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Northern Territory Emergency Response - MPI

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 24 Aug 2011

Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia—Australian Greens Whip) (13:11): In June this year, the government launched its Stronger futures for the Northern Territory discussion paper. This paper tries to set out some issues for discussion about the future of the intervention in the Northern Territory, the intervention which has been going for four years. In that paper there is acknowledgement that the intervention has not delivered in the key areas which it was supposedly going to deliver in—based on the claims made by the previous government, now taken up by this government, about the need for the intervention in the Northern Territory.

We still have appalling statistics on abuse in the Northern Territory, we still have what the government says is poor school attendance and we still have significant issues around alcohol—issues which, I will add very strongly, are not restricted to Aboriginal communities. Everybody in this place is well aware of the Greens' criticism of the intervention. We said that it would not work because it was punitive and discriminatory, because it suspended the Racial Discrimination Act, because it took a top-down approach, because it was not developed in partnership with the community or in consultation with communities, because it took people's land away, because it imposed draconian, punitive and discriminatory measures on Aboriginal people living in the Northern Territory and because it flew in the face of well-recognised evidence—both Australian and international evidence—that those sorts of programs simply do not deliver.

So it should come as no shock to anybody that, in fact, most of the measures in the Northern Territory intervention have not worked. I was hoping that the government would—and maybe people will call me naive—recognise that those approaches have not worked and do not work and would genuinely seek to find alternative approaches. I must say that what I have heard to date does not fill me with confidence that that is what we are going to see. I have spent a bit of time in the Northern Territory recently and I have had some pretty strong feedback about the consultation process to date. As I said, that feedback does not fill me with enthusiasm for the approach that the government is taking. Many people are saying to me that they think the government has already reached its conclusion—that what the government is going to do is a foregone conclusion. There was little notice about some of the consultation. People said that they understood that the people the government wanted to talk to were the people who were specifically invited to consultations and that they felt it was a waste of time. The time allocated for consultations has also been relatively limited. Anybody who works in this space, who works in and with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, knows that you have to have a significant period of time to consult—particularly on something which has been so contentious. Yet we have seen consultations rolled out with very little notice and, as I have said, I have had some pretty negative feedback. I thought that I should get in and raise some of the concerns I have been hearing from people around the intervention, and particularly around income management. Income management, as we know, was one of the cornerstones of the intervention, and in fact the government was so enamoured of it that it decided it wanted to keep it going and the only way it could keep it going was to make it appear—I use the word 'appear' very carefully and consciously—less discriminatory by then rolling it out with no real evidence base for doing so across the rest of the Northern Territory. Of course now it is being trialled in other areas around Australia. I will say that is a bit different and that it does not apply to everybody within certain Centrelink payment categories, as it does in the Northern Territory, but nevertheless it is being rolled out without the necessary evidence. The Greens are on record as opposing income management. We do not oppose voluntary income management but we certainly oppose compulsory income management. It is expensive—it costs around $4,500 a year per person to implement. We do not believe this will deliver meaningful change and we would rather see that investment put where it can deliver meaningful programs—programs that have been developed in partnership with and in consultation with the community. As I say, we do not believe there is evidence that it works. It is deeply demeaning. The government continues to claim it is aimed at breaking the vicious circle of welfare dependency. I contend that is a nonsense—it does not do that. To add insult to injury, the government claims that mandatory income management is all about human dignity. I struggle to understand how they can claim that taking people's decision-making rights away, forcibly keeping half of their income support payment, maintains someone's human dignity. When you talk to women about this issue you struggle to think why the government still maintains that line. In May this year, the Equality Rights Alliance sent researchers to Alice Springs and Darwin to document women's experience of income management. It is not surprising to me that they found income management in many cases led to social exclusion, loss of self-respect and confusion, and had little impact on spending habits. Of the women surveyed, 79 per cent said they did not like using the BasicsCard and wanted to stop using it now. Most participants did not show an understanding of the rules that had resulted in their income management—in other words, the rules had not been adequately explained to them. In a majority of cases income management was shown to be ineffective in reaching its aims, with 85 per cent of respondents saying they had not changed what they bought because they had the BasicsCard, and 75 per cent said that the BasicsCard made no difference to their spending. Seventy per cent said they did not feel safer since they had got the BasicsCard—in fact, the opposite was true; women reported not wanting to disclose family violence or access crisis payments for fear of being put on income management. Again, it is another issue that we highlighted during the debate on this issue. If you are on income management and you approach Centrelink and ask them for help or signal there maybe some issue, you are desperately afraid you will be termed a vulnerable client and get income managed. Some women raised concerns that they were losing money management skills with Centrelink taking over the payment of bills, or that their children were growing up seeing that someone else would take care of the bills and they did not have to learn to manage their own money. It is really evident that that can happen. Income management appears to be making it more difficult for women to provide for their families, with 74 per cent of respondents reporting that the BasicsCard does not make it easy for them to look after their family. Some women raised concerns about not having as much flexibility about where they shopped, and this meant less value for money. Many women talked about difficulties paying for food because small shops, such as Asian groceries and halal butchers, do not accept the BasicsCard. Many respondents reported the loss of dignity and self-respect. There is a perception by the majority of women that Centrelink and others in the community do not have respect for them, or consider them to be less competent with money or as parents. Seventy-five per cent of women said that people are not as nice to them when they see that they use a BasicsCard—and this is from women who use the card. Some women said: There is a shame attached to it. It makes me feel more diminished. So small. It was just enforced over everybody and I don't see why it should happen to people who are doing the right thing. I would have been embarrassed to go to Woolworths with a BasicsCard. I have no history of mismanagement or social problems. Now that income management has been rolled out to communities other than Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, African migrant women have also been affected by having to use the BasicsCard. Both Aboriginal and African migrant women say that they feel that the program is intended for people of Aboriginal or African background, saying that they have noticed 'all the black women have the card, but the white women don't'. That is another point we made during the debate, when the government tried to make it appear that this program was less discriminatory. It is very clear from the statistics that we are picking up in estimates that it is mainly, again, average families that are being picked out for the broader roll out of income management. Recent research, and certainly the anecdotal evidence from talking to people, has shown that income management is not only ineffective but also works against the very aims it purports to achieve. This report clearly indicates that income management degrades vulnerable women and in some cases places them in dangerous situations where they avoid reporting family violence. It makes it harder for them to take care of their families and it does not change their spending habits. Why doesn't the government get this? Is it because it thinks it is an easy fix or that it can appear as if it is doing something rather than making meaningful change? Is the government so blinkered to this that we are not going to see meaningful change in the way that money has been wasted in the intervention, or is it going to stand up to the challenge? I will not call future programs in the Northern Territory a second intervention or a further rollout of the intervention. The government needs to distance itself, end that program completely and make meaningful change in the Northern Territory. It needs to walk away from those policies that are not working. It needs to really listen to the community and work in partnership with the community. Just last week we had representatives from Utopia here with Amnesty, who have done this report. They came to Canberra to deliver and talk about the report, which is titled: The land holds us: Aboriginal peoples' right to traditional homelands in the Northern Territory. Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, an elder from Utopia, made some very powerful statements, both in this report and to those of us who met her. She talked about her people and about the land owning you. That means through your song lines you have got to know which part of the land owns you and how you are responsible for the wellbeing of that earth. From time immemorial there has been in existence an order that nobody queried who was who, who had the right to speak, who had the right to be ceremonial leader and everything was orderly, yet inclusive. She went on to say: So 2007 was a huge thing. that was when the intervention occurred— It was an assault. It traumatised all of us, so we looked around to see what made sense. What made sense was at all costs to hang on to the land. On that day, when they said, 'We want your land', there was an outcry all over Australia, I believe, from Aboriginal peoples. By 2008 it became so unbearable that I remember absolutely reeling in shock. It appears to me like we were made enemies of the state of our country. We had not been in an aggressive relationship with anyone throughout the world, let alone Australia, let alone in the Northern Territory. We see that there are certain Aboriginal communities earmarked as growth towns. Let me assure anybody who cares for Aboriginal people of Australia that once we are moved from our place of origin we will not only lose our identity we will die a traumatised tragic end. Ms Kunoth-Monks talks further about the importance of land and culture for her people, which takes me to another policy of this government, that is, the remote service delivery policy that focuses on key service delivery towns—21 in the Northern Territory and others elsewhere in Australia—where the bulk of resources are being focussed with the obvious aim of encouraging Aboriginal people to leave their homelands, to leave their land, and to move to bigger centres. Clearly, this report shows that that is not the right approach. It tells us that Aboriginal people have better outcomes on their homelands, and that is what Ms Kunoth-Monks told us last week. In fact, the social research, medical studies and UN experts have begun to realise its importance, although it has been acknowledged in the past. Finally, people are recognising the importance of the inalienable connection between culture, country and land. Better outcomes in physical and mental health then lead to better life expectancy. If we encourage people to move into towns, we still do not have enough housing, so we have issues about overcrowding. Ms Kunoth-Monks told us last week that people were getting better educational outcomes, so why are we continuing to push these policies of encouraging people to move from their homelands to the bigger urban centres? (Time expired)

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