PARLIAMENT HOUSE, Canberra: I rise to support the Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011, the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011 and the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2011. This is important legislation because it concerns the most disadvantaged people in our society of Australia, and that is remote Indigenous Australians, particularly those in the Northern Territory. I have said before in this chamber that, if we come to this place with the aim of doing good work for the nation, we must keep the plight of Indigenous Australians high on the agenda. This legislation does that and it allows us to discuss not only the particular measures being put forward here but, more broadly, the issues which are confronting remote Indigenous Australians.
There are three particular measures contained within the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill. The first and the most important one is a provision, in essence, to strengthen the alcohol measures, particularly by giving the Federal Minister additional powers over alcohol abuse in the remote communities of the Northern Territory. Anybody who has visited the remote communities of Australia, be they in the Northern Territory or elsewhere, will know that alcohol is absolutely the poison that runs through these places. It is debilitating to these communities. It destroys families. It creates violence. It prevents children from going to school. It is completely and utterly destructive to these communities. Alcohol consumption is also the highest predictor of Aboriginal people going to prison.
The Speaker before me mentioned some statistics, and I will mention some more. Within Cape York, a community which I know well—and I am sure the situation would be similar in the Northern Territory—between 50 and 80 per cent of people above the age of 16 drink at hazardous levels, according to the WHO definition of hazardous. It is a remarkable figure and it is a figure which the World Health Organisation has seen nowhere else on the planet. In fact, it is four times higher than the next highest figure, which is for South Africa.
That is data fron Cape York communities taken from several years ago and documented in the justice study in Cape York. I am sure it is replicated in other wet communities across remote Indigenous Australia.
This is an absolutely important and essential issue which we must tackle directly as a problem. It is not good enough for people to say that this is just an indirect consequence of racism or an indirect consequence of dispossession. I do not believe that. I believe that people might start drinking in part due to that, but over time it has become an issue in itself. It is now such a vast issue in these places that we must tackle it directly, head-on— not as a symptom but as a problem in its own right. Noel Pearson has been talking about this and has raised this issue for many years, and he is a former boss of mine. He says there is a very definite correlation between access to grog and the level of harm, and the less access to grog, the less harm. There is an absolute correlation between the two, he says, and I have seen that for myself as well. You go to places where they have got on top of the grog, you go to the dry communities, and they are fundamentally different from those places where the alcohol still runs through the community like a river. So we must start looking at the supply, and the alcohol management plans are an important part of restricting supply of alcohol.
Before the human rights lobby jumps up and down and says, ‘What about the right to drink?’, I say, ‘What about the rights of the children in those communities and what about the rights of the sober grandparents who are frequently holding the places together?’ That is who we should be thinking about when we are thinking about this legislation before us and we are thinking about additional measures to strengthen these communities. We must cut the supply of alcohol, and this bill before us will assist in putting in place strong alcohol management plans to address it.
At the same time we must address the cash side of the equation. It is one thing if you have your own job, you are earning your own money and you want to go and spend it on booze. Go for your life. But frequently it is the broader Australian community, through our taxes, who are funding the alcohol habits occurring in these places, and that is something we need to be more persistent and more aggressive about. I do not think any Australian citizen expects their tax dollars to be going towards subsidising someone’s alcohol problem and causing the social breakdown of communities. Some sensible measures have started to be put in place, measures such as income management, which is starting to be rolled out in many places. I think that is a good thing, and it can be rolled out further where there are significant problems such as alcohol and other abuses.
I move now to the second measure, having briefly addressed the issues in relation to alcohol abuse. The second measure in this bill concerns land reform. In essence, this allows for longer term leases so that people can have, hopefully, home ownership and it allows for longer term leases so that businesses can set up premises with the security of knowing that they will not be ejected from their premises at any time soon. Again, this particular measure is a good measure and it is in the right direction. But these measures have been painfully slow to come into being across remote Indigenous Australia. We have been talking about home ownership now for probably a decade—in this Parliament through the Parliamentarians who were here before I was elected and certainly through the leadership of people like Noel Pearson, Warren Mundine, Wesley Aird, and others who have been strongly advocating for home ownership opportunities in the remote communities.
Home ownership is important not just because it would facilitate people achieving something which they want—to own their own property—but because it actually empowers individuals. It gives responsibility back to people so that they can take care of their own housing. That is something which is missing in the remote communities. In most remote communities people are disempowered and have very little opportunity to make their own choices in relation to housing. If they want to build a new room, they cannot just go and do that. They have to go to their local Council and lobby and hopefully there will be some government funds for them to enable them to get a bigger house. This is fundamentally an issue about individual responsibility and about empowering individuals to take care of their own housing needs.
Better tenure is also vitally important for business development because, as most people in this chamber will know, you will not get business development and you will not get sustained economic growth anywhere in the world unless you have security of property and security of contract. They are two preconditions for sustainable economic growth. And in the remote communities, presently across the Northern Territory and indeed across Australia, there is very little security of tenure to allow businesses to start and to allow businesses to thrive. This measure will go some way towards addressing that and I hope that means we will soon be able to have good security of tenure so that businesses can thrive in these remote locations.
This takes me to the third provision which relates to food security. In some respects this measure perplexes me and frustrates me—that we in this Parliament have to be debating provisions about food security and about opening food stores in places far removed from where we are in the nation’s capital, thousands of kilometres away from the remote communities. It relates to the land security issue. If there were land security and places where private enterprises could open up easily and meet the demand which exists, we would not have to be having this debate and this conversation over this particular measure.
Then you would get a local entrepreneur who might say, ‘I just might open up a small food store and service the local 1,000 members of this community.’ That is how it should occur. We do not stand here debating the local community stores in downtown Canberra or in downtown Knox, where I am from. Nor should we be debating the community stores in downtown Wadeye or Aurukun. Unfortunately still, while land security issues are not fixed, we have to address this and, because of that, I reluctantly support the measure in front of me.
In the last few minutes remaining let me touch on some broader issues. Even with these measures in front of us I do not believe we are addressing the fundamental problems confronting remote Indigenous communities—that is, we have a policy of subsidised disengagement. For 40 years we have had an implicit Indigenous policy in this nation of subsidised disengagement where, in essence, we pay people and support them to live in a place of their choice regardless of any economic viability of that location. We need to move away from that to a position firmly based on economic engagement in the real economy, where people are fully educated to be mobile and to exploit the opportunities which present themselves right across Australia. That is the main game in my view, which we as a country still fail to be serious about. We need to be serious about tackling head on welfare dependency and subsidised disengagement. No group of people on the planet will prosper in a welfare economy. It does not matter who you are or your cultural background, or the colour of your skin. No group of people anywhere on the planet has prospered in a welfare economy. Indigenous people are no exception, yet we still have policies which create incentives for people to remain in remote communities rather than to be mobile, accepting jobs located elsewhere across Australia.
This is not a foreign concept to many remote Indigenous Australians. Speak to the older Indigenous Australians and they will tell you that 30 or 40 years ago they worked in Rockhampton, Mount Isa, up in Cape York or over in the Northern Territory. They followed the jobs, but that is not happening any more in part because our welfare system has a 90-minute rule which says that people do not have to look for a job if it is more than 90 minutes from where they reside. That means people in remote communities do not have to look for a job. So you have fully able-bodied people graduating from high school who go straight onto welfare queues. After two or three years on welfare, they will be further weakened and debilitated. At the very least, the able-bodied people who graduate from school have to leave their communities to get a job. We do not do a service to those individuals, to their families or to the Australian community by continuing with the policy of welfare dependence in remote locations.
I strongly support the alcohol measures in this bill. I support the measures towards having greater security of tenure but, most importantly, we still need to address the welfare dependency, which is rife.