannot, which will make those contracts reliant upon waiting for future funds to be committed? Do you have any detail of that type?

Dr Harmer —We do not have that with us today, no. But, as Mr Gibbons has said, for some of the big elements of expenditure, like housing, there are sufficient funds in our current forward estimates budget to accommodate any contract we are likely to want to sign for the Northern Territory.

Senator CROSSIN —I specifically want to ask some questions about the FaCSIA supplementary PBS. Let us go to the figures here. If we look at the different programs, on page 3 I see five different areas in outcome 1. The majority of the funding it would seem, $54.6 million, will actually go to coordination. I am assuming that that is the administration, is that correct?

Dr Harmer —If you like, we can give you a bit of a run-down of what is included in ‘coordination’.

Senator CROSSIN —That would be good.

Ms Moody —There are a number of things included in that item: the costs of the task force and the operations centre currently based in Alice Springs; the cost of government business managers; support for volunteers; community engagement; a range of whole-of-government support, including things like leasing motor vehicles that have been provided across all agencies working in the response; some additional policy support for FaCSIA; and various corporate costs associated with supporting people, both government business managers and the ops centre, through the measure.

Senator CROSSIN —Is this the total allocation? So out of ‘employment and welfare reform’ we have around $39.5 million?

Ms Moody —For FaCSIA?

Senator CROSSIN —Yes, for FaCSIA.

Ms Moody —Yes.

Dr Harmer —Remembering that the appropriation for FaCSIA around welfare reform will also channel through to Centrelink, so there are considerable Centrelink costs included in that I think.

Ms Moody —Yes, in fact most of the money under ‘employment and welfare reform’ actually flows to Centrelink for their work.

Senator CROSSIN —That will be for additional officers and infrastructure in Centrelink? The payment for Work for the Dole will be in the DEWR PBS; is that right?

Ms Moody —I believe so, but I would need to consult with somebody on that.

Dr Harmer —I am pretty confident that that is true. For our part it will be for the employment of Centrelink officials who will go out and interview people, help manage the quarantining et cetera.

Senator CROSSIN —Is the housing and land reform of around $19.8 million to build new houses for Indigenous people?

Ms Moody —No. The money for the building of houses is contained within existing programs within FaCSIA, so there is no money for the construction of new houses for Indigenous people in the appropriation.

Senator CROSSIN —So of the $587 million there is no new money for any additional houses; is that what you are telling us?

Dr Harmer —There is some money in this for the maintenance and the fixing up of houses and, as Mr Gibbons said, the government announced in the budget this year $1.6 billion for Indigenous housing over the next four years. A large proportion of that the minister has already made it clear will be available for the Northern Territory. We have considerable resources for housing already appropriated in the budget. We also believe that, with government business managers on the ground and Work for the Dole projects initiated in many of these communities, we will be able to bring into operation considerable numbers of houses that are currently dilapidated or in disrepair.

Mr Gibbons and I, for example, attended Kintore, one of the towns in question, on the western border of the Northern Territory, between the Northern Territory and Western Australia. On the day we were there there were 12 houses that were uninhabitable because they had windows broken, doors knocked down, kitchens and/or bathrooms inoperable and lots of stones on the roof et cetera. Our conclusion was that, for a relatively small amount of additional money, with some Work for the Dole projects and with some volunteers who have electrical and plumbing skills, we will be able to bring those houses into operation for well below the cost of a new house, which may be up to $500,000 in those sorts of locations—probably for as little as $25,000 or $30,000. We will be spending quite a bit of time with those projects.

Senator CROSSIN —Where will the money to repair those houses come out of—this housing and land reform allocation?

Mr Gibbons —It is already provided for in the budget this year, in the ARIA program funds, the $1.6 billion that I mentioned earlier.

Senator CROSSIN —So exactly what is this $19.8 million going towards?

Mr Gibbons —This includes funds for the provision of demountable accommodation in remote communities for government business managers, for Centrelink officers and in some cases for temporary accommodation for police while permanent police accommodation is constructed. Given that we are becoming the landlord of these communities for a period, there are some responsibilities associated with the maintenance of infrastructure in these communities that this funding will cover.

Senator CROSSIN —So far we have got $54.6 million, $39.4 million and $19.8 million, all to be spent either within or on departmental areas.

Dr Harmer —To make a difference in some of these communities, we will need considerable additional support—policing, government business managers, increased Centrelink officials et cetera, and the task force, as Ms Moody mentioned. There is a considerable additional administrative workload in making this successful.

Senator CROSSIN —Is the $2 million for promoting law and order for additional AFP? Surely that would be in the A-G’s PBS.

Ms Moody —The funding for AFP officers seconded to the Northern Territory is within the Attorney-General’s portfolio. Within the FaCSIA portfolio is the cost of the state police who will be seconded to the Northern Territory. It also includes some support to the Northern Territory police for the cost of that deployment and some additional support for infrastructure for that deployment.

Senator CROSSIN —In general, how many staff do you anticipate will be deployed to the communities to be there permanently and how many will be there temporarily?

Dr Harmer —I am not sure we can give you a precise answer to that today. We can tell you that of the order of between 60 and 70 government business managers will be on the ground permanently. It is quite likely that Centrelink, to manage the quarantining et cetera, will need to deploy staff and open some new offices. It is not clear yet to us the extent that the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations will need permanent officials on the ground to manage the Work for the Dole and some of the CDEP reforms. As Ms Moody said, we will be partly paying for the deployment of some of the additional police, particularly the state and territory police.

Senator LUDWIG —Are you able to provide from each department output the number of staff that will be allocated to the Northern Territory response, whether they will be allocated in the Northern Territory or in Canberra or other locations and whether they are full time or part time and continuing or ongoing staff, so that we can understand the response that you are going to make in terms of staffing?

Dr Harmer —I do not believe we can give you a definitive answer on that today. We have done most of the communities in terms of the survey work, and made some assessments about what is needed. We have not completed that for the 73 communities yet. We have provisions in the budget which are estimates for what we think we will need. We can probably give you an indication around each department of what we think, but I am not confident it would be a final figure for the year.

Senator LUDWIG —An indication would be helpful—

Dr Harmer —Okay.

Senator LUDWIG —and the amount of appropriation that has been allocated to support those staff.

Dr Harmer —We will try and get that for you during the morning.

Senator LUDWIG —And then, in addition to that, can you indicate whether or not they will be permanent. I will use the general phrases I am more familiar with, but you can put them in the Public Service way—

Dr Harmer —Sure.

Senator LUDWIG —I am interested in those who are permanent, those who are secondees from other state or territory organisations, those who are Commonwealth secondees and those who are new employees and the basis upon which they will be employed.

Dr Harmer —We will do our best for you on that. Probably the best time to do it will be when Major General Chalmers is here as head of the task force operations in Alice Springs. I think he will be here at about 2.30 pm. We will try and have it ready for then.

Senator CROSSIN —So $235 million of the $501 million being appropriated in Appropriation (Northern Territory National Emergency Response) Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008 is for departmental outputs. Is that correct?

Ms Moody —That does not mean it is being spent, for instance, on departmental staff; it just means that, from a finance classification, it is appropriate to put it into the departmental budget. But it can then be spent on a series of different issues. For instance, our reimbursement of the state police costs is sitting in that figure.

Senator CROSSIN —But $235 million is the right amount, isn’t it?

Mr Hunter —The total for FaCSIA is $261 million. On the departmental side it is $121 million with $34 million in capital. On the administered side there is an additional $105 million, which includes the payments to the states.

Senator CROSSIN —Is there any funding under any of the measures in any of the portfolios to improve roads in the communities?

Ms Moody —No, there is not.

Senator CROSSIN —I will take you to the DEWR PBS. As I understand it, under DEWR’s PBS in outcome 3 there is a decreased administration appropriation of around $76 million. I am assuming that is for the abolition of CDEP. Is that correct?

Ms Ahmer —Yes. The amount that you have referred to is the offset—the reduction in the CDEP appropriation of $76 million.

Senator CROSSIN —Your departmental appropriations for this outcome, though, have increased by $23 million. Can you explain to me why your departmental costs have increased by that amount? I want to know why you have a decrease of $76 million in one area but an overall increase of $23 million.

Ms Ahmer —The departmental expenditure that has been referred to in the estimates statement is a mix of work. It is partly additional staffing that is required to implement the changes. With the phased removal of CDEP we need to put in place community brokers and transition officers for the department to make sure that we can have a smooth transition. The transition officers will be working on a one-on-one basis with each of the organisations to look at activities that are being undertaken to determine precisely what is happening to each of the close to 8,000 participants that are in place.

Senator CROSSIN —When you say ‘organisations’, you are talking about CDEP organisations, aren’t you?

Ms Ahmer —Yes, CDEP organisations. So we will have a group of people to work very closely with the organisations to make sure that we can track participants, that we can move participants into work and undertake the necessary actions to work with organisations to make sure that they can manage the change. We are also putting in place community brokers for this financial year. Hopefully most of the community brokers will be living within the community itself. Because there are significant changes to the CDEP and also the accelerated lifting of the remote area exemptions, we want to put people in place who can broker solutions between the new service providers that are coming through, work with the organisations to think about what they need to do to actually participate in that new service space and also work closely with participants to make sure that they are aware of their obligations. Particularly with the remote area exemptions, there is a new participation requirement for a lot of people. We need to make sure that we minimise the impact on those people and ensure that they do understand what their new obligations are. So there is one-off staffing required for this financial year for both of those obligations.

We also have some additional staffing in to manage the build-up of the new contracts. Part of the CDEP changes but also the acceleration of the lifting of remote area exemptions will involve putting in place an expanded provider of Australian government employment services contracts. There will be a lot more people accessing those services. We need to make sure that we have contract management staff that are working closely with all of those providers to make sure that they are actually undertaking services and delivering the services that we need. Also embedded is travel.

Senator CROSSIN —In the PBS, what amount has been allocated against the Work for the Dole?

Ms Ahmer —Work for the Dole is close to $12 million.

Senator CROSSIN —So we have gone from $76 million, which was a payment out for CDEP, to $12 million for Work for the Dole?

Ms Ahmer —The Work for the Dole also covers off the accelerated removal of the remote area exemptions. There are 5½ thousand people who are currently subject to remote area exemptions in the Northern Territory. The measure that you see in the estimates covers both the phased removal of CDEP and the removal or lifting of remote area exemptions.

Senator CROSSIN —Is it anticipated that you would actually move the money for CDEP for individuals to an employer, as was the proposal in the budget, for the 825 Indigenous people in urban centres? Take, for example, Aboriginal education workers in schools. Is there a proposal in this budget that you would take the CDEP component for that salary and perhaps pass it on to the Northern Territory government so they can then top that up and employ people on a public sector salary?

Ms Ahmer —With the Australian government services we are looking at transferring funding. We are looking at working closely with the Northern Territory government, the other Australian government agencies and also private sector employers to look at how we can unpick some of the cross-subsidisation and make sure that we can have fully funded positions. That might include transfers of funds from the CDEP. It could include provision of STEP, the Structured Training and Employment Program, or it could include wage assistance. It will depend on the circumstances of each individual. We are planning to work very closely looking at individuals that are currently on CDEP to see how we can manage to transfer or convert those jobs that are currently being undertaken by CDEP to be full jobs.

CHAIR —Senator Crossin, I will ask you to put one more question, to allow time for other senators. We can come back to you if we have a little more time.

Senator CROSSIN —All right; I understand that. I have a question for DEWR. I cannot reconcile the figures for DEWR that are listed in the appropriation bills and in the supplementary estimates statement. The figure is $136 million appropriated for DEWR in bills 1 and 2, yet the figure in the supplementary estimates statement is $107 million. Can you explain that to me? In your PBS on page 4 you have $65.9 million and on page 10 there is $42.1 million.

Ms Ahmer —Page 10 is referring to Indigenous Business Australia.

Senator CROSSIN —I understand that, but it is DEWR’s PBS. I get a difference, between $107 million compared to $136 million. Can you explain the difference there?

Ms Ahmer —I will have to take that on notice. I will have a look at that and when we come back this afternoon I can bring a statement forward for you on that.

Dr Harmer —Senator, clearly we have not got very much time to get back to you so we will try to get answers to some of these questions and provide them later in the day.

CHAIR —Thank you, Dr Harmer. Thank you, Senator Crossin; I will pass the questioning to Senator Trood.

Senator TROOD —Dr Harmer, there has been some controversy in relation to this package of legislative measures with regard to the application of the Racial Discrimination Act. Could you take us through why the act is suspended in relation to this matter and the constitutional basis upon which that is taking place?

Dr Harmer —I will ask my colleagues on my left to take you through that. I make the point that this has been a very intensive six-week exercise with a team of 20-plus lawyers, including very close work with the AGS et cetera, so there has been a lot of very intensive work over the last six weeks on this with a very big team of lawyers to put this important package together.

Senator TROOD —I think we fully appreciate the complexity of the matter, Dr Harmer.

Mr Field —The constitutional basis for the racial discrimination provisions is essentially the same basis as for the other measures in the legislation—namely, the Territory’s power in the Constitution.

Senator TROOD —Can you explain to us why the suspension of the act is necessary in the context of these measures?

Mr Field —The three bills have slightly different provisions in relation to the RDA, so I will first focus on the measures relating to the Northern Territory emergency response. The bills make it clear that those measures in relation to the emergency response are special measures, and special measures are based on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which allows concrete measures to ensure the adequate development and protection of individuals. The provisions in the bills are intended to provide a benefit to Indigenous Australians and to secure their adequate advancement and enjoyment of their human rights on the same basis as others.

The exclusion from part II of the RDA is limited to the five years of the emergency response and is necessary so that the special measures in the emergency response can be implemented without delay and without uncertainty. This is to allow the special measures to address the crisis in the communities in the Northern Territory and to build social and economic structures in those communities. The special measures are seen as measures to protect children in a way which is consistent with Australia’s international obligations under human rights treaties. So, in short, the provisions are necessary to allow the emergency response to proceed without delay and without uncertainty so that the special measures contained in the legislation in the three bills can be implemented.

Senator TROOD —My understanding is that the Racial Discrimination Act allows what we might call positive discrimination in favour of a group within a community as defined in the act; is that right?

Mr Field —It allows special measures.

Senator TROOD —Special measures; essentially positive discrimination. In your view and the view of the team working on this matter, this is in fact an act of special measures of positive discrimination in relation to a particular class of people within the Australian community; is that right?

Mr Field —Yes.

Senator TROOD —Therefore in your view there can be no question other than the fact that it is an appropriate exercise of the powers within the context of the act.

Ms McKay —Section 8 of the RDA does not prohibit acts that are special measures, so a special measure is a measure that aims to advance the rights of a particular group so that they can enjoy the same rights and freedoms as other people in society. However, section 8 also provides that a law that authorises property owned by an Indigenous person to be managed by another person without the Indigenous person’s consent is not taken to be a special measure. It is for that reason that we are seeking to exempt the measures, for a limited period, from part II of the act.

Senator TROOD —Presumably we have to look at the totality of the actions being undertaken here.

Ms McKay —That is correct.

Senator TROOD —On my assessment, in relation to the totality of the actions, children, mothers or other people within the community are benefiting substantially as a consequence of these measures.

Ms McKay —That is correct.

Senator TROOD —Is there any question in your mind that this may be in any way a breach of any international obligations that Australia may have?

Ms McKay —No. We have considered that quite closely. It is important that we observe our obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and our obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and we believe these measures in fact fulfil our obligations internationally better than would be the case if no action were being taken.

Senator ADAMS —I have questions of the Department of Health and Ageing on the health issues. The Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs has just been doing an inquiry into the patient assisted travel scheme and I would like to ask some further questions. With regard to the health checks for the children, ENT problems appear to be very much accentuated in a number of the Northern Territory communities, the problem being travel assistance and escorts to allow these children, if they do have problems, to go further afield for specialist treatment. ENT specialists, we were told, are not available in the Territory. A number of these communities are inside the limit of 200 kilometres for assistance for travel, so my question to you is: as far as the health budget for the health checks goes, has any allowance been made for extra travel costs?

Mr De Carvalho —In dealing with conditions that are identified as a result of the initial health checks, we have teams actually going into the communities, so there is not a major issue in terms of travel costs for the initial checks being done by the health teams. The health teams are likely to find a range of conditions that require follow-up. We expect that ear, nose and throat conditions will be amongst those, as well as a range of other conditions such as skin conditions, for example, and anaemia. They might require some specialist treatment. In those circumstances, the question of availability of specialists to deal with those conditions is a very real one. But the government is planning, as part of its initial follow-up to the health checks, to put together teams of specialists to go out to the communities again on a basis whereby they might be located in a regional centre, say Alice Springs, and then be able to travel out systematically to other communities which might have a higher incidence of those conditions and would justify a special visit by that group of specialists. So, while there is no additional money that I am aware of in the initial appropriations for this year for patient travel into regional centres, we have taken into account the problems that are likely to be experienced or identified by the health check teams as requiring specialist follow-up and we are planning to actually take the specialists out to the communities. In that sense, the travel and distance issues have been thought about, but it is about taking the specialists to the communities rather than the other way round.

Senator ADAMS —The second issue that arose was dialysis—that is, patients having to move to an area where they can have dialysis. Unfortunately, there appears to be quite a lack of available facilities in that area, especially with the machines and the time that is taken. Are you looking any further forward with that issue?

Dr Williams —This initiative, as you know, is around Indigenous children. The issue of dialysis does not commonly come up in the cohort that we are looking at in this child health check initiative particularly.

CHAIR —I had two follow-up questions with regard to, firstly, the Racial Discrimination Act and, secondly, the permit system. The Law Council submitted a submission late last night, and it is now publicly available. On the permit system, they say that FaCSIA has not outlined the basis of the minister’s decision to amend the permit system. Can you advise the committee what basis FaCSIA used and what reasons it has to amend the permit system?

Mr Gibbons —I have a short, one-page explanation of the relationship between the government’s decision to change the permit system in a limited way and the initiatives more broadly. I am happy to table that.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. That is received. In terms of the RDA, the Law Council say that special measures must be ‘reasonable and proportionate means of achieving substantial equality’. Ms McKay, you have indicated—and I think your other officer, Mr Field, has indicated—that you have assessed very carefully both the Constitution and our international obligations. You referred to a number of international treaties. In terms of the special measures being ‘reasonable and proportionate means of achieving substantial equality’, can you advise the committee if you believe that is the case and on what basis you believe that is the case.

Mr Field —The measures are time limited to the five years of the trial. On the Law Council’s response: I looked late last night but did not see their submission up on the website, so unfortunately I have not had the opportunity to read it carefully. The approach that has been taken in the legislation appreciates the point that they are making but, again, in terms of implementing the special measures that are part of the emergency response, in reducing legal uncertainty so that the implementation can go forward, it has been necessary to take the approach—as Robyn McKay indicated—to, first, make it clear that the provisions in the bill are special measures and, second, exclude the operation of part II of the RDA for the purposes of dealing with section 10(3) of the RDA. Australia’s international obligations go to the protection of children as well as its obligations in relation to the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination. In balancing those two measures, in the context of the emergency response, we have considered those matters and we consider that the legislation achieves that balance.

CHAIR —I assume you have obtained your own legal advice within the various departments to substantiate your comments to us today?

Ms McKay —We have worked extremely closely with the Attorney-General’s Department and AGS on all aspects of these bills.

CHAIR —If there is any further response you would like to provide to us during the day in response to the Law Council’s paper, the HREOC submission or any other submissions, please feel free to do so. Finally, there have been general allegations, Dr Harmer, that this proposal and initiative is essentially a land grab. Can you just respond to those allegations in a general way, please.

Dr Harmer —I will start off and let Mr Gibbons follow. We do not believe that it is at all correct to characterise this as a land grab. We are acquiring, temporarily, leases over the 73 communities to allow us to intervene on behalf of the children by putting police in there, by putting government business managers in there, by looking at the state of the housing et cetera. We need to do this to stabilise the communities such that they are safe places for the kids, basically. We are only doing it for a very small proportion of the land and for five years only.

Mr Gibbons —The other point I would make is that we are going to make an investment in these towns. Many of them are a liability in their current state. We will be improving the basic infrastructure, particularly that part of it that is relevant to environmental health as well as houses, such that when they are returned they will be in vastly better condition than when we took them over.

CHAIR —I am advised that Senator Ludwig will be placing some questions on notice. I understand that he will get those to you as soon as possible. I understand that there are time constraints today, but your response to the best of your ability would be appreciated.

Dr Harmer —We will do our best.

Senator BARTLETT —Could you tell us what consultation your department or any other departments have had with the authors of the Little children are sacred report in putting together this legislative response?

Dr Harmer —I am not aware of any consultation with the authors of the report. It was a very long report with many recommendations, most of which were directed towards the Northern Territory government. The Australian government decided on viewing it that this was an emergency and required urgent action. The action that the government decided it needed is spelt out in the appropriation bills and the associated Northern Territory emergency response bills.

Mr Gibbons —We of course studied the report.

Dr Harmer —As Mr Gibbons has pointed out, we did not undertake this exercise without studying the report, but, in a big report such as that, the authors made their views on what is happening pretty clear. We did not feel the need to go back to talk with them. Frankly, in responding quickly to this, we did not feel that that was the highest priority amongst all the other things that we had to do.

Senator BARTLETT —I appreciate the comment about it being an emergency but, in the six weeks since it was announced, has there been no consultation at all with them?

Dr Harmer —No—at least, not that I am aware of.

Senator BARTLETT —I have just had a quick look at the page you put before us trying to indicate links between the permit system changes and combating child sexual abuse, which I note draws on the Little children are sacred report at least twice as part of its justification. Given that you just mentioned that you have read that report thoroughly, is there any mention in any of their recommendations about the permit system or land changes being linked to child sexual abuse?

Mr Gibbons —I do not think so.

Dr Harmer —No, there is not. I will stand corrected, but I do not think that there are any recommendations about police either in that report.

Senator BARTLETT —You have mentioned in this piece of paper that whoever comes into the community cannot replace an adequate police presence. I am presuming that means a permit. Is anyone suggesting that it is an either/or situation—permits or police?

Mr Gibbons —Up to this point in time, that is what it has been for a lot of communities. There has been an absence of police.

Senator BARTLETT —Are you saying that the communities did not want police?

Mr Gibbons —No. I am saying that, for a long time, there were no police in communities.

Dr Harmer —I will also say, because we now have quite a bit of information about community reaction to the intervention, that there has been a very positive response to the presence of police in the communities.

Senator BARTLETT —I do not think anything I said suggested otherwise. What I asked was why it was being put up as an overall option that you either have a permit or a police presence? I did not know that anyone was putting it up in that way. You put forward a few dot points to underline that the removal of the permit system will promote strong, safe communities. They are basically a few assertions. Is there any actual research or data that you can provide to the committee that demonstrates that those places without permits, either in the Territory or elsewhere, have lower levels of child abuse?

Mr Gibbons —I do not believe so.

Ms McKay —The evidence on child abuse in Australia is published every two years in the AIHW report called Australia’s welfare. It provides comparisons of notifications, investigations and substantiations by state. They are all derived initially, obviously, from notifications. There are quite differential rates of notifications by jurisdiction. You can find them in Australia’s welfare 2005; the 2007 report is not out yet.

Senator BARTLETT —Yes, in those statistics they asked whether there was any data that demonstrated different levels of abuse. You specifically link changes to the permits system with combating child abuse. I presume there would be some evidence to back up why that is needed and some evidence to demonstrate that those communities that do not have permits have lower levels of child abuse.

Dr Harmer —We did do a review of the permits system. The government announced last year a review of the system. We have received 100 submissions, including quite a lot of consultation. We had access to that information before making the decision. In Minister Brough’s visits around the north of Australia, talking to people in many communities, in the community meetings, when everyone was present, rarely did the permit system being a problem come up. A number of times in private meetings after that, with Mr Gibbons and me, individuals certainly came up to him and talked about the permit system being a problem.

Senator BARTLETT —Are you able to make submissions for that public?  Have the submissions from that inquiry been publicised? 

Dr Harmer —No, they have not been.

Senator BARTLETT —Why is that? 

Dr Harmer —It is advice to the government; it is a matter for the government. We receive lots of submissions and lots of reports on things that are not necessarily public. There are 100, and we have not at this stage considered making them public.

Senator BARTLETT —I guess it is a matter for government, as you say, but could you perhaps make a request that through this process they be made public? 

Dr Harmer —I will ask the minister if he is prepared to make them public.

Senator PAYNE —Or perhaps, Senator Bartlett, if not the submissions themselves, the names of the submitters.

Senator BARTLETT —As much detail as possible is always handy. I appreciate it—well, I don’t appreciate it; it is whatever the opposite of ‘appreciate’ is. But I note that we are limited for time, so I will ask a final question. I noted the comments by Noel Pearson about the process the government was following. He said that the government or relevant ministers ‘will make a historic mistake if they are contemptuous of the role that a proper and modern articulation of Aboriginal law must play in the social reconstruction of Indigenous societies’. Are you able to indicate what components of the response and what components of the legislation are focused on ensuring the role of Aboriginal law in the reconstruction of Indigenous societies in the Territory? 

Dr Harmer —Senator, that is a rather complex question; I would prefer to take it on notice. We will see if we can get you a response. As we mentioned before, that will be difficult but we will do that today if we can.

CHAIR —We are very tight on time and I am aware of Senator Siewert’s interest in asking questions.

Senator SIEWERT —I notify you now that I have got a lot of questions; I will want to put some on notice.

Dr Harmer —If there are a lot we will do our very best, but—

Senator SIEWERT —I will obviously limit it to the ones that I believe are absolutely essential in the time frame.

Dr Harmer —Thank you.

Senator SIEWERT —Can we go back to the issue of costs. Can you clarify for me the cost of implementing the quarantining of the welfare payments process?

Dr Harmer —I think we can probably give you an estimate of that quite quickly. While the officers are coming to the table, Senator Crossin asked about roads. I did not want to give the wrong impression in saying that there is no funding available in this package for roads. As you know, Senator, roads are a long-term proposition and there are considerable funds—I think in the order of three quarters of a billion dollars—available to the Northern Territory for roads under the GST component. So there is a lot of money available for roads in the Northern Territory. In staffing costs, again we are coming back to you on the specifics of that. This is a very staff intensive exercise on the ground, making a difference. We have made the mistake in the past of not putting people on the ground. That is why, in many respects, we have not been able to make such a difference with the money we have been spending. We think that that was wrong.

Dr Hazlehurst —The overall costs of implementing the welfare reform changes in the Northern Territory in the first year are $88.5 million.

Senator SIEWERT —How much of that relates to implementing the quarantining process?

Dr Hazlehurst —That is it.

Senator SIEWERT —That relates specifically to that? Okay. I want to clarify something in the social security bill. Clause 123UB talks about who will be subject to the income management regime. From my reading of that, and as I understand it from government announcements, it will apply to everybody in the particular designated areas, not just those people with children.

Dr Hazlehurst —That is correct.

Senator SIEWERT —What is the reason for it applying to everybody?

Dr Hazlehurst —The primary purpose of the income management regime as it applies the Northern Territory is, in those prescribed areas, to have an income management approach to all government welfare payments going into a community, to ensure that the flow of government assistance into the community is able to be managed as a whole to encourage expenditure on those services and goods that will lead to better outcomes for the children in those communities. On that basis, the government took the decision to apply the income management regime not just to payments associated with children themselves.

Senator SIEWERT —Can you explain the rationale for removing the requirement to tell people of their appeal rights under the emergency response? I have been told that it is because it undermines the emergency response. Could you please explain that rationale?

Ms McKay —There are standard appeal rights that apply to all decisions relating to social security. They involve an authorised review officer in Centrelink reviewing a decision, then appeals to the SSAT and the AAT and subsequently to the courts. In the case of the Northern Territory response, because it is time limited, 12-month quarantining, it was decided that the authorised review officer review would remain but that appeals to the SSAT and the AAT would take too long and would consequently undermine the timing of the emergency response. People will only have their income quarantined to the extent of 50 per cent of their income from welfare payments and for 12 months only.

Senator SIEWERT —Can you clarify whether we are talking about just terms compensation or reasonable compensation.

Mr Gibbons —Just terms compensation.

Senator SIEWERT —We are definitely talking about just terms?

Mr Gibbons —Yes. Compulsory leasing of townships.

CHAIR —Senator Siewert, you have one more question.

Senator SIEWERT —There is also confusion about whether infrastructure or making your child healthy or being provided with a house equate to just terms.

Mr Gibbons —We are talking about the lease-back of townships for five years and applying the constitutional provision about just terms compensation to the owners of the land, which are the relevant lands trusts. It is unrelated to what we do to repair houses or provide other infrastructure in the context of the intervention.

Senator SIEWERT —So all those issues will be separate from the just terms compensation?

Mr Gibbons —The issue of compensation negotiations will proceed if the legislation passes. I am not going to say anything to prejudice that process.

Senator SIEWERT —You cannot guarantee that they are separate?

Mr Gibbons —I do not quite understand your question.

Senator SIEWERT —What has been implied in the media is that the provision of infrastructure may be used as compensation. I have just asked you to guarantee that that is not the case—that the issues around compensation are completely separate from the other interventions and the other provisions of infrastructure and things like that. You have basically just said that you are not prepared to talk about the compensation issue now.

Mr Gibbons —No, because I believe I would be prejudicing the position of the Commonwealth in those negotiations.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mr Gibbons. On behalf of the committee, I thank you for your willingness to come back later in the day, within time constraints and within your abilities. We appreciate that.

Dr Harmer —Because it is only a one-day hearing and I do not have the advantage of giving questions on notice or coming back, I have had people watching. There are a couple of things I said about which I want to make a correction. Regarding the advice I received about people coming to talk to the minister about the permit system, I am told that was actually people talking to the review teams—the teams that are going out there and talking individually about the problems with the permit system. The reason that we are not going to be able to make available the 100 submissions that came in on the permit system is that we have apparently told the people who provided submissions that they would be submissions for the government and would not be made public. So the answer to that question is that we will not be able to make them available.

CHAIR —Thank you.

[9.02 am]