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Wednesday, 22 August 2001
Page: 30042

Mr ALBANESE (9:58 AM) —The primary purpose of the Reconciliation and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Legislation Amendment (Application of Criminal Code) Bill 2001 is to revise criminal offence provisions in seven statutes in the Reconciliation and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs portfolio so that they harmonise with the principles of criminal responsibility found in chapter 2 of the Criminal Code. The amendments also remove gender-specific language in three of those statutes and replace it with gender-neutral language. The Australian Labor Party support this bill and take the opportunity today to put our concerns on record, not just about this bill but about the general direction of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs under the Howard government.

We often debate, regarding the Reconciliation and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander portfolio, about indigenous-specific funding and about targeted programs, and which political party is, was or will be, spending more on what. There is no doubt that this is useful. Due to the discrimination against indigenous people in this nation, it is clear that there is a need for specific programs to try to alleviate the poverty and the social and economic conditions which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people currently are forced to continue to endure.

What often gets missed from this debate is how mainstream programs offered either by the Howard government or a Beazley Labor government would affect indigenous people. There is a need to focus on that as well, because it is clear that indigenous people are missing out. This is an issue beyond party politics. We have been celebrating our Centenary of Federation this year, but during its centenary the parliament has not had a great record in its treatment of indigenous Australians.

This week we have had a debate about health and education. The health and education of indigenous people particularly need to be addressed, as well as housing and other basic issues. There is a crisis particularly in relation to indigenous housing. In a survey last year, it was found that one-third of all properties occupied by Aboriginal housing organisations were in need of major repair or replacement. Of the 348 communities throughout Australia with a population of 50 or more, 58 had failed water testing standards, 57 had 20 or more power interruptions in just one year and 204—that is over half—had sewage leaks or overflows. These figures are an indictment of government policy and programs and show the need for a concerted government response from whichever party comes to government at the end of this year.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics did that survey. It was an independent survey. In my view, the federal government has not adequately responded to that survey at this point. In areas of health and education in Australia, this government's vision and John Howard's vision is a blank page. Over the past week, the Prime Minister has repeatedly asserted that he has done enough for health and education and his sole priority will be the mysterious on-again, off-again income tax cuts—unfunded, untargeted and unbelievable. It is difficult to see how income tax cuts will help the bulk of indigenous people who are, without a doubt, amongst the most disadvantaged members of our society.

This is one of the differences that we see between the major political parties in this parliament. It is something that is deserving of debate. On one side of the House, the Howard government really get excited about tax. They only get excited when talking about income tax cuts—

Mr Lloyd —Labor gets excited about increased taxes.

Mr ALBANESE —Again, we hear fake rhetoric from the opposite side of the House alleging a scare campaign about taxes. But that is what they concentrate on—taxes and tax cutting. They do not focus on what taxes are for.

Taxation is only a means to an end. Taxation is there to provide services to all Australians: health, education, housing. In particular, we need to be able to provide those basic services for the people who are most vulnerable. The essence of income tax is redistribution. The Labor Party, it is true, opposed the tax package which imposed a GST at a flat rate—and so taxed people not according to their incomes—and which in return gave income tax cuts primarily directed to benefiting the wealthier people in this country who got the most out of those tax cuts. That is the problem with the tax package which was put forward by the federal government. When we speak about the need for government programs and the need to address the severe needs of indigenous people, we are talking about what taxation is for. We need to look at service delivery, particularly the needs of health and education.

Indigenous people have the poorest education outcome of any group in this country. Although indigenous tertiary participation rates rose between 1986 and 1996, it appears that they have subsequently plateaued and are now falling. According to the government's own department, indigenous commencements and enrolments have fallen dramatically in the last year—by 15.2 per cent and 8.1 per cent respectively—to either below or just above what they were in 1996.

In health there remains a threefold discrepancy between indigenous and non-indigenous mortality rates. To put this in context: the mortality rate for Australia's indigenous population is approximately twice the Maori rate and 2.3 times that of the indigenous population of the United States. While the indigenous mortality rate in Australia hardly fell in the two decades between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s, the rate declined by 44 per cent in New Zealand and 30 per cent in the United States. Income tax cuts are not going to help government, or indigenous people on the ground, to deal with these problems. The only way to address these problems is through a commitment to delivering services.

To look again at government policy: the ACOSS report on breaching, which was released on Monday, 13 August, identified the most vulnerable people as being the most targeted and the most breached. Indigenous Australians are three times more likely to be breached than non-indigenous Australians. They literally go without income after the third breach. Penalties such as $1,300 for the third breach mean that indigenous people are then put into the situation, just as other vulnerable groups are, of having to get money by perhaps less legitimate means and going into a cycle of poverty and crime. That then helps to explain why there is such an atrocious level of incarceration amongst indigenous Australians, and why they are so over-represented in our jails and juvenile detention centres. We need a much more compassionate response than the `shoot first, ask questions later' policy of the Minister for Family and Community Services. Centrelink's official policy is now being imposed on these indigenous Australians.

Without a doubt, indigenous people as a group are amongst the most disadvantaged members of our society. I wonder, then, how the Prime Minister can say, as he was reported by the Sydney Morning Herald over the weekend as saying:

We make our commitment about income tax, claiming the next bite of the cherry off the back of having invested a lot of money already in public and social infrastructure.

If only that were true. For indigenous Australians it certainly is not the case, and we well recall that the first cut made by this government, upon coming to office in 1996, was to the ATSIC budget—a cut of some $450 million.

When it comes to a debate about the law and how it relates to indigenous people, yesterday we saw a great example of cooperation and consultation being used, rather than the court system being used, to resolve areas of potential conflict between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the Tjurabalan people and the Western Australian government for their negotiation of a consent agreement on native title, which settles some 26,000 kilometres in Western Australia as a result of the Tjurabalan native title claim. This is a very practical example of where dialogue, negotiation and settlement achieve a greater outcome and certainty for both indigenous and non-indigenous people rather than the old approach of conflict and expensive legal action—of which the only winners are the lawyers.

The Labor Party believes that the key to resolving these native title issues is through negotiation rather than through legal action and that the money which is being wasted on the courts in the legal process would be much better spent on reaching lasting agreements which enrich all of us, not just the people directly affected. Last night on the television we saw positive images of the Premier of Western Australia, Geoff Gallop, and the indigenous people of the Tjurabalan native title claim in Western Australia celebrating that cooperation. This is preferable to images of lawyers going in and out of court. That negotiation has been extremely successful in that it provides certainty. It gives them the right to live on their land; it gives them the right to make decisions about the land's use and protects sites of cultural significance; and it gives certainty in terms of the mining community and the use of that land for all the participants.

I congratulate those people who have participated in that agreement and, once again, call upon the government to reject the approach, which is bad one economically in terms of legal costs and a bad one socially in terms of producing conflict. I urge the government to move towards supporting a negotiation regime of native title. I commend the bill to the Main Committee.