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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 invite you to make a short opening statement, after which we will allow for some questions.

Dr Gordon —Because General Chalmers’s statement is a little shorter than mine, I am going to use a little bit of his allocated time.

CHAIR —That is no problem.

Dr Gordon —Thank you for having me here again this afternoon. As a magistrate of 18 years standing in the Perth Children’s Court of WA, I deal with crime and child protection on a daily basis and I am appalled that, in this current climate, child protection is not given the prominence that I would expect. Children are the most vulnerable people in our community and I am appalled every day at what I read and hear is happening to these special people. I came to this task force with this background. I have not allowed myself to become caught up with other issues but have maintained my focus totally on child protection.

I would now like to bring to the attention of senators the fact that Australia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into force on 16 January 1991, but we are still not treating children as a priority for protection across Australia. Part 1, Article 1, deals with the notion of what a child is. Article 2.1 says:

States Parties shall respect and ensure the rights set forth in the present Convention to each child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child’s or his or her parent’s or legal guardian’s race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status.

Article 3.1 states:

In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.

Both the Prime Minister and the minister, in relation to these interventions, said that all action at the national level is designed to ensure the protection of Aboriginal children from harm. Article 3.2 states:

States Parties undertake to ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being, taking into account the rights and duties of his or her parents, legal guardians, or other individuals legally responsible for him or her, and, to this end, shall take all appropriate legislative and administrative measures.

The legislation currently before the parliament addresses this. Article 6.1 states:

States Parties recognize that every child has the inherent right to life.

Article 6.2 states:

States Parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.

The legislation currently before the parliament addresses this—in particular, for improving child and family health. Article 19.1 states:

States 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.

The permit system as it stands has not had this effect. Most abusers are known to the victims. The permit system as it stands has protected the offenders. The legislation before parliament addresses this. Article 19.2 goes on to state:

Such protective measures should, as appropriate, include effective procedures for the establishment of social programmes to provide necessary support for the child and for those who have the care of the child, as well as for other forms of prevention and for identification, reporting, referral, investigation, treatment and follow-up of instances of child maltreatment described heretofore, and, as appropriate, for judicial involvement.

The National Indigenous Violence and Child Abuse Intelligence Task Force, set up in October 2006 and based in Alice Springs, is addressing this, and the legislation currently before the parliament also addresses this. The measures related to pornographic DVDs, videos and government funded computers, which I raised with you this morning and which was brought to the attention of the government by the National Indigenous Council, also address this.

Article 24 refers to recognising the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standards of health and to facilities for the treatment of illnesses et cetera. It also states that states parties shall pursue full implementation of this right and, in particular, shall take appropriate measures to: diminish infant and child mortality; provide necessary medical assistance; combat disease; ensure appropriate pre-natal and post-natal health and care; and—more importantly—ensure that all segments of society, in particular parents and children, are informed, have access to education and are supported in the use of basic knowledge of child health, including hygiene, environmental sanitation and the prevention of accidents. The legislation currently before the parliament addresses this. Article 24 goes on to state:

States Parties shall take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children.

Abuse by a minority—and, I repeat, a minority—of men in relation to customary law as it relates to promised marriages is being addressed as well, as part of promoting law and order, which includes protective bail conditions. Article 27.1 states:

States Parties recognize the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.

The employment and welfare reform addresses this point. The minister also links the five-year township leases to this. Article 28 states:

States Parties recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity—

and goes on to address various things. Enhancing education as part of the legislative measures is aimed at addressing this article. I was appalled when I went to a school in the Territory and I found out that, while it looks good on paper that Aboriginal students are attaining year 12 level, when I asked the principal what that meant in reality, she said, ‘Year 8 or year 9.’ That is not fair to Aboriginal people. Article 33 states:

States Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislative, administrative, social and educational measures, to protect children from the illicit use of narcotic drugs and—

CHAIR —Sorry, Dr Gordon. Just a moment. Senator Ludwig?

Senator LUDWIG —I am happy for this to be tabled. I appreciate that you—

Dr Gordon —I have nearly finished, Senator, if that is okay.

Senator LUDWIG —You can still table it.

Dr Gordon —I will. It continues:

... psychotropic substances as defined in the relevant international treaties, and to prevent the use of children in the illicit production and trafficking substances.

This is currently being addressed by the drug desk in Alice Springs and the National Indigenous Violence and Child Abuse Intelligence Task Force. The permit system as it stands has not had this effect. Rather, it has protected the offenders.

I will not go through articles 34 and 36, but these are only some of the articles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child that relate to the Northern Territory emergency response. I appreciate very much Aboriginal people’s concerns regarding permits and the acquisition of townships for five years but believe that the protection of children, men and women in the communities who suffer violence and abuse on a daily basis has been completely lost in this debate. I plan, as a chairperson of the task force and as a mother and a grandmother, to remain totally focused on the best interests of children in our Aboriginal communities, and I will continue to work with the communities in the Northern Territory and with the Commonwealth government to protect children.

Major Gen. Chalmers —As the commander of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Taskforce operation centre in Alice Springs, my role is to ensure the coordinated and rapid deployment of the Australian government’s response to the crisis situation documented in the Little children are sacred report.

The emergency response aims to protect children and stabilise communities in the crisis area, and although rapid action is required I am also conscious of the need to synchronise activity in a measured way to work with communities and make best use of logistic resources. In broad terms, this is a three-phase operation. The first phase has been called stabilisation and indicatively will last a year. During this phase we will increase policing levels to improve law and order, gather information via survey teams and child health check activity and establish government business managers, or GBMs, in most communities to oversee and improve the delivery of government services. During phase two, the normalisation phase, we will introduce the longer term measures necessary to improve health standards, education outcomes, employment and welfare management. Again, indicatively this phase will last from years two to five. Finally, in the exit phase we will hand over responsibility for ongoing coordination and management to the relevant Commonwealth and territory government agencies.

What has happened so far? This is week seven of the response, and a great deal of work on the ground has been achieved in a very short time. As of last week all 73 communities had been visited by either an advanced communication team or a survey team. Eighteen additional police have been placed in seven communities, another 11 communities have been identified as policing priorities, and we are working closely with the Northern Territory Police to have an additional police presence in place in these communities by mid-September. This will represent a 100 per cent increase in policing of remote communities achieved in less than three months. Four GBMs are in place and have begun to manage the delivery of government services in nine communities, and another two are undertaking induction training. Health assessment teams have deployed to a total of 17 communities thus far, and some 650 child health checks have been performed. Work for the Dole activities have started in Amoonguna, Mutitjulu and Titjikala with the support of a community broker in each community to coordinate activity. So far there are six community brokers in place supporting 10 communities. Over the next few months we will continue the expansion of police presence, finish the surveys and child health checks and roll out the teams assisting communities with changes to welfare provisions and employment opportunities.

Senator CROSSIN —Thank you to both of you. I am not sure who will be best placed to answer this question. ‘Gather information by survey teams’: what sort of information?

Major Gen. Chalmers —The survey teams have a checklist and essentially they are gathering information on infrastructure, on the number of people in the communities, on the number of people who go to school, on the services that are available to the communities—a range of information like: is rubbish collected, is there a clinic and how often does a dentist attend the communities?

Senator CROSSIN —Can you provide the committee with a copy of that checklist?

Major Gen. Chalmers —Absolutely.

Senator CROSSIN —Thank you. Where is this information going, and who is collating it?

Major Gen. Chalmers —The information is collated in FaCSIA National Office.

Senator CROSSIN —To what extent? Will they be able to tell us after a year that all of the 70 communities have a school or 68 have a school?

Major Gen. Chalmers —Certainly. The aim is to gather a baseline of services that are available to communities—the situation in communities. The information that is coming in from the survey teams is being analysed now, and that will help us shape the response in each community. Every community is different in some way, shape or form, and so the responses will need to have a different focus in each community.

Senator CROSSIN —Surely some of that information exists?

Major Gen. Chalmers —Indeed it does, Senator. My aim is not to duplicate existing information, but there are gaps in information that we are currently filling.

Senator CROSSIN —So are you just identifying the gaps or doing a total sweep of information?

Major Gen. Chalmers —The survey teams do a total sweep. In other words, they have a checklist which they work through with the community to gather information. I might also add that the survey teams have two functions, one of which is to gather information, but the second one is to inform communities of the intervention. The survey teams will brief communities on the range of measures that are involved in the government intervention.

Senator CROSSIN —We heard this morning that this is not an exercise for communities to put down a wish list. Why is it then that some representatives of FaCSIA are asking communities: ‘What is it that you want?’

Major Gen. Chalmers —Senator, I would say, firstly, that I do not know what you heard this morning, so I cannot respond to that. Where the survey teams are asking communities what they need, they are gathering perceptions from communities as well as facts from communities.

Senator CROSSIN —So when communities say, ‘We need a bus; we’d like shadecloth over the basketball court; we’d like a swimming pool,’ where is that information going?

Major Gen. Chalmers —That information goes to both FaCSIA’s national office and to the operations centre. Some of those requirements can be met as what we call ‘tasks of opportunity’. So there are opportunities to meet some immediate needs of communities. Other ‘wish list’ items, if you term them that way, are collated at the national office.

Senator CROSSIN —So do ‘tasks of opportunity’ have a budget allocation?

Major Gen. Chalmers —There are a range of budget sources that can be drawn on to conduct those tasks. So when a task is identified then it is a matter of seeing whether there is an existing program, for example, that could be used to fund that task. In the first instance, that is what my people do.

Senator CROSSIN —When you say ‘your people’, are you talking about public servants in your unit?

Major Gen. Chalmers —The operations centre which I have is a small unit of about 30 people who are helping me to coordinate and synchronise the various programs and efforts from across the agencies.

Senator CROSSIN —So if people are asking for something and you believe you might be able to deliver that immediately, you go to existing programs. If it is not covered within existing programs, do you have a budget allocation you can draw down from?

Major Gen. Chalmers —Essentially, I will go back to the national office to look for a program or a budget allocation. But, yes, there will be budget allocations that I can draw down on.

Senator CROSSIN —Do you know what that is?

Major Gen. Chalmers —No, I do not. I do not have those figures in front of me right now, Senator.

Senator CROSSIN —Can you take that on notice for us, please?

Major Gen. Chalmers —Yes, I can.

Senator CROSSIN —What I am wanting to know is: do you have an operating budget of $30 million or $30,000 so that if you cannot find an existing program you are then charged with the responsibility or you have the power to then say, ‘Well, that can’t be funded from existing programs, so I will make a decision and we will fund it out of the money I have been given’?

Major Gen. Chalmers —The simple answer to your question is yes. But let me say that that has not been my focus so far. In other words, I have not worried too much about budget issues. What I have worried about is getting the survey teams out as quickly as possible to gather the information we need to shape the response. In that process, people have identified issues which communities would like rectified. I have given direction to my people that we will fix anything to do with safety or health, and we will do that straightaway or we will ensure that the organisation which is responsible for fixing it—which may be a Territory government agency or a Commonwealth government agency—is advised of the problem so that they can fix it. Beyond that, there are programs which we can draw on to get some ‘quick wins’ in communities, if you want to phrase it that way. But if you are asking me whether I have a budget that will build swimming pools in communities, well, no, I do not have that.

Senator CROSSIN —Dr Gordon, you made a comment that the permit system already currently protects the offenders. Today the NLC and the CLC gave us evidence that, of course, Indigenous people do not need a permit to go onto each other’s land. Are the majority of offenders in relation to child abuse in the Northern Territory Indigenous?

Dr Gordon —I do not have any evidence that they are all Indigenous. I understand from the intelligence task force that there are non-Indigenous offenders. Based on my own experience in Western Australia, there are also non-Indigenous offenders. If there are Indigenous offenders and they have access, as you have just pointed out, to other community lands, the permit system is not protecting the children from people wandering through. So, by leaving the permit system in place, those things will still happen, but by opening up areas, yes, other people can come into the community.

Senator CROSSIN —What I really wanted to know from you is: do you know the number of Indigenous versus non-Indigenous offenders in the Northern Territory?

Dr Gordon —No, that would be police information and the intelligence task force information.

Senator CROSSIN —The evidence we have had today, and what we know to be true about the permit system, is that Indigenous people do not need a permit.

Dr Gordon —Yes, I know that.

Senator CROSSIN —And we have had overwhelming evidence, particularly from the police, to suggest that removing the permit system will in fact increase the number of potential non-Indigenous offenders in these communities. Have you looked at the submission from the Australian Federal Police or taken note of public comments from Vince Kelly from the police association in the Northern Territory when you make these comments?

Dr Gordon —No, I have not looked at the Australian Federal Police submission—or do you mean the Territory police submission?

Senator CROSSIN —Both of those organisations suggest to us that abolishing the permit system will potentially increase the number of non-Indigenous offenders in those communities.

Dr Gordon —Firstly, the permit system is not being abolished right across the Territory. In relation to officer Kelly, who is the union rep for the Territory, I have only heard snatches of what he said on the radio, so I really cannot comment on snatches of conversation. I have not seen either the Territory or the Federal Police—and that is not something that I would see.

Senator CROSSIN —This is the submission to this inquiry?

Dr Gordon —No, I have not. It is not something that I would normally see.

Senator CROSSIN —Do you have any benchmarks for the intervention’s success—any KPIs or any indication of where you want to be in three or six months time?

Dr Gordon —Personally, I would like every Aboriginal child in every Aboriginal community to be safe tomorrow. That is my benchmark. But, realistically, that is not going to happen until we have more police in communities and Aboriginal people feel safe enough to go and report abuse, safe enough to go to court with the abuse and safe enough to make a stand against the perpetrators, who may well be family members.

Senator CROSSIN —I asked whether you had any KPIs for the intervention.

Dr Gordon —The answer is no.

Major-General Chalmers —The operations centre has metrics, but I would say that we are developing those metrics. At the moment they mainly deal with the progress of the rollout of the various interventions. What I intend to develop is then metrics that tell us whether those various measures are successfully changing the communities. But I do not have that second set of metrics developed yet. I would agree with you that they are required.

Senator CROSSIN —What I am trying to get a handle on is this: do you anticipate having done the gathering of the information by survey teams across those 70 communities by 30 November? By 31 March?

Major-General Chalmers —By 21 August I will have completed the surveys. There will be a subsequent period of analysis of that information.

Senator CROSSIN —And have you given yourselves six months or 12 months to conduct the health checks on all of the children in the communities?

Major-General Chalmers —I have not given myself any time. I am doing the health checks as quickly as we can, given that only a certain number of teams, with a maximum of 12 teams, can be generated at any one time. Those teams are for three weeks each. Each community has a different number of children who need checking. So there are a number of variables there. And we will be working through the wet season. I cannot give you the exact date as to when the health check process will finish, but that will be in the December/January time frame as an estimate at the moment. I will say that, at the moment, 88 per cent of children in those communities where we have completed health checks are coming forward, which is encouraging, but it also means we need to have the teams in place for long enough to capture most children.

Senator CROSSIN —I have two other quick related questions. What are you doing about the communities where you might have been in and completed the health checks but not all the children were there? How are you finding those children and completing those checks?

Major Gen. Chalmers —Again, it goes back to the point that you made very well earlier that this is not about putting stand-alone capacity into communities but about adding to the existing capacity. Communities already have health clinics and are conducting checks, albeit the child health checks that are done at the moment are not done on most children and are a much more abbreviated check. Nonetheless, in communities there is already the ability to do checks, and so those children who are missed could be picked up through the extant capability. But, really, the Department of Health and Ageing will take the child health check information as trend information to help inform their more sustained commitment to improving health in the Northern Territory.

Senator CROSSIN —What about those who have been checked and who may now need follow-up? Is that happening, who is doing it and how quickly is that follow-up happening?

Major Gen. Chalmers —I am not a medical expert, but those children whom the doctors have found need specific referral have been referred.

Senator CROSSIN —To where? To NT Health?

Major Gen. Chalmers —Yes.

Dr Gordon —I point out that some of those may well be dental follow-ups; they could be other. It is not specifically looking at sexual abuse.

Senator CROSSIN —I understand that. What I am hearing is that the children you are referring are actually the same children that NT Health already have on their list of children who need follow-up. So there is some duplication there.

Major Gen. Chalmers —Then I do not understand the premise of your question. If a child needs medical attention then the child should get medical attention.

Senator CROSSIN —I am trying to ascertain whether the Commonwealth, out of this $580 million, is going to put some additional resources into helping the Northern Territory health department undertake and complete those follow-ups.

Major Gen. Chalmers —The $580 million represents the first year of the Commonwealth government’s commitment to the intervention. As I said, the first year—phase 1: stabilisation—will inform the longer term commitment to building or adding to the capacity to address child health problems in the Territory. Simply, the answer is yes.

Senator ADAMS —Dr Gordon, you mentioned in your preliminary comments just how you would like children to be safe tomorrow. I certainly agree with you, as does the government. We have been criticised quite strongly for trying to push this legislation through, and I would like a comment from you about how delaying the introduction of the proposed measures would reduce the incidence of violence and abuse.

Dr Gordon —Every day that there is a delay means that another child is at risk one way or another. That could be health-wise or it could be abuse or something like that. Aboriginal people—Aboriginal women—have been saying since 1979, in a formal setting, that we need to do something about family violence and abuse. I have been on bodies appointed by four separate Labor governments to look at abuse and welfare issues, including the Labor government in Western Australia in 1983 and the federal government in 1988. I was on the National Committee on Violence following the Hoddle and Queen Street massacres, 20 years ago now. We looked at violence there. We did not have enough time to look at all the abuse issues for Aboriginal communities, but we looked at violence across the community. In 1990 I was appointed to the first board of ATSIC. We started to look at abuse and violence back then, and in 2002 in the inquiry in Western Australia. 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, that we are a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and we really have to start putting children first.

CHAIR —Dr Gordon, in your opening statement you made reference to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We have had evidence from the Law Council of their view that the legislation is a breach of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. I assume, based on your earlier comments, that you have a different view and think that the rights of the child should be prominent and a priority. Can you provide your opinion as a lawyer and a person who is experienced in looking after children’s health?

Dr Gordon —I should point out that, while I am a magistrate and I have a law degree, I have not practised as a lawyer. But I do understand what the Law Council is saying. I have read it in the paper and I have heard some of their comments. I was not involved in the drafting of the legislation. I understand that there were over 20 lawyers, from all disciplines of law, who were involved in that. I expect those lawyers would have addressed all those issues. I understand, from speaking to the department, that the very issues that the Law Council raises were addressed. As for the mention of perhaps an anomaly referring to the Australian Crime Commission: the Australian Crime Commission, as you are well aware, are involved in the national Indigenous child abuse task force in Alice Springs, along with the Australian Federal Police and the South Australian and Northern Territory police. They are the people who have been doing all those investigations into abuse since October last year. So I am presuming—although I should not presume; I know that—that those measures are there to extend that work.

CHAIR —I have a question regarding consultation. A number of witnesses have indicated there has been a lack of consultation. I am wondering if you could respond to those comments or allegations that have been made. Secondly, what are your plans for educating and informing the community of your task force efforts during this stabilisation process and then in the normalisation and longer term processes? Can you outline your plans?

Dr Gordon —I appreciate people’s concerns as to lack of consultation. But, as I have said on the radio in the Northern Territory in community service announcements and media timeslots—I have pointed this out about three times a week—very clearly this was an emergency. If you have an emergency like a tsunami or a cyclone, you do not have time to consult people in the initial phases. I have tried to address that with people. But what I have been doing since is this. I have gone out with Major General Chalmers and some of the team members. Both he and I have addressed various Aboriginal groups. We addressed the Central Land Council members at their combined meeting. I have been to several communities. The most recent visit was to Melville Island, on Wednesday of this week. I had separate meetings with women. The survey team was also there, so I was able to include some of the survey women in my talks with those women.

Aboriginal women are asking me specifically to explain the definition of child abuse. I am finding that they do not fully understand that child abuse is not just sexual assault or rape, depending on the legislation you are working with, and that child abuse encompasses neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse and, of course, sexual abuse. I give a warts and all explanation to people. I explain about things that I have been dealing with in the children’s court for 18 years. I explain to women exactly what was the case of a doctor who has had to perform 24 separate operations on the genitals of a two-year-old child who has been viciously raped. I explain those things.

Next Friday a member of parliament, Alison Anderson, is taking me out to her community of Papunya. I have had a couple of meetings with Alison, who is very supportive of this intervention. She is going to take me to a few more communities. In the following week—on 21, 22 and 23 August—the NPY Women’s Council are taking me out camping to four or five communities over three days, to have special women’s meetings to explain about child abuse. I worked with the NPY Women’s Council five years ago, during the inquiry I chaired in WA. I am speaking to individuals. I am speaking to groups who now ask me to speak to them. I keep Major General Chalmers updated on all of my comings and goings so that he can fit me into his travels.

CHAIR —Did I hear you say that you are developing a plan to provide further information and education on the task force’s effort and what is going on? Do you have one or is it being developed? Will it be rolled out? I ask that because that is an issue and a concern, and we would like to know your response to that.

Dr Gordon —The task force itself—not the operational command on the ground, which General Chalmers is concerned with, but the people who make up the task force, and me, as chairperson—is trying to meet fortnightly by phone hook-up and once a month face-to-face. We give advice straight to government from that. General Chalmers has an input through his situation report. Between him and what we are doing on the ground we give advice to government on the way that we think we should go forward. We have been very strong that this has to be a whole-of-government approach and it has to stay rigid and everything has to be coordinated through General Chalmers. We are staying firmly with the line that we need to make it firm to government that that is the way they have to go. Peter Shergold, head of the secretaries group and Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, has supported us in that. We have found that, by us insisting that everything go through General Chalmers on the ground, things are working better.

Major Gen. Chalmers —I might add quickly that, yes, there is a communications strategy being developed at the strategic level, and that is in the process of being implemented. At the operational level, of course, the consultations occur through the survey teams, through the advanced communication teams that we ran and through the visits that Sue and I do.

CHAIR —Thank you very much. Can I thank both of you for your evidence today. It is appreciated.

[3.31 pm]