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Tuesday, 14 August 2007
Page: 66

Senator POLLEY (5:14 PM) —I too rise to speak today on the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007 and the associated legislation. This issue has sparked quite a bit of interest—and, yes, we have been flooded with emails—but, unfortunately, I do not think we have had enough interest in this issue for a very long time. It is a very emotional issue. There are many aspects of these bills that I have concerns about, but I would like to speak about some of the things that Labor would like to do and will be doing and some of the benefits of this legislation.

Labor believes that the safety of children is paramount and has given in-principle, bipartisan support to this initiative. Throughout the last six or so weeks Labor has used a simple test when assessing the government’s proposal: will it improve the safety and security of our children in a practical way? We have applied that test and, on balance, Labor will support these bills. I believe that addressing child abuse and neglect in the Aboriginal community is rightly designated as an issue of urgent national significance. I believe that federal, state and territory governments have obligations to take both immediate and sustained action to improve the lives of all children, especially those in Aboriginal communities.

In essence, the protection of children must be paramount when their vulnerability has been laid bare. The Anderson-Wild inquiry stated that ‘sexual abuse of Aboriginal children is common, widespread and grossly underreported’. We have heard countless reports that our Indigenous communities are fraught with problems—alcoholism, petrol sniffing, child abuse—and I agree with the previous speaker, Senator Heffernan, that we, the community, are all to blame for the lack of action on these issues. However, the reality is that the Howard government have shown no leadership on these issues for the 11½ long years that they have been in government. They have now chosen to act because we are on the eve of an election.

I am pleased that additional funding will be allocated to boost the number of child protection workers, which will increase their capacity to enforce legislation and to protect children. However, I must say that giving parliamentarians just a few days to examine some 500 pages of complex legislation is very poor form indeed—and something that, since I have been in this chamber, for the last two years, I have come to expect from this out-of-touch and arrogant government. Federal Labor believes that we need both an urgent and long-term approach to secure the safety and wellbeing of children at risk. We have to back positive community leadership and put in place the building blocks for a more sustainable future in remote areas.

Labor supports the provision of additional police officers in the Northern Territory intervention and thanks the states that have seconded officers. It must be stressed, however, that we need a long-term strategy to train more police officers and to put them in place in these communities permanently. On the very few visits to the outback that I have made and in the hearings that I have participated in I have noted that one of the concerns of these communities is that many of the doctors and the police are only in the community for a short period of time and, with that turnover, there is a loss of the connection, the understanding of what is happening and the trust that they build up with these people. That is why Labor has committed to recruiting an extra 500 Australian Federal Police officers. I also support the measures designed to clean up publicly funded computers, to get rid of internet pornography and to use filters to keep it out. In addition, I support the new controls on supply and possession of pornographic material in prescribed areas.

Federal Labor has already made a number of commitments to long-term initiatives to improve the lives of our Indigenous Australians: to close the Indigenous life expectancy gap in a generation and halve the Indigenous child mortality gap in 10 years; $261 million for comprehensive coverage of Indigenous child and maternal health, parenting support, early learning and intensive support for literacy and numeracy; $30 million to provide an extra 200 teachers for the at least 2,000 Aboriginal children who are not enrolled in school—at all—in remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory; to rapidly recruit more Indigenous officers in the Australian Federal Police under a $200 million Australian federal policing plan; and $15.7 million towards social and emotional wellbeing through more Bringing Them Home counsellors and Link-Up services, particularly in remote areas. I believe these positive, long-term measures are good, solid foundations for protecting the interests of the Indigenous community.

Labor believes early childhood intervention is one of the best means of providing a pathway out of disadvantage for many Indigenous children. In cooperation with the states and territories, and in consultation with Indigenous communities, a Labor government will implement a comprehensive early childhood strategy for Indigenous children, including initiatives that start well before preschool. Indigenous communities—urban, regional and remote—will be priority areas for the expansion of early childhood services, particularly with respect to Labor’s commitment to universal access for four-year-olds to early learning programs. Labor acknowledges the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the child protection system. Preventative and proactive measures focused on early childhood development and family strengthening are most effective in reducing this overrepresentation.

Labor strongly supports the principle that, where a child has to be removed, every effort is made to place that child with relatives, kin or another Indigenous family. After all, the paramount priority in a child’s placement is the safety and wellbeing of the child. Labor recognises the gravity and extent of substance and alcohol abuse, family violence, child abuse, and sexual assault in some Indigenous communities. Labor believes that these issues should be seen as health issues as well as law and order issues. Labor will provide ongoing support to community initiatives to ensure strong interventions are put in place that break the cycles of abuse, rehabilitate individuals and families and strengthen social norms.

Protecting children requires all of us to take responsibility, to act. Responsibility has to be taken by individuals to take positive action for themselves, for their communities and especially for their children. Responsibility also lies with governments to provide community safety, health services, education and, most importantly, employment and economic development. All of these things are necessary to enable Indigenous children to grow up healthy and happy. Governments require a long-term vision for the protection of children and a plan which therefore has some basis of long-term success. Therefore, once we have dealt with the immediate task of protecting children, we must turn our minds to the reforms and investments required to provide long-term hope for these children and the wider Indigenous community. We need hope and they need hope. We need leadership and we need the Australian community to look at this issue with their hearts and with the capacity to put the economic resources that are needed into these communities.