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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 —At the outset, I especially welcome Ms Scrymgour. Thank you for taking the time to be here. I understand that you have travelled through the night or in the very early hours and we appreciate you taking the time to be with our committee today. I invite you to make a short opening statement, after which we will have questions.

Ms Scrymgour —I must thank all senators for the opportunity to appear at this inquiry. I would like permission to table a submission from the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory and then I would like to make some brief remarks regarding the intervention legislation.

CHAIR —Permission is granted to table that submission.

Ms Scrymgour —Everyone in this room, and I am sure we are joined by members of the Senate, rejects the scourge of child abuse wherever it occurs in the country. No-one owns a moral position that has greater prominence than any other. We all want to prevent child abuse. In broad terms, the Northern Territory government has supported the federal government’s intervention where it directly targets child abuse. The Northern Territory government has been calling for increased federal government investment for Indigenous Territorians since at least 2001. The Northern Territory government supports proposed changes to access to pornography laws, we support the additional police and we support additional medical resources. We welcome these things. But since the federal government has announced its legislative follow-up to the intervention, the Northern Territory government has become increasingly concerned.

Our government has made it clear from day one that it does not support the removal of the permit system or the compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal land. Neither of these measures directly targets child abuse. The removal of the application of the Racial Discrimination Act is also of concern. The immediate abolition of the CDEP scheme is another area we believe needs much more consideration. Senators should know that this decision will have a devastating effect on the Aboriginal arts community. With the permission of senators, I would like to table the release from ANKAAA, which is the Association of Northern, Kimberley and Arnhem Aboriginal Artists. I do so as the Minister for Arts and Museums as well as the Minister for Child Protection in the Northern Territory.

We have a remarkable opportunity before us, perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity. Why would the government not want to consult and involve Aboriginal people in this intervention? Why seek to deliberately rush and exclude us? The Northern Territory government takes the issue of child abuse very seriously. We commissioned the Little children are sacred report. On Tuesday there was a reshuffle within our cabinet and the Chief Minister appointed me as Minister for Child Protection. I am concerned that the children we need to protect are getting a bit lost in this whole debate. It is not about leases and access to Aboriginal land. What started this is the need to protect children. Since the intervention and this legislation, the protection of those children that we wrote about in that inquiry have been taken off the radar.

Senator CROSSIN —Minister Scrymgour, we certainly appreciate your efforts to come to our committee in person rather than communicating with us by telephone. I put on record our appreciation of the efforts of you and your people in doing that. What sort of interaction has the Northern Territory government had with the Commonwealth government since the day that this was announced some six weeks ago?

Ms Scrymgour —Very little. There have been discussions between us and the federal government for some time, particularly on policing resources. The most important issue is that we also lose housing. Ever since the intervention six weeks ago, there has been no contact whatsoever.

Senator CROSSIN —In terms of resources, we only had an hour this morning for all of the eight departments who presented us with additional budget portfolio statements today. We only had an hour to question them about it. But, from what I could ascertain, there is no new money in the $587 million for additional housing—that money has been appropriated already in this year’s budget. There is no new money for roads—that money has already been appropriated. In fact, almost half of the $587 million will go into more Commonwealth public servants’ facilities or Centrelink operations. Has there been any discussion or disclosure with you about whether there may be additional money for programs, for wages for people on CDEP in these discussions?

Ms Scrymgour —No. Going back to your first question, there has been some low-level ministerial engagement with ministers who have had appropriate portfolio responsibility—with the police minister, with the former minister who had the child protection portfolio and with the minister for housing. So there has been that low-level engagement and discussion across those areas on what the intervention would involve at that time, bearing in mind we have seen the goalposts shift quite dramatically from what we saw six weeks ago to what we are seeing now.

In relation to the question you just asked, there has been no discussion about the appropriation. I think we heard it was $500 million to start off with. My understanding is that it has gone up to about $580 million. I could be corrected on that, if I am wrong. Our concern is that very little of that money is going towards probably one of the biggest issues in the Northern Territory: the backlog of Indigenous housing in those communities. There is very little that is going to be spent on housing in communities to address the overcrowding. If we look at the issue of child protection, and where children are at risk, that goes to the heart of trying to ensure that we can remove children from at-risk environments in those communities and give them some quality of life, like a decent house, which every other Australian takes for granted.

Senator CROSSIN —I understand that Mr Tyrrell is on the Northern Territory task force, so the Northern Territory has one representative out of five or six. Is that correct?

Ms Scrymgour —Given the importance of this intervention, that is right.

Senator CROSSIN —Can I ask about the health checks that have been started and are ongoing. There are issues with protocols with health departments, and obviously with costs with health departments. I imagine when these health teams move into communities they are probably using resources in health clinics. Has there been an expectation that your government will pick up these costs, or is there some process whereby you will be billing the Commonwealth and the money comes out of this $587 million?

Ms Scrymgour —As I understand it, we will share that cost—and that is something that is being worked out from health minister to health minister. We welcome the medical resources that are going into this. But we also want to state from the outset that the medical resources cannot be short term. We have to be able to access GPs or doctors out on the ground in those communities for the longer term so that we can continue the work, the screening, that is going on. There are many non-government organisations or Aboriginal medical services that have been doing this process for such a long time with limited resources, so that capacity needs to be built.

Senator CROSSIN —I asked questions this morning of people from DEWR with respect to the abolition of CDEP. That will save the government $76 million. And the cost of implementing Work for the Dole will be $23 million. They seemed to indicate to me that there has not been any discussion yet about transferring Northern Territory Commonwealth jobs, such as health workers or people in schools, and no discussion about transferring CDEP moneys across to the NT government, or in fact whether they will transfer that across. Are you aware whether you are being pressured or asked to pick up the employment costs for those people under this scheme?

Ms Scrymgour —There are some positions, such as Aboriginal health workers and Aboriginal teachers, in schools that our government recognises are part of our core service delivery, which we are now making adjustments for. Just on CDEP, we are talking about 8,000 recipients across the Northern Territory. As I understand the policy decision by the federal government, it is to provide only 2,000 full-time jobs. What happened to the other 6,000? We sing the mantra or the rhetoric about welfare to work, but I am afraid we are going back to ‘work to welfare’. People need to work through the logic of the policy that is about to come out, including the implications and ramifications on the ground in those communities. I put this to all senators. Everybody loves Aboriginal art. Let me tell you, in the Northern Territory CDEP is at the heart of every art centres and the capacity for artists to stay on country and work in those art centres. Gut the CDEP program, and all those artists and the beautiful artworks that you hang in your offices and see in Parliament House will be gone, because those people will not be able to continue that work.

Senator CROSSIN —Finally, I would like to ask you about the long-term implications of this. This is about money and programs for 12 months. I know that the Northern Territory government is preparing its response to the report that triggered this action. You are due to hand down your response at your next sitting, which I think is the week after next. Do you have a view as to whether this Senate committee should in fact wait, look at that response and then report following your response, in case there is anything in your response that we in the Senate committee could perhaps pick up?

Ms Scrymgour —We would love to see that it is not rushed. I think that there are some very important aspects of this legislation, such as welfare reforms, pornography, alcohol areas. By the way, if people looked at our liquor acts and what we are already putting in place in the Northern Territory, it is probably a lot tougher than some of the measures that are certainly outlined in the intervention bill. There has been no coordination, communication or working together with our government. Our liquor act already has restricted area provisions and they actually apply quite tougher. Sure, under the national intervention bill there is a greater dollar figure in terms of a penalty. I would like to see that it is not rushed, particularly in the areas of land and permits. I think that a bit more thought needs to go into that. I think that the CDEP issues need to be looked at a bit more and given more thought. There are a whole lot of areas. Not applying or exempting the Racial Discrimination Act certainly shows some contempt towards Aboriginal people in this country.

CHAIR —Minister Scrymgour, you have just mentioned contempt for Aboriginal people. Could you advise the committee as to why you think we are sitting here today? Why do you think the Australian government, with the support of the federal Labor Party, is actually intervening in the Northern Territory? Could it be that there has been a denial of what is exactly happening to the health, safety and interests of children in the Northern Territory? Is it because your government has failed to protect Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory? Could you inform the Senate or answer that question?

Ms Scrymgour —I am not going to sit here and, as usual, play the blame game and say that it is either the Commonwealth or the Northern Territory government. That is not what I am here for. I am here to say very clearly that this is about child protection and child abuse. We both need to work together to get over this scourge. I also said at the outset that no-one owns this; we all need to own it. We all need to take responsibility and we all need to work together.

As an Aboriginal person, prior to coming into politics, I worked in the health sector for a long time and saw the political football that has constantly been played out between state, federal and local governments in relation to Aboriginal people on the ground in those communities. Communities do not need that. They do not need the silence or the ignorance from governments to ignore this problem anymore. It is about working together and moving forward. I have used the word ‘contempt’. I have spoken to the minister who has carriage of this bill on several occasions. I have had the privilege of sitting down and talking to him on the Tiwi Islands with the work that is being done over there, and I said that the draconian response and the top-down process does show some contempt. It means that Aboriginal people should not be included. Talk to us. Work with us. People are open to moving forward on this. I thank the Senate; I do appreciate that you have only this one day to do the inquiry.

CHAIR —Some people would say that one of the reasons we are sitting here is the contempt that has been demonstrated to Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory. I want to ask you about the police. It is my understanding that there are no police in Galiwinku, where there are about 2,000 people. I wonder what the reason is for that. I am also interested to know why, after the Australian government has paid for the construction of a police station at Mutitjulu, that station has been left unmanned.

Ms Scrymgour —I will get on to Mutitjulu in a minute. I do not know if you know the history of Galiwinku, but many years ago, when there were police on the island, there was an unfortunate shooting of a young man at Galiwinku. Since that time the community had not wanted police on the ground, not because they did not want to institute law and order in the community but because they saw the issues that happened years ago.

CHAIR —And you consented to that request?

Ms Scrymgour —The local member is working with the community.

Senator CROSSIN —You have not yet built the police station in Galiwinku that you promised, Senator Barnett.

CHAIR —I am just asking the question and allowing the minister to respond.

Ms Scrymgour —The police station needs to be built there. We are working with the community to address the issue and get full-time police on the ground, and it is the same with Mutitjulu. We can all do better, and I am not denying that from our government’s point of view we need to work with the Commonwealth to make sure that we get policing on the ground in these communities. Aboriginal people are entitled to the same levels of law enforcement and police in their communities as everywhere else.

CHAIR —And the second question?

Ms Scrymgour —With Mutitjulu, I understand there were two ACPOs out there on the ground. One of the ACPOs, due to a death, had left the community. That left one ACPO. At the moment, there are two Northern Territory Aboriginal community police officers, one Northern Territory constable and two Australian Federal Police officers based on the ground at Mutitjulu.

CHAIR —Two AFP officers and—

Ms Scrymgour —Two Australian Federal Police officers in addition to one Northern Territory constable and two Aboriginal community police officers. Not far from Mutitjulu, there are five officers stationed at the Yulara police station.

CHAIR —The Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory made a suggestion about the buyback of existing alcohol licences. I wonder if that is under consideration by the government. What is your position?

Ms Scrymgour —I cannot give you an answer on that. On whether or not we do it, there has been discussion. That issue has been long looked at. I was the chair of the substance abuse committee in the Northern Territory when we looked at the oversupply of alcohol outlets and licences in the Northern Territory, but it is something that is certainly receiving some discussion within our government.

Senator PAYNE —Can you explain for us which members of the NT government bureaucracy are engaged in the process of advancing this legislative package, what briefing processes are underway and which ministers Minister Brough has had an opportunity to meet with in recent times?

Ms Scrymgour —In my department, Ms Jenny Scott, who is the director of child protection services, is part of that process. I think there is a representative from the police, from housing and from the Chief Minister’s department. I could not give you those names, Senator, but we could certainly find out and forward them.

Senator PAYNE —So your officials are being briefed and engaged in the process?

Ms Scrymgour —They are being briefed and engaged in the process of the welfare reforms and the alcohol initiatives.

Senator PAYNE —And CDEP?

Ms Scrymgour —They are being briefed. But, again, the whole point of the exercise is being briefed but not being able to negotiate how those processes or systems are going to be rolled out across the Northern Territory, which are two separate issues.

Senator PAYNE —I think you will acknowledge, Minister, that there is a degree of frustration from the direction of the Commonwealth and the government which I perhaps felt myself in some of your observations when you were speaking earlier about things not being rushed. One of the problems that I think the government has tried to address with this package is the very long time that it has taken to do a range of things, not the least of which is the 12 months taken to produce the report in the first place and the six weeks after it was finalised before it was released and that we are, as Senator Crossin acknowledged, still waiting for your government’s response. I think that frustration is evidenced in part of this process, frankly.

Ms Scrymgour —My frustration or your frustration?

Senator PAYNE —No, the Commonwealth’s frustration, Minister.

Ms Scrymgour —Since 2001 there has been consultation and discussions with federal ministers highlighting this problem. I can also recall a delegation of Aboriginal women who personally tabled to the Prime Minister a report in 2000 which highlighted these issues and who called on the Prime Minister to deal with this issue.

Senator PAYNE —Then you must be grateful for the response.

Ms Scrymgour —So bear in mind the frustration of Aboriginal women and children that this has taken a long time. What I am saying is that the political football has to stop. I acknowledge that. The issue of child protection has to be addressed; it is fundamental. We welcome parts of the intervention that go to the heart of child protection and look at dealing with the scourge that is in some of our communities. We admit that. We are not blind to that. We see that all the time, and we are and have been addressing it. Can I say that when we came to government in 2001 the child protection budget was $8 million. That budget now sits on well over $94 million, so that is a substantial increase over five years to deal with the issue of child protection.

We talk about frustration when we have had discussions with federal ministers to deal with the issues of housing, education and all the other areas that need to be worked on in Aboriginal communities and there has been no cooperation, particularly in relation to this intervention. We have talked to and the Chief Minister has talked to the Prime Minister. The Chief Minister took the 20-year intergenerational plan to the Prime Minister and said, ‘These things can’t be done in the short-term; they are long-term strategies.’ They are long-term strategies, Senator, and I think that whilst people may get frustrated and the Commonwealth are frustrated, there is a fair amount of frustration in the Northern Territory as well with the lack of transparency of working together to deal with this issue on the ground.

Senator PAYNE —Minister, if a budgetary increase from $8 million to $94 million in five years has ended up in the production of this report, then I am not at all surprised that this is the approach that the Commonwealth has taken.

Ms Scrymgour —I agree that is why we have now had a reshuffle. One of my first jobs will be to look at our system’s responses to those communities. The Little children are sacred report highlighted that in some of the 47 communities the committee visited there are problems on the ground. I will be immediately looking at our system’s response to those communities. Where is our capacity? Where are those resources? Are they out there and are we are dealing with them appropriately? I certainly welcome the new-found interest of the Commonwealth in this issue, when it has been missing for a long time.

Senator PAYNE —In your view, Minister.

Senator CROSSIN —We have a minister of the Crown before us, with all due respect, Chair.

CHAIR —Yes. Minister, thank you for your evidence today. We appreciate your being here and providing evidence to the committee.

Proceedings suspended from 1.10 pm to 1.46 pm