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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. I invite you to make a short opening statement, at the conclusion of which I will invite members to ask questions. Mrs Kilgariff, would you like to kick off?

Councillor Kilgariff —Yes, I will. Thank you, Chair. I would like to start by saying that many people in this area have welcomed the federal intervention. They see it as a catalyst for change. Over very many years we have seen a deterioration in the quality of Indigenous lives brought about by many things but I would say principally by alcohol and welfare dependency. Although many people around here have tried a lot of initiatives over the years, it seems that the issue has been getting so big and so irreparable that people have been starting to feel that there will never be a change. So from that point of view, I think the intervention is very welcome. As I said, we see it as a catalyst for change.

I have two major concerns about it and its consequences. The first is that I see that many of these measures, such as CDEP, welfare changes, alcohol and the leases, might actually encourage people to migrate into the larger towns—Alice Springs and Katherine, in particular. Our towns are already overflowing with Indigenous people. Alice Springs is a service centre for some 260 communities in the Northern Territory, Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland. We have so many people coming in that we are struggling as it is to cope with those numbers. My fear is that this will encourage other people to come into town and, I suppose, burden our resources even further.

My other concern is that these reforms will not be sustainable. I think there is a real danger that, when all these things have gone through and if the enthusiasm and resources are not maintained, things will fall in a hole and Aboriginal people will be in a worse-off situation than they were before all of this started. They are my two concerns, but as I said, I find it positive overall that all these things are happening. Would you like me to go through my reaction to some of the proposals now?

CHAIR —We will need to have the Mayor of Katherine make an introductory statement and then we would like to move to questions. So if you would like to conclude your opening statement we will move to the Mayor of Katherine.

Councillor Kilgariff —I will just go on to a few other things, then. With regard to the permit system, the Alice Springs Town Council has resolved that it does agree with getting rid of the permit system in major communities and on major roads. It did that about six months or so ago and it did that because it felt that some of the issues that are happening in communities remain hidden because there is a permit system and also because people can come into Alice Springs—this is an open town—and that is not reciprocated by the Indigenous people here. The native title holders here feel very strongly that Alice Springs is an open town, but they require permits to go out to other Aboriginal people’s land. It is discriminatory in that sense. So we have that policy.

On the question of CDEP, we have felt for quite some time that the welfare system has been a poison for Aboriginal people and there has been intergenerational damage over the last 20 or 30 years. We support the removal of CDEP but in the context that real jobs must be created. Many of the communities depend very heavily on CDEP because there is, apart from that, little or no economic activity. You probably would have a copy of the LGANT survey, which showed that out in the bush there are around 3,000 real jobs. But if you look at those which are on CDEP and having a top-up, there are around 1,500 jobs. But there are jobs available in most communities. My concern is that there will not be enough jobs for people to move into when CDEP disappears. I think that is going to be an issue. CDEP is also an important component of the local government reform, which is currently happening in the Northern Territory and is set to start on 1 July next year. It is not only the jobs that local government provides—and they are by far the largest provider of jobs in communities—but also the fact that the $20 million or so, which is the recurrent capital funding for CDEP, is underpinning, I believe, some of the budgets of the proposed nine new shires. That will be an issue as well for local government reform.

When we come to alcohol, all Central Australian communities without exception are supposed to be dry now, but there is still alcohol that gets through. I do not really see that any new proposals are going to change that. I guess there will be extra policing, and that might be one of the reasons that grog runners are caught. But to all intents and purposes now, all communities are supposed to be dry. In Alice Springs we are introducing a system of photo ID so that all people who buy alcohol here in another month or so will be required to present some sort of photo identification—it will be a passport or a drivers licence or whatever. That will help us regulate people who are buying alcohol and also those people who might not be able to buy it, such as those on a prohibition order or on some sort of bail condition or whatever. That will also make it easier for the federal government to actually catch grog runners. I know that that is a concern with some of the alcohol resolutions that they have brought in.

CHAIR —Mrs Kilgariff, could you conclude your opening statement, please—

Councillor Kilgariff —Sure.

CHAIR —and then we will move to the Mayor of Katherine.

Councillor Kilgariff —In conclusion, real work and the results of alcohol are the big concerns. Eighty-five per cent of police work here in Central Australia is alcohol related, and that is a huge factor in what is happening.

CHAIR —Thank you very much indeed. Mrs Shepherd?

Councillor Shepherd —I agree with much of what Mayor Kilgariff has said. I would just like to paint a quick picture of Katherine. We have a population of 9,000 people. About a third of our population is Indigenous. We have a very large region. It extends from the Western Australian border to the Queensland border, and it is roughly the size of Victoria, so we are the centre for many and diverse Indigenous communities. These communities see Katherine as a party town—I have often heard it referred to as that—and on any day we can have 100 to 300 itinerants camping illegally in the town and in the river corridor and, in the wet season, sleeping in the shopfronts.

Since the intervention—which I welcome, as most of my community welcome the government’s intervention—we have seen a dramatic increase in the itinerants in Katherine. We have now about 20 illegal camps in the river corridor. All these people are drinking. I believe the major health clinic also has increased numbers coming through its doors. Unfortunately, we do not have the facilities to cope with these people. We do not have the facilities to cope on any ordinary day. We do not have any transient accommodation. We do not have somewhere safe and secure to send these people—even where they can drink safely. We have a sobering-up shelter, but it is very derelict, and we certainly need a new one. As for detoxification beds, we need rehabilitation. We have a rehabilitation centre here, but it has a capacity of about 24 beds and it is operating at about eight at the moment. There are no activities there for those people, and when they are released from rehabilitation they are dumped in the main street of Katherine, where there are four liquor outlets.

I would ask that the government does not push aside the work that the Indigenous health organisations are doing and the services that they are providing to the people. I think they need to be listened to and considered seriously. The problems our Indigenous people have are generational. I think we have had a system of welfare that has been systematically killing them at a very early age, so we desperately need long-term solutions. I would guess that more than a generation is needed to address many of these serious situations.

The fact that food vouchers are not transferable could cause some unnecessary hardships for some people, because often it is not the biological parents who are looking after the children; it is probably a grandmother who is on a single pension. I think that needs to be considered as well. There is a lot of fear in the communities—

CHAIR —Mrs Shepherd, could you conclude your opening statement, please.

Councillor Shepherd —Certainly. To conclude, I would like to say that there is more abuse against Indigenous children than sexual abuse. The malnutrition and general neglect is also very serious and certainly contributes to ill health as early as in their 20s, with kidney failure and dialysis.

CHAIR —Thank you.

Senator CROSSIN —I will just go to you, Mayor Shepherd, in Katherine. Is the chronic lack of accommodation for people coming into town something you would like to see addressed as part of this task force and the intervention? I suppose most of the attention has been focused on the 70 remote communities. We have really yet to see this government talk about or address support for towns like Katherine and Alice Springs.

Councillor Shepherd —We desperately need some transient accommodation that is properly managed, somewhere that is safe and secure and where the children, particularly, can be safe. We do not have that at the moment. We have one camp in Katherine that is dominated by one tribal group. The other groups are too afraid to go there for fear of being knifed or other violence against them. So I think that is an integral part of what is needed in Katherine.

Senator CROSSIN —How many alcohol outlets are there in Katherine and Alice Springs? Could you each give the committee an idea of that?

Councillor Shepherd —In Katherine there are probably eight or 10 where there is takeaway alcohol, and of course there are restaurants and other areas like that, and the clubs too. I do not really think the clubs are a problem, but the other takeaway outlets certainly are.

Councillor Kilgariff —In Alice Springs we have over 90 outlets. Twelve of those are takeaway and the rest are restaurants. I agree with Mayor Shepherd that the restaurants are not really the point at issue here, but certainly the takeaway outlets are.

Senator CROSSIN —So in Katherine you have about eight places where you can buy alcohol and take it away, between 3,000 people?

Councillor Shepherd —Yes, that is correct.

Senator CROSSIN —And in Alice Springs about 12 outlets?

Councillor Kilgariff —Yes—remembering, of course, that we do not know to what extent the 450,000 visitors that go to Alice Springs contribute to that issue. We heard a statistic yesterday that enough pure alcohol has been drunk in Alice Springs in the last three months to fill six million cans of beer. That is not six million cans of beer being drunk, but it is enough pure alcohol to equate to that.

Councillor Shepherd —The Northern Territory has the highest consumption of pure alcohol. I am ashamed to say that Katherine has the highest in the Northern Territory. I guess that equates to Katherine probably having the highest in Australia.

CHAIR —Is that on a per capita basis, Mayor?

Councillor Shepherd —Yes.

Senator CROSSIN —I thought in Alice Springs it was more like 38 outlets where you could buy alcohol.

Councillor Kilgariff —No, there are only 12 takeaway ones. That is some clubs—which, of course, are membership based—a number of supermarket outlets, and a couple of pubs that have bottle shops as well.

Senator CROSSIN —Has there been any consideration by either of your councils to suggest, say, to the Commonwealth government—in the prawn industry, for example, when there were too many prawns being caught and they wanted to reduce the catch, they bought back the licences—that perhaps these licences could be bought out or places encouraged not to sell alcohol in return for some sort of monetary compensation so the number of outlets is reduced?

Councillor Kilgariff —It has certainly been the case in Alice Springs. We had a crime summit yesterday, and that was strongly brought forward. For instance, there is a service station here which has a liquor licence for historical reasons. That would seem an obvious target for such a buyback. There are a couple of corner shops that have liquor licences. So there is a strong suggestion—and I think a growing suggestion—that those sorts of liquor licences should be bought back.

Councillor Shepherd —I would say that is the same in Katherine. It certainly has been discussed at some length in Katherine. I would agree with Mayor Kilgariff on that.

Senator ADAMS —Thank you both for your evidence. I would like to ask a question about the permit system. Firstly, is Katherine a permit-free area as well?

Councillor Shepherd —The Katherine township?

Senator ADAMS —Yes.

Councillor Shepherd —Yes, of course.

Senator ADAMS —So how many communities in the Northern Territory are not under a permit system?

Councillor Kilgariff —I guess you would have the major towns up and down the Stuart Highway. There would be Jabiru and Yulara, which are off the bitumen, but nevertheless you do not need permits to go there.

Senator ADAMS —Is there any different behaviour that you would note in these towns that are not under permits as opposed to towns which are under permits?

Councillor Kilgariff —Most of the towns that are under the permit system have a majority of Indigenous people. They are also, as I said before—in the Central Australian region anyway—supposed to be grog free. Employment is scant, I suppose, and there is certainly not enough employment in these towns for the number of people who might well be employed. They are not open towns, so there is very little tourist travel there. I guess most of the visitors would be people that are on government or public service business, CLC or NLC and people such as that. Is that what you meant, Senator?

Senator ADAMS —I am interested in how the behaviour in the closed communities compares with the behaviour in the others—and Mutitjulu would be one of them. I am trying to get some evidence on how the closed communities conduct their business and how that compares with the open communities. Are there any further problems with open communities?

Councillor Kilgariff —I suppose it is fair to say that the open ones would have a wider range of businesses and a greater diversity of economic activity, sporting facilities and those sorts of things. I guess that is partly because of their size, but it is also because more people are coming through.

Senator ADAMS —Do you have any comments on the Tangentyere position on the federal government’s town camp offer?

Councillor Kilgariff —Yes. I was very disappointed that that offer was not taken up. The money has now gone north to Tennant Creek, and I believe the town camps there are the beneficiary of $30 million of that. In Alice Springs we have been working with Tangentyere Council for a number of years to try to make some changes in the town camps. I believed we were at the point where some change would happen, and the money that was offered seemed to be the resources that would make that change. So, yes, I was very disappointed that that did not happen. The town camps are an embarrassment to the town because of the quality of life of the people that live there and the fact that the services that are offered to people there and their access to town facilities are so much worse than for people in the wider population. They are, for all intents and purposes, ghettos that are in the town but not part of it. That is something that really has to change. I saw that money as being the vehicle by which that could change so that those areas could become much more a part of Alice Springs.

Senator SIEWERT —What sort of rehabilitation services are available in both of your centres for people who need help with alcohol dependency, counselling and those sorts of services? Are they available? Do you think they are adequate?

Councillor Shepherd —They are certainly not adequate in Katherine. While we do have a lot of agencies addressing alcohol concerns, we do not have the facilities to cope with the number of people. We need a rehabilitation centre that can house 50 or 60 people. We also need that follow-on care when they are reintroduced into the community as sober people so that there is help for them to maintain that. We desperately need better services. We in Katherine have been calling for a long time for better services to cope with the alcohol problems and the people who are victims of alcohol abuse.

Councillor Kilgariff —In Alice we are in a peculiar position, as I heard yesterday, in that the facilities we have are underutilised the moment. We have a sobering-up shelter. We have the CAAPU residential rehabilitation and detoxification centre. We recently opened a 20-bed detoxification centre which is mainly for inhalants such as petrol. So we have quite a few facilities, but they are underutilised. I think that is because people are not being referred there; it is not because of the lack of people needing rehabilitation or detoxification. I think it is a process that needs to be reformed to channel people into these areas.

Councillor Shepherd —In Katherine there are many people who are asking for help and there is no help for them here for their rehabilitation.

Senator SIEWERT —Mrs Kilgariff, I would like to separate rehabilitation and counselling from detoxification. Are those services available? We heard from Mrs Shepherd that there have been a number of people coming into town in Katherine. Is that happening in Alice Springs?

Councillor Kilgariff —Yes, rehabilitation and detoxification are separate in Alice Springs. A detox centre was recently opened. The sobering-up shelter is an overnight shelter and nothing more, but there is rehabilitation available as well; it is mainly for Indigenous people. There is a need for a drug rehabilitation centre. Drugs are becoming an increasingly big issue in town. As to your second question, we have not noticed a larger number of people coming into town in the last couple of weeks since the initiative started. But I think that is more to do with the fact that our dry town initiative started on 1 August and we have had intensive advertising going out to all the communities that says, ‘When you come into Alice Springs, you have to respect the town and the culture and you cannot drink in a public place.’ Both the police and I think the fact that there does not seem to be more people here is due to that.

CHAIR —Thank you to both of you. We appreciate you making your time available for us today.

[12.06 pm]