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Community Affairs Legislation Committee

REDFORD, Mr Ron, Vice-President, Ceduna Business and Tourism Association

SUTER, Councillor Allan John, Mayor, District Council of Ceduna

Evidence was taken via teleconference

CHAIR: Welcome. Have you received information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence?

Councillor Suter : Yes, we have.

CHAIR: The committee has a submission from Mayor Suter. I invite either of you to make a short opening statement and then will move to questions.

Councillor Suter : Thank you. We have made the submission because we believe that there is an urgent need for a trial of this nature in our area of Ceduna. We have tried a large number of initiatives to address a problem we have had for years with excessive consumption of alcohol, causing health issues. We had a coronial inquest into the death of six Aboriginal people in 2011 and the inquest made some recommendations that we are very anxious to try to implement and are in the process of doing so.

We have made a considerable amount of progress towards addressing the issues. We have initiated a long list of new plans to try to improve the situation, and we have made considerable progress. One failing I have to acknowledge is that some of our earlier efforts were not as successful as they could have been because we did not get strong enough support from the Aboriginal community to make the initiatives work. As a consequence, some of our earlier initiatives were less successful than they might have been.

In this case, council support for the trial of the cashless debit card was made on condition that we got strong support from the senior Aboriginal leaders, and I am happy to say that we have got that. We are also satisfied that we have got strong support from our non-Indigenous community, with, of course, a few exceptions. Some of the objections are very genuine and passionate. Being a small town, we have a good knowledge of people's motives. Some objections are from people who wish to have money to purchase drugs or alcohol. Some are even from people who are very anxious that their customers will be able to have money to purchase drugs and alcohol. We respect the opinions of the genuine and passionate objectors, but they really are very few.

I know that questions have been asked about the extent of the consultation. Parliamentary Secretary Alan Tudge has visited Ceduna three times. He has consulted very widely indeed, and the list of people and organisations that have been consulted with runs to over 180, from memory. As far as council's consultation is concerned, we let it be known publicly that we were investigating the possibility of a trial of the cashless debit card. There has been quite a bit of publicity in the local press and on ABC Radio. We have, through the nine elected members of council, consulted extremely widely, and I am very confident when I say that in excess of 95 per cent of the residents of the Ceduna district are supportive of this trial.

Senator SIEWERT: Did you say 90 per cent?

Councillor Suter : It is in excess, probably, of 95 per cent. We have just had a spike in the incidents of alcohol related problems, because there were tax refunds, family benefit payments and other payments made to Anangu members of the Yalata and Oak Valley communities. The consequence was that some people received significant amounts of cash.

We had a very frightening situation about two weeks ago, where we had a spate of admittances to hospital emergency—22 in one night. Four of those admissions were life threatening. As a consequence of that, the local first response group had an urgent meeting and imposed short-term alcohol restrictions, which council support, but which have caused us much grief. We have provided additional bus services to enable people to return to their communities. We doubled the available bus seats. As a consequence, in the week following the emergency response, we had only two admittances to hospital emergency, and they were nowhere near as serious as the previous ones. That has been a success. As far as I am concerned, that is further evidence of the harm that is being done by disposable income being too readily available to people who have a problem with alcoholism.

CHAIR: Thank you. Mr Redford, did you want to make any opening comments?

Mr Redford : I only want to reinforce the commitment from the Ceduna Business & Tourism Association to support the venture. It has been made quite clear by our members that they are right behind it, and I am here in this capacity today to bring that information to you.

Senator SIEWERT: Thank you for your submissions and evidence. You made a comment about how when you were implementing some of the previous recommendations it fell short. I am not trying to put words in your mouth, but my understanding is that they were perhaps not implemented as well as they could have been. Is that a correct understanding?

Councillor Suter : They were effective to some extent but not to the extent that they would have been had we been clever enough to garner strong support from the Aboriginal community. We were not able to do that at the time, and we have learned from that mistake.

Senator SIEWERT: I would like to ask a little bit about the ID Tech system that you talk about in your submission. You said that was effective for a while. What else can't you buy on it? Is it just about the sale of the cask wine?

Councillor Suter : Initially you could buy no cask wine at all. Then it was amended to include, as an emergency response, no availability of any form of takeaway alcohol to members of the nominated communities—which in our area include the Pitjantjatjara, Oak Valley and Yalata communities. The system simply monitors, firstly, whether someone is eligible to purchase alcohol and that they are not subject to some form of barring order and, secondly, where there is a limit per-day, that that limit is not exceeded. It has been a very good initiative, but people have found a way around it by getting others to purchase on their behalf. It is effective but not as effective as it might have been.

Senator SIEWERT: So the person has to present some form of ID and it then depends if they are on the system.

Councillor Suter : That is correct. At the moment there are 60 people who are subject to police issued welfare barring orders because they have been involved in incidents that involved alcohol, including family violence, assault or similar offences. The ID Tech system very quickly identifies those people.

Senator SIEWERT: So it is just them, not everybody.

Councillor Suter : Every person who purchases alcohol must produce ID.

Senator SIEWERT: And then, if they are barred, those restrictions apply?

Councillor Suter : That is correct.

Senator SIEWERT: Was it thought that to limit them completely and put them on the banned drinkers register in the NT, before it got disbanded?

Councillor Suter : We did investigate how it was done in Coober Pedy, which has a ban on all persons from 26 nominated communities. There was a willingness to investigate doing that here. We got the agreement of 25 communities; however, one community was not prepared to agree to it, so it could not be implemented here on that basis without risking discrimination allegations.

Senator SIEWERT: You commented that people were getting around the ban on alcohol. We heard some evidence earlier this morning that there are those who will not try to give up drinking alcohol just because the money is taken away from them. You already spoke about people getting around the ID Tech system. Have you looked into how effective the card could be in stopping those people who want alcohol from getting it?

Councillor Suter : We have given that a lot of thought, and we think that is the key because, at the moment, some of the people who are banned are paying exorbitant amounts to others to buy on their behalf. So, by restricting the availability of cash, we are very confident that that will certainly address that problem.

Senator SIEWERT: On what basis do you have that confidence?

Councillor Suter : Quite simply, the people who are buying on behalf of others are also predominantly people on welfare, so they will be under the same restriction. It is on two bases: the people trying to get the alcohol will not have relatively large amounts of disposable cash to pay others and the people who are being asked to purchase alcohol on behalf of others will not have the spare cash to do that either. We believe that this will probably be the most effective measure that we have yet been able to put in place.

Senator SIEWERT: Has any evidence been presented to you from elsewhere—whether it is in Australia or overseas—that, in fact, that will work and that people will not use other measures?

Councillor Suter : I do not think it has been trialled anywhere else in the world, but common sense says that restricting the amount of available cash will have an effect on people's ability to purchase alcohol and drugs.

Senator SIEWERT: I am sorry, I am looking for more than common sense about what works, because the other thing that happens is that you humbug people more, you trade food for cash. There are all sorts of things that have happened in the NT that let people still manage to buy alcohol.

Councillor Suter : Yes, in those cases I do have a good knowledge of the Northern Territory because I am friends with a Northern Territory mayor. In those cases there are other people with disposable cash. The cohorts of the problem drinkers are predominantly on welfare, so there will not be an abundance of cash for people to humbug others or to pay others to do their bidding.

Senator SIEWERT: Regarding your discussions with both Aboriginal organisations and the government about the other supports that will be in place to address the issues around alcohol dependence and the issues that will result out of people not having access to alcohol and drugs, we know that there are rehab issues, obviously, and rehab support that is needed and some early intervention services—all the things that we need to do for wrap-around services.

Councillor Suter : We have formed a local community leaders group—and that group, by the way, has had a huge input into designing how the scheme will operate—and we are in the early stages of working through support measures. With what has been discussed to date—bearing in mind we have got another meeting next Friday and then a meeting every fortnight, and the trial does not start until February—I am initially very happy with the responses that we are getting to our requests for support services. I am also very happy with the way that various government agencies are now working together effectively, probably for the first time, to address the health issues et cetera that will arise from this change.

Senator SIEWERT: What are the services and the level of funding support that you have been promised?

Councillor Suter : It is still early days, and it has not been a bargaining process. The community leaders group has been identifying the issues and making suggestions as to how they will be addressed. For example, the health service is well underway with planning for dealing with any issues associated with withdrawals from alcohol. So it is to be definitive, but we are finding that the government has been extremely reasonable in their dealings with us and very supportive of what we are trying to do.

Senator SIEWERT: Thank you.

Senator MOORE: I will just follow the same line of questioning as Senator Siewert. In terms of the support services that go around any change, reading your submission and some of the others in the area, it seems like this particular proposal is really an alcohol management plan.

Councillor Suter : I think it goes a lot further than that. We have an issue developing in our community with ice.

Senator MOORE: Alcohol and drugs, then.

Councillor Suter : Yes, and we have a further issue with some people being addicted to gaming machines.

Senator MOORE: Your submission did not talk about the addiction to gambling machines. Is that another issue in the community about which you are concerned?

Councillor Suter : Yes, and I did refer to it in the submission—the best option not yet tried for restricting the availability of drugs, gambling funds and alcohol. The issue of poker machine addiction is a fairly large one in our general community.

Senator MOORE: Help me out there. I do not know Ceduna, and I do apologise for that. I have been looking it up on Google. The proposal we have in front of us is the card, and that is the only thing we have in front of us. We know it cannot be used for buying alcohol or for purchasing ice. Do you have clubs and hotels? It cannot be used to enter those places either.

Councillor Suter : That is correct. Agency staff are working through how we are going to deal with it. Some places sell alcohol and other products, and we have been very pleased with the way that staff from Social Services are working through addressing those issues. It is still a work in progress. We have our senior leaders group meeting fortnightly. We have addressed a gambling addiction response, a withdrawal of alcohol response and many additional factors in our response.

Senator MOORE: Places like hotels and clubs would then not be able to be used for any purpose.

Councillor Suter : In the case of the clubs there is a way that it can be managed, but I am not privy to that.

Senator MOORE: Following on from the answer to Senator Siewert's questions about the way that you pulled the community together in support, I think it is a very good model to get community support. I am amazed that you could claim that you have 90-something per cent support. I think many community leaders would be very pleased to be able to go to a poll and say they have that degree of support for anything in a community, but that is good.

We are being asked to look at legislation around the card in isolation of knowing what other services are going to be in place to support people who are going to be impacted by this change. If one thing has come out of all the discussion ever since any form of income management came into being in 2007 or 2008, it is that there is never one single answer. You have explained that; in your community you have been trying different things over a long time. It is difficult, in the process of having to approve legislation which looks at one element, without knowing what else is going to be in place to support people through these changes. As it is not due to start until next January, I am wanting to get some idea, from your perspective, about what kinds of things will be put in place. You talked about the health service and said that they are being involved, and you talked about the system you have there in terms of bus services so that people have transport. Reading in depth the coroner's report that you provided for us in evidence, there are a whole range of things about specialised services that were identified for need. In terms of funding and ownership of those things, you are very confident it is going to happen, but on what basis are you confident?

Councillor Suter : One thing I must say is that many of the things that are needed to help with the problems are already in place—the sobering up centre, the drug and alcohol service et cetera. I am very confident they will be will dealt with for two reasons. No. 1, our group of Aboriginal leaders are very strong, and no-one will sell them a pup, I can assure you. I am privileged to be part of that group. There is a very strong desire to make sure that local services are more than adequate to cover any problems that will be caused. No. 2 is that the responses we have been getting from the Department of Social Services and from the office of Parliamentary Secretary Tudge have been very positive. We have not made a reasonable request that has not been—

Senator MOORE: Have you seen funding contracts?

Councillor Suter : No. We have a fair way to go down the road yet.

Senator MOORE: Do you have plans of how much funding you are going to need? Do you have indications? In your submission you said that the sobering up service has increased its services significantly. I think that is wonderful, but we would like information on how much that is funded for now and by whom, and we do not have that. I would expect that the impact of this change on significant numbers in your community would see the sobering up service as a very first step, which I note is not a clinical service but is one level of support. There are significant funding expectations around these areas, and we have found in the past that unless these things are fully in place and funded for the extended purpose, not just for 12 months, issues can fall over with the best will and the best support in the world. Have you been given, as a group, any guarantee by the government about how much money will be available, for what purpose and over what period of time?

Councillor Suter : We have been given assurances from both state and Commonwealth governments that satisfy us. We do not have funding contracts as it is too early in the process.

Senator MOORE: Do you have a memorandum of understanding which is signed by all the people involved?

Councillor Suter : We have.

Senator MOORE: What does it say? We have not seen that memorandum.

Councillor Suter : It is a memorandum of understanding between the Commonwealth government, the various Aboriginal organisations and council setting out the goals of the arrangement that we are entering into, and I am happy to ask that a copy of that be provided.

Senator MOORE: In relation to the family commission that would be set up, are you aware of who is going to be on that one?

Councillor Suter : Not as yet. It is still early days. We have another five months before implementation. With the leaders' group meeting every fortnight, all of those issues will be well and truly nailed down.

Senator MOORE: Is the families group only for Indigenous people who are involved in this program?

Councillor Suter : Yes. The leaders are going to establish who will be in that group, I believe, probably at our meeting on Friday. My suggestion will be that it should consist of Aboriginal people, and there is no need for a representative of council to be on that. There are privacy issues, et cetera.

Senator MOORE: Sure, I think that is very wise. As you well know, this change with the card and the arrangement is going to apply to people who are not Aboriginal. How are people who are not Aboriginal going to be working through the system?

Councillor Suter : I have adequate faith in the capacity of the people who will be on that to deal with issues that confront non-Aboriginal people as well.

Senator MOORE: To get this clear, your expectation is that every citizen of Ceduna who is working through this arrangement because they are on a welfare payment will be working with an Aboriginal group to work through their issues about how much of their payment will be subject to the arrangement or not.

Councillor Suter : Yes, but only those people who do have an issue with it. The indications are from many of the people that will be affected that they are quite comfortable with the proposed arrangements, so nothing will need to be done in their cases. There will only need to be attention given to those who have a particular circumstance that requires a lesser or greater amount.

Senator MOORE: What are your expectations of the numbers?

Councillor Suter : I understand that there are about 900 people that will be affected.

Senator MOORE: Of that 900 how many are you estimating will be happy with the arrangement?

Councillor Suter : I think a vast majority, but I am not able to be more definitive than that. Many of the people who will be affected have indicated that they are more than comfortable. The comments from a lot of those people is that it will be only people with a particular issue, and we have been given one broad example. In the case of one disabled person there would need to be special arrangements, and that is fair enough. I do not think there will be large numbers of people wanting to vary the percentages or the arrangements.

Senator MOORE: Okay. Is that the kind of discussion you are having at your regular meetings, defining those numbers and looking at those issues?

Councillor Suter : Very much so, yes.

Senator MOORE: Right. We will ask the department, of course, because it is their job, but we will ask what the breakdown of that 900 people is in the different payment types—ages, genders and family structures. Do you have all that information?

Councillor Suter : The group has all that information. I cannot guarantee the accuracy—it is from my very old and wobbly memory—but I think it is in that order.

Senator MOORE: In terms of the community engagement, you would have had a series of meetings. What has been the attendance at the meetings—not just the leaders meetings you are talking about—and what information has led you to say that you think that over 90 per cent of the Ceduna community are happy with the situation? What kind of process have you gone through in terms of meetings, discussions and communications to give you that confidence?

Councillor Suter : There is a list available of people and organisations that have been consulted. I am sure that a copy of that could be provided.

Senator MOORE: That would be great.

Councillor Suter : Much of the consultation has been done with the presence of Parliamentary Secretary Tudge.

Senator MOORE: We do not yet have a submission from the department, but we will ask for that. If we cannot get it that way, we will come back to you. I do not want to give you any extra work.

Senator SIEWERT: What percentage of the 900 people affected do you think have been directly consulted?

Councillor Suter : I am sorry, I could not give a definitive answer to that. Many of the people who have been consulted have been organisations rather than individuals. I am sorry; I do not know the answer to that question.

Senator MOORE: That would be the kind of process that we would be expecting the department to do rather than you, because the people impacted will all be on a welfare payment. We understand that that would not necessarily be your job.

Senator SIEWERT: But, Mr Suter, you made a claim that 95 per cent of people in the community support this. But you cannot tell us how many of the 900 people who are affected support it?

Councillor Suter : All I can say is the vast majority. I have not done a headcount, but I point out that we have nine elected members. I am probably the most available mayor anywhere. I accept phone calls seven days a week. I get a lot of phone calls and talk to a lot of people. Similarly, we have a very good group of elected members in this council—the best I have seen—and they also speak very widely within the community. The message is consistent: most members of our community are very supportive, including most Aboriginal members of our community.

Senator MOORE: So is all your council supportive?

Councillor Suter : Yes.

Senator MOORE: So you can say you have got absolute political support?

Councillor Suter : Absolutely. I guess, as far as consultation goes, the ultimate response that people do have of course is at the next election. But I do not see any significant concern from people who do not have another agenda.

Senator MOORE: We will also ask the department the specific questions that we put to you, Mr Suter. If there is anything you want to send us to reinforce the message, we would be more than happy to get it.

Councillor Suter : There is one other thing that I would like to bring forward. Sadly, we have three bogus Facebook sites established purporting to be council sites. The three sites are called the Ceduna District Council, the District Council of Ceduna and Ceduna Dreaming.

Senator MOORE: I am sorry, Mr Suter, but that is beginning to sound almost Monty Pythonish.

Councillor Suter : It is, except that on those sites there are defamatory statements, including a defamatory statement against a very highly respected Aboriginal academic, and there are statements that are simply untrue. It is a little bit concerning that one of those sites is sponsored by a name that is incredibly similar to that of one of the objectors.

Senator MOORE: These are sites that you have found that are circulating in your region?

Councillor Suter : Yes. I think an indication of how much support they have is that one site has one like, another site has four likes and the third has 12 likes. I think that is a pretty healthy indication as to how much support there is in our community for this trial.

Senator MOORE: Mr Suter, as the Mayor do you have any ability—particularly that first one that claims to be the regional council—to try to close that down?

Councillor Suter : Our staff have contacted Facebook, who quite frankly could not give a toss!

Senator MOORE: I am very sorry that you and the community have to go through that, that is very unpleasant for you.

Councillor Suter : I am used to it.

CHAIR: To follow on from that, you talked about these fake sites, do you have any idea who has put them together?

Councillor Suter : One of the sites is sponsored by a gentleman called D Bee Pavy. We do not have any, Pavys in Ceduna, but we do have a D Pav, who made a submission. I cannot say that it is his work, but some of the comments in the submission are overreaches or are not quite correct, and there seems to be, perhaps, a little bit of malice.

CHAIR: We might ask that witness. In relation to the submission, you said that there were some things in the submission that you think are overreaches, is there anything specifically you want to highlight that you disagree with or is incorrect?

Councillor Suter : Yes, there is a reference to the South Australian Commissioner for Aboriginal Engagement, Khatija Thomas, which at the time was quite correct. However, there was an article in the press which included one sentence from me, but a headline that was quite inflammatory and offensive. Unfortunately, Ms Thomas initially thought that the headline was attributed to comments from me, but it was not. I would suggest that if you ask the Aboriginal community leaders, who are down to give evidence, as to whether there is any strength behind that statement, I think that they would sort that out. There was also a reference to my response to questions from Mr Pav. I attempted to answer his questions seriously, and I offered to obtain help from the department if he had any particular queries. He then became very sarcastic and somewhat malicious. I, perhaps, foolishly, responded by saying, 'Mr Pav, I do not have to have your support before I can support something, your opinion is a minority opinion and we listen to the wishes of our community.' I think, in those cases, there was a little bit of overreach.

CHAIR: You talked about the consultation process being quite extensive. You talked about having discussions with Mr Tudge and representatives of the government. Have there been other political parties whether the opposition, the Greens or crossbench, who have approached you and sought your views or consulted with your community more broadly?

Councillor Suter : There have, actually. Jennifer Macklin, from the opposition organised a phone consultation, principally, to test the level of support there was from the general community and the Aboriginal community. The opposition spokesman for Indigenous affairs, Shayne Neumann, made a similar call. In both cases, I was able to give them assurances as to the level of consultation that was involved.

CHAIR: The Greens have been critical of it. Did you hear from the Greens before they came out and opposed it?

Councillor Suter : No, but I did respond to a press release from Senator Siewert and I tried to point out some of the facts. That is the only contact I have had.

CHAIR: Mr Redford, I would like to ask you some questions specifically in relation to the business community and some of the local traders. I am interested in your view on what this card could mean for businesses in the area like the bakery, the supermarket, the butcher and others.

Mr Redford : As I said in my opening statement, by and large the Ceduna Business and Tourism Association is wholly and solely behind the initiative. In fact, I have not heard one word against the proposal from anybody within our committee. The feedback, as I understand it, from the members who have been contacted has been very positive.

CHAIR: Could you spell out a little more for the committee some of the potential benefits you see of going down this path?

Mr Redford : Obviously, when you live in a town the size of Ceduna, we all have to be in these initiatives together. The business community as a whole is very support of the initiative and they can see the benefits of the Aboriginal community and other people who are the on benefits being able to have this income going towards the necessities of life.

CHAIR: I guess, if you are not selling grog, you are potentially going to do better out of this.

Mr Redford : That is a very correct statement. If you are not spending your disposable income on booze or drugs, it is going to leave a lot more money available to buy the necessities of life and, for the lack of a better phrase, the good things in life. As I understand it, the hotel is supportive of this measure, even though it will impact on their bottom line. They can see the benefits that this is about the town in general. It is not just about one or a couple of organisations. It is for the benefit of the people living in Ceduna.

CHAIR: I am not sure as I may have missed it in your opening statement but has vandalism and damage, when there is alcohol related violence, been a problem for local businesses?

Mr Redford : I have been here eight years, but I have a mate that I knew 50 years ago who lived with me and who came from Ceduna. There were awful stories for many years coming out of Ceduna about what used to go on. I was sitting down in the main street around about a year or so ago and six tourists walked past and I said hello to them and engaged them in conversation. They said, 'Gee this is a beautiful little town, isn't it?. I said, 'Yes, it is. Why do you make that comment?' He said, 'Well, we've been down at Streaky Bay and we heard all these awful stories about Ceduna and we thought that the main street shops would be boarded up or have those pull-down slides to protect their windows against vandalism. We thought we would see ten-foot-high fences, but this is beautiful.' To a large degree, a lot of the stuff that has been said about Ceduna in the past, whilst it might have happened many years ago, it certainly is not happening to the same degree now.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. Senator Moore,

Senator MOORE: Councillor Suter, I am just checking the minutes of the council meeting and it says that there was a meeting and a ceremony to sign the MOU with Parliamentary Secretary Tudge, can you tell me what the focus of the ceremony and the signing of the MOU was? Was that the same MOU with the Aboriginal community, the council, and the Parliamentary Secretary?

Councillor Suter : Yes, the focus of the meeting was actually the senior aboriginal leaders council and the governments, state and commonwealth, just confirming their support for the trial and executing the MOU. That was also executed by members of the outlying communities of Yalata and Oak Valley, which are outside of council's boundaries. It was a celebration of the success that we all had in reaching a pretty happy position and a workable memorandum of understanding to go forward with.

Senator MOORE: We will be getting a copy of the MOU from the department. Does it have a time frame? Is it just to get it started?

Councillor Suter : That is correct. There is no time limit on it.

Senator MOORE: If I have any other questions, I will be in contact with you.

Councillor Suter : No problem at all. I would be happy to answer any questions.

CHAIR: I thank you both very much for your evidence today.