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Community Affairs Legislation Committee

HILL, Mr Desmond George, Chairperson, Yawoorroong Miriuwung Gajerrong Yirrgeb Noong Dawang Aboriginal Corporation

TRUST, Mr Ian Richard, Executive Director, Wunan Foundation


Evidence was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR: Can you both confirm that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you?

Mr Trust : I have not actually seen anything, but I have a basic understanding of it.

CHAIR: Okay. There should have been an email gone to you. I will now invite you to make a short opening statement, if you would like, and then we will move to questions.

Mr Trust : Des and I are part of an Aboriginal leadership group here in Kununurra. Because of the declining social situation among the Aboriginal people here in Kununurra, Wyndham and throughout the East Kimberley, really, in regards to employment, living conditions, protection of children and so on, we would like to try something different than we have had over the last 30 or 40 years in regards to trying to change the social circumstances and the economic circumstances of our people.

We are very interested in having a go at doing this, because we think that it is something that is going to hopefully provide us with the opportunity to work with our people—the ones who are experiencing these social upheavals—in terms of their children, to get them into employment and generally to produce a better life for them.

CHAIR: You are supportive of a trial going ahead. Can I get you to share with us what consultations there have been with you from the government or what consultations there have been in your community?

Mr Trust : We have had a number—I am not sure, as I have not actually kept count—with the parliamentary secretary, Alan Tudge, and departmental people. We have had quite a few consultations with him directly in person and also by phone. We have also met with people from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet quite a few times over the last 12 months or so, and this is in regards to the restricted debit card. We were looking at a model previous to that starting with the time of the previous Labor government. We were looking at a reformed model for Halls Creek, and there were fairly extensive consultations happening down there at that time as well.

CHAIR: Are you able to share with us some of the issues in your community that you would like to see addressed through perhaps a trial going forward?

Mr Trust : The main one is—and I will get Des to comment as well—trying to get our communities to stabilise. If you take Kununurra, for example, there are probably 70, maybe 80, kids on the streets on any given night. They are from a core group of families that have got huge alcohol problems, high unemployment and have not been engaged with the education system. So, from that cohort of people, usually the children have been taken away. Obviously, there is a lot of domestic violence.

What we would like to do is to see the situation, especially, with those families and the ones around them to be stabilised to the point where we can actually start doing things for them and with them with regard to providing them with better quality housing and getting their kids educated. Just giving us a stable platform with those families to start actually working with them, because at the moment it is too chaotic.

The people who are suffering the most in all of this are the children. They tell us they are on the street in the first place is, because they do not want to go home because it is unsafe there. There are parties going on during the week and all sorts of things are happening there, so a lot of these kids do not want to go home. It is a situation that we just cannot allow to continue. The initial outcome we would like to see is some stability brought back to these families so that the services that are currently provided by government through NGO organisations and so on can actually have some impact. At the moment, generally, they do not.

CHAIR: Why don't they have any impact at the moment?

Mr Trust : I think you are trying to deal with families who do not see the value of education—the families who do not send their kids to school. They had a big drive about 12 or 18 months ago to pick all these kids and take them school but, because they have not been part of the school system for so long, within days they were expelled from school due to antisocial behaviour, attacking other kids, vandalising property and so on. All the services that have been wrapped around that trying to support those families has not really worked, so I think we need to do something that is different and try and provide them with some stability.

CHAIR: So in those communities, you talked about people having addictions to drugs and alcohol. Talk us through who picks up the pieces. How does that work: if someone does blow the money early in the week or the fortnight on things like drugs and alcohol, what happens for the rest of the fortnight? Are there services that then have to pick up the pieces in terms of food and other essential items?

Mr Hill : As you would be aware with Indigenous culture, they share a lot. Not everybody gets money on the same day, so on a certain day some people will get money and they will all get together and drink and share in that way. That continues over the fortnight. But, in the meantime, in the East Kimberley, all of our children are in foster care and 100 per cent are Indigenous. We have got suicides happening all the time, so we have got programs in place that we are trying to expand to take in those youth at risk. I do not know if Ian mentioned it or if you have heard about it but Kununurra is also one of the Empowered communities. In Kununurra there are eight Aboriginal organisations that represent the Miriuwung Gajerrong people. They have all come together to work as one to deal with these issues. We are looking at the card as a tool to enable us to deal with these social problems whilst we empower in the community.

CHAIR: Did you say there are eight different Indigenous organisations that have all come together, so all eight support the trial?

Mr Hill : Yes, through our relevant boards and members—there are also Miriuwung Gajerrong members that are spread out across the eight organisations—through those community forums that we have been having. Old people especially want it to happen so we can get their kids into jobs. There are a lot of jobs in Kununurra but there is no stick to actually make them get off their backsides to go and do it.

CHAIR: What would you hope to see out of a trial like this and a debit card being in operation? Where do you see that it would improve things?

Mr Hill : I think with the restriction of the money and tying in with the TAMS project—a takeaway alcohol management system—that is happening here in the East Kimberley, it is similar to others run in the Territory. They cut back on a lot of the alcohol problems. There are still going to be a lot of drug problems, but restrictions on how much cash they can actually get could make a difference if people step up and call ourselves leaders within Kununurra. We really have to step up and deal with the alcohol and drug problems. We know they are getting them on the sly or they are using the card to purchase things to get cash. It is going to be a slow process. There are a lot of ways people can go around it. We are looking at stopping that locally and whether we have to go and dob in the taxi drivers, the shops and other people to make this work.

CHAIR: We talked about drugs and alcohol. What about gambling? Is that an issue or not?

Mr Trust : We have discussed it over the last day or so. There is quite a bit of gambling through the TAB system, the government system. There is also social gambling in people's houses. We do not have much data on the gambling. You hear stories about people winning big on a particular night in gambling, but for someone to win fairly big—most of the people sitting around the gambling ring are on some sort of social support—like $500 to $600, it means that somebody has lost all their money for food that week. I think that is also a problem. It is also a form of social interaction for some people. Gambling is an issue but the bigger issue that we see here is mainly alcohol and drugs. At the moment it is marijuana and some of the other harder drugs. The other thing we are concerned about, of course, is the introduction of ice.

CHAIR: Have you seen that much in your community?

Mr Trust :We have heard about it and we hear that it is very bad in places like Broome and Derby. In fact, I think there was some sort of a demonstration in Broome not long ago about the increasing ice problem. The other thing we are concerned about here is if it starts increasing. Alcohol is a big problem as it is. We have heard stories that there is increasing incidence of ice. If that really takes off as well it is going to compound our problem as to what we need to do.

CHAIR: How do you go with a police presence in terms of dealing with the illicit drugs trade?

Mr Trust : The police do fairly big busts around the town here. You hear about it now and then through the grapevine as to what is happening. There is a fair amount of police vigilance with regard to trying to cut back on drug use. Kununurra is very close to the NT border, and I think there is some sort of monitoring at the border post in terms of people coming in with drugs from Darwin. In terms of the number of people being busted and so on for drugs, we do not have that information. It is only going on what we have heard.

Senator SIEWERT: I will go back to the consultation process and the comment that you made about the eight organisations. Could you explain a bit further about how the process has operated? When you talk about the consultation process, are you talking about the whole of the East Kimberley?

Mr Hill : We just came back from Hall Creek, so that is a separate issue. I will let Ian talk about that. With regard to Kununurra, that is where the eight organisations are. We were putting this together before the card actually came into effect. We started off at Wunan, MG Corporation and Gelganyem Trust, which are three larger organisations in Kununurra. We had meetings with other organisations to give them a chance to opt in, which they have. We had five more of them.

Senator SIEWERT: Is that for Empowered Communities?

Mr Hill : It is. Wyndham and Kununurra are part of Empowered Communities. When the card comes in, like we said, if we have Empowered Communities up and running here, how we deal with the card would be a lot simpler than just having a card dropped in and individuals have to deal with it.

Senator SIEWERT: In terms of the consultation process you used, did you use those eight organisations that are part of Empowered Communities?

Mr Hill : Individually, we had our own board meetings to speak to our own boards of directors and our members through those eight. After meeting all the other heads at Miriuwung Gajerrong Corporation—which I am the CEO of—we have had three large communities forums so far to talk about the card as well as the Empowered Communities.

Senator SIEWERT: You were talking about Empowered Communities and the Healthy Welfare Card?

Mr Hill : Yes. We want the card to come because we can see that as a tool, along with what they are trying to do with the five norms through Empowered Communities. So this is just a tool that will help us deal with one part of it.

Senator SIEWERT: How have you consulted individuals in Kununurra and Halls Creek?

Mr Hill : Sorry? Have we consulted with—

Senator SIEWERT: With individuals rather than organisations—with individuals that will be affected.

Mr Hill : At the moment in Kununurra it is very hard, because we do not have the resources or the staff to do that individually.

Mr Trust : We have used the membership of the organisations to filter down to the individuals associated with them. There has been community forums organised where individuals were invited to come in and to listen to the presentations on EC and the card. So we have not gone out to individual families. What we have done is used forums to invite people to come in, and we have advertised it through organisations and social media and by talking to people who have come to a centralised sort of forum to listen about where we wanted to go and what it was all about.

Senator SIEWERT: Over what period of time have you been doing that consultation?

Mr Hill : We started talking about 18 months ago.

Mr Trust : Probably at least 12 months ago and maybe a bit longer than that. There has been an appetite for change here for quite some time. In regards to Kununurra, for at least 12 months to 18 months we have been having forums and getting people to think about where we need to go and what we have to do. It has probably been around that time frame.

Senator SIEWERT: Where are you up to now with the process? Ceduna has signed an MOU. Are you anywhere near that process?

Mr Trust : We have not signed an MOU. We have written to the government expressing our interest in being a trial site. In talking about specific locations, we have not decided on the specific actual geographic area as yet and we have not actually signed an MOU as to what it is. The next point coming up is to make a decision on those specific details.

Senator SIEWERT: As part of that process, are you negotiating what services and support package will be provided to do with the other side of the card—the services that go with it?

Mr Trust : Yes, very much so. We have not decided on the details of that, but the government is very much aware that there has got to be huge amounts of service that come in, whether it be alcohol rehabilitation or drug rehabilitation, housing and so on. We do not actually have a detailed list of things that we want on the table, but they are aware that we are going have a wraparound support list that goes with this trial site to make it work.

Mr Hill : Further to that, we actually aligned all our program across the eight organisations at the last forum we had at Argyle diamond mine. It is for each of those organisations to come back on what wraparound services they would like to see happening that is relevant to their programs and come and deal with [inaudible].

Senator SIEWERT: Are you maybe able to send us a list of the eight organisations?

Mr Trust : I can do.

Senator SIEWERT: That would be really appreciated. The process in terms of how you develop up, or have in place, the family commission, or the equivalent of it—Professor Marcia Langton was talking to us about that sort of process this morning. In the legislation you can form a community body that can make the changes about what the split is between how much is on the card and how much cash you can take. Have you given any thought to that process?

Mr Trust : Yes, very much [inaudible] with a community panel that looks at individual cases. We have not decided on what the split should be. We are using the empowered community inspired norms as a guide to assessing people in terms of where they are at. No, that is very much the case. We are wanting to include that as part of the trial. The government has indicated to us that that will be considered as well. We have not got to the point of policy decisions, how the panel will be selected, and that is probably coming up for discussion.

Senator MOORE: I am wanting to know, from your point of view in negotiating this process, what is your understanding of where the department is at with making sure that the new card system is working?

Mr Trust : In regards to if we were to introduce it to make sure that it is working.

Senator MOORE: We have not had the department before us yet, but just the technical aspects. We have just had Mr Forrest talking with us and he was really clear that this new system is not the debit card, and to disassociate this trial—

CHAIR: I think you mean the BasicsCard.

Senator MOORE: Yes, the BasicsCard. To differentiate this trial, which they are talking about in your community and Ceduna, with anything that happened with the BasicsCard. In the discussions that you have had with the department up to now, have they been able to explain how the technology is actually going to work?

Mr Trust : Yes, they were quite clear about that and we also did a presentation of what they told us. We actually met with two public servants from the Prime Minister and Cabinet's office yesterday in Halls Creek, that also explained in quite clearly. Except there was a question that we still need to chase up: besides getting a full time job how else can we get people their restrictions reduced? That is a question that we need an answer to so that we can let people know that.

Senator MOORE: That is the process about, if you do set up a council of elders of some kind, how that would all work. So you are still working though that process?

Mr Hill : Yes, we are. I think that is the aspect that the people, they see it as a really empowering process in having people sit as a council of elders to, not so much judge people, it is really to help people to navigate their challenges, especially with those people who have got an addiction or alcohol problem. We work through and answer how we can work out that. The information that we are getting from the older people is that the desperately want something like this because the situation that we are seeing before us is a declining one in terms of where we are going for our future. We think that we have just going to have to give this a go to try something new.

Senator MOORE: Right. We will be asking the department about the technicalities of the business, because you would remember at the start of the previous process there were difficulties with the technology. That was a big question people were talking about.

Mr Hill : Some people have been raising that as an issue in terms of the use of an EFTPOS card. Using the EFTPOS card system for buying fuel and food or whatever is fairly common practice throughout the Kimberleys—in the towns, anyway.

Senator MOORE: And it is working.

Mr Hill : Yes. I think that is something that obviously has to be got right to make sure it is a smooth process.

Senator MOORE: Do you have any idea of how many people in your region are part of the social security system? Do you have numbers?

Mr Hill : No, we do not. Kununurra, of course, is going to include probably more non-Indigenous people that are receiving social security benefits as well. The other issue up here is that there are quite a few people now that are currently on the BasicsCard. I understand same of them—a lot of them, actually—have opted to go on it to stop harassment from family and friends for money all the time. We do not actually know numbers and we cannot give you that information.

Senator MOORE: That will be part of the discussion into the future, I am sure. In terms of the BasicsCard that is now working, according to your expectations, from the discussions you have had—and you have spoken with Senator Siewert about the consultation—are they clear about the differences?

Mr Hill : The BasicsCard, from my understanding of it, is that in this case now it is triggered by a child protection issue.

Senator MOORE: In WA, yes.

Senator SIEWERT: All voluntary.

Mr Hill : If a family is not looking after their children properly or whatever and there are issues there then that triggers, possibly, going onto the BasicsCard. I think there is a good understanding of the difference between the two systems. Obviously, some of the older people who are on pension earnings are not going to be affected by this anyway. As this gets working, it will probably be clearer. But I think that people do understand the difference between the two.

Senator MOORE: I think that in the Ceduna trial it is going to be open for people to be on it voluntarily if they are on a pension. So there is that aspect of voluntary, if people want to sign up. From your understanding, if you are agreeable to it, what would be the timing you would be looking at for moving your community into the process?

Mr Hill : We are looking at some time next year, maybe March or April next year. Obviously we have got to go through the other processes before that in terms of the package, the wraparound supports, and making sure all the mechanics work and so on. We are probably looking at around that time frame, but we are not hard and fast on it.

Mr Trust : Just further to that, we have actually mentioned to Alan Tudge and Caroline Edwards that we need to know exactly how we are going to assist people in trying to get off that card, besides full-time employment. You have single mothers with a couple of kids who cannot have full-time employment. There was another question that was raised yesterday about places like Halls Creek where there is not all that much employment around. You have got many young people sitting in the East Kimberley Job Pathways for four hours a day. If they are going to be affected too and get only 20 per cent of their dollars—it was raised yesterday—why should they go and work four hours a day if their money is going to be restricted anyway?

Senator MOORE: Yes. Have you gentlemen seen the MOU that has been signed in Ceduna?

Mr Hill : No, I have not seen it.

Senator MOORE: It might be useful just to have a look at what has been signed in Ceduna. They have actually listed a number of the support services—it says in the MOU—that may be provided, and we had evidence from the different Aboriginal corporations this morning from that area. They have an expectation that if those services are not in place and provided, they would be unprepared to go ahead with the trial. Have you thought that far ahead regarding the services? You have discussed with the previous two senators what you believe is needed in your community to actually provide the support. Have you thought about whether those services are part of the trial or there is no trial?

Mr Trust : What we basically said is: 'What do you need to make this trial work? Let's go and look at providing that.' So that is where we are coming from. At the end of the day, we want to see this trial work, because we do not think that the status quo that we have here is sustainable. For us to go and just throw something out the window because we think that something was slightly less—obviously we want to see this trial work. So our thinking is not, 'Either do this or we're out of here.' There is to be none of that sort of thing at all. And the advice that we have got from government is, 'Well, if you're going to need these things to make this work, let's go and do it.' So we are assuming that is going to happen.

Senator MOORE: Do you feel as though there is a guarantee to that?

Mr Trust : Without having actually anything in writing at this stage, the information that has been told to us is, 'What you guys tell us to make this work, we'll go and do.' But obviously the next stage is to come to some sort of agreement in terms of an MOU or whatever we think we need to have some sort of written agreement. But we have not got to that point yet.

Senator MOORE: Do you want a written agreement before you start?

Mr Trust : I think there is probably going to be some sort of MOU that we are working towards, and I think that we will come to that point, and I think we are moving towards that now. We are looking at setting up a group of leaders that liaise and consult, or the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet consults with us fairly regularly, on a weekly or biweekly basis.

Mr Hill : Weekly, they reckon.

Mr Trust : And that will be all part of the process in terms of our discussion. And we need to do a bit of research as well as to exactly what we do need to ensure that is in place, and we have got a general idea from our opt-in organisations who are involved in the various areas such as housing, rehabilitation services and so on about what they think they will need for a big demand on their services. We will be drawing on their expertise and experience. In terms of our discussions with government, those two are what we need to put in place.

Senator MOORE: And my last question is: do you want the state government signed into this MOU as well?

Mr Trust : Yes, very much so. I think that that is the next stage for us, and we have verbal reports from senior state government people saying that they are very much wanting to get involved with this as well. So I think that, once we are clearer on what the actual process is and also what we want to put on the table, the state will then look at that and become involved as well. They should be. They have to be involved, because a lot of the services provided around here, such as child protection, housing, education and so on, are all state government services, so they have a big role to play.

Senator MOORE: Thank you very much.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. That is the end of the time for this section. Thank you very much for coming and giving evidence.

Mr Trust : Thank you very much.

Mr Hill : Thank you.