Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download PDFDownload PDF 

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
STANDING COMMITTEE ON LEGAL AND CONSTITUTIONAL AFFAIRS
10/08/2007
Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007 and four related bills concerning the Northern Territory national emergency response

CHAIR —I welcome witnesses from the Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory. If we are able to get back online with the NPY Women’s Council later then we will do so.

Ms Havnen —I have with me here this morning Ms Raymattja Marika, a senior traditional owner from Yirrkala; Mr John Ah Kit from the Jawoyn Association and a member of the Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory; and Mrs Bev Manton from the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council. We would like to thank you for the opportunity to appear today.

CHAIR —I invite you to make a short opening statement, at the conclusion of which senators will ask questions.

Ms Havnen —As many people would know, the Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory have developed a preliminary response to the federal government’s proposed emergency intervention in the Northern Territory. We would like to formally submit that particular document to this committee for its consideration.

CHAIR —Do you have that with you and are you happy to table it?

Ms Havnen —We do and yes, we are.

CHAIR —Thank you. The secretariat will receive that.

Ms Havnen —Very briefly, the combined organisations represent Aboriginal organisations from Darwin, Tennant Creek, Alice Springs and Katherine. The preliminary response that we developed takes into consideration a two-stage response to the problems of child abuse in our communities. We believe that it is absolutely imperative and important that there is an immediate response to try to combat child sexual abuse in our communities. However, more importantly, we are absolutely concerned that there should be a comprehensive plan, fully costed, with financial commitments that addresses the underlying causes within a specific time frame, and mechanisms that would ensure transparency and ongoing independent, rigorous evaluation.

I also suggest that these stages are not mutually exclusive. We absolutely believe that, given our current predicament, a long-term plan must be developed, negotiated in partnership with our people and our communities, and be implemented as soon as practicable. Further, we believe that a nationally led agency is needed to oversee and monitor the coordination and planning for the necessary services, infrastructure and support for communities in the Northern Territory to ensure that all of our children are protected. Furthermore, the lead agency must take overall responsibility for the development and resourcing of the emergency response and development phase.

As part of our submission we will also include not only our preliminary response from the combined organisations but a snapshot, a short document, which outlines some of the critical data and information with respect to the current context of the Northern Territory, together with letters that we have sent to the Prime Minister requesting that we meet with him and that people consult and work with us. The final document we provide is a copy of a 10-point plan developed by the Secretariat of National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care. It is a 10-point plan in response to the Northern Territory’s situation and it goes to the heart of preventing child abuse and neglect in our communities. They are all my comments, thank you. I will hand over to Raymitja.

Ms Marika —Thank you for the opportunity to talk. I would like to talk about the context of my community and to have a say. There is no connection between the abolition of the permit system and child abuse. In Yirrkala the permit system has not stopped economic development: the arts centre does big business locally and internationally. If there are problems and corruption in Indigenous community organisations, then the answer is not to change the permit system. The answer is to invest in governance and capacity building with the Indigenous people. Yolngu people have not been listened to. We know what needs to be changed. We know our own communities. We need more resources for education, health and employment opportunities for our young people.

Yirrkala school does not have enough desks now for our teachers. We do not have enough desks or chairs for any extra children. Quarantining welfare payments will not make our children go to school. We want our children to go to school. We want our children to learn. There is no evidence that taking welfare payments from us will make our children go to school or help us to make our kids go to school. Could the government senators please provide evidence to explain to me how the abolition of the permit system and the taking of our land will stop child abuse. We Yolngu parents desperately want our children to grow up healthy and well educated. We expect the government to treat us with respect. That is the only way: to listen to us, to talk with us and work with us. That has not happened with this legislation. This legislation feels like a return to the old protection system under which the government decided everything about our lives. That did not work. Thank you.

CHAIR —Thank you for the opening statement, Ms Marika. Just to let you know, the government senators’ views and the views of all members of the Senate committee will be expressed in the Senate committee report when it is delivered on Monday.

Mrs Manton —I am here today as Chairperson of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council to demonstrate the solidarity of the Aboriginal people of New South Wales with the Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory. As a mother and a grandmother, I share the Prime Minister’s concerns about the physical and sexual abuse of our children. As an Aboriginal and proud Australian and proud member of the Worimi nation, however, I cannot comprehend how our parliament could consider the introduction of such draconian and radically discriminatory legislation.

The New South Wales Land Council represents 121 local Aboriginal land councils and has a combined membership of 23,000. We are absolutely appalled by these proposed laws, the main thrust of which is clearly a punitive social welfare experiment and the theft of hard-won land rights. I urge the Senate to at least be seen to be properly examining these proposed laws. A short deferment of the vote until next month would enable the Senate to give consideration to the proposed actions of the Northern Territory government when it responds to the Anderson-Wild report on 21 August.

All available personnel assisting in this Northern Territory intervention are already on the ground working, and the speeding up or slowing down of the passage of these bills will not affect this work in any way. I thank you. The council will also be providing a written submission to the committee.

CHAIR —Thank you. Is that likely today?

Mrs Manton —Not today.

CHAIR —No. Mr Ah Kit.

Mr Ah Kit —I want to say from the outset that, if we are going to do things properly in respect of the Territory and this intervention, then let’s do them properly. As a former minister in the Territory government, this is worrisome to me. There is chaos. People out there are really concerned. Their future once again is being decided by politicians. I had a look, in the passageway as we were coming to this room, at the Barunga Statement. I was involved as a director of the Northern Land Council when we put that statement together back in 1988. My, haven’t we gone backwards since? What we have today is a winding back of the clock to the welfare days, to the missionary days, to the superintendent days.

I think what is happening with this legislation going through the House of Representatives and now moving on to the Senate and being rushed through is totally unacceptable. It is very much un-Australian. There has been no consultation, no respect for Indigenous people and Indigenous leaders in the Northern Territory. As far as the minister is concerned, we are a bunch of riffraff. It is okay for him to be representing his electorate in this parliament, but it is not okay for us to be Indigenous leaders representing our people’s interests in the Northern Territory.

Let me make it clear: we have no problems with the legislation that deals with getting on top of the child sexual abuse stuff, the pornographic stuff, the policing. There are not the rivers of grog that are the perception that the Prime Minister and Minister Brough are putting out there. There are problems with alcohol in the Northern Territory. If you do your research, you will find there are 10 communities that have liquor licences. Four of them are only allowed to sell mid-strength or low alcohol. The other six, which are all in the Top End—none in Central Australia—have their licences. But the alcohol is getting in through vehicles, aircraft and boats. The policing is more than welcome, because people want to live comfortable lives, people want to live in harmony with the land and people have cultural responsibilities.

We do not agree with how the government has tied the land rights stuff to this. It is a tricky way of going about taking people’s hard-won rights away, rights that were recognised through the referendum so that we could be treated as equal 40 years ago—now we have the anniversary and it is being wound back—rights that were recognised in the High Court with Wik and native title, rights that were given to us by this very parliament in respect of the Aboriginal land rights act. There has been no consultation. It is a national emergency response. If you are serious enough, you should be up there, Prime Minister, with the Leader of the Opposition, to talk to us and to tell us why you have cloaked it in this national emergency response—otherwise Indigenous leaders see it as smacking of political opportunism on the way to a federal election.

We have problems with the compulsory acquisition and the special purpose leases around the town camps, which are almost as good as freehold. You need to talk to the organisations that control those and you need to talk to the Territory government. I am sure some agreement can be struck, if there were a headlease on offer for those organisations like Tangentyere et cetera. But there is no real consultation. And when the minister puts $60-odd million on the table, that is not new money—that is ABA money. It is unacceptable. That money comes from mining royalty equivalents on Aboriginal land. That money has always been determined by the Aboriginal Benefits Account committee. Now the minister controls it. I think the minister is morally wrong in putting money from that ABA into his own electorate when it was in Maroochydore, or doing that sort of thing. We feel that that money is hard-earned. It comes off deals that are on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory. As I say, we believe he is morally wrong.

CHAIR —Mr Ah Kit, if you could wrap up your opening comments we can leave some time for questions.

Mr Ah Kit —Sorry, Mr Chair. I was wondering whether, because we got in early, we could still go to 10 o’clock.

CHAIR —Yes, you can certainly go to 10 o’clock. We are going to have some questions from the senators and you will have an opportunity to answer those questions.

Mr Ah Kit —In closing, the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act is unprecedented and unacceptable, especially when we saw that the former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam signed that convention back in 1975. With the social security stuff, there is no right of appeal. These are all concerns. I may leave it there and allow the senators to ask the panel questions.

Senator CROSSIN —Can I start by asking what you would like to see happen immediately?

Mr Ah Kit —We would like to see some respect being shown by the Prime Minister and Minister Brough coming to the Territory, sitting down with Indigenous leaders and talking about what they are doing and what their intention is and working out with us how we move forward together. The first recommendation of the Wild-Anderson report mentioned a cooperative relationship. That was totally ignored. So we are having all this stuff forced on us. There is a lot of Commonwealth taxpayers’ money being thrown at this intervention. We want to make sure that there is value for the dollar. We could do this properly if we were invited to have input and be a part of the team and the planning.

Senator CROSSIN —Ms Havnen, I am assuming you have sent your response and the 10-point plan that has come from SNAICC to the Prime Minister and Minister Brough?

Ms Havnen —If you have a look at the preliminary response that was prepared by the Combined Aboriginal Organisations, it addresses all of the key elements of the federal government’s proposed intervention plan. It deals with child protection issues, alcohol and a range of other matters. I think the thing that has concerned us the most is that, while it took us two weeks to pull that response together, it has been extremely disappointing to note that there has been very little response, if anything, from the government or from the minister. Given the wealth of experience, knowledge and expertise that we have as Aboriginal people and organisations, the proposals that are contained in our submission are very well-considered ones. These are things that we know work and things that we know need to be done as a matter of urgency.

Senator CROSSIN —So there has been no attempt from this government to actually engage with you in a discussion about this emergency response and how it might be used as a way forward?

Ms Havnen —Unfortunately, that has been the case. We have, first of all, provided an open letter to Minister Brough, asking him to engage and consult with us. To that we have had no response. We have subsequently submitted a copy of the combined organisations proposals to the minister and have written to the Prime Minister on two occasions now, to no avail. We find, as I think others have said here this morning, that it is extremely distressing and disrespectful to the very senior people that have been here in Canberra particularly over the last week or so. It bewilders us completely that the government could possibly believe, if you are going to try to have any kind of intervention in our communities that will be effective, that it could be achieved without the cooperation and active engagement of Aboriginal people.

Mr Ah Kit —Might I add that there was an offer to Pat Turner and Olga to have a briefing on Monday afternoon at three o’clock. That was rejected because the rest of the delegation were arriving that night. The minister was asked for a more convenient time on the Tuesday. As we understand it, he rejected that and said that that was the only time slot in which he could organise a briefing. Although on Tuesday morning at 10 o’clock there was a briefing offered over at Woden by bureaucrats, we did not have the time to do that, because we had other appointments arranged around Parliament House and felt it would not be worth while leaving the building and stopping the lobbying that we had continued doing early on Tuesday morning.

Senator CROSSIN —There must be programs and projects in communities that are working successfully. Has there been any suggestion from this government that those programs will continue? Is there talk that they may be defunded or not funded? What are you actually hearing is happening on the ground?

Ms Havnen —From the concerns that we have—and I am sure that they were raised and covered by Tangentyere Council—the nature of the services and programs that they provide to town camps have been greatly underresourced for a very long time. Very quickly: one of the programs that Tangentyere provide is a banking and financial service for their clients. Many of those people do not have basic literacy and numeracy skills, do not speak English as a first language and do not have proof of identification to be able to operate a normal bank account. Should Tangentyere cease to exist, some 600 to 800 clients per week will have to be handled by the particular banks who manage their accounts. It begs the question as to how they are going to be able to do that efficiently and effectively, given the language and other difficulties that I have identified. That is one area that is of enormous concern to us.

The other thing I mention very quickly—having chaired the task force and the review of the Alice Springs town camp—is that in Alice Springs we were very conscious about the lack of attendance at school by Aboriginal kids, particularly the boys. Since the beginning of this year there has been a program in place called the Clontarf program. This is designed specifically to re-engage boys back at school. In the six months that that program has been operating, for the kids that are involved in that program we have got something like a 92 per cent attendance rate—significantly better than attendance by non-Aboriginal boys in the same schools. Those kinds of programs are particularly valuable because, first and foremost, they are not coercive—they are not punitive. Secondly, they are enormously effective in terms of changing behaviour and getting the outcomes that we are all seeking—that is, improved school attendance, changes in behaviour, and for kids to transition into work.

It would be very helpful if this committee would perhaps pay some closer attention to that particular program. I can think that there are a whole range of other things that are particularly effective and are probably ‘good buys’, if you like, in terms of government. The one that I would mention again would be to call on governments to invest in the rollout of comprehensive primary health care programs and comprehensive primary health care services rather than this ad hoc, fly-in fly-out series of visits by health professionals and health experts. It does not work. It is costly. You get much better services and much better outcomes by providing sustainable services.

Senator CROSSIN —In finishing, you would put to the committee that further investment in programs such as Clontarf that encourage children to come to school would have a far better result than, say, quarantining welfare payments?

Ms Havnen —Absolutely. The experience in Halls Creek, where this was done on a voluntary basis—trying to quarantine Centrelink payments—was that kids did not attend school. It was evaluated by DEWR. It was found to be spectacularly unsuccessful. It did not improve school attendance. It was inordinately expensive for them to do. It begs the question as to how you can do this to 40,000 people across the whole of the Northern Territory in some 600 communities.

Mr Ah Kit —There are lots of programs that have been cut. Senators, a situation has developed in the Territory since the death of ATSIC. People are still getting over that. People are trying to come to grips with the new processes that have been put in place, and now these programs to a certain extent are being cut. The abolishment of CDEP or new changes to the rules with a different name is just going to take people backwards. It creates all this confusion, is unnecessary and should be done better. In closing later on, I will be making an appeal to senators on how they should be dealing with this.

Ms Marika —And for some families in Yolngu communities CDEP is the only means of income. We ask that you continue to support and fund many of our really good existing programs that operate in our communities like the businesses and that you let us keep those instead of taking control of all the things that we have worked hard for. The government also has not provided us with measures and assistance to deal with the overcrowding in housing and how they will deal with that.

Senator PAYNE —Ms Havnen, could you explain how your organisation is brought about; is it an elected body?

Ms Havnen —The Combined Aboriginal Organisations of the Northern Territory have worked together cooperatively on and off over the last 20 years. Meetings have been held at various times—at some times more regularly than others. They have certainly been conducted at regional centres—for example, in Alice Springs; the organisations within that town include the medical services, the legal service, land council, resource organisations and so on. They have been meeting regularly, particularly during this period; likewise in Tennant Creek, Katherine and Darwin. There is voluntary attendance at those meetings, and I think people are generally quite comfortable about the level of representation and the way in which we have been delegated to continue to do this work.

Mr Ah Kit —That came out of some 20 years ago in the eighties when—

Senator PAYNE —I gather that.

Mr Ah Kit —there was a national coalition of Aboriginal organisations and the Territory went back and established their Combined Aboriginal Organisations throughout the Territory.

Senator PAYNE —So is the coordinator’s position an elected position or a remunerated position; how does that work?

Ms Havnen —It is a nominated position, which I currently hold in a voluntary and unpaid capacity.

Senator PAYNE —Thanks. The question of the permit system has been raised in your presentations this morning. I understand last year in about October the minister initiated a review of the permit system. Did the Combined Aboriginal Organisations make a submission to that review?

Ms Havnen —Not that I am aware of.

Senator PAYNE —It has been a significant issue of concern according to the evidence that you have given this morning. Why wouldn’t you have made a submission to that review?

Ms Havnen —Principally because the organisations, as I say, have thematic areas of expertise and the areas in which they work tend to be according to the particular services they provide—that is, legal services, medical services et cetera—whereas the permit system is something that is managed and administered by the land councils and therefore it is appropriate that the land councils take the lead on responding to those it issues.

Senator PAYNE —So in making your submissions today you are not doing that from an expert position; you are doing it from a different position. I am not sure that I understand why it is an issue for you now but was not an issue for you then.

Ms Havnen —It is something that we try to work together with in much the same way that I suppose government agencies would not necessarily make specific comment across every single issue that happens in government. It is left to lead agencies to do that work and provide that information. The point that I would also make is that of course the land councils are also the representative bodies for traditional owners and they have a statutory responsibility to respond to those matters.

Senator PAYNE —In the discussion you were having before with Senator Crossin in relation to valuable programs, I was not sure what indication you had received from government that indicates those are under threat; could you clarify that for me?

Ms Havnen —Is not so much a question of whether or not they are under threat; I think the point we are trying to make is that those programs and services that are currently delivered that we know are enormously effective tend to struggle for the kind of resourcing and the long-term secure funding base that they need in order to enable them to be rolled out and expanded.

Senator PAYNE —But you don’t have any indication from government that these are under threat, do you?

Ms Havnen —There are in some cases—

Senator PAYNE —Which cases?

Ms Havnen —I know of two youth programs that in the last two months have not been funded.

Senator PAYNE —Does that relate directly to this particular package of legislation?

Mr Ah Kit —Yes.

Senator PAYNE —I am seeking clarification because I am not aware of the particular programs of which you are speaking.

Mr Ah Kit —There are two youth programs which many kids at risk attend. One is run by Michael McLean, out at Palmerston, and the other was run by Mark Motlop—both Indigenous footballers with excellent reputations. These programs have been cut by the Commonwealth and the kids will be back out on the street. More kids are going to be wandering around getting up to mischief, rather than attending these very good programs. That is just another concern we have with respect to kids out on the streets not being able to go to these types of activities that keep them in healthy mind and shape.

Senator PAYNE —How does this relate to the emergency response package we are discussing today?

Mr Ah Kit —Because many Aboriginal kids go to those programs.

Senator PAYNE —I understand that, but I thought the link you were making before—and please correct me if I am wrong—was that as a result of the package of legislation we are looking at today the flow-on effect was the abolition of other programs. I have seen no evidence of that, and I am trying to understand how you make that link.

Ms Havnen —What we are trying to say in relation to the vast sums of money that are currently being spent and invested by government is that, while we are grateful and pleased to see the level of attention that we are finally getting for our needs in our communities, what concerns us enormously is that there seems to be an extraordinary amount of money being committed in this first phase for things that I guess will support and staff the bureaucracy, look after the administration and house the bureaucrats and managers out in those communities and yet there does not appear to be a parallel investment in those areas of urgent need, particularly in early childhood, maternal and child health services and Indigenous housing in our communities. That is an enormous matter of concern for us. The point we are also trying to make is that the round of current health checks, as they are currently being conducted, are not a sustainable way to deliver health services to people. It begs the question as to whether or not those funds might have been better used if we had tried to strengthen and support the services and health programs that we know are currently working and that are underresourced. I am not making the argument that you are actually taking money away from things. I am just saying that I think the money could have been better invested elsewhere.

CHAIR —Senator Payne, can we make this your last question?

Senator PAYNE —We can, and I thank Ms Havnen for clarifying that point for me. She answered the question that I was asking.

CHAIR —Thank you. Senator Bartlett.

Senator BARTLETT —What time have I got? Till 10. Mr Ah Kit, I got the impression from your statement that you did not have a problem with the pornography components of this legislation in general terms.

Mr Ah Kit —No, we do not. Look—

Senator BARTLETT —That is fine; I only have two minutes. Are there other bits that you think are acceptable—that might not be perfect but are acceptable?

Mr Ah Kit —All that stuff that takes away that rubbish and gets rid of it is stuff we support. We do not see how there is any connection to the land issues and the permit issues. And we are willing to work with both governments, if we get invited.

Senator BARTLETT —I appreciate that. Are there other measures, perhaps the alcohol measures or the community store measures, that you think are at least—

Mr Ah Kit —The community store stuff.

Ms Havnen —The community stores approach is a little bit problematic, given that some of the stores are independently and privately owned enterprises by those communities or community organisations. To attempt to control and regulate our stores in this way I do not think is particular helpful. It might have been better perhaps to invest in strengthening the capacity of stores and store operators to run them better. I can understand what the government is trying to do in terms of standardising and protecting the access, I suppose, to healthy foods and so on. I was involved with the Fred Hollow stores programs so I am familiar with the approach that the government is taking.

To respond very quickly to your question around alcohol, again I think the issue has been correctly identified but the strategies and approach are misguided and misdirected. As Mr Ah Kit has already said, out of 640-odd communities in the Northern Territory, between eight and 10 of our communities have liquor licences, which are enormously restrictive. The major problem for us, and it has been for the past 20 years and more, has been the ready availability of alcohol in towns. The supply side has not been addressed, nor have the pricing issues being adequately addressed. I think the sale of takeaway alcohol is the biggest problem we have and that happens in our major urban centres, not out bush.

CHAIR —Senator Bartlett: last question.

Senator BARTLETT —Apart from in your major centres, such as Alice Springs and Katherine, is it also able to be purchased at roadhouses?

Ms Havnen —That is correct.

Senator BARTLETT —So it is not just in towns; it is also in roadhouses.

Ms Havnen —The issue is the availability of takeaway alcohol at roadside outlets.

Ms Marika —It is not just alcohol; it is substance abuse. Hardcore drugs are available there also. Measures need to be taken into account for music, such as that by Tupac.

Senator SIEWERT —We heard this morning from the government departments, and you will be aware that they believe that these measures that are being introduced qualify as special measures under the RDA. Firstly, what is your opinion about them? Secondly, what do you think will be the consequences of the provisions that are being introduced by these bills?

Ms Havnen —I am not a lawyer; however, I would say that we do not hold the view that these are special measures for our benefit. I think that they are somewhat misguided, although perhaps well intentioned. I think the consequences of the quarantining payments and trying to regulate people’s behaviour will be additional problems for our major urban centres, as we will see an increased drift into towns. These are towns and regional centres that are already overstretched. They do not have the necessary visitor accommodations. Nor do the services in these regional centres have the capacity to meet this extra inflow of people.

It also worries me enormously that people may potentially drift across borders into other jurisdictions, such as Western Australia and South Australia, where people already have social and cultural connections and ties. The other thing that I think will happen is—and we have had anecdotal reports of this already from Darwin—increased numbers of women and children in town living in the long grass. I am not clear at this stage as to why this might be happening. That is some work I will need to do when I get back home. But if the intention of these measures is to protect women and children then this displacement of women and kids into town, into the long grass and into town camps cannot possibly be a better outcome for them.

Senator ADAMS —You mentioned ATSIC. Were any initiatives put in place while ATSIC was still established regarding reducing any child abuse or domestic violence?

Ms Havnen —Up until the cuts to the ATSIC budget when the Howard government first came into office, ATSIC did have a dedicated women’s program. That program funded women’s resource centres and provided safe houses for women and children in situations of crisis. When $400 million was taken off the ATSIC budget, the board of commissioners had to make a call on which of ATSIC’s so-called discretionary programs they would not continue to fund. It was a question of sport and rec, arts and culture or the women’s program. Unfortunately, it was the women’s program that was cut. I think that some of the problems that we see today in our communities are a direct result of those funding cuts.

Mr Ah Kit —I would like to make a short closing statement. Our evidence is before you. We are appealing to the Senate. The legislation is going to the Senate next week. We ask for senators to individually get across the issues and understand them and concentrate a fair bit on what is right and what is wrong, but more so on the tying of permits and leases and the land issues to the rest of the stuff. We are seeking for the Senate to defer those matters to give senators an opportunity to get their heads around them, get more advice and then debate them in the next sittings of parliament, beginning 10 September.

CHAIR —Thank you for your evidence today.

 [10.04 am]