Transcript by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

First anniversary of the Northern Territory Emergency Response


Macklin: Thanks everyone for being here today. I’m very pleased to be releasing the Northern Territory Emergency Response Taskforce report, which was provided to me yesterday. This is a very important report and I’d particularly like to thank the taskforce and the chair of the taskforce, Dr Sue Gordon, both for the considerable dedication and hard work over the last 12 months, since the Northern Territory Emergency Response began. All the members of the taskforce have shown themselves willing to make an extraordinary contribution to improve the lives of Indigenous children in remote communities in the Northern Territory. If I can also at the same time thank Major General Dave Chalmers for his contribution and his ongoing dedication to make sure that the emergency response continues to be rolled out in a smooth fashion and of course that will continue.

The report which we are releasing today from the taskforce is both their indication to the government of what’s happened so far and I’ll just move through some of the findings that the taskforce report contains. They certainly set out for us the increased numbers of police that are now in communities where there hasn’t been a police presence before. So there’s an additional 51 police in a number of additional communities. There’s been a significant number of health checks, around 11,000 child health checks and some ongoing follow up, ear, nose and throat surgery, dental surgery. But there’s certainly more to be done in that area.

The taskforce also indicates how important income management has been to make sure that people’s welfare money is being spent in the interests of children and not on alcohol or gambling. And there’s certainly some early indications from store owners in remote communities that more money is being spent on fresh food and less on cigarettes. There’s some indication that the alcohol bans and alcohol controls is having a positive effect and even as late as today, in the media outlets, we’ve seen some positive indications of that. Certainly indicating fewer reports to hospital as a result of alcohol fuelled violence.

So these are just some of the findings so far. What we’ve also got from the report, from the taskforce recommendations to the government about the way forward. One of the critical recommendations is the need to invest more in housing. We certainly as a government understand just how critical that is. It’s impossible for a child to be safe if they’re living in a home that’s shockingly overcrowded and we know that far, far too many children here in the Northern Territory, particularly in remote communities are living in very overcrowded homes, where it is just not possible for them to be able to get a good sleep at night and it makes it very hard for them to live the sort of happy and healthy life that we expect for all Australian children.

The Northern Territory Government and the Australian Government has recognised just how critical this is. We’ve already come to a major agreement with the Northern Territory Government to invest over $800 million in improved housing here in the Northern Territory. Some of that will go to the construction of new houses, about 750 new homes will be built and two and a half thousand major upgrades of houses will also occur. And the concentration of these new homes will happen in the larger communities, where there are schools, where there’s the availability of health services and where there’s more chance of people getting a regular job. That’s another area where the taskforce makes significant recommendations. They certainly recommend to the government that more needs to be done to get people into regular employment. We recognise that this too is a critical recommendation and one that we intend to continue working on. There has already been some improvement in this area, more than 1100 people have been moved off the Community Development Employment Program and onto properly paid jobs. So that’s a start but we do recognise that this is a big area that we need to continue working on.

So I’m very pleased to have this report from the taskforce and I look forward to now giving this report to the review which we’ve recently announced and of course the government will separately look at the recommendations.

Journalist: So the basic message out of this report is that certain communities are not sustainable. Is that correct?

Macklin: That’s one area of recommendation. Of course there are many recommendations from the taskforce. What they’re concerned about and I think rightly so is to make sure that all children are attending school and all children are able to get the basic health services that we expect for every other child in Australia. We know that it is critical that we have children attending school and just yesterday announced a new measure which the Australian Government is going to put in place in cooperation with the Northern Territory Government. In six places here in the Northern Territory, we’re going to introduce a new measure that will say to parents, you have a responsibility to make sure that your children go to school. If you don’t take that responsibility seriously we will suspend your welfare payments until you get them to school.

So these are measures that we think are critical. We also know how important it is to have a school available for children to attend and to make sure that there are teachers there when they do go to school. That’s why we’ve also recently announced 200 extra teachers will be funded to come into remote schools here in the Northern Territory.

Journalist: We haven’t actually had time to read the report. Does it recommend moving people from the small communities to the larger communities or urban centres?

Macklin: It certainly recommends that this is an issue that needs to be examined, this whole question of viability of communities. But it does so in the context of making sure that children go to school, that there are health services available, that there’s proper housing available and that there’s work available. So it’s done in that context.

Journalist: Is there any future for outstations?

Macklin: I’ve just said to you is that I think it’s critical that we look at this from the point of view of the principle of making sure that children go to school. That’s my number one principle, that children go to school and that parents are able to get work. And we’ll obviously look at the full report, we’ll look at the recommendations but the way I come at this issue is from the point of view of principle. I want to make sure that children are going to school. I want to make sure that parents are able to get work.

Journalist: So presumably it’s very hard to fund a school and to find a job on a small outstation of 50 people.

Macklin: As you’d be very well aware, some of the outstations are very close to larger communities so I think it’s important to look at the issue of principle and we’ll look at this whole question that comes from the recommendations of the report in the next little while.

Journalist: Do you agree that it may be appropriate in the future to perhaps look at the community alcohol plans rather than outright alcohol bans?

Macklin: You pick up, Natasha, another good point from the report that’s just been released. They do recommend that we look at that as another approach and as I’ve just mentioned, in the media today, we’re seeing some good results from Nhulunbuy in that regard, where they’ve just introduced that sort of alcohol management approach. We know from Groote Eylandt as well that a similar alcohol management plan is operating and operating successfully and that in – on Groote Eylandt just as we’ve seen today in Nhulunbuy that as there’s been a reduction in alcohol fuelled violence, there’s been a reduction in the reports to hospital that come from alcohol.

So the review that we put in train, we’ll look at the various ways in which alcohol is being controlled in different parts of the Northern Territory. We’ll be looking at the evidence, those things that are working to better control alcohol will obviously form the basis of recommendations to the government about how we might move forward.

Journalist: When it talks about additional investment in housing, this is obviously beyond the closing the gap funding, is the idea there that that money would only go to larger communities that are more economically viable?

Macklin: Well what we’ve done with the money that we have already made available and it’s a very substantial amount of money. There’s never been an agreement of this size before, over $800 million is going to be put into housing here in the Northern Territory. So it’s a very substantial improvement in funding and we are concentrating the new homes in the larger communities. They are growing rapidly. There’s very significant population growth. Lots of children being born. We want to make sure that those children have a safe home to live in. There will be upgrades in some of the other communities but we’re concentrating the largest amount of effort in the larger communities.

Journalist: [Indistinct] that there’s very few houses on the ground as pointed out in the report at the moment.

Macklin: As you’d be aware we came to an agreement with the Northern Territory Government in April. And you’d also be aware that it takes some time to build a new home. So there has been as a result of the Northern Territory Emergency Response, a considerable amount of effort with community clean ups. Just where we were in the town camps around Katherine yesterday, there was a team of workers painting and fixing up houses, cleaning up the town camps. So that work is continuing to happen but as a result of the major agreement that we came to with the Northern Territory Government in April, we’re now with the Northern Territory going out to tender. There’s a major new approach taking place, a strategic investment approach and the reason for doing it this way is to let large contracts, so that we don’t have the sort of mistakes that have arisen in the past, with real contracts, the small builders going from community to community, not really able to get economies of scale. And the other thing that I think’s very important with the approach that we’re taking here is employment.

Journalist: [Indistinct]

Macklin: I just want to say something about this. This is very, very important. What we want and what the Northern Territory want and, more significantly than all, Indigenous people want is jobs. They want to be able to get a job. We’re investing $800 million into housing in the Northern Territory and we want good houses out of it but we also want jobs. We want training, the capacity for local Indigenous people to be trained, to learn a trade, to learn the capacity to maintain a home, so that they both have an investment in looking after the house but also the skills to do the maintenance that’s necessary. This is critical for us and we do intend to deliver on it and as part of the contracting that we’ll enter into with the builders, we will expect them to deliver significant opportunities for local Indigenous people.

Journalist: Would you envisage that people might be forcibly removed from communities deemed unviable?

Macklin: I think this idea of forcibly removing anyone is way off the mark. I think what’s important to recognise – if I go back to the principles, what’s important is to make sure that children go to school. What’s important is that parents have the capacity and the opportunity to get a job. They’re the principles that I’d be working towards.

Journalist: [Indistinct] people might not want to leave. So what would happen there?

Macklin: I think the critical thing is to make it clear that the law is very, very clear on this issue. Children must go to school. Every child in Australia has to go to school. There’s a responsibility in each state and territory to make sure that’s enforced and just yesterday we’ve introduced a new mechanism to make sure that children go to school. Parents have a responsibility to make sure that their children go to school and if they don’t take the responsibility seriously, their welfare payments will be suspended until they get them to school. I think these are the critical ways to look at this issue. Make sure the children go to school, make sure the parents are able to get work, and then we’ll see some improvements in people’s lives.