I also rise to speak to the Disallowance of the Social Security (Administration) (Declared income management Areas) Determination 2012 and the four other associated disallowance motions.
I have just listened very carefully to Senator Siewert who is a very credible individual who speaks with great passion about Indigenous communities, but the Greens are a political party
that have a longstanding policy of opposing policies whose genesis was part of the Northern Territory emergency response. I am very pleased to see that Senator Crossin, the other senator
for the Northern Territory, is also in the chamber and I hope she makes a contribution to the debate today.
It is one of those rare moments where we will agree pretty much on everything, I hope, which is probably once a decade. Both parties have spoken along the same
lines and pretty much because we can speak with some confidence.
When the Northern Territory emergency response legislation was first considered—obviously, very controversial legislation—in the last year of the
Howard government, I can recall assisting its passage.
I think it was the second longest debate in Federation.
I was minister at the time and I took it through this place. I understood it was very controversial. There were lots and lots of question about what if and what would happen.
I can understand people’s concerns about whether it had a net positive impact some time ago.
It is useful to look at its genesis. This was a response not because we decided we would just like people in the Northern Territory to have some assistance
in managing their income; it came from what was quite clearly a shocking report. Evidence was given in over 73 communities, evidence was given freely
and expertly in a particular way. I think that it should be the benchmark for taking evidence in many of these communities from witnesses, women, victims.
The report, amongst other things, reported the systematic sexual abuse of children. Whilst that was the headline out of it, it made some very important links
between chronic alcoholism and the dysfunctionality that followed: the breakdown of law and order—and I am talking about customary and mainstream law— and the breakdown of what any human being would consider to be social norms.
Some of the evidence was quite clear: why were communities so dysfunctional? How come we had this level of breakdown of social norms and lack of responsibility from parents—did they know where their kids were; just the whole horror story. And wherever we talked there was alcohol. It was variously described by people from both sides of this place as ‘the rivers of grog’.
Clearly, that had to stop and, again, there was quite a clear, causal link between the availability of cash as a payment, invariably from Newstart or some welfare payment in the community.
Sadly, there are far too many people in the communities who are poor. That is the circumstance: they are just simply poor. Far too many of them are reliant on a welfare payment.
Of course, I think that the link has been clearly made between that and access to alcohol and other substances of abuse.
Therefore, the cash payments had to be quarantined, or 50 per cent of them had to be set aside. That ensured a 50 per cent reduction in the funds available to buy alcohol.
It is very simple. A lot of people try to confuse it, but that was in effect what happened.
Fifty per cent of the funds in the community, whether they were in your bank or were taken out were simply not available to buy alcohol. It was not available to buy cigarettes, it was not
available to buy pornography and a whole range of annoying things like that—not cigarettes so much, but I think that people were pretty embarrassed about the pornography thing, and rightly so.
But clearly, the main motivation was to stop the alcohol.
Anecdotally, and from my observations, it was quite startling. I saw changes which were stark in the communities that I had been travelling around many of for a decade or so, particularly in
the northern Northern Territory.
Perhaps the Greens would argue that there were a number of things that may have caused that and that it was not only the income quarantining—perhaps it was the provision of the extra 63 police officers, the Substance Abuse Intelligence Desk or the very intelligent application of law enforcement and compliance to ensure that alcohol did not get out of the community.
Sure; that was all part of the Northern Territory Emergency Response legislation.
But most importantly, the income quarantining led to a 50 per cent reduction on the funds that could possibly be used to purchase grog, ganja and other substances of abuse.
I think that when looking at this disallowance motion the real question is whether it is more important to look at and listen carefully—which it always is—to the Greens’ position or to listen to what is overwhelmingly the position of the communities, particularly the women in those communities, who have been quite
vocal and who have made their position on this very, very clear.
I acknowledge to Senator Siewert that at the time, who would have known? As the parliament we often think,’This will be the solution,’ and in five years’ time we think, ‘Oh, we probably could have tweaked that,’; with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps that would have been the case.
But I am not so sure with this particular piece of legislation. I think that we got it pretty much right — and I know that there have been pockets of resistance,
as I would call them.
I think there is some pretty good evidence that counters that resistance.
I think that the first one was a joint study conducted by FaHCSIA and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. They looked at the—
Oh, don’t tell me—
I can tell you that it has a lot more credibility than the Equality Rights Alliance who you were quoting to me a minute ago, Senator Siewert!
If you could just afford me the decency that I afforded you, I would most appreciate it!
They went on to say that three options were given about income management: good, bad and undecided.
The headline number here from an objective study conducted by impartial assessors, who had no vested interest in the communities that these measures
targeted, is that double the number of respondents said that income management was good rather than bad. It is a very simple headline right across the communities.
There were a number of communities: Tennant Creek was actually just under fifty-fifty, so only 46 per cent of them said that it was good. However, places like
Gapuwiyak in Arnhem Land said that 92 per cent responded ‘good’ and Aputula in Finke in the central desert responded with 80 per cent saying it was ‘good’.
I think that the worst one in terms of our side of the argument was Nguiu and the Tiwi Islands, where only 23 per cent said it was good.
But overall, the headline number was that double the number of respondents said it was good rather than bad; exactly twice as many of the people who get
income managed. I would have thought that it was those individuals who would know best.
In fact, on 25 August we had a change of government in the Northern Territory. Whilst that is probably unremarkable, three of the people who were elected in the southern end
of the Northern Territory—two in the southern end and one sort of in the middle—were women, one of whom was re-elected and the other two who were new candidates.
They were Bess Price, Alison Anderson and Larisa Lee.
Certainly, through my relationships with Bess and Larisa we often discussed these matters through that process, as you would. I know that I said there were
some compelling arguments from people; they were all saying that we have done the wrong thing and all those sorts of things. I have to say to Senator Siewert that I
do not think we get too much argument from her but that I would have thought we would from people like Bess Price, Alison Anderson and Larisa Lee, who are
Aboriginal women who have spent much time in these communities. This is not only with the visiting that we tend to do, with respect to my colleague on the other
side, Senator Crossin. I would love to say that I do more than that, but I certainly have not lived in them in the same way that these women have.
They were born and brought up in these communities, and they certainly are able to reflect on the before and the after. I have to say that I have been very impressed with the answers
that I get. The Greens certainly cannot put their hands on their hearts and claim to have more experience on Indigenous issues and more experience of life in the
bush and remote areas of the Northern Territory than Ms Price, Ms Anderson and Ms Lee.
The reason that I make the point about this is that there has been a bit of a question about what people in the Northern Territory think about the intervention.
There were possibly other issues; perhaps one other issue was a shire, to be honest. But if you ever needed a plebiscite on income management or the intervention, which was
a bad and dastardly thing, then the election was fought on the basis of the intervention—certainly in Bess Price’s and Alison Anderson’s electorates.
You would get more of the intervention if you voted for Alison Anderson and you would get more of the intervention if you voted for Bess Price—it was not so much with
Larisa; she had a number of other issues.
But they voted for them in their droves. There was an 18 per cent swing for Bess with a concerted process. There were a number of other issues; I do not want to distract from
this particular issue.
In Central Australia, given the debate and given the issues that were canvassed there, particularly by the First Nations Political Party and the Greens who ran a single issue—’This is all about the intervention.
You don’t need any more intervention’—it was a clear plebiscite. No-one voted for them—well, close to noone.
I do not want to be misrepresented; there were a couple of people who were obviously lost on the day.
So there was a clear plebiscite on this issue. Those are individuals whose life revolves around whether or not their income is quarantined. They had a choice to give
some sort of mandate regarding whether they wanted it or not and they spoke out very clearly.
While I was talking to Bess a few weeks ago, she shared with me some of her perspectives about Indigenous culture. She grew up with descendants from pre-white
settlement. It is very hard to imagine in our context, even in here, that there are people like her alive today, but that is how remote those places are. As a young
woman she knew people who predated people coming in with their Land Rovers and helping people out. She was able to help me understand, as have many of my
Indigenous friends, why it is that we have the demandshare system, as we call it in Indigenous communities.
Often it is the case that when you have food you are culturally obliged to share it with your kin. There are some very practical reasons for that. If you have a
kangaroo, you do not put half of it in the fridge or eat a foot and put the rest of it away. You simply do not have that opportunity. There are no fridges for storage,
so you have to eat it all now. The demand-share system effectively deals with that circumstance and says, ‘This is how you separate it. This is how you deal it. When
Uncle asks you for something, you have to give it to him.’ There are a whole range of very practical cultural processes around that. But, sadly, the notion of property
and sharing has not translated well into a modern, cash based economy where one person has the resource. The obligation to use that now, even as they are trying to save,
is very difficult. Its translation, sadly, is lost in that circumstance.
Imagine for a moment a woman who is raising a family and gets a pension or a Newstart payment as cash deposited into her account. There are plenty of people
in her extended family in the township, including some who have a substance-abuse problem. Sometimes how they spend their money is not a choice. She is obliged
to help. If she refuses, it is a serious matter. It is not a serious matter later; it is a serious matter now. Someone is instructing you to provide something to him or her
to meet cultural obligations, and that makes it very difficult. Sometimes if you break those laws, you can be vulnerable to not only verbal abuse but also assault
or isolation in the community. It is a very serious thing. It is not our notion of humbug—’I just wonder if I can borrow a tenner until Friday.’ It is nothing like that at
all. It makes it very hard for the people who wish to break out.
Let’s have a quick look at what happened when we introduced the BasicsCard. I do not know about the Central Desert, but I have certainly spent a fair bit of time recently
in some of the more northern coastal communities after its introduction. It was not right across the board, but I can remember the difference in many of the women who understood
what was happening with it. When someone started humbugging, the women would say something like,’BasicsCard: yaka rupiah,’ meaning, ‘There’s no cash.’
It is an answer to someone who is humbugging them:’BasicsCard.’ They cut off ‘Yaka rupiah’ and it became just ‘BasicsCard’—nothing. They are far better off in
that situation. I can tell you that the beneficiaries are very much the people who used to be the victims.
I refer again to the AIHW report of 2009. There are dozens of measures about the effectiveness of welfare quarantining. I will go through a couple of them. It
is not only about money; it is about whether you have the capacity to have cash for alcohol. Participants were asked if their families were eating more fresh
fruit and vegetables. This was not storekeepers; this was participants in the Institute of Health and Welfare report. It was reported that 56.9 per cent said yes and
only 8.3 per cent said no. Also, vandalism was reported as going down by 18 per cent; there was 29 per cent less violence on the streets; 47 per cent of people reported
feeling safer in their communities—that is something we take for granted, but that figure is pretty significant; 66 per cent said children are better looked after; 60 per
cent said alcohol and drug abuse is down; 52 per cent reported that humbugging is down; and 63 per cent said there is less gambling.
Bess told me about a man in her family group who looks after six children and said that welfare quarantining saved his life—it was as simple as that.
He said, ‘I am now able, even in a cultural sense, to say, “Look, I’ve got to look after these kids. I’ve only got this much cash. Humbug me for some of that, but
the rest of it is going to be for food for the kids.”‘ I did a survey myself in a community of Wadeye that has had its challenges in the past. It has gone through
some in the last couple of weeks. It has had challenges with alcohol, violence and gangs in the past. When I last went to Wadeye I spent a bit of time there. I
commissioned a different survey. I hired local people who spoke the local language and ask them to find out what the people in Wadeye thought about a number
of issues, and the BasicsCard was one of them. They had four options on how they rated the BasicsCard: really good, good, okay and bad. Forty-eight per cent
said it was really good. That is top marks: 48 per cent. Seventy-three per cent rated it as either good or really good. That is a pretty significant statistic. The
result is that money is not being wasted in funding the addictions of friends and kin. Money is actually being spent on looking after children and buying food and shelter. The Greens stand up in this place and claim to be acting in the interests of Indigenous people, but 73 per cent of people in Wadeye
support the BasicsCard and, in that plebiscite, 0.7 per cent of people in Wadeye voted for the Greens candidate at the last election.
Indigenous women in the APY lands have been calling for welfare quarantining for a couple of years. They have seen the effects of the Basics Card across the border, they have seen the reduction in hunger, they have seen the kids getting fed, they have heard the women and elderly say that they are safer, and they have been asking for welfare quarantining to come into the Northern Territory.
They have been able to observe. They are not subject to it, but they are subject to discussions with their peers. They are subject to discussions with individuals whom they know and trust.
They say: ‘What’s this about? Is this about what the Greens tell us? Was this was introduced by a government to punish people?’ They would say ‘Yaka —nothing.’ They would say: ‘This is here to help us.
The help that comes to us is simply because we do not get the cash anymore.’ A mother would say, ‘I am able to know that of the welfare that comes to me, to my husband and to our family half has to be used for things like rent, food and clothing’—all those sorts of issues we take for granted.
I know this has been an ongoing issue for the Greens, and I think I represent everyone in the Northern Territory, particularly the Indigenous people, when I say that they do not support it.
Aboriginal people who are subject to this legislation and to welfare quarantining do not support the disallowance of this motion. It is never too late for the Greens to change
their minds. It is never too late to represent the people they claim to represent. If they are at cross-purposes with anyone in this debate they are at cross-purposes
with those they purport to represent in the centre of Australia.
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