Transcript by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Launch of Northern Territory Emergency Response Discussion Paper – Joint Press Conference with Prime Minister Julia Gillard


PM: already in discussion with the crowd, who is here in his capacity as the Minister to Indigenous Heath and also in his capacity as the Member for Lingiari.

A couple of weeks ago, two weeks ago, I visited the Northern Territory and I was there with Jenny and with Warren to see what progress was being made on the ground as a result of our policies to close the gap and the Northern Territory Emergency Response.

I got the opportunity to talk to a broad range of people, including particularly elders of Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, as well as teachers and parents, community members, local business people, to get all of their feedback.

And the feedback that I got during that visit was that progress has been made through the Northern Territory Emergency Response. We are seeing women and children feeling safer, having more money to spend on the basics of life, on food and clothing for kids. We’re seeing kids being fed through schools, 7000 meals a day being provided to children in schools. We’re seeing programs coming into affect to deal with alcohol and the pressures that that brings to Indigenous communities. We’re making progress on housing.

So, a difference is being made and I saw that difference with my own eyes, but I also saw very clearly that a lot more needs to be done. We talk about closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, we talk about that right around Australia, but that gap is at its widest in the Northern Territory, the gap is at its biggest on life expectancy, on literacy and numeracy, on employment outcomes.

So there is still more to do. The Northern Territory Emergency Response is the subject of legislation, that legislation ends in August 2012 and the funding that came with the Northern Territory Emergency Response ends on the 30th of June next year.

So, today with my colleagues I’m releasing a discussion paper so that we can begin the process of consultation about what the next steps should look like. We want to make sure that we are consulting and working with Indigenous people to shape a stronger future for them and the consultation paper that we are launching today, the discussion paper is called ‘Stronger futures in the Northern Territory’. Now we want to have a genuine dialogue, but I do want to give the following commitments as we have that dialogue. I want to make the following commitments about the next steps: first, the views of Aboriginal and non-Indigenous people will be at the centre of shaping what we do to deal with these levels of disadvantage – huge levels of disadvantage. We are committed to ensuring that all future initiatives comply with the Racial Discrimination Act and the Government will continue to support the Northern Territory government to strengthen the capacity to meet the high levels of need for vital services. So, they are three core commitments that we make as we go about this process of discussion and shaping the next steps.

When you look at this document you will see that there are three clear areas of focus: kids being in school, dealing with alcohol and getting people a job. And we’re focussed on those three areas because they’re pivotal to turning around the disadvantage that we see in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. For kids to get a good education, they’ve simply got to go to school, for people to have a decent life chance they’ve got to have the benefits and the dignity that comes with work and everyone that I spoke to in the Northern Territory had a very strong focus on the damage done by alcohol and we need to curb the alcohol. So, those three things are the subject of a very strong focus in this discussion paper.

I’ll call on Jenny Macklin now for some comments and we’ll be happy to take your questions.

MINISTER MACKLIN: Thanks very much Prime Minister and this is a very important point for us. We do know that the situation in the Northern Territory for Aboriginal people, particularly those living in remote communities continues, to be critical. As the Prime Minister has indicated just a couple of weeks ago we were in Alice Springs and then up in Gove but in Alice Springs particularly, we heard from local Aboriginal leaders who made it absolutely plain to us that there is a lot more to be done. But the situation for children, for women, and for families, particularly in remote communities in the Northern Territory still requires a significant commitment from the Commonwealth.

If I can just share with you one plea that was made to us by Gina Smith from the Central Land Council who really said in the most plain terms to the Prime Minister, alcohol is killing our people, alcohol is destroying our families. And she said to the Prime Minister, to Minister Snowdon and myself, please help us to deal with what is destroying our families.

We also have continued to get the very strong message from Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory that they want education to work for their children. That they understand just how important it is that their children get to school, and when they get to school they get an education. That means that their literacy and numeracy, their educational attainment is the same as any other child can hope for around this country.

And of course we also get the message loud and clear wherever we go that people want to work. We got that so clearly when we were up in Gove witnessing the signing of the Gove Agreement and I welcome Senator Crossin.

When we were at Gove witnessing the historic Gove Agreement, central to that Gove Agreement was employment. Getting people the opportunity to get the training that they need, getting the opportunities that they need to get work so that they too can be proud providers for their families. This is what we want to do with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. There’s one really clear message we’ve got from all of these discussions, all of the work that we’ve been doing in the Northern Territory over the last four years. It’s that Aboriginal people want us to work with them, for us to listen to them, to work with them, to deal with these problems that they know are real, that they know destroy their lives, and that’s what this discussion paper is about today. It’s about saying to Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, we want to discuss the next steps with you, we know the situation is critical, we know that education and employment and alcohol abuse are critical issues for you and your families. And we intend over the next period to get out and discuss these issues as widely as possible with Aboriginal people on the ground in the Northern Territory.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, it seems to me some people who are critical of the intervention and see it as some, saw it as and still do, somehow punitive, are going to want an input. When you say that you’re going to give Aboriginal people a greater input, can you just give us an indication of what your bottom lines are, for example, from what the Minister just said if you don’t tackle grog, if you don’t tackle welfare by putting strings on it, then you’re not going to get an outcome. Can you tell us what you’re not prepared to change, your bottom line?

PM: I’ll turn to Jenny for some comments, but we’ve been very determined to see change and we maintain that determination. The point Jenny is making and it was made very clearly to me when I was in the Northern Territory is Aboriginal Australians want to work alongside us because community leaders share that determination too. They want to see the kids in school, they want to see the alcohol address, they want to see people get good employment opportunities and have all of the benefits that come with work.

So, for example with the Gove Agreement, this has been a community stepping forward to enter a partnership with one of our mining giants, to bring the benefits that jobs bring to a community because they were so desperate to get those benefits. So, we can consult about how we realise the shared ambitions for people in the Northern Territory, Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory to lead lives where kids get a great education, where adults are in work, where we’ve tackled the scourge of alcohol and consequently we can see the closing of that gap between the life expectancy, literacy and employment levels of Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians.

MACKLIN: Just to take one issue, Matthew, the issue of alcohol controls. Of course they are an important part of our current work but the message we’re getting from Aboriginal people on the ground is that in many places they want more effective controls. They know how critical it is to control alcohol. But the message that we got from the leaders that we met with in Alice Springs a couple of weeks ago is that they want to work with us to have more effective alcohol controls. And our commitment to them is to say, let’s do what works.

JOURNALIST: So, you won’t wind it back, but you might tweak it in accordance with the consultation?

MACKLIN: Well we may make changes that are more effective so I don’t think there’s any question from anyone that I speak to that people want effective alcohol controls, just to use one example.

PM: Can I just, in answer to that, in terms of philosophy, the guiding principles of this Government and you couldn’t have seen them more clearly than you saw them on budget day, the guiding principles of this Government are about sharing opportunity and requiring responsibility.

And you will see that brought to every area of policy, you see Jenny in the work she does bringing that to our social security system and our welfare system far more broadly than the particular area we are talking about now – as important as it is – to be working with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory for change. So, our philosophy, absolutely crystal clear – opportunity and responsibility hand in hand, every step of the way. That’s how we define education policy, policies about welfare, we’ll bring those principles to this discussion and you should expect this discussion to be had in accordance with those principles.

What I don’t want to be seen to be endorsing is some division that we think that and the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory think something different. The consultations I had when I was there, the discussions that I had were people did want to see the benefits of opportunity and they were more than ready to step up to the responsibility that comes with it.

Phil, Phil Coorey.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, isn’t it, for the very nature you’re conducting a consultation for, is that an implicit criticism of the Howard Government’s approach five years ago? And are any elements of the existing policy that is still outside the Racial Discrimination Act that would need to be changed?

PM: I’ll turn to Jenny for a comment, but broadly on the start of the Northern Territory Emergency Response, we know that this was started without consultation with Aboriginal people and we know that starting it without that consultation did lead to feelings of hurt and feelings of shame. I saw that myself in the Northern Territory when I met with Aboriginal leaders with tears in their eyes as they recalled some of the emotions that they’d experienced at that time and, indeed, the Leader of the Opposition’s acknowledged this too, I think it’s now widely understood that there was that kind of reaction of hurt with the way that the Northern Territory Emergency Response first got going. But we’re at a different stage now, we’re on the ground, we’re on the ground, we’re there, things are working, things are being worked through and there’s more to do, so that gives an opportunity to work in a consultative way to shape what comes next and that’s what this discussion paper today is all about.

I’ll turn to Jenny on the Racial Discrimination Act point.

MACKLIN: On, as far as the Racial Discrimination Act is concerned, our legislation is now consistent with the Racial Discrimination Act. So that change was made some time ago and of course, all the changes to make sure that the actions that we’re implementing on the ground are consistent have been done. The Prime Minister indicated in her opening remarks that one of the principles for how we proceed in the future will be that any future action will be consistent with the Racial Discrimination Act.

JOURNALIST: Minister, will this require legislation and would you the new laws passed by the end of the year in order to kick off, say, 1 July next year?

MACKLIN: Well of course that’s the purpose of consultation is to discuss these issues with people in the Northern Territory particularly. There are a range of issues that people might like to discuss that go to the licensing of stores for example, issues around alcohol so there’s a wide range of different legislative matters. But we are starting a discussion so we want to take that forward into communities, with families and talk about it with them.

JOURNALIST: Do you have a general aim of legislation by the end of this year?

MACKLIN: Well first of all we want to have the discussion.

JOURNALIST: Minister, is six weeks enough time to properly consult with people in communities, on this very complex issues, will they to open door sort of meetings within the community, when will they start and where?

MACKLIN: They’ll start very soon. Next week in fact. So that’s why we want to get the discussion paper out. I’ll be doing a lot of it myself with my colleagues here. The Prime Minister was able to join us just a couple of weeks ago to really have a wide ranging discussion with people that the Central Land Council got together, so that was very productive. They will be open to some degree, we will have some meetings that are for men and some meetings for women. So in that sense there may be separate discussions but otherwise we’ll be wanting to get these discussions happening with as many people as possible.

If I can really emphasise one point and that is that I want those people who normally do not have a voice to have a voice in these conversations. For those people who are the subject of domestic violence, for those children who are the subject of alcohol abuse, for their parents to be able to talk to me freely. And so I will be doing everything I possibly can to make sure that people have that opportunity.

JOURNALIST: Isn’t one of the problems though that firstly you often get mixed messages out of these communities and secondly, the voices that you’re seeking to tap into are often undermined when you disappear and thirdly, do you think that the Indigenous community as a whole needs stronger leaders to speak up on these issues?

PM: I’ll make a comment and then turn to Jenny too. Clearly when you go out for consultation on complex policy areas you get a variety of views, that’s true on any proposition we take and talk to people about. That doesn’t mean that the consultation’s not worthwhile because you can see where general views are coalescing, you can get a sense of what is most broadly supported. You can often get a sense too of innovations and change that you wouldn’t have thought of yourself sitting here in Canberra if you didn’t get out on the ground. So we will be looking for that feedback through the community consultations and then obviously we’ll weight it in the decision making process.

I think from what you’ve heard Jenny say she’s got a particular personal determination in this process, working with Warren and with Trish, to not speak to the people who get the benefit of being asked the questions all the time but to get out more broadly and to hear views as directly as she can. And my experience even as recently as two weeks ago and I’ve had other experiences of a comparable nature across my life in Parliament, is if you make yourself available with the right demeanour – that is a preparedness to listen and learn, then people will respond with openness to those conversations and I think that’s what will happen here.

MACKLIN: Just on the leadership point, Michelle, I think we are seeing Aboriginal leaders step up. More and more Aboriginal leaders are stepping up as Gina Smith did in the meeting with us just two weeks ago. She stepped up and said alcohol is killing our people, and do something, you know do something about it, but do it with us. So I think the demonstration is there for all of us that Aboriginal people are stepping up.

JOURNALIST: You talk about alcohol killing communities. One of the key things that a lot of people are recommending is a floor price on alcohol, but it’s not mentioned in this discussion paper. Will you be contemplating introducing a floor price on alcohol in Indigenous communities and in Alice Springs?

MACKLIN: Well as this is a discussion paper of course, what we want to do is encourage people to put forward their views but what we will also do is look at the evidence of what works. The floor price is one proposition that is around and has been put forward but of course we will be listening to other proposals that come forward. Our test will be, what’s the evidence of what works.

JOURNALIST: You say schools (inaudible) driving school attendance is a key priority and it’s been a key priority since the start of the intervention. What can you actually do to improve this and will you consider expanding your pilot program which looks at welfare penalties for parents who aren’t sending their kids to school?

PM: We’re prepared once again to look at what works and we do need to remind ourselves there are some schools that made a huge difference on attendance, some organisations that have made a huge difference on attendance too- Clontarf and others that have put together very successful programs which combine a love of sport with the rigors and discipline of school and put them together in a way that works and keeps kids engaged. So there are things out there that are happening. Jenny and I did want to see whether a conditionality on welfare engagement could also make a difference and we’ll be guided in broadening that program on what works. But we want to take a very rigorous approach here. I’ve been unbelievably clear and was at the time that the discussion of the school attendance welfare measure was quite controversial. There is no excuse for kids not being in school, we have to have kids in school – you can’t get a great education if you’re only in school a half or a third of the time and we need to do whatever we can and whatever works to ensure that kids get to school.

We’ll go to the second row and then come back, just in the interests of, you’ve already had a question Phil haven’t you?

JOURNALIST: I’ve got a very good question.

PM: Well what if we go to David first and then test your proposition that you’ve got a very good question and then we’ll go to Katherine in the hope that the quality picks back up. It’s the discrimination in favour of red heads showing yet again. David.

JOURNALIST: In principle, if any changes you do take out of this involve more welfare quarantining or punitive welfare measures, will that be specific to Indigenous communities or will it have to be across the board?

PM: Well I’m not going to pre-empt what comes out of the discussion but values wise you’ve seen from us a preparedness to take tough measures with disadvantaged communities in non-Indigenous Australia to get people to step up to responsibility. The measures in the recent budget were all about that- teen parents, young people with disabilities, very long-term unemployed – requiring people to step up.

We are at a unique time in our nation’s economic history, this is a time of economic transformation, global economic weight’s moving in our direction, it’s moving from west to east. We’ve got a resources boom that is going to power our economy for many a long year to come. We’ve got to work out how we harness this period of economic transition and prosperity to make a difference to Australians who’ve been locked out of the benefits of that prosperity in the past. None of us can sit here after all of these decades of economic growth and say economic growth in and of itself fixes all disadvantage. Patently it does not, but we can use this phase of economic growth through the right policies of opportunity and responsibility to make a difference to that disadvantage. It requires us to provide the opportunities, it requires too, people to accept the responsibilities and we don’t bring to that a soft ‘well if you can be bothered’ approach.

We’re bringing to it a very tough minded approach – I mean the world doesn’t owe Australian’s capable of work a living; they’ve got to get out and make that living themselves.

Yep – we’ve got to be there with the training measures and the support and the measures that give people opportunity and we will. So that’s the underlying philosophy we’ve brought across the broad sweep of areas including working with disadvantaged communities which are not home to large numbers of Indigenous Australians.

Now this better be good after all the build up, no pressure.

JOURNALIST: On the politics of this- Tony Abbott, for whatever you may think of him, has expressed a genuine interest in this area. In the interest of actually getting bipartisan consensus on this and not allowing this degenerate into another fist fight between the major parties, would you be prepared to allow him in on the process in any way, shape or form?

JOURNALIST: Good question.

PM: Right ok, we’ve got to a stage in this press conference where we’re becoming increasingly irrelevant to it and we can get questions asked on critiques of the questions given without us. But the answer to your question is we are working in a consultative way with the Opposition because we do want to see this beyond the hurly-burly of some fairly sharply partisan days in the life of the Australian nation. So Jenny takes very particular care and steps to involve her counterpart in this work and I’ll turn to Jenny now for a comment.

MACKLIN: My office briefed Senator Scullion this morning, so as the Prime Minister has indicated, I think we do have a shared commitment to improve the lives of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. I think there is a recognition of just how critical the situation is, and as the Leader of the Opposition has indicated, the way that the Northern Territory Emergency Response started four years ago did hurt a lot of people. It did leave people hurt and angry and it’s something that I think we all want to address and that’s why we are launching this discussion paper today and we certainly want to make sure we keep the Opposition engaged in that discussion.

JOURNALIST: Just in relation to the housing program. Obviously everyone acknowledges that there’s been great building work done in the town camps and all of those refurbishments. But some of the more remote settlements, some of those renovations have been appalling in terms of value for money. What do you intend to do in this next phase of the intervention to get more rigor into the housing program given how much money and resources are invested in it and how people in remote communities are relying on you to provide decent housing?

PM: I was very pleased to see the work that’s happening in town camps when I was in Alice Springs making such a difference to the lives of those Aboriginal people and I did get the opportunity to meet with Nigel who ran the Association for the town camp I was in and talked to him about how the new houses, and it’s more than the houses, it’s the transformation of those places into something we would recognise as suburbs – you know, all the things we take for granted – street lights, curbing, you know stuff that we just expect to see when we walk the streets of where we live, will also be in those town camps. So it is a big change but Jenny as you’re aware has worked hard to make sure that we do get value for money and appropriate roll out of this program so I’ll turn to her for a comment.

MACKLIN: Thanks very much Prime Minister. And it is true that we had some difficulties at the start of this program and in any building program of this size you’re going to find some issues that might need to be addressed. But I think it does need to be acknowledged the enormity of the task that we faced when we came to Government and the huge commitment that is being made. We’ve now got nearly three hundred new houses built, thousands of rebuilds and refurbishments, and where they are not up to scratch, I can assure you I expect them to be. We know how critical it is to both get additional houses built, to get houses fixed up, to make sure that people have a decent bathroom and kitchen in their homes so that they’re safe. All of these things have been part of a concerted effort and if there’s one part of this that I can assure people is ongoing, it is our commitment to housing. We have a $1.7 billion commitment to build and improve housing in the Northern Territory and that is a ten year commitment. So we will continue to deliver and deliver against an enormous backlog that unfortunately Governments of all persuasions left us with.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minster you had four years of the intervention so what works and where is the evidence that it works?

PM: Of the things we believe are working, and I’ll turn to Jenny for a comment too, but of the things we believe are working we believe that the changes in camp stores so that people get access to more fresh fruit and vegetables, more fresh food – that that’s making a difference, I mean nutrition’s obviously, you don’t need to be an expert to know how important nutrition is for adults and for kids. The program that’s putting meals through schools and getting kids fed, a very important program, that’s making a difference. The programs that we’ve seen to develop new housing that Jenny’s just talked about, the programs we’ve seen to deal with alcohol abuse and more needs to be done, but things are happening to tackle law and order issues and alcohol questions. The income management, the evidence to me, the direct observations to me, the direct observations of people is that that is working to make sure that people are safe from being humbugged and having their money taken away and better able therefore to make sure their money gets spent on food and clothing and the appropriate care of children. So these things are working, we know in the education area that there are things that are working too to lift school attendance, we just talked about that, and to better engage Indigenous students. And we know as well that there are some employment programs that work, but we’ve got to keep building – there is more to do, there are real issues, there is this tragically big gap to close and the gap is at its biggest in the Northern Territory.

MACKLIN: Just to add to the Prime Minister’s remarks. One of the important initiatives was to put additional police into communities where they had never had a permanent police presence and that transition from the Federal police to the Northern Territory police has now occurred. So the numbers are increased and will be maintained and all of those increased numbers of police are now Northern Territory police. The most recent Northern Territory Emergency Response monitoring report which I put out just a few weeks ago, indicates that for the first time we are now seeing a decline in the level of violent crime and that said, I would be the first to acknowledge that we still have a long way to go. But I do think that the presence of police is very important. There’s been a separate piece of work done in the Northern Territory asking people their views about the additional police effort and of course, the vast majority of people are very pleased to have a police presence just like you and I are very pleased to have a police presence in our communities.

If I can also emphasise the importance of employment. One of the unwritten successes of the last four year’s work has been the transition of people off community development employment projects on to full time properly paid award wages. Whether it’s in child care centres, or aged care, or working for the local Government, working to fix the roads. Whatever it might be, we now have a couple of thousand people who previously didn’t have a decent wage to live on who are now properly paid, and I do think that’s been a great success. We’ve just published the evaluation of the community stores licensing. That too, demonstrates just how important the licensing system has been that we’ve put in place to make sure not only that there’s decent stuff in the stores on the shelves, but also that the stores are properly managed, properly governed, so that people know that their store in their community is delivering decent food for them.

PM: Warren wanted to say something briefly, then we’ll go to the front and the back and then we will have to call it a day.

MINISTER SNOWDON: I think the other area which we’ve not traversed is Indigenous health. The Aboriginal health services in the Northern Territory have improved dramatically over the last four years. We’ve got over 273 new primary care employees in the health system, in the health workforce. We’re investing quite a considerable amount of money in new health infrastructure. We’re providing the health checks, the follow-up health checks, the dental checks are all happening. And I think we’re doing, and that’s in collaboration, in partnership with the Aboriginal community controlled health sector as well as the Northern Territory Government and there are very strong positive signs that the impact we are having will make a difference.

PM: Ok question here at the front.

JOURNALIST: Just on that point you made about policing, the NT Police Association has issued concern over who’s going to fund policing managing those 63 stations in remote communities and secondly the intervention has a negative connotation in the Territory, what do you see yourself doing to diminish that stigma?

MINISTER MACKLIN: Well taking the second question first. We are launching today a discussion paper called Stronger Futures which is all about us getting out, talking with Aboriginal people in their communities, in their community centres, about what works and what they want to see done to address what they and we understand to still be critical problems for Aboriginal people in the Territory. So that’s the first point. On the issue of funding, as the Prime Minister indicated in her opening remarks, of course these are matters that the Government will have to consider over the next six to twelve months and of course, we’ll do that very carefully.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister are you concerned about Qantas jobs going offshore?

PM: Of course I’m always concerned that we have the maximum number of jobs in Australia. When you look at everything we’ve done as a Government it’s been about supporting Australian jobs and keeping the economy strong, so we want to see Australian jobs wherever we can get them and I’m very determined that we’re going to manage this phase of our economic growth to ensure that we’re maximising job opportunities. We’ve seen 750,000 jobs created already, we’re looking forward to half a million more in the coming couple of years. So nothing more important than making sure Australian’s have got the benefits of work and that’s going to keep driving us as a Government. Thanks very much.