Transcript by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Alcohol, NT Banned Drinking Register, Closing the Gap

Program: ABC Lateline

E & OE – Proof only

STEVE CANNANE: And now to our guest.

Jenny Macklin is the Minister for Indigenous Affairs and is responsible for the Government’s strategy for closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage.

When announcing the latest Closing the Gap figures today, the Prime Minister warned the Northern Territory that if they did not reinstate alcohol restrictions the rivers of grog could soon be flowing back into Aboriginal communities.

I spoke to Jenny Macklin a short time ago.

Jenny Macklin, thanks for joining us.


STEVE CANNANE: What’s the evidence that the rivers of grog are starting to flow again?

JENNY MACKLIN: The evidence really is coming from the Alice Springs Hospital, just to use one example; the evidence was also provided from the previous Northern Territory government that the banned drinkers register had actually seen a reduction in anti-social incidents.

So from both sides, both the benefits of the banned drinkers register plus the increases in violence that we’re seeing and the trouble coming from that … there were five deaths in Alice Springs over the Christmas period and of course alcohol was implicated in some of those.

STEVE CANNANE: But is there strong data that the ban actually had an impact on alcohol-related violence, because the Northern Territory Government seems to be saying that a number of those people who are on the banned drinkers register were still getting alcohol?

JENNY MACKLIN: And I think that demonstrates that what we need to do to deal with alcohol abuse and the violence that goes with it is manyfold but the banned drinkers register certainly had had a positive effect, as I said. There’s evidence that there were fewer antisocial incidents. We certainly have seen Aboriginal groups, the peak Aboriginal groups, in the Northern Territory calling for the reinstatement of the banned drinkers register before it was abolished; the police certainly indicated it was a useful tool.

So is it going to fix everything? Of course not. But was it useful and should it be reinstated because it’s useful? Yes, it should.

STEVE CANNANE: Will the Federal Government intervene and overturn the Northern Territory Government’s dismantling of the banned drinkers register?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well, we’re calling today on the Northern Territory Government to reinstate the banned drinkers register. It was a Northern Territory law, it really is their responsibility to put it in place. I certainly do have a number of powers under the stronger futures legislation that enable me to do and implement changes in relation to alcohol management plans, for example, but this is Northern Territory legislation and the Northern Territory Government should reinstate the banned drinkers register.

It was a helpful measure and we should see it back.

STEVE CANNANE: And you will act on those powers if they don’t overturn it?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well just today I have written to the Northern Territory Chief Minister requesting that an assessor be appointed to two venues, two hotels in Alice Springs, where we’ve certainly had far too much evidence of antisocial behaviour and harm to the community.

And what this means is that if the Northern Territory Government agrees we’ll have an assessment done of that harm, have an assessment done of the licensing conditions and the business practices, and then of course act on that assessment.

STEVE CANNANE: So is there power to shut down licensed premises is if there is too much alcohol-related violence related to those premises?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well, the power that I have is to, in the first instance, ask the Northern Territory Government to do an assessment where we do know there is harm to the community. We want to see this as a joint responsibility between the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory Government, and of course we’re doing this because Aboriginal people keep saying to us that there is terrible harm from alcohol-inflicted violence.

So let’s do the things that Aboriginal people have been calling out for, which is to address the harm, and one of those measures that I want to see done is an investigation into places where there’s evidence of that harm.

STEVE CANNANE: So will you act on certain licensed premises if the Northern Territory Government doesn’t?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well in the first instance let’s get the assessment done. I’ve made the request today. I hope the Northern Territory Government will respond positively. I hope that they will agree that we get this assessment of the harm done. What we may or may not do after that remains to be seen, but I would hope that they would agree that this assessment should be done. There is serious harm taking place, let’s act to deal with it.

STEVE CANNANE: What about Queensland? Do you have the power to intervene there if they start to wind back alcohol restrictions?

JENNY MACKLIN: Once again I’m saying to the Queensland Government, and the Prime Minister said in her remarks today, we want the Queensland Government to have the safety of women and children foremost in their minds as they do this review of their alcohol management plans.

Once again, the call we’re getting from Aboriginal people, Aboriginal leaders but especially from women, is that they don’t want to see the alcohol management restrictions wound back in Queensland. Things were very, very bad in the past, there was terrible violence as a result of alcohol abuse and we don’t want to go back to those bad days.

STEVE CANNANE: Let’s talk about the Closing The Gap figures that were released today. The Prime Minister announced you were on track to achieve the target of 95 per cent of all Indigenous four-year-olds in remote communities having access to early childhood education by this year, why is access the goal, not attendance?

JENNY MACKLIN: We started with access because we needed to make sure that children in fact had the chance to go to preschool or kinder. What we know was the case in the past was that there were far too many parts of remote Australia where that just wasn’t possible.

So we had a responsibility to set ourselves a clear goal, to make sure that children could find a place and of course we now need to make sure that they attend and attend regularly. I am a very big advocate for regular school attendance and I would love to see all of our four-year-olds regularly in preschool and of course …

STEVE CANNANE: And do we have figures yet for those four-year-olds and their attendance?

JENNY MACKLIN: No, we don’t. Some of the states would have that of course. What we want to do is continue to work with the states and the Northern Territory to make sure that we improve attendance – not just in preschool but of course also in school. We do have school-based attendance figures – they’re published regularly – but what we know is that we have to work with the states and the Northern Territory to make sure children are attending regularly.

STEVE CANNANE: Well the Prime Minister identified today school attendance as being one of the big priorities for this year. With attendance levels at 60 per cent in the very remote communities, what will you be doing to improve those attendance rates?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well, as part of our Stronger Futures Initiatives we have a new approach called the School Enrolment and Attendance Measure because it is not good enough for a child to only be going to school two or three days a week.

We want that to change. So what we’re going to do is work with parents, work with the schools to make sure we identify what the problem is, why the child isn’t going to school. And then in the end if the parents won’t do the right thing and get their children to school then I do have the power to suspend their income support payments until they get their kids to school regularly.

STEVE CANNANE: And have those kind of punitive measures worked so far? Have they increased enrolment rates? Sorry, not enrolment rates but attendance rates?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well in fact it does work on enrolment and attendance and we have seen improvements in both. One of the problems in the Northern Territory is that we not only have poor attendance in some schools, we also have far too many children who aren’t even enrolled to go to school. Going to school is essential if we’re going to close the gap and so we want kids going to school, we want them going every single day, and we’re going to work with schools and parents to make sure that we do so.

I can’t tell you how important parents think this is. Grandparents certainly know it too – that’s the message I get from Aboriginal leaders in communities. They want to see this fixed.

STEVE CANNANE: Today’s results weren’t great when it comes to numeracy and literacy, reading levels of year three Indigenous students have gone backwards and, as the PM put it, only three out of the eight indicators in reading and numeracy are tracking as expected. What’s going wrong here?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well I think there’s a wide range of issues both in the school system and of course families have responsibilities to get their kids to school regularly. It’s pretty hard to learn to read and do your sums if you don’t go to school every day. So we’ve got to address the school-based issues, of course we’ve got to work with families to support them. Peter Garrett, of course, is determined, as part of the school improvement program, to have a specific Indigenous loading so that we do everything possible to address these gaps.

STEVE CANNANE: So what would a school improvement program do for Indigenous kids in remote communities who are two or three years behind the level they should be when it comes to their maths and English?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well, in the first instance it may be working very closely with the families so that they understand the importance of going to school every day. Addressing problems that might be preventing the children going to school like bullying in the playground, making sure that the teachers have got reading recovery capacity, that they’re as well trained as they possibly can be – just to give you some examples.

STEVE CANNANE: OK, why did the Prime Minister tell the House today that there had been progress in Indigenous employment when ABS figures show that the number of Indigenous Australians in employment declined from 48 per cent to 46.3 per cent in that period from 2006 to 2011?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well, the figures that are in the report are the figures, of course, that the Prime Minister quoted, and I’m not sure which ABS figures you’re referring to but I can assure you the data we have from the Department indicates the improvement that the Prime Minister quoted.

STEVE CANNANE: The ABS though counts the Community Development Employment Program in their data but the Government does not. Now, the reduction in CDEP jobs in the last five years from 2006 to 2011 see those figures go backwards. Are you fudging the figures by not including the CDEP jobs?

JENNY MACKLIN: Quite the reverse. We think it’s important to make it clear that we’re counting the jobs that people get in the mainstream economy. We understand that it is critical to make that shift, and in fact one of the big changes we’ve implemented over the last five years is to see people come off CDEP and into properly paid jobs in child care centres, working for local government, working in aged care – so instead of getting low wages via CDEP, people are now getting properly paid wages and there’s been thousands of Aboriginal people transferred from poor wages to properly paid wages as a result of that initiative.

STEVE CANNANE: There were 33,000 people working in CDEP back in 2006. In 2011 there was only 11,000, has the Government and the private sector created an extra 22,000 jobs in that time to replace those people who were cut off that program?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well, as I’ve just indicated, we have transferred a number of people from CDEP jobs – jobs that people were doing for much, much less pay than they should have been doing …

STEVE CANNANE: But most of them were award wage jobs, weren’t they?

JENNY MACKLIN: No, they weren’t. They were getting paid less than the award, they were working on CDEP wages, not on award wages, and my objective was to make sure that they came off CDEP wages and were put on proper award wages – as a teacher’s aide, for example, as somebody working in an aged care home, as someone working in local government. We want to see Aboriginal people getting paid properly in jobs that will give them the security they deserve.

STEVE CANNANE: The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples wants the Government to expand the Closing the Gap commitments to include incarceration rates. Why aren’t they included in the targets?

JENNY MACKLIN: We set ourselves some very tough targets five years ago and we’ve had some very good progress to date on many of them. I do agree that it’s a good idea for us to talk about the whole issue of community safety and justice and we certainly will do that with both the Congress and the other groups that are calling for further action.

But if there’s one area that could really make a difference to incarceration rates it’s dealing with alcohol abuse. We know that so many people end up in prison because of alcohol abuse so if we can really deal with that issue in many communities I think we will see incarceration rates come down.

STEVE CANNANE: At the moment the Aboriginal adult incarceration rate is four times the Australian adult population. Should that be added to the list, closing that gap, as well as all those other gaps that need to be closed?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well, as I say, I think that is an important issue for us to work together on. We’ll discuss whether or not we’ve got all the targets that we should have, but I think what we also need to do is think about how we can improve community safety, what are the changes that we can put in place?

One of the very successful measures that Aboriginal people have really led the charge on in the Northern Territory has been the provision of night patrols. They do a great job, it’s largely Aboriginal people employed, very, very largely, in their local communities, and it certainly make a difference to community safety.

STEVE CANNANE: Jenny Macklin, we’ve run out of time, thanks very much for joining us tonight.