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Monday, 7 September 2015
Page: 6126

Senator O'SULLIVAN (QueenslandNationals Whip in the Senate) (17:55): I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (No. 2) Bill 2015. Whilst I have an interest in all aspects of this legislation and the associated amendments, one of my primary interests is the impact that this policy has had and is continuing to have on our Indigenous communities.

My home state of Queensland has a number of Indigenous communities spread all over the state, some in particularly remote parts of the state. The challenges that confront those communities, while similar, can be somewhat magnified or exacerbated by remoteness and by the challenges that generally face people in those communities on a day-to-day basis. I have spoken in this place previously of a number of recent visits that I have had to the community on Mornington Island, which is in the Gulf of Carpentaria, off the northern part of Australia. Although I move around our Indigenous communities and have done so all my life in various forms, I was taken aback by the circumstances that confront the 700-plus residents of that community of predominantly Indigenous islanders.

One telling tale, which will lead me into the core of my contribution here, took place on my second visit, the day we were departing. I had dealings there with a number of professionals and social workers who were involved in the delivery of social services and justice on the island, and I learnt that, in court that week, collectively the residents had faced charges for over 200 offences—crimes, misdemeanours and simple offences. Just think about that. The entire community population is less than 1,000, yet there were 200 charges across that community in just a seven-day period. As I left, it was telling that there was a charter aircraft of significant size there to take away any people had been given custodial sentences.

Whilst we all support the fair and reasonable application of the law, there are circumstances that present in these communities that would seem to expose people to behaviour on a scale relative to their population that we do not experience elsewhere. The removal of people who are given custodial sentences means they are moved completely out of their community. It is not simply a case of a son or a daughter, a nephew or a niece, being sent to jail for a week, a month or 12 months, where you can continue to give them that family support. These people are moved thousands of kilometres away from their community to do their time. It is really an indictment, I think, of Australian society that we still have factors of this scale in these communities.

As we delved into the reasons for that behaviour, we were to learn that they were pretty much the typical things that one might expect to see when looking at the data. Writ large, of course, was alcohol abuse—and I will come back to that briefly, in a moment. There was evidence of illicit drug-taking and the impacts of that. There was also evidence of gambling and to a much lesser extent the use and distribution of pornography. Coming back to the alcohol abuse issue: it is accepted by many who live in these communities and from the work that has been done in the social sciences that many of these people have a much lower tolerance to the consumption of alcohol. It has an effect on their behaviour a lot sooner than one might expect when looking at the capacity of an average Australian to consume alcohol without it necessarily having these behavioural impacts.

The other thing that was quite noticeable was the age bracket. It seems that the abuse of alcohol on this island, in many of our Indigenous communities as well as in the poorer socioeconomic sections of our general communities has no respect for the age of the people who are involved. There was ample evidence to show that children as young as nine or 10 had from time to time consumed alcohol and been affected by it to the point where their behaviour caused them to be involved in acts or omissions that attracted the legal proceedings that I made reference to earlier.

This is an island where the sale or possession of alcohol is prohibited. I am concentrating not just on this island but on the concentration of these problems—the problems that give rise to the need for the type of legislation that we are debating here. These problems were so much more acute, so much greater as a percentage of whole, on the island that it is useful as a case study to make the argument for the legislation that we are talking about here for these people to be able to manage their income arrangements. We found that the alcohol was being manufactured illicitly on the island and then sold of course at very inflated prices, without any regard whatsoever for whom the buyer or consumer of the alcohol may be. We also saw an increase in the manufacture of methamphetamines, particularly ice, in many of these communities. Again, these things require money and resources to be able to be established in the first instance and then they are sold at quite inflated prices to people who have an addiction. Gambling is a lesser problem on the island but it is very evident in many other communities around the state, particularly the extent to which it impacts on Indigenous populations in some of the metro communities. A point made by Senator Xenophon—and a very important point—is that oftentimes we ignore the fact that the issues in the lives of these people are as a result of their addictions. Many of these people cannot control what they do; those who can, obviously choose not to.

As I moved around this community and also around many other Indigenous communities in my time here and before, one thing that was common was the impact on what we might regard as the essentials or necessities of life. There is a serious body of evidence that these are the first things to suffer, particularly the buying of a good quota of quality food for a family and clothing. There is an impact when people do not have the capacity to deal with the costs associated with their housing or accommodation and, indeed, the general utilities of life. What we have is quite an abnormal situation in many circumstances, and the ones who clearly suffer the most are the younger generation within these communities—the children, even infant children.

Many of the responsible parents, notwithstanding their efforts, find it very difficult to manage their circumstances because oftentimes they may have not just one other person in the household who abuses alcohol and/or drugs but multiple adults who are in the business of abusing these things. In fact, there was evidence that entire households can suffer in one form or another from addiction in one or more of the areas that I have discussed. Often what you have in these communities are very powerful strengths, and one that we can learn from of course is the network that happens within families. Indeed, it is very common for the burden of child care to fall upon a relative or a community leader. They might find themselves, as they have deposed to me on my visits, with 15 or 20 children seeking refuge in their home, looking for food and other essentials and necessities of life. If these essentials were not provided by the relatives, social workers, teachers or educators in the communities then these children would quite literally be left to perish. So, where you have a situation where the adults, the people who receive the money and who are meant to provide these essentials of life—food, clothing and protection with housing and utilities—do not and there is evidence that they do not, then, as far as I am concerned, any responsible government—and we are a responsible government—has a complete duty of care to do whatever it can do to assist these families who are in such a plight to manage their lives.

It is well known that in many of these communities we have serious financial illiteracy. There is evidence that people can dispose of the entire household income within the course of one day without having any regard whatsoever for what happens on the other six days of the week until they are returned to a position of having the potential capacity to deal with these essentials of life. In those circumstances it is not just a case of children going about with hungry bellies or not being able to go to school because they do not have the appropriate clothing or because they do not have the capacity to get from A to B for a day or two. This can go on for an entire week, and where these problems are systemic in those households they can of course go on for weeks and months. For some families, sadly, tragically, they go on for a lifetime. These income managed funds prevent at least a large part of the income being used for these illicit purposes. They create an environment where the money can only be expended on those essentials and necessities of life that I described to the chamber earlier. The trials of this income management scheme have proven effective, in effect allowing the management of what I might refer to as forced budgeting, in the sense that that portion of your money can only be spent on these particular categories.

A very substantial number of people have reported, including some of the people who have been involved in the scheme, the social workers who are at the coalface day in day out supporting these families, the community leaders and the peer reviewed research that has occurred on behalf of the government to see that this scheme is operating. On the material available to me it would seem that a substantial number of the people have declared that this program makes their lives easier. These are people who have participated in this policy setting or are observers of the impacts of it. It allows people to manage their money, albeit still in short calendar time frames. It makes these people feel safer. That is a very important statement. It does not just fill their bellies. It does not just put food on their tables. It does not just put clothing on their backs. It makes many in these communities feel safer. I expect that that comes in part from the normality that is restored, at least in part, to some of these households and homes because they have an ability to deal with the basic management of their financial affairs in regard to the essential aspects of their lives. To a person it would seem they all reported that it improved their lives.

We talked briefly before about the fact that many of these homes and many of these families are impacted by alcoholism, which can lead to domestic violence, and indeed it makes a contribution in a more general sense to community violence. What we have is a situation where even if there is a responsible adult in a cohort in a family situation they do not always have the ability to manage the finances of that household and to make provision for the things that we have discussed here in the contributions today, even if they have the capacity to do so. Accordingly, trials and policy settings of this type are needed to bring stability back into these homes. They are needed as tools for the responsible adults to be able to manage the households and to make that journey towards normality. It reduces neglect. It reduces homelessness where people are displaced as a result of their living circumstances. We have had child protection staff now universally reporting on the need to continue to adopt this particular scheme.

I was very pleased to hear Senator Xenophon reporting to the chamber that this bill had been carefully considered. Senator Xenophon does not agree with the government all of the time, and I think that his words of wisdom should cause others to consider what has happened here. He has reported, and I am prepared to report, that the government has very carefully considered these measures. It is not as if we are into greenfield ideas here. These ideas have been working very successfully now in our communities for a long period of time. This is about extending what appears to be a very successful program, inasmuch as it impacts on the income management side of things. There are incentives involved. As you know, the legislation provides for matched savings. These are additional incentives not only for these families to manage their money. It is there to provide them with incentives to put away some money for that rainy day circumstance. It quarantines 70 per cent of the income, which ought to reflect the cost of living where they are. I think the most telling point is that over two-thirds of the people who had been put on the scheme volunteered to remain on the scheme. If this point is ignored by those in this chamber then they no longer will be able to declare that their position reflects the position of the people who have benefited from this.

We had a contribution earlier about listening. Well, you need to pin your ears forward as I say it one more time: two-thirds of the people—

Senator Siewert: You do not know what you are talking about, Barry.

Senator O'SULLIVAN: Do not tell me I do not know what I am talking about, Senator. Two-thirds of the people who have been on this scheme have continued on the scheme on a voluntary basis. If you want to make your contribution in contradiction of the contributions made by people like Noel Pearson, I am afraid that I am going to have a deaf ear to you and two ears facing towards North Queensland while I listen to that community leader. He is no friend of the government on every occasion, I promise you. If Noel Pearson has something to say, he has a complete disregard for the political identity of those on the other end of his sharp tongue. If he supports it and two thirds of the people support it, then I commend to this chamber that we support it also.