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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 —Welcome. I invite you to make a short opening statement, at the conclusion of which I will invite members of the committee to ask questions. We have a tight time frame and we will conclude at 10.20, so please bear that in mind.

Ms Gillick —We were ready this morning, but, unfortunately—I don’t know if people were distracted by Sol Trujillo’s latest salary announcement—Telstra could not seem to hook us up. I apologise that our member from Imanpa, Margaret Smith, has not been able to join us as arranged. I have emailed to the committee some background and a map of the women’s council area, so I will not go into huge details. Most of you would be aware that women’s council is a cross-border women’s organisation. It has been operating for nearly 28 years in WA, NT, and the South Australian central region. We provide human services in a range of areas: domestic violence, child nutrition, disability, case management service for the region, and Commonwealth carer respite. We run the Tjanpi basket-weaving enterprise for women. The organisation advocates on behalf of its adult women members, and our services are provided, with the exception of domestic violence services, a lot to men and women across the region, including frail aged people.

Our executive met in July and considered both the Anderson-Wild report, to which we had submitted, and the announcements that had recently been made by Mr Brough and the Prime Minister in relation to the emergency measures. I can tell the senators that there is general acceptance on the part of our members—who are from the cross-border region; we have Northern Territory representatives on our executive or governing committee—of the measures, with some reservations. The women have no problem with the policing, and they have met with the minister and spoken to him about this. He has explained some of the measures further. They, of course, have not had a chance to go through the legislation as yet, and I have only looked at a summary.

The women’s council has a long history of lobbying for a sworn police presence in all its major communities; that is well known. It has pushed for cross-border policing and for police in individual communities. We very much hope that all four of our Northern Territory communities have police. Imanpa and Mutitjulu now have police. We are lobbying strongly to ensure that there are police placed at Docker River and at Finke-Aputula, as part of this process. The women do not have any problem with NORFORCE and the type of support that they are giving. We have worked with NORFORCE before on the APY lands in South Australia. The medical checks, as they have been explained and carried out, appear to have been well received. They have had some questions about how the Centrelink reforms will apply and whether they should really apply differently in the Northern Territory. For a number of years, our members have argued that, if people do not use family allowances and so on to feed their children, or do not send their children to school, then there should be another way for that money to be paid, and they do not approve of food programs through schools, for example, unless parents are chucking in or contributing.

We have not had the opportunity to discuss the CDEP changes yet. I imagine that there will be some objections to the wholesale changes to CDEP, given that, while there are problems with CDEP, there are many communities which rely on it and many people who, to put it bluntly, have work to do which they would not otherwise have in the community, and they actually value that work. I think our members would be very interested, and perhaps a bit worried, to see how that pans out. Just briefly, in relation to the Anderson-Wild report which we submitted to. While, obviously, Mr Wild QC and Pat Anderson did a very extensive job of collecting information, we do not believe that the recommendations properly reflect the extent of the problem. From our point of view, there are gaps in their recommendations in relation to issues such as policing, the supply of alcohol, men’s behaviour in communities and the very large problem of reporting sexual assault and other abuse in communities which are small and kin based. Hopefully, senators should be fairly aware that that is a problem.

The policing is not just about child sexual abuse; there is general community dysfunction. A sworn police presence should put a dampener on that sort of dysfunction and the violence and drug and grog running. This is something that our members have been very vocal about for years. I do not think people should underestimate the usefulness of having some law and order up front. It is something we have been arguing about in relation to petrol sniffing, grog running, drug running and domestic violence for many years. The rights of women, children, the frail aged, people with disabilities and other vulnerable people in communities really need to be considered a priority, rather than some other rights. Some other rights may have to take a back seat at times.

We note that, as of yesterday, the Martin government seems to have finally become aware of the need for some serious reform in relation to liquor supply. Clare Martin has made some announcements about further grog restrictions, the possibility of a takeaway ban day in Alice Springs and the possibility of an ID system. The government seems to have generally woken up to the need to reduce supply. We hope that that will also assist in stopping the grog supply. I just heard Olga Havnen talking about the supply of liquor out of the towns. That is one of the biggest problems. We note the very considerable penalties that are going to be imposed on people having certain amounts of liquor in communities. That is great, but the supply needs to be restricted out of Alice Springs.

CHAIR —Ms Gillick, could you wrap up your opening statement, and we will leave time for questions.

Ms Gillick —Our members have expressed concerns about the permit system. I would like to make a couple of points in relation to that. We know the federal government has been looking at this for some time, and there are arguments for some relaxation, but I really do not think the federal government appreciates quite how many predatory exploiters are out there. There are also economic exploiters. I am talking about not just sex abusers but what I refer to as a general white trash factor—people who would love to go and attach themselves to Aboriginal families in communities and find themselves an Aboriginal girlfriend. I am talking about used car salesmen. We think some store managers are poorly behaved now, but I think you could probably find some worse ones out there.

As we know, people generally have very low educational attainment and life skills in the Northern Territory. They have just been given the opportunity, with the policing and some assistance from NORFORCE and some other reforms, to get communities in order. The last thing that they need is busloads of people, for example, in places like Imanpa and Mutitjulu, staring at people—which is what I think what will happen. They do not need people wandering around the community and the community being unable to find ways to prevent this. Just putting up signs is not going to work. I do not think there are many of our members who are really up with writing out trespass notices and handing them to people. We think people should have the opportunity to have life settle down a little bit, finally, with some of these reforms, before it is open slather in their communities.

CHAIR —Ms Gillick, I will have to ask you to conclude your opening statement so that we have time for questions.

Ms Gillick —I think that will just about do it. We suggest that the federal government should seriously negotiate with land councils to implement any changes to the permit system in a moderate and slow fashion and not concurrently with these reforms.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Senator TROOD —Ms Gillick, in your opening remarks you have emphasised the importance of the policing presence. Can you help me, please, in relation to the Mutitjulu community, where, as I understand it, a police station was constructed but there was no police presence. Can you explain that for us?

Ms Gillick —I can try. I am sure the Northern Territory government could do a better job. The Commonwealth funded the police post. The police posts these days are of a fairly flash design. The Commonwealth view at the time was that the Northern Territory would then staff that police station. They did recruit two newly graduated Aboriginal community police officers from Darwin, who I think were very keen and very enthusiastic. One of them, unfortunately, did not last long. They did not provide a sworn police presence. It is extremely difficult for the ACPOs, as they are known in the Northern Territory. They are not sworn police, they do not have the same powers and they are not armed and so on.

That was the first time that there had been any police presence in Mutitjulu since the previous ACPO left in, I think, the late 1990s. The women’s council lobbied for it. I can remember going to Sid Sterling with a member from Mutitjulu in February 2002, pleading and lobbying for a police presence in that community and being told that the community had to do more and that they were looking for an ACPO that the community council would approve. So it has just gone on and on. When we have argued this with successive Northern Territory police ministers and commissioners, a lot of the response has been about resources, but that is not an argument that the women have accepted. There is a police post there and at one stage I think there was only one ACPO. There is now another one, but now we have a sworn police presence and that should continue. If that had been done in Mutitjulu in 1996 when there were enormous problems with drugs and so on down there—which I can recall from personal experience—Mutitjulu would not have ended up in the situation that it has been in in recent years. I am sure of that.

Senator TROOD —Do you regard the police presence in that community in particular, and more widely, as absolutely critical to addressing these conditions, particularly for children and women?

Ms Gillick —It is probably the most glaring example because of where it is and because it has been a honey pot for people who have availed themselves of the cash flow in that community. It has been a distribution point for sniffable petrol—although it is not now—and marijuana. It has been a very violent place. We have dealt with a number of domestic violence clients over the years there, as well as neglected children and so on. It is a glaring example because of its particular circumstances. But it is not unique in needing a police presence because, without that, the vulnerable in the community—and they are not all women and kids—have no voice. They cannot stand up to the people there. You cannot expect middle-aged diabetic women or women my mother’s age—that is, in their sixties—to get around at night with sticks and confront drug dealers and grog runners. That is one of the solutions that have been suggested over the years, and it is absolutely absurd.

Senator STEPHENS —Thank you for your evidence this morning. You have made some very critical points about the importance of a much more consultative approach, particularly around the issue of the economic independence of your communities. What is your understanding of the changes to CDEP and the way in which they will impact on your community, particularly in relation to the resources that are within the CDEP programs? What will happen to those resources?

Ms Gillick —I cannot pretend to understand all the technicalities. The women’s council has occasionally used CDEP with some success to top up salaries for youth workers in communities, but we are not a big CDEP organisation by any means. I am aware that in a number of communities CDEP is a fairly useless ‘make work’ proposition and it has needed a good review for a long time. However, there are a number of places where it is used, for example, to top up and pay a reasonable wage to health workers, HACC workers, art centre workers, women’s centre workers—where women’s centres still exist—and other workers in the community. I have heard the minister say that there are all these jobs in communities that should be going to Aboriginal people, and that is fine. But when you have an educational attainment level of a fairly poor grade 3 in many parts of the region, that does not provide a lot of skills for all of those jobs in the communities. If there is not going to be a transfer of funds, for example to allow a health service to employ Aboriginal health workers with proper salaries, then some health services will simply not be able to employ them.

There are a number of communities where people are on CDEP and they do actually get something out of working. They like to work; they like to produce something; they like to be doing something useful for their community. At least that money is going to be truly transferred so that it can be used to pay proper wages. We understand that the federal government want to quarantine money so that it cannot be used for gambling, drinking and dope, but to take away CDEP means, in a fashion, that you may have people not being able to do useful work and have some pride in it. If that is what is going to happen, it will be pretty devastating.

Senator STEPHENS —In one of the submissions I read an appeal that customary law in Indigenous communities is about reconciliation, whereas our law is about justice, and that there are serious concerns about removing the capacity for customary law to be used to resolve issues. What is your opinion of that?

Ms Gillick —That is a very broad question. Are you talking about it in bail and sentencing or are you talking about people being allowed to use customary law generally?

Senator STEPHENS —Generally.

Ms Gillick —I hardly think I am an expert on that.

Senator STEPHENS —I just thought that there might be something you wanted to add to that in terms of your particular expertise.

Ms Gillick —Our executive at its last meeting determined that it supported the removal of customary law as a mitigating consideration in bail applications and in sentencing. This is a very difficult question. As a legal practitioner, I am aware that a person’s circumstances can be taken into account all over the country in the criminal justice system. I tried to go over it very carefully with the women, and they were very much of the view that these matters should not be a consideration in bail and sentencing—that customary matters should have no place in what they refer to as the ‘white courts’. This is not precisely the same as saying it, for example, about someone making an application for bail or being released on bail to attend a funeral. They were not quite talking about that. But they did, somewhat to my surprise, say that they supported the removal of customary law as a consideration in bail.

If you are talking about customary practices, we assist our members to have a law and culture meeting each year where the women renew their traditional practices in a more, if you like, contemporary setting in that they travel there by vehicles and so on. I think that gives them a lot of emotional and psychological strength to carry on. But customary law is a pretty broad area and I do not pretend to be an expert in it. I am not an anthropologist.

CHAIR —Thank you very much, Ms Gillick and Ms Marty. We appreciate you giving us your time today.

[10.23 am]