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Tuesday, 14 August 2007
Page: 48

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (4:21 PM) —The incorporated speech read as follows—

This is defining legislation. It is defining because it has the potential to be the impetus in addressing an issue in our nation’s history that has been neglected and unresolved for decades. It also has the potential to do irreparable damage and cause a set back for hard fought rights achieved over those decades for Indigenous Australians. It could draw together non-partisan and cooperative community support in giving critical attention and resources to resolve the detrimental imbalance of life experienced by thousands of Indigenous Australians. It also has the disturbing potential to polarise our society and perpetuate discrimination and ignorance.

We all hope that we can progress the search for solutions to the problems facing our Indigenous communities, despite the fact that we are today to debate such momentous legislation with so little opportunity to scrutinise the Government’s proposals and to meaningfully contribute to measures and outcomes that all Australians can support.

In 1967, 91% of Australians voted `Yes’ to the fundamental value of equality for all Australians. That we are having this debate now, some 40 years on, demonstrates forcefully that the potential of the 1967 Referendum has not been realised and highlights the failure of successive Governments to address fundamental issues of inequality for Indigenous communities.

The abuse of children in any society is intolerable. Their protection is a priority, particularly where children live in communities lacking basic health, education and support services. Immediate attention is needed to address issues of abuse committed against women and children in Indigenous communities. The urgency and the priority of this matter cannot be overstated and is acknowledged by all Australians.

On 21 June, the Prime Minister publicly reacted to the ‘Little children are sacred’ report and labelled the situation a National Emergency.

It is worth reflecting that the sickening and horrifying abuse to which the Prime Minister referred in his announcement has been present and prevalent throughout his entire term as Prime Minister. It is a prolonged and complex problem that has been largely ignored by this Government, despite the consistent pleas of the Democrats for the Government to make a responsible and appropriate response to domestic violence and child sexual abuse, not only in the Northern Territory, but Australia wide.

According to Professor Peter Botsman’s ‘Putting Indigenous Child Abuse in Perspective’, there is clear evidence that Indigenous child abuse is occurring at significant levels in other states. Indeed, the NT has the second lowest instance of child abuse substantiations on a per capita basis. Clearly, this is a national problem and requires a responsible federal response; not the Government flexing its constitutional muscle to give the appearance of addressing a problem it has in fact neglected. The answer is not in brandishing a few perpetrators as political trophies and declaring the job is done.

Many are also questioning the Government’s credibility and qualifications to take the actions they have instigated and are now following up with this legislation. It is once again acting in a non-consultative, ignorant and simplistic fashion—an ‘all guns blazing’ approach that this Government has adopted on so many issues in the past. There are ramifications for privacy, self-determination, civil rights and culture. It would seem this Government is comfortable with the concept of ‘collateral damage’.

In the appallingly brief time available to scrutinise this raft of legislation, the Australian Democrats have been able to identify a number of specific concerns:

  • the powers conferred on police in respect of alcohol restrictions are extraordinary. An officer is entitled to enter into private property—as if it were a public space—and take a person into custody if the officer believes that the person is intoxicated;
  • the requirements in respect of public computers mean that a failure to develop a computer policy is a criminal offence, and privacy rights will almost certainly be infringed;
  • the creation of compulsory leases will suppress Native Title rights, almost certainly contrary to s.10 of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975;
  • the conferral of exclusive possession and quiet enjoyment rights onto the Commonwealth means that many indigenous people with an existing interest in the land may be left without enforceable rights to remain, and may be excluded at the whim of the Commonwealth;
  • while the Commonwealth will enjoy exclusive possession, and can displace an Indigenous owner of the land, the Commonwealth will not be liable for any damage to persons or property ‘as a result of the condition... of buildings or infrastructure on the land’;
  • the ability of the Indigenous owner of the land to terminate the lease is removed, regardless of whether the Commonwealth discharges its obligations as a tenant;
  • In relation to the compulsory acquisition provisions dealing with town camp areas, the Minister is conferred with a remarkable general power to specify that an existing Commonwealth law has no effect if it would regulate or hinder the doing of an act in relation to the land that is compulsorily acquired. This power could be used to exclude, for example, the provisions of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999;
  • Compensation for compulsory acquisition is not guaranteed unconditionally. The compensation provisions have been carefully worded in a clear reflection of availability of compensation in the Territories in light of the decision in the Kakadu case (Newcrest Mining (WA) Ltd v Commonwealth (1997) 190 CLR 513). It may foreshadow that the Commonwealth may force compensation claimants to the High Court in an effort to re-litigate that case.

Now, some of these concerns may be capable of resolution—but clearly not if the parliament is not allowed a reasonable opportunity to scrutinise and amend the legislation. Regardless how well intended the legislation may be, the process is paramount. But enough has already been said about that by my Senate colleagues.

Turning back to the intent of the legislation, I thoroughly commend the medical staff and community workers who are giving their time and expertise. However, I would emphasise that a short-term tour of duty cannot alleviate the entrenched deficiencies in the provision of health services in these communities and the disparity in sustainable health services between remote and urban Australia.

The UN recently provided a telling statistic that Australians are among the longest living people in the world. Australian women, in particular, are ranked third and have a life expectancy of 84 years. Yet ABS information as at 2001 indicates that the average life expectancy of an Indigenous Australian female was estimated to be 17 years behind the Australian average, and on a par with countries that have been deprived of basic public services through fragile governments, struggling economies and civil conflict.

In 2001-02, expenditure per Indigenous person on primary health care, including that paid through the Medicare Benefits Scheme, was less than half the expenditure per non-Indigenous person. In 2004-2005, the hospitalisation rate for Indigenous people with potentially preventable chronic condition was 8.2 times the rate for non-Indigenous people. For Type 2 diabetes, the Indigenous hospitalisation rate was 6.5 times the rate for non-Indigenous people.

This is a tragic and embarrassing reflection on a Government that takes credit for our recent national economic prosperity, yet may not be so quick to face up to its failure to include remote communities in this prosperity and to provide basic services, infrastructure and resources to Indigenous communities.

I am glad that the Minister for Health and Ageing has toned down the intrusive and compulsory nature of the medical examinations that were planned for children in the Northern Territory, and is now offering immunisations, family medical history checks, and routine developmental checks. But after all, is what the Minister is now proposing not precisely what should have been available as a matter of course in any developed country?

The relationship between doctor and patient is personal and delicate at the best of times. The relationship between a child and doctor requires added tact and insight. This is even more vital for health professionals entering Indigenous communities who have additional hurdles of culture, isolation and language to overcome. Any proposal to intervene in Indigenous communities will need to ensure that women and children are not further traumatised.

And, what about ongoing care and support? What guarantees do we have that the required resourcing to promote social, emotional and spiritual healing on both individual and community levels will be forthcoming? The Government has so far articulated only a very narrow response to a complex range of interrelated social issues. We struggle to address the social dysfunction, child abuse and break down in family relations in a culture we know. How prepared is the government to pursue the complex socio-emotional issues of shame, violation, abuse and community dysfunction in Indigenous communities across Australia?

This intervention may, however, provide us with an opportunity to assess educational opportunities and outcomes for Indigenous Australians—not only to remote Indigenous communities, but to urban non-Indigenous Australian as well. As in the area of Health, there will be no quick-fixes but rather an obvious need to build long-term capacity and accessibility.

  • In 2006, 21 percent of 15 year old Indigenous people were not participating in school education. Only 5 per cent of non Indigenous 15 year olds were not participating in school education.
  • In 2006 Indigenous students were half as likely as non-Indigenous students to continue to year 12, and it was a similar picture for post-secondary qualification completions.

Participation rates at all educational levels for Indigenous students must be addressed with strategies that will overcome geographical, economic, cultural and linguistic barriers, and promote full participation in education and training.

Maybe bridging the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia is even more about education for non-Indigenous Australians. There is an obvious need for schools in both the public and private sectors to offer Australian Indigenous language and cultural studies, and while this kind of proposal may superficially seem idealistic and expensive, such measures and initiatives are necessary to break down the narrow community perceptions that underpin the Government’s actions.

I would also question the Government’s approach to maximising participation in education for Indigenous children—clearly this must be built on strong community support and cooperation. But the penalties for non-attendance at school are a little scary. Effectively, the legislation links family assistance payments to school attendance for all people living on Aboriginal land.

This raises a number of further questions:

Will the new universal obligations tying social security benefits to school attendance be enforced differentially? Will remote communities come under especial scrutiny as opposed to the larger urban centres? Do these measures breach the Racial Discrimination Act?

And just suppose all children were to show up for school, meeting their obligatory welfare requirements, would we have the classrooms and teaching staff required to meet this need?

This enforcement proposal may be consistent with this government’s approach on most issues, but it will not address complexity of service delivery to Indigenous communities.

Clearly, some core issues have been neglected in this legislation and some key voices are not being heard. The Combined Aboriginal Organisation (CAO), representing over 40 community and Indigenous organisations in the Territory, has asserted that on the face of details explained so far, the emergency measures lack insight into effective child protection interventions needed to address the crisis. Olga Havnen expressed that the main concern with the current approach by the Government has been a failure to understand that there are some really deep-seated, underlying structural issues that need to be addressed. She said that principal amongst those will absolutely be the need for adequate housing. She goes on to say while an increased police presence and health checks are welcomed by the CAO, in the longer term it’s actually about having better access to a whole range of services which are currently not there.

The reality is there is a critical lack of resources in education and primary health care. There is a distinct lack of training and personnel in the provision of these services to Indigenous communities. We need long-term commitment to perpetuate training opportunities among both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It must be funded, it must be staffed and it must provide the necessary infrastructure.

Further, as legislators, we hold that those who violate the rule of law are subject to the consequences of breaking the law. There is no room for perpetrators of these hideous offences to think their crime is acceptable. But policing is as much about building trust and cooperation in the local community as it is about force and coercion. Women and children in these communities must be able to feel safe and empowered to report offences where they occur. Recent arrests and prosecutions in SA and WA reflect the effective place of community liaison and education.

We must now, more than ever, highlight the work of many service providers in remote areas and the contribution of Indigenous communities and individuals, such as the Apunipima Cape York Health Council’s (ACYHC) Family Well Being program: this is a prime example of Indigenous communities working effectively to make a positive contribution to the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Let’s imagine for a moment that the Government has the best of motives and intentions in resuming control of NT land and abolishing the permit system. Many Indigenous people perceive this as a threat to hard fought land rights and as a backward step for traditional custodianship of the land. This Government has been spectacularly lacking in legitimate steps toward Reconciliation, and this move will do little to bridge the gap that currently exists between remote Indigenous and urban communities.

Ten years on from the Bringing Them Home report and still with no formal apology on behalf of the Australian Government for the Stolen Generation, any suggestion of protective removal of children from families and or communities will be greeted with suspicion and inevitably rekindle community memory of disempowerment, dislocation and trauma.

Indeed, the recent ruling in SA awarding $525,000 to Bruce Trevorrow highlights that it is now well overdue to adopt a national comprehensive compensation package for victims of the Stolen Generation and for us to finally say sorry and address the trauma caused by the removal of many thousands of indigenous people from their families as children.

I commenced my remarks by noting the significance of this legislation in Australia’s history. I do so because it takes us to the core of Reconciliation, and what it means for Indigenous people to have a sense of equality, self-determination and empowerment as Australians. Now is the time to listen, not to lecture, and to promote Indigenous voices—in all levels of Government. I particularly look forward to the first Indigenous female Member of Federal Parliament. These are voices that need to be heard.