Alice Springs Transformation Plan, Northern Territory Emergency Response, Gove Agreement, Welfare Reform
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BARRIE CASSIDY: Now we’ll go to our studio guest, the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin.
She’s about to take Julia Gillard on a tour of Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. Tony Abbott went on a similar road trip in late April.
So while the Minister joins us here’s a reminder of that.
(Excerpt from 7.30, ABC TV):
TONY ABBOTT, OPPOSITION LEADER: I think the intervention has made a difference. It hasn’t been perfect. Nothing is perfect. But it has made a difference.
For too long there has not been the expectation that Aboriginal kids would go to school or the expectation that Aboriginal adults would take work. Now we’ve got to break that expectation.
CHRIS UHLMANN, POLITICAL REPORTER: But it’s not just a failure of this government or that government is it? It’s a failure of all governments at all times.
TONY ABBOTT: I absolutely accept that. And that’s why I said to the Prime Minister to indicate that the country, not just individual politicians, are taking this seriously why don’t the two of us in the spirit of bipartisanship go to Alice Springs, sit down with the senior Indigenous leadership and at least let them know that we are determined to make a difference?
(End of excerpt)
BARRIE CASSIDY: Minister, good morning, welcome.
JENNY MACKLIN: Good morning. Thanks Barrie.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Did you miss an opportunity there for bipartisanship? Why were you not able to take up Tony Abbott on that offer?
JENNY MACKLIN: Well I am pleased to see Mr Abbott’s recent interest in Alice Springs. If I can just take a moment to demonstrate what we faced as a Government when we first came into office three years ago.
I went to the town camps in Alice Springs, saw women, elderly women sleeping outside on filthy mattresses with just a bit of tin to protect them from the wind.
I had pleading from a father saying to me how desperate they were for new housing because the cockroaches were getting into his children’s ears at night.
That’s what we faced and we’ve put an enormous amount of effort into the town camps in Alice Springs over the last three years. And we’re finally making a difference. So we’re finally seeing houses built and lives changed.
So yes I appreciate Mr Abbott’s support but I also recognise the enormous amount that we’ve done and we have to do.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But even given that what’s wrong with a bit of bipartisanship. And he has got credentials in this area. He’s actually taken time out and spent weeks at a time in these communities.
JENNY MACKLIN: He has done that and I certainly think this is an area for bipartisanship. And we work that way. We work closely with the shadow minister.
The important thing though is to get the changes on the ground, to do the really hard work that needs to be done.
Unfortunately the previous government walked away from the town camps in Alice Springs. It took a lot of determination on my part to really stick with it, to get the leases we needed so that we could go onto the town camps, make sure that we introduced the housing changes, the tenancy management changes, the changes that really will make a difference to people’s lives.
That’s what actually will turn things around, not whether or not we have two people going together.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Now Julia Gillard will go first to Alice Springs. Now I presume she will visit the town camps.
JENNY MACKLIN: She will. I want to take her to see what the town camps are like, what we actually have achieved in this short period of time.
Having met with some of the residents of the new houses I know what it means to them to really have a decent house to live in.
We’ll also go to the visitor park. One of the big issues in Alice Springs is the large number of people who come into the town for a range of reasons. And we’ve just opened a 150-bed visitor park. There’s new accommodation for homeless people in Alice Springs. So they’re just two areas that she’ll see firsthand.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But how does this go beyond just publicity? Because presumably all the policy decisions that affect this area have already been taken.
JENNY MACKLIN: No I think we recognise and she certainly will hear that there’s a lot more to be done. So there’s certainly time for her to sit down and quietly discuss these issues with elders, with people who are important leaders in Alice Springs who I’m sure will tell her what needs to be done next.
I think the first priority for us was about short-term visitor accommodation, long-term decent housing, tenancy management, improved services for families. All that’s happening.
But what I expect her to hear is that there’s still serious issues with alcohol control, serious issues to get children to go to school. And I’m sure people will talk to her about those things.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Issues that no government up until now has really been able to handle.
JENNY MACKLIN: There have been some changes that are starting to help on the alcohol front. But I absolutely agree with you – there’s a lot more to do.
We’re still not seeing enough children going to school. We’ve put in place a trial to tie people’s welfare payments to the attendance and enrolment at school. But we know that if you don’t go to school you’re not going to get a decent education. So we’ve got a lot more to do there.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But there have been some improvements in that area, largely due to the intervention that the previous government introduced and yet you are critical of the way the town camps were when you first took them over. But you have to concede that it was intervention that got some of these things going.
JENNY MACKLIN: I do agree with that. And of course we have supported all of the measures including income management that the previous government started but actually I’ve been responsible for implementing over the last three years.
We have seen significant improvements in the community stores for example, making sure that food is available in a decent way, making sure that parents are spending their welfare money on food and clothing and not on alcohol, making sure that we have police in communities that never had them before.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But is that working? Is there real evidence that that’s actually working?
JENNY MACKLIN: We just released the latest six-monthly report from the Northern Territory Emergency Response this week. And for the first time we’ve seen a decline in the number of violent crimes reported in these communities.
When the police first went in there was quite an increase in the number of violent crime reported which I think was a result of having police in the communities.
Now we’re starting to see it come down but there’s a lot more to be done there too.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Is it coming down because there are more police in the area? This is something that Tony Abbott talked a lot about in government and the Labor Party used to ridicule him because they said that that wasn’t, more policing wasn’t necessarily the answer.
JENNY MACKLIN: Well certainly I don’t ridicule more police. I think all of us, doesn’t matter whether you live in the suburbs in Melbourne or a remote community in the Northern Territory, we’re all entitled to have a decent level of policing.
And for the first time some of these communities have got permanent police. And that has been an important advance, something that I’m very supportive of. We’re still building additional police stations for those communities.
But of course it can’t stop at policing. We also need to make sure that we’ve got a range of different services.
There’s mobile child protection teams. There’s playgroups. There are school nutrition programs. We’re producing 7,000 meals a day for children in the Northern Territory.
So you can see it’s a very, very widespread intervention.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But what about the cases of abuse themselves? Because after the Little Children Are Sacred report four years ago, that’s really what led up to the intervention, what has happened in the interim? Are children, can you say that children are safer now than they were four years ago?
JENNY MACKLIN: What the Northern Territory Government’s done is a very difficult inquiry into the child protection system in the Northern Territory.
I think everybody recognised just how much pressure it was under. They’ve put a lot of additional funding in for extra staff. We too have supported them in that regard.
So yes there are far too many children being removed from their parents because they are being neglected, because they are being abused.
What we’ve done at the Commonwealth level is introduce a new system of income management which says if the child protection authorities find that you’re not looking after your children, neglecting them, then 70 per cent of your welfare payments can be income managed to make sure you’re spending that money on food.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But that’s what you’re doing but is it working?
JENNY MACKLIN: Well it’s starting to. These are very, very significant changes and the situation that we find ourselves in is terrible.
We are facing far too many children being abused, being neglected, being removed from their families because of that neglect. And of course it’s incumbent on all of us to make sure that that is turned around.
But it’s not going to be turned around by one measure alone – just more child protection staff or more police or a school nutrition program. It requires us to act on all of those fronts.
BARRIE CASSIDY: And then you go on to Gove. What’s the significance of that?
JENNY MACKLIN: This is going to be a wonderful celebration. Just recently we’ve seen the final resolution of a more than 40 year struggle for an agreement to be made between Rio Tinto and the traditional owners over access to the bauxite mine to the town of Nhulunbuy, to the Mud Ponds as they’re called.
And so they’ve now come to an agreement. I’ve signed it off as the Minister responsible.
The Northern Land Council have done a very important and I think very detailed piece of work as well to really bring this very, very significant agreement to a finality.
One of the important things about it is the way in which it’s going to put money into not just education and employment for people today, but for future generations. And the governance arrangements will really make sure that the money is there and will be well used.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Okay.
If you could put on your hat now as Families Minister, there are figures released this week that show the number of children living in a household where nobody has a job – 568,000. That’s a lot of kids.
JENNY MACKLIN: It sure is. And in many of those families that’s generational. So one generation after another, children are growing up and they never see anybody going out to work.
And that’s why one of the centrepieces of this year’s budget was about welfare reform and participation; really saying to jobless families, to teenage parents, to people who have been on the disability support pension for a long period – we want to change the whole approach. We want to do everything we can to get you back to work so that children don’t grow up thinking that it’s normal that you have a life on welfare.
BARRIE CASSIDY: That’s fine but Professor Peter Shergold said, talked about the passivity of welfare and he said that people, long-term unemployed fear losing their benefits because they were reliable. Work to them is uncertain and they worry about failure.
How do you get over a mindset such as that?
JENNY MACKLIN: And he’s dead right. And in the disability support pension area that attitude is very acute.
So we’ve made a number of changes. One is to say to people – you can try work and you won’t automatically be taken off your disability support pension.
Of course you will still be …
BARRIE CASSIDY: For how long?
JENNY MACKLIN: Over a two year period.
We’re also saying that you can work and this is something we announced in this year’s budget, you can work up to 30 hours a week before automatically starting a review of your disability support pension.
So really saying to people try work, give it a go.
We’re also for the first time putting in place requirements on people who are under the age of 35 on the disability support pension to start participating if they’re capable of working around a day a week.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Just on a final issue, are you comfortable with this arrangement where in some cases, even still, some unaccompanied minors will be sent back to Malaysia?
JENNY MACKLIN: I think the critical thing is to remember here that the Government’s trying to address – none of us, not one person in Australia wants to see the horror of that accident that happened on Christmas Island. So we don’t want to see children or adults face that risk.
The other side of the equation that I think we need to remember in the agreement with Malaysia that we’re pursuing is that of course we will take 4,000 refugees, people who have been found to be refugees, from Malaysia as part of this agreement.
So let’s judge the final agreement when it is final. I think the Minister is doing an extraordinary job in very, very difficult circumstances.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Yeah they will also be judged though, the Government will be judged on how these people are treated when they go back to Malaysia and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of insistence on the part of the Government that human rights be a key element to that.
JENNY MACKLIN: Well I don’t agree with that. That was in the original in-principle agreement reached between our Prime Minister and the prime minister of Malaysia. That is very important to us and something that we know is critical to achieve in the final agreement.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Thanks for your time this morning.
JENNY MACKLIN: Thank you.