Transcript by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Government response to NTER review

Program: 7.30 Report


KERRY O’BRIEN: Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin has rejected a key recommendation of the independent board reviewing the first year of the Northern Territory intervention in crisis-prone remote Aboriginal communities, and will maintain compulsory income management for at least the next year. The review board recommended a week ago that the income management scheme which quarantines welfare payments to redirect much of that money away from alcohol and into better diets for Aboriginal children should be made voluntary. The Minister has, however, promised to rewrite the intervention legislation within the next year to end the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Late today I spoke with Jenny Macklin, who was in Canberra. Jenny Macklin, before we get into the substance of your response to the board of review report on intervention, what is the clear definable measurable evidence that intervention has worked sufficiently to justify it continuing in its current draconian form.

JENNY MACKLIN: The best evidence I have available to me is twofold: one coming from some excellent evidence that’s been collected from the stores showing that there’s been a significant increase in the purchase of fresh fruit and vegetables, increased purchases of fresh meat, we are also seeing some of the children putting on weight, income management has also allowed people to save for whitegoods, there’s been a reduction in the consumption of cigarettes and alcohol, so there’s some direct evidence.

Some of the more anecdotal evidence is really coming from particularly all of the women that I have spoken to in many, many communities, some of whom I’d have to say have pleaded with me to keep compulsory income management.

KERRY O’BRIEN: Well, I’ll come to that point because the board of review recommended that “the current blanket application of compulsory income management” should become voluntary. So why have you ignored that recommendation?

JENNY MACKLIN: We do want to see the development of strong social norms in these communities, and as far as I’m concerned the evidence is very strong that it’s coming from compulsory income management. And as the women I spoke to in Wadeye just a couple of weeks ago said to me, “Please don’t make it voluntary, because if you make it voluntary we’ll be forced to go off it, we won’t be able to elect to go on to income management, we’ll have enough pressure applied to us that we won’t be involved”.

KERRY O’BRIEN: The respected lawyer and former Judge Tony Fitzgerald said in his submission to the review that many of the intervention policies are clearly racially discriminatory. He said “child abuse and the underreporting thereof is a problem Australian wide, yet only indigenous people who reside in certain regions of the Northern Territory have their benefits quarantined, and this happens whether they are guilty of misspending it or not.” Did you have any doubt at all before you decided to continue the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act for another year?

JENNY MACKLIN: We have certainly looked primarily at the evidence. What is the evidence for continuing to do this? It’s good for the people who are the most vulnerable in the Northern Territory. When you are talking about rights of course, you have to consider all sorts of human rights, and, of course, one doesn’t want to be racially discriminatory, equally, we have an obligation to protect those who are the most vulnerable. And in this case it’s women and children. Women and children who have been subjected to too much violence and too much abuse. And that’s really what in the end made me decide that it was important to continue the compulsory income management for another year. I’d also point you to the advice coming from the respected indigenous academic Marcia Langton, who takes the view that according to her, these could be seen as special measures under the Racial Discrimination Act.

KERRY O’BRIEN: You referred today to the Government program to build 750 new houses in Aboriginal communities over the next four years as part of the long term solution to endemic problems. But what is the total stock of new houses needed in the Northern Territory alone, before you consider remote communities? Are you able to put a figure on that?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well you are right, this new program that we are just about to begin is not going to fix every house that needs to be fixed, and there still will be some overcrowding in the Northern Territory because the need for new houses, the need for upgraded houses is enormous.

We are not only going to build 750 new houses, there’ll be 2,500 major upgrades, and that will include new kitchens, new bathrooms, but we recognise that there’s an enormous amount more to be done.

I’d have to say, though, this is the biggest program ever embarked upon in the Northern Territory. Nearly $600 million.

KERRY O’BRIEN: But even so, you’d agree that it’s just scratching the surface.

JENNY MACKLIN: Yes, I do agree.

KERRY O’BRIEN: And therefore if it’s taken you four years to do this much, one assumes that to fully meet the needs you are really talking about decades.

JENNY MACKLIN: We are going to need a long term program of investment, partly because of the need, but also because of very substantial population growth. So just to take Wadeye as an example, a town of about 2,500, around 100 babies are being born every year, so there’s a very significant demand for new housing plus a lot of catching up to do.

KERRY O’BRIEN: Speaking of those babies, we spoke on Sorry Day eight months ago, and I asked you what benchmarks you would set for the Government to meet in its first term on that 10 year plan you’ve announced to halve the gap between Indigenous Australia and the rest on literacy and numeracy and on infant mortality.

You said you’d asked your department already to set out timelines for your first term, for the next couple of years. So, what have they come up with? What are your time lines for the next couple of years?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well, as I indicated to you all those months ago, what we are doing is really setting those short term milestones, and I think you’ll hear a little more about that from us in the next month or so, so I really don’t want to deal with that here tonight, if you don’t mind.

KERRY O’BRIEN: Is that because you are still working on them, or you’ve got them but you’re saving them for a special occasion?

JENNY MACKLIN: We’ve got some more things to say.

KERRY O’BRIEN: What concrete results have you already achieved towards finding that small army of health workers and teachers, including early childhood teachers that you’re going to need to meet your goals, including the PM’s pledge to get every Indigenous four-year old in remote Australia into preschool?

JENNY MACKLIN: One of our commitments before the election was in fact to expand the number of early childhood education places in universities. So that is beginning. Of course that takes time, it takes four years to educate those people. We know this is going to take time. There’s a shortage of early childhood educators, there’s a shortage of doctors and nurses, we have also just announced additional training places for specialist nurses.

So we are doing the basic work that needs to be done to train those professionals. We have succeeded in getting some new teachers into the Northern Territory. We’ve got money for 200 new teachers to get into the Northern Territory. But we’ve certainly got to keep the pressure on to get them there.

KERRY O’BRIEN: And finally, whatever happened to Kevin Rudd’s bipartisan commission on Aboriginal affairs to kill or to at least make serious inroads into these awful endemic problems.

JENNY MACKLIN: Well I am still determined to take a bipartisan approach. I think that across the Parliament there is a very strong view that we have so much to do in this area, whether it’s building houses, whether it’s making sure that children are safe, whether it’s introducing improvements to education, I think there is a view across the Parliament about the need for all of us to work together to achieve that.

The Housing Commission that the Prime Minister announced when he made the National Apology met in Canberra, in fact, just last week, and was a very successful meeting. Unfortunately Dr Nelson decided not to join the Commission, but we are continuing, and the people who are on the Commission have been making a very valuable contribution.

KERRY O’BRIEN: Jenny Macklin, thanks for talking with us.