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Tuesday, 14 August 2007
Page: 52


Senator ADAMS (4:21 PM) —I would like to add my support for the government’s intervention in this very serious matter. As a number of my colleagues have spoken about the five bills comprising the legislative package for the Australian government’s response to the national emergency relating to the welfare of Indigenous children in the Northern Territory—the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007 and related bills—I intend to speak about the progress being made in addressing these issues. The package of legislative changes and policies that we are debating today are the most important Indigenous affairs initiatives seen in decades. The government has acted quickly to protect children and stabilise communities and, in the longer term, will support them to a position where they can become functional and provide employment opportunities for their residents.

The Little children are sacred report highlighted horrific abuse of children in remote communities and it is a tragedy that the Northern Territory government did not take action earlier to try and rectify this situation. The Australian government’s actions are not a response to this report; rather, the government is acting in response to the significant reports of abuse and potential neglect of children.

I think it is hard for most people in Australia who are enjoying benefits of an economically prosperous nation to understand the appalling conditions that communities in the Northern Territory and the Kimberley area of my state of Western Australia are experiencing, and the feeling of despair amongst the people. The coordinator of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre, Mr Wes Morris said:

There’s absolute despair in the community. There’s so many families within the community who have been affected in such a deep and personal way.

Even more incidents of abuse have been revealed since the emergency response began, including 138 recent charges for child sex offences in the Kimberley. The financial commitment in excess of $580 million made by the government in 2007-08 is an indication of how seriously it views the situation in the Northern Territory. However, the commitment does not end in financial terms. The government has appointed a task force and a task force operational group to advise and coordinate the on-ground effort to address this emergency. The operational group reports to the task force and provides day-to-day professional administrative and coordinating support.

Magistrate Dr Sue Gordon is the chairperson of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Taskforce and Major General David Chalmers is the operational commander. Both task force members were witnesses at the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee inquiry into the Northern Territory national emergency response legislation held here last Friday. Major General Chalmers informed the Senate committee of progress to date and the way in which the emergency response aims to protect children and to stabilise communities in the crisis area.

A three-phase operation is being undertaken, with the first phase being called stabilisation. This will last for approximately one year and will involve increased policing, gathering information via survey teams and child health check activities, and establishing government business managers in most communities to oversee and improve the delivery of government services. The second phase, the normalisation phase, will involve longer-term measures which will improve health standards, education outcomes, and employment and welfare management. This phase will last for two to five years. The exit phase will involve handing over responsibility for ongoing coordination and management to the relevant Commonwealth and territory government agencies.

Now we ask: what has happened so far? The task force operational group, led by Major General Chalmers, is based in Alice Springs and in seven weeks has achieved an enormous result. By week 6, all 73 identified communities had been visited by either an advanced communication team or a survey team. Eighteen additional police have been placed in seven communities and another 11 communities have been identified as policing priorities. The Northern Territory Emergency Response Taskforce is working closely with the Northern Territory Police to have an additional police presence in place in these communities by mid-September. This represents a 100 per cent increase in the policing of remote communities achieved in less than three months.

Four government business managers are in place and have begun to manage the delivery of government services in nine communities. Another two managers are undertaking induction training. Further government business managers are being selected from a remarkable response of 272 applications received from public servants. Health assessment teams have been deployed to a total of 17 communities so far, and over 705 child health checks had been performed up to 9 August. An estimated 17,000 children under the age of 16 in the Northern Territory will receive a child health check. These are to be completed by 30 June 2008. Amoonguna, Mutitjulu, and Titjikala, with the support of community brokers in each community, are undertaking Work for the Dole activities, and this is starting to work very well. So far there are six community brokers in place, supporting 10 communities.

Over the next few months the task force will continue the expansion of the police presence, finish the surveys and child health checks, and roll out the teams assisting communities with changes to welfare provision and employment opportunities. It is very encouraging to see the response by professional volunteers and public servants who have offered their services and gotten involved in this program, as well as the 520 health professionals, teachers, community and social workers who have also registered their interest.

The task force headed up by Dr Sue Gordon has met with the broader community—and mainly women, in particular—reassuring them and informing them of what the government is achieving in its further aims and objectives. I read in the West Australian today that women elders in Fitzroy Crossing are now calling for a 12-month ban on takeaway alcohol as they feel this is one of their biggest problems. As a member of the Senate Community Affairs Committee inquiry into petrol sniffing in remote Aboriginal communities, and the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts national parks and marine parks inquiry, I travelled extensively through the Northern Territory and the northern parts of Western Australia and had opportunities to speak with a number of the women elders in these communities. Even though that was last year, they really were happy to have someone to talk to about all the problems that have evolved in the communities as well as the petrol sniffing.

Having worked as a nurse in the northern part of Western Australia and having had the opportunity recently to visit all of these communities, I feel that I have a really good understanding of what is going on. I say to Dr Sue Gordon that she is certainly working on the right people, because I believe that women will lead the communities out of the problems that they have, so long as they have support to do that.

Once again, it was evident, with some of the initiatives, that the younger girls, some of them only 15 years old with small babies, were being given help to raise their children, to learn to cook, and to do all of the home services that perhaps they did not learn because their mothers were not present. I think that the women have really got it together and I support them in every endeavour to get programs up that they will be able to continue with to be able to help in this issue.

At the inquiry on Friday, the government was criticised quite strongly for trying to push this legislation through. During the committee hearing into this package of legislation, I asked Dr Gordon how delaying the introduction of the proposed measures would reduce the incidence of violence and abuse. She answered:

Every day there is a delay means there is another child at risk one way or another. That could be health-wise or it could be abuse or something like that. I do not know why we need to delay any further. I have pointed out to you to the best of my ability and under the premise that I work, which is in the protection of children—

Dr Gordon is a very distinguished woman who has worked as a magistrate in the Western Australian children’s court for 18 years, so she certainly is a very worthy chairperson of the task force. And she went on to say:

We are signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and we really have to start putting them first.

So I congratulate her and her task force on the way they have started and I hope they will be able to continue and truly make a difference.

The permit system was something that was raised by many of our witnesses on Friday. I would like to spend some time discussing how changes to the permit system are linked to child sexual abuse, as there has been a lot of misinformation about what the government is doing. In her opening address to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee inquiry into the Northern Territory national emergency response legislation, the task force chairperson, Dr Sue Gordon, quoted from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, article 19.1, which states:

State Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.

Dr Gordon went on to say:

The permit system as it stands has not had this effect. Most abusers are known to the victim. The permit system as it stands has protected the offenders. The legislation before the parliament addresses this.

During the recent review, the government consulted widely, listening to concerns, and decided to modify the permit system, not to abolish it. It is important to note that 99.8 per cent of Aboriginal land will not be affected.

There are three very important things about the changes. Firstly, the changes do not apply to sacred sites, private land or to the vast majority of Aboriginal land. Permits will not be required to access common areas, townships, road corridors, barge landings or airstrips on Aboriginal land, which is the Northern Territory act land. The current system has not stopped crime, child abuse, drug running or violence. Only the restoration of law and order will enable these communities to stabilise to a secure environment. The current system sets these communities up as somehow different. It encourages the people who live in these communities to have different expectations and aspirations, to think that they are different, and to think that they do not need to worry about having a job or about sending their children to school.

Secondly, the government recognises that there may be situations where flexibility is needed. The changes provide that, even in these towns, permits can still be granted to restrict access to the town if there are special occasions or ceremonies.

Thirdly, a piece of paper that determines who can come into a community cannot replace an adequate police presence. The removal of the permit system in communities will be backed by a strong police presence to prevent inflows of undesirable people, and the police will certainly know who these people are. A proper police presence will also let people report abuse, without fearing retribution. Removal of the permit system will promote strong, safe communities, because people throughout Australia should have access to the same opportunities and experiences.

A strong argument would be required to shut particular people off from the rest of the community—that has not been made here. Having closed communities can allow bullies to dominate and stand over people. For example, closed communities have limited services and economic opportunities. Those who control these resources can use access to them to bully others. And we know that, in some cases, this has meant that some people have been bullied and abused, and others have been intimidated into not reporting abuse.

Closed communities have also meant less public scrutiny. Normally, where situations as grave and terrible as those in the Northern Territory come to light, solutions are pursued relentlessly by the media, which often leads to investigations and legal and policy changes. While journalists do not directly instigate prosecutions, they can help to create a groundswell so the community can say, ‘No more’. Closed communities make it easier for abuse to stay hidden. And closed communities also prevent the free flow of visitors and tourists that can help to stimulate economic opportunity and job creation. The Northern Territory report tells us that some girls have seen their only life option as becoming someone’s wife. Job and economic opportunities allow people to imagine a life of economic independence, and to see meaning and education.

The question is often asked: why are we removing the permit systems in these towns? But a more pertinent question is: why would you have such a system in the first place? Why set up Indigenous people living in towns as different and prevent them from having access to normal experiences that see most Australian communities prosper and thrive? It would be easier to understand why some people argue so strongly for the permit system if these towns were well-functioning havens, but the Little children are sacred report clearly tells that this is not the case. The permit system has been one of the culprits in hiding an ever-worsening situation of child abuse from the public gaze.

I will quickly speak about a visit to Balgo, where I was able to go down to the senior women’s law and cultural centre and spend several hours with them talking about a program that they were funded for. It is called Kapululangu and it is a ‘circles of cultural learning’ project. It was established by the Wirrimanu senior law women in 1999, but the history dates back to 1983. It is about trying to ensure that the younger people in the community are able to learn about their culture through cultural camps, workshops for young women and children, hunting trips, ceremonies, cultural support for men and boys and cultural exchange with other Indigenous people. The Kapululangu women elders believe that the law and culture must be vital elements of any strategy for the youth in their community. Half the population is under 25 years of age. They have many challenges facing them, and now these challenges need to be met. Dr Zohl de Ishtar, who was a coordinator of the Kapululangu, said:

We are not pretending that Kapululangu is the only answer to the problems facing Wirrimanu’s residents. These problems are multidimensional and have many causes and thus need to be tackled on all fronts at the same time by all of Wirrimanu’s agencies working in unison ... The elders are not calling for a nostalgic return to the past ... They are keenly interested in the future of the people. They know that unless the foundation of law and culture is strong all the bricks of education, health, employment and housing will continue to fall down.

We are not rushing this legislation through. I think it is very important that it backs up the work that is being done and will continue to be done. I commend the government on what it is doing and will do everything I can, and I know that there is a very strong will in the community, to support this action and to protect children, which is what this legislation is all about.