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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 —Welcome. Do you have any information to add about the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Cleary —I am a former Tasmanian government minister of a number of years, having had responsibilities including health, community welfare and Aboriginal affairs. I left the Tasmanian parliament in 1998 to pursue other challenges. Between 2002 and 2005 I completed a three-year contract as Chief Executive Officer of the Tiwi Islands Local Government. The Tiwi Islands was one of the first regional authorities established by the NT government.

As a result of my experience living and working in a remote community for three years, I wrote two papers, which were released by the Centre for Independent Studies. The title of the first, released in 2005, was Lessons from the Tiwi Islands: the need for radical improvement in remote Aboriginal communities, which called for radical change back then. The second, released in November 2006, was titled Indigenous governance at the crossroads: the way forward. Both papers contain many recommendations that I am pleased to say have now been taken up by the government—some of which are contained in this package of legislation that we are talking about today.

When I heard the announcement by the government of the emergency provisions I was delighted. The government’s action has placed Indigenous disadvantage and child abuse as national priorities, which I believe is long overdue. When I listened to the various submissions today I have found it interesting that people have made comments such as ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’. We have heard a number of parties give reasons why parts of the legislation should be delayed or changed. It concerns me that many would be happier—it would appear—if nothing happened. There is a need to firstly recognise that there is a huge problem. I think the debate and the public discussion that has taken place over the last 12 months or so has firmly established that we have a huge problem in this country.

In this country we have communities of Indigenous people living in remote communities in Third World conditions or worse. I have lived in those communities and I have heard the cries of the women and the screams of the children, yet some would argue—and many have today—the issue of human rights. I think we need to focus on the rights of these women and children in these communities. How long do we delay what we need to do? I have heard a number of people today call for further delays. So I ask the question: where are the real Indigenous leaders? Unfortunately I have heard in recent weeks a number of so-called Indigenous leaders being very critical of what is being proposed. How many reports do we have to have? I heard Dr Gordon a few moments ago refer to a number of reports. The reality is that we have had lots of reports—we have had report after report after report. We have a number of generations that I believe are lost. In most communities we have got total dysfunction. This has been acknowledged by many speakers today and I believe it is an issue that needs to be treated as a matter of urgency.

There is a lack of leadership. My experience is that many of the leaders in many of the communities are in many cases the cause of the problem. We have alcohol and drug abuse, we have got poor numeracy and literacy levels, and education in many communities is almost non-existent. My opinion is that there really are no simple solutions. If we wait until we are all convinced that everything is right, we will still be talking in another 12 months. Many have raised the need for consultation. I make the point that consultation has been going on for years. My experience on the Tiwi Islands was that every dry season we ended up with a great number of people visiting to talk and to canvass various issues. This has been going on for many years now.

The intervention announced by the government will, I believe, need to be properly resourced. Improvements and changes will take generations, but I believe that this legislation is the beginning of a journey that I am sure we would all agree will deal with many of the issues in Indigenous communities. I could go on and speak at length on a number of issues but I would be more than happy to talk about issues such as permits, CDEP and community stores. Perhaps what I need to do now is stop to answer your questions.

Senator PAYNE —I missed the beginning of your remarks but I understand that your experience most recently has been in the Tiwi Islands.

Mr Cleary —Correct.

Senator PAYNE —Can you give the committee an impression about things like child protection and workers and the levels of policing in the Tiwi Islands.

Mr Cleary —I think that, of all the communities, Tiwi is fairly well catered for in relation to police—we had three full-time police officers and two ACPOs on the island. I was not directly involved in the health service but we talked to health workers on many occasions. We were told stories in relation to it and, while I was there, there were a number of instances where workers or intervention workers and support workers were brought to the islands to deal with specific incidents.

The reality is that many of the problems in the Tiwis, as in many other communities, are hidden. People are too frightened and too ashamed to talk about it. There are cultural issues and family issues. There is a fair amount of intimidation that happens as well. So it is very difficult for people to be brave enough to actually report incidents. I heard somebody earlier talk about the number of reports that occur. I would say that the actual events of child abuse are far higher than the reported cases because of the difficulty and the great reluctance that people have in Indigenous communities to report matters.

Senator PAYNE —That is certainly some of the impressions that I have received and we have received today. We have had differing evidence during the day on the question of the permit arrangements, some evidence strongly in favour of the changes proposed and some equally strongly against. I think you said you would be prepared to make some comments in relation to that.

Mr Cleary —I believe most strongly that the permit system needs to be removed. I ask the question: why do we need a permit system? What are we hiding? I believe the communities need to be open. We do have laws of trespass to prevent people from going onto private property. This particular piece of legislation only allows public access into public and township areas.

I could give you a number of instances where permits were refused for no valid reason. In fact, I had an incident myself only three weeks ago whilst I was on the Tiwi Islands. I arrived on the island to be greeted by the local policeman to tell me that the land council had called the day before and that my permit had been cancelled. I was quite angry about that, but fortunately I was there at the invitation of a number of people on the island, and a permit was hastily arranged by one of the family members.

What was interesting that day was that the permits are not checked. I spoke to the operator of the ferry service to the island. He told me that, in the whole operation of his ferry service, he has never seen anybody check a permit. I have heard questions today such as: can we compare communities with a permit to those without a permit? Probably the best example that could be given would be Daly River. If you talk to people in the Territory, I think the Daly River community is seen as probably one of the better communities across the Territory, and Daly River does not have a permit system.

We have got to stop hiding things. We have to bring things out in the open. The argument that people are using that it would stop land councils refusing permits to child molesters, drug traffickers and all the rest is a load of rubbish. People know now who is bringing drugs into communities, yet it is still happening. Why haven’t their permits been revoked? It is interesting that most people on communities do know, particularly local Indigenous people. The grapevine works really well. They know what is going on.

Senator PAYNE —Thank you very much.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mr Cleary. I have looked at your publications at the Centre for Independent Studies. They are most interesting and thoughtful. You said that, as a result of your past experience, you support particular aspects of the package that you referred to. I notice in your analysis in the CIS report you said:

Education strategies need to ensure that school attendance is tied to child welfare ...

You have referred to the permit system. Would you like to flesh out for us the particular aspects of the package that you do strongly support and the reasons why?

Mr Cleary —One thing I have not really touched on too much today—and this is covered in part in the legislation—is that I hope the government in implementing the strategy will look very closely at the issue of governance. I believe that poor governance is really at the heart of a lot of dysfunction in communities. I hate to say it but there is a lot of corruption and self-interest in communities. Poor governance helps protect this. The topics of both my papers dwell on the complexity of all the layers of bureaucracy and the layers of government.

We are dealing in many cases with communities of only a few thousand people, yet we are putting in place very complex administrative structures, structures that duplicate others. Before the abolition of ATSIC, we had ATSIC, land councils, local government, Territory government and Commonwealth government departments. These are all very confusing. To me, governance needs to be sorted out, and I think the Territory government, by heading down the track of regional shires, is heading in the right direction. But there is a need to make sure that you have got an effective form of governance to drive many of the things that need to happen. If this does not happen, then things keep falling over, as has been the history for many years now.

CHAIR —As there are no further questions, Mr Cleary, we thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today. Thank you for your evidence and your experience. It is well appreciated and well noted.

Mr Cleary —It has been a pleasure and I hope what I have had to say today has been useful.

CHAIR —It certainly has.

[4.12 pm]