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Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007 and four related bills concerning the Northern Territory national emergency response

CHAIR —Welcome to this Senate committee inquiry. I now invite you to make a short opening statement, at the conclusion of which I will invite members of the committee to ask some questions.

Mr Tilmouth —Tangentyere Council represents the Alice Springs town camps. Those town camps are independent, autonomous bodies that are incorporated in their own right but make up Tangentyere Council as a federation. Tangentyere Council has tried to enter into meaningful discussions with the federal and Northern Territory governments about the future of those town camps, including addressing issues such as inadequate funding, infrastructure and management. Time and again, the government has attempted to lay down what it wants, meaning Aboriginal people have to give up control over land on which they live, the way in which they live and how they will manage their communities. We have been at the negotiating table for some time and we have agreed to give up our land for 20 years, provided that we have an ongoing role in management. But that has been rejected. It looks like we are going to lose our land forever. All attempts for us to negotiate on an equal basis have been rejected. This legislation is the final step in removing our land, dignity and humanity. It removes our right to consultation, participation, stability and security. The explanatory memorandum speaks of a stable and secure environment being required to eliminate child abuse. This legislation provides neither security nor stability. It only provides uncertainty, and it is unclear how the act will work.

At any time in the next five years the land can be taken from the town camps by the Commonwealth, with 60 days notice. There is no certainty that there will be any compensation if the leases are resumed. What will become of the people who have to live in those camps and who have lived there for some generations—in some cases, five to six generations? Where is the explanation that removal of the land for any period will address child sexual abuse, alcohol addiction and will create a stable and secure environment? The explanatory memorandum refers to human rights and freedoms being achieved. It is offensive to claim that you are protecting human rights and freedoms when you remove other human rights such as the right to land, the right to racial equality, the right to engage in consultation on housing, income and security and your right to hand down your culture to your children.

With regard to the permit system, Tangentyere has never denied any authority—whether it be welfare, the police, health, education or ambulances—access to those town camps. The reason we have the permit system is to avoid unscrupulous dealers, carpetbaggers, grog runners and paedophiles entering those communities. We feel that, if you take away the permit system, it will just be open slather for any of those sorts of people who want to come in and sell vacuum cleaners to people who do not have carpets, to sell encyclopaedias to people who cannot read and to also run grog and commit other unscrupulous behaviour in those camps.

Tangentyere has always worked in a complementary way with governments. Tangentyere has always sat down in consultation with governments and tried to negotiate some meaningful outcomes. Tangentyere believes that we need to have a say in housing management, because public housing has consistently failed Aboriginal people within the Northern Territory. People have waited 18 months to get a house. Within three weeks they are evicted and they fall back into the town camps. We now have 26 renal patients from remote areas living in town camps. We have a high rate of overcrowding because of failed public housing. With respect to housing management, we feel that the Northern Territory government has consistently failed Aboriginal people in Central Australia. I now wish to introduce Geoff Shaw, who is the president of Tangentyere Council, so he can comment before you ask questions.

CHAIR —Thank you. Mr Shaw, could you just keep your comments as brief as possible so there is an opportunity for questions.

Mr Shaw —What Mr Tilmouth said is correct. I am president of this organisation and we are in line with the comments which have been made by our director, William Tilmouth. What William has presented to you is exactly our position at Tangentyere Council.

Senator PAYNE —Thank you both for your time this morning. I want to get an idea of the funding and the operations of the council. Can you indicate to us how you are funded by both the NT and the Commonwealth governments?

Mr Tilmouth —We are funded through a whole myriad agencies and various departments within the Commonwealth. I cannot disclose for you the full detail of that because I do not have that with me. We manage programs from the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory government in accordance with those guidelines.

Senator PAYNE —What is the funding worth in dollar terms?

Mr Tilmouth —A quick estimate: around $10 million to $11 million worth, considering $3 million to $4 million of that is CDEP.

Senator PAYNE —That is from the Commonwealth. What about from the Northern Territory?

Mr Tilmouth —That is a combination of both.

Senator PAYNE —You were speaking previously about the proposals for further funding. I understand that there have been some discussions about housing and infrastructure packages and that your council has rejected the housing and infrastructure package which was offered by the Commonwealth?

Mr Tilmouth —We welcomed the announcement that $60 million would be made available for upgrading the infrastructure—water, sewerage, electrical, telecommunications and street lighting. We welcomed it because it was high time that governments recognised the need of town campers, and the infrastructure is so antiquated that we have continuous amounts of water leaking underground. We welcomed it, but we welcomed it not at the expense of the land itself. Ninety-nine years is a long, long time and that is why we proposed a 20-year proposal. When you get a bank loan for a house they offer you a 30-year loan when the lifespan of the house is around 20 to 25 years. That is the reason why we have gone to a 20-year proposal, but that was rejected.

Senator PAYNE —But other councils have accepted the offer, as I understand it.

Mr Tilmouth —Yes, they have, and I think that is their choice to do that.

Senator PAYNE —Thanks for clarifying those issues for me, Mr Tilmouth.

Senator CROSSIN —Can I follow up that question. We had news this week that Julaikari council in Tennant Creek, as I understand it, have not necessarily accepted the offer of the 99 years and have signed a memorandum of understanding.

Mr Tilmouth —I am not quite sure where Julaikari is up to but the situation in Tennant Creek is entirely different to what is in Alice Springs. With Alice Springs being the service centre for the whole of Central Australia, there is a different balance in relation to how things work there.

Senator CROSSIN —Did Tangentyere Council get around to signing the MOU?

Mr Tilmouth —No, we didn’t. We agreed in principle to look at the MOU. We never did sign the MOU.

Senator CROSSIN —So where do you believe the impasse lies now in resolving the additional funding for Tangentyere camps?

Mr Tilmouth —The impasse that we have found is that there is no flexibility in the proposal from the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory government. There is no flexibility in allowing a 20-year lease with a board of management sent in to manage the housing stock. We find those two points are the points that we are stuck on.

Senator CROSSIN —So the Commonwealth government are saying it is 99 years or nothing and the Northern Territory government is saying the management of the homes must go to the housing commission without a board of management representative of the town camp?

Mr Tilmouth —Exactly. The Commonwealth is saying 99 years, the Territory government is saying 99 years and the Territory government is saying it must come under the Northern Territory housing management, while knowing damn well that it has failed and failed badly.

Senator CROSSIN —Are there plans for further meetings to try to keep negotiating through this?

Mr Tilmouth —Tangentyere  will always leave the door open for further negotiations.

Senator CROSSIN —So where is it at this stage?

Mr Tilmouth —At the moment the door has been closed. I think the Territory and the Commonwealth have walked away from the table.

Senator CROSSIN —So the passage of this legislation this week will see the Commonwealth able to compulsorily acquire the leases to the town camps?

Mr Tilmouth —I believe they will be able to resume the leases. That leaves people in fear for their homes. People are confused. Really we do not understand the reasons why.

Senator SIEWERT —Mr Tilmouth, could you tell us what is the feeling in the town camps at the moment and of any action that has already been taken in the camps that you are aware of.

Mr Tilmouth —At the moment people are apprehensive. People are uncertain. The whole negotiation process has stalled. They did not allow for interpreters or people to convey to the members of the town camps the full picture. The executive dealt with this time and time again, trying to work out some agreement, but to no avail. At the moment, on the camps, we are just working as normal. There have not been any moves on those camps as yet.

Senator SIEWERT —I understand that the council has been running a Centrepay scheme for a long period of time. Is that correct?

Mr Tilmouth —Yes, it is. It is a voluntary scheme that the executive, in their wisdom, decided a long time ago to implement, where people can quarantine their funding in relation to the income that they receive—for food, for rent, for electricity. We did not go down the road of school attendance, but I think that the executive have had this implemented for quite some years now.

Senator SIEWERT —How many people have you been helping through Centrepay?

Mr Tilmouth —There are over 800 people on the books, and $1.4 million, I think, goes through that system.

Senator ADAMS —Good morning, Mr Tilmouth and Mr Shaw. It is nice to speak you again. I think we were at your house about four weeks ago with the patient assisted travel scheme inquiry.

Mr Shaw —At my daughter’s house.

Senator ADAMS —At your daughter’s house; that is right. We are looking to see how you are feeling. The camps are overcrowded, as you have said. To what extent have you found any violence, child abuse, domestic violence, or any of the children having real problems? Have you been able to cope with that, or is it causing you problems?

Mr Tilmouth —Child sexual abuse is something that we deal with with the authorities. It is not public knowledge. It is not something that we disclose to any staff member. In fact, I am outside that loop as well. That is something that is dealt with directly through the programs that we run and directly with the authorities. With regard to violence and domestic violence, we have the assistance of the night patrols, we have the assistance of day patrols, and we will call in the police when necessary.

Senator ADAMS —As far as the children with infections or any problems like that are concerned, do you have a lot of dogs coming in with these extra people that are coming to your camps?

Mr Tilmouth —We have always had a dog problem, but the dog problem is in hand now with the relationship with the Alice Springs Town Council. We have a lot of overcrowding. We work on a population of 1,600 to 2,000 people, but sometimes the floating population brings our service population up to 3,500 people, especially on sports weekends and show weekends.

Senator LUDWIG —Good morning. To follow up: in terms of the program that the government has announced, what has happened to date? Could you just provide a snapshot of how it has affected your area. Have the government been in consultation with you about what might happen into the future—in other words, have they outlined the initiatives, have they spoken to you about what they want to be able to do and those types of things?

Mr Tilmouth —The only consultation we have with any government agency is with regard to CDEP. CDEP is on the way out. There are 230-odd participants on CDEP. With regard to the remote area exemption, we do have a lot of people coming into town camps seeking further employment or seeking more opportunities. But, with regard to the implementation of the strategy for the upgrade of town camps, there has been no consultation since the executive said no.

Senator LUDWIG —What I am keen to understand is what has happened to date. Has anything changed for you?

Mr Tilmouth —No, nothing has changed. There has been no consultation. There have been no discussions with regard to the future of Tangentyere and the town camps. We sit in limbo. Quite frankly, we feel abandoned and quite demoralised because we are not consulted as a people.

Senator LUDWIG —It is not only the consultation. Has the government outlined what it intends to do in terms of issues such as health services, housing, infrastructure—any of those matters?

Mr Tilmouth —No, we have not had any feedback on that. With regard to health, we do not get health services. We are not recognised as a primary health care provider, yet we deal with that on a day-to-day basis, especially with regard to overcrowding and cross-infection.

CHAIR —Thank you very much, Mr Tilmouth and Mr Shaw. We appreciate your time today.

Mr Tilmouth —Thank you very much for giving us the time to talk.

Mr Shaw —Thank you.

 [9.28 am]