Speech by The Hon Mal Brough MP

Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007 – Second reading speech

Check against delivery

This bill – the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007 (and the other bills introduced in the same package) – are all about the safety and well being of children.

When confronted with a failed society where basic standards of law and order and behaviour have broken down and where women and children are unsafe, how should we respond? Do we respond with more of what we have done in the past? Or do we radically change direction with an intervention strategy matched to the magnitude of the problem?

Six weeks ago, the Little Children are Sacred report commissioned by the Northern Territory Government confirmed what the Australian Government had been saying. It told us in the clearest possible terms that child sexual abuse among Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory is serious, widespread and often unreported, and that there is a strong association between alcohol abuse and sexual abuse of children.

With clear evidence that the Northern Territory Government was not able to protect these children adequately, the Howard Government decided that it was now time to intervene and declare an emergency situation and use the Territories Power available under the Constitution to make laws for the Northern Territory.

We are providing extra police, we will stem the flow of alcohol, drugs and pornography, assess the health situation of children, engage local people in improving living conditions, and offer more employment opportunities and activities for young people. We aim to limit the amount of cash available for alcohol, drugs and gambling during the emergency period and make a strong link between welfare payments and school attendance.

We have been able to do some things immediately, without legislation.

The Northern Territory Emergency Response Taskforce has been established. Magistrate Doctor Sue Gordon chairs this small group of distinguished and dedicated Australians. Major-General Dave Chalmers is in charge of operational command headquartered in Alice Springs.

We have begun to provide extra federal police to make communities safe. The States have committed to provide police and the Australian Government has agreed to cover their costs.

All 73 townships that have been identified for intervention have been visited by advance communication teams. The follow up survey teams have visited 47 townships. These visits are meant to explain to local people the steps being taken, to listen to their views, to answer questions, and to assess the state of play in terms of infrastructure and services.

Almost 500 health checks have been conducted for Aboriginal children under 16. Not surprisingly, some cases have been referred to child protection authorities and the results of some initial tests have been referred for further testing for sexually transmitted diseases.

This is a very encouraging start after a few short weeks. But Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory will never be safe and healthy without fundamental changes to the things that make communities dangerous and unhealthy places.

We need to dry up the rivers of grog. We need to stop the free flow of pornography.

We need to improve living conditions and reduce overcrowding. More houses need to be built and we need to control the land in the townships for a short period to ensure that we can do this quickly.

We need to make sure money paid to parents and carers by the government for feeding children is not used for buying grog or for gambling.

We need to make sure local shops stock good, affordable food for growing children.

We need to show people that there is hope of a life beyond welfare so that going to school is seen to be worthwhile.

We need to show people that it is possible to own and control your own house, which can only happen when you have a lease over the land that it is built on.

The government has faced a lot of questions since the announcement of the intervention. Some people have asked how the various parts of the response are connected to the welfare of children, and to each other.

With no work and no hope of getting a job, many Aboriginal people in these communities rely on passive welfare.

In an environment where there is no natural social order of production and distribution, grog, pornography and gambling often fill the void.

What do viable economies and jobs have to do with preventing child abuse? Unemployment and welfare dependency may not cause abuse, but a viable economy and real job prospects make education meaningful and point to a life beyond abuse and despair.

Currently, there are too few jobs in these communities and land tenure arrangements work against developing a real economy. The Community Development Employment Projects program has become the destination for far too many.

Banks will not lend money to start up small businesses because a committee decides what tenure arrangements will apply. People cannot even borrow to buy their own home because they cannot own or lease a block of land. And, to cap it all off, these towns have been closed to outsiders because of the permit system.

After consultation, the government has decided on balance to leave the permit system in place in 99.8 per cent of Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory.

But in the larger public townships and the road corridors that connect them, permits will no longer be required.

Closed towns mean less public scrutiny, so the situation has been allowed to get worse and worse.

Normally, where situations come to light which are as terrible as the child abuse occurring in the Northern Territory, solutions are pursued relentlessly by the media.

But closed towns have made it easier for abuse and dysfunction to stay hidden.

Closed towns also prevent the free flow of visitors and tourists that can help to stimulate economic opportunity and job creation.

These are among the reasons why it is not enough only to turn off the grog.

Our response in the Northern Territory means making important changes which simply cannot happen under current policy settings.

The living conditions in some of these communities are appalling. We cannot allow the improvements that have to occur to the physical state of these places to be delayed through red tape and vested interests in this emergency period.

Under normal circumstances in remote communities, just providing for the clean up and repair of houses on the scale that we are confronted with could well take decades. The children cannot wait that long. To deal with overcrowding, we need to remove all the artificial barriers preventing change for the better.

Without an across the board intervention, we would only be applying a bandaid to the critical situation facing Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory, when what is needed is emergency surgery.

The interventions proposed will work together to break the back of violence and dysfunction and allow us to build sustainable, healthy approaches in the long term.

The measures in this bill generally apply in Northern Territory communities on:

  • land scheduled under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (the Land Rights Act);
  • community living areas, which are located on a form of freehold title issued by the Northern Territory Government to Aboriginal corporations;
  • town camps, in the vicinity of major urban areas, held by Aboriginal associations on special leases from the Northern Territory Government; and
  • other areas prescribed on advice from our expert taskforce.

Alcohol restrictions

The authors of the Little Children are Sacred report described alcohol abuse as the ‘gravest and fastest growing threat to the safety of Aboriginal children’.

One of the key measures in this bill provides for widespread alcohol restrictions. The Government was not satisfied that the proposals put forward by the Northern Territory Government were anywhere near adequate.

A number of these communities have already been declared dry. But, despite that, alcohol remains a major scourge. Much more needs to be done.

The restrictions enabled by this bill will help stabilise communities and give them a chance to recover.

When it comes to a choice between a person’s right to drink and a child’s right to be safe, there is no question which path we must take.

To dry up the lethal rivers of grog, this bill will enable the government to introduce a general ban on people having, selling, transporting and drinking alcohol in prescribed areas.

At the same time, our measures apply tougher penalties on people who are benefiting from supplying or selling grog to these communities.

Through very harsh penalties and more police, we are sending a clear message that, if you run grog into these vulnerable places and put the lives of women and children at risk, you will face a severe penalty.

This bill will require people across the Northern Territory to show photographic identification, have their addresses recorded and be required to declare where the alcohol is going to be consumed if they want to buy a substantial amount of takeaway alcohol. This requirement is a small impost on Territorians during the emergency period but will be their contribution to solving this long-running problem.

This will allow us to identify where people are buying up grog to take back to communities where bans are in place, and to investigate and prosecute as needed.

Some licensed premises on Aboriginal land will still be able to operate, but only if they have strict alcohol management rules in place. These licences will be reviewed within one month of proclamation. Current permits to consume alcohol on Aboriginal land will also be subject to review.

Computer audit

The destructive impact pornography can have on the lives of children has already been mentioned.

A ban on the possession and dissemination of prohibited pornographic material is addressed in another bill in this package.

But sexually explicit and other illegal material can be accessed using the Internet through misuse of publicly funded computers as well. This bill includes a requirement to undertake regular audits of publicly-funded computers, and to provide the results to the Australian Crime Commission. Failure to undertake these audits will be an offence.

The Australian Crime Commission will be able to use the results of an audit, or may pass it on to a relevant law enforcement agency, where investigation of a possible criminal offence is necessary.

An audit must also be undertaken if there is a suspicion that a computer may have been misused, and the outcomes will provided to the Australian Crime Commission.

Five-year leases

This bill provides for the Australian Government to acquire five year leases over townships on Land Rights Act land, community living areas and over certain other areas.

It provides for the immediate and later acquisition of these leases to correspond to the roll out of the emergency response.

The acquisition of leases is crucial to removing barriers so that living conditions can be changed for the better in these communities in the shortest possible timeframe.

It must be emphasised that the underlying ownership by traditional owners will be preserved, and compensation when required by the Constitution will be paid.

This includes provision for the payment of rent. Existing interests will be generally preserved or excluded, and provision will be made for early termination of the lease, such as when a 99-year township lease is granted.

This is not a normal land acquisition. People will not be moved from their land.

The areas to be covered by the five-year leases are major communities or townships, generally of over 100 people, some of several thousand people.

These communities are not thriving; some are in desperate circumstances that have led to the tragedy of widespread child abuse.

The leases will give the government the unconditional access to land and assets required to facilitate the early repair of buildings and infrastructure.

The most significant terms and conditions of the leases are provided for in the legislation. However, additional terms and conditions will be determined and these will be in place when the leases start.

The area of land for the five-year leases is miniscule compared to the amount of Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory. It is less than 0.1 per cent. There are no prospects for mining in these locations.

This is no land grab, as some have tried to portray the emergency response. It is only a temporary lease and just compensation will be paid for that period. We are not after a commercial windfall here – there is none to be had.

It must be stressed that any native title in respect of the leased land is suspended but not extinguished.

It is important to mention that there is provision for the five-year leases to be terminated early.

If the Northern Territory Emergency Response Taskforce reports that a community no longer requires intensive Commonwealth oversight, then the Minister can decide that the lease over the community should end.

The Australian Government looks forward to working with the land councils of the Northern Territory in the implementation of this important measure.

Town camps

The bill also provides for the Australian Government to exercise the powers of the Northern Territory Government to forfeit or resume certain leases, known as ‘town camps’, during the five year period of the emergency response.

Improved living conditions in the town camps are important to the success of the emergency response.

The poor living conditions in these camps have made many of them places of despair and tragedy. Alice Springs has been described as the murder capital of Australia.

It is Australian Government policy that these camps should be treated as normal suburbs. They should have the same infrastructure and level of services that all other Australians expect. Second best is no longer good enough.

We will not accept that the major urban centres in the Northern Territory continue for another 30 years to be fringed by ghettos where Indigenous people receive second or third class local government services.

The Northern Territory Government has announced that it will not resume or forfeit the town camp leases. It has again walked away from its responsibilities for the Indigenous citizens of the Territory. That is why this bill provides for the Howard government to do what the Northern Territory Government has shamefully refused to do.

When land tenure is settled, the Howard government will begin the process of improving housing and infrastructure dramatically.

The bill also provides an option for the government to make a long term investment beyond the period of the emergency response in improving town camps and, if necessary, the Commonwealth can acquire freehold title over town camp areas.

If the government acquires town camp property, then compensation required by the Constitution will be paid. Native title will not be extinguished.

The government has been in negotiations with the Alice Springs town camps for some time, and we remain hopeful that they will agree to sublease the housing areas of their land to the Northern Territory for 99 years to be run as normal public housing. Negotiations currently underway in Tennant Creek are very promising.

The bill also provides for regulations to remove listed town camp land.

This will enable town camp leases to be exempted from Commonwealth action to forfeit the leases, or resume or acquire the land, where the association subleases all, or a substantial part, of its lease for 99 years.

Government Business Managers

This bill contributes significantly to improving the way communities are governed, by providing appropriate powers to support the appointment of Government Business Managers, who will manage government activities and assets in the selected communities.

Government Business Managers will work with local people to help things run smoothly, implement the emergency measures and ensure government services are delivered effectively. Local people will be able to talk to the Australian Government direct.

Powers introduced to support their role include powers:

  • to terminate or vary Commonwealth funding agreements;
  • to give directions on the carrying out of government-funded services and the use of assets to provide those services;
  • to give an authorised person a position as a non-voting observer on bodies carrying out functions or services; and
  • to place certain bodies in external administration for failures relating to the provision of government-funded services.

Government Business Managers will work cooperatively with communities and existing organisations within these communities, as well as the Northern Territory Government.

It must be stressed that powers in the legislation for Government Business Managers will only be exercised as a last resort in situations where normal processes of discussion and negotiation have failed, or where community organisations are unable, or unwilling, to make the changes that are needed.

These are serious and important powers and will only be delegated to senior Departmental officers or held by the Minister.

These powers will apply to any further areas over which the government takes a five-year lease under the legislation and will only be exercised for the five year period of the Northern Territory emergency response.

Bail and sentencing

In 2006, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreed that no customary law or cultural practice excuses, justifies, authorises, requires, or lessens the seriousness of violence or sexual abuse. All jurisdictions agreed that their laws would reflect this. COAG also agreed to improve the effectiveness of bail provisions to support and protect victims and witnesses.

The Commonwealth implemented the COAG decision through bail and sentencing legislation in relation to Commonwealth offences. This bill ensures that the decisions of COAG will also apply in relation to bail and sentencing discretion in the Northern Territory.

It is the Government’s intention that, if the Northern Territory enacts sufficiently complementary provisions, the bail and sentencing provisions contained in this bill will be repealed.

Community stores

The community store is a central amenity for any small community, and the store operator is a critical member of the community in remote Australia.

Poor quality food is a major contributor to poor health.

There are examples of stores that are serving a good range of products and where the people who use the store are treated with respect.

But there are many cases where the store operator pays no attention to the need for healthy food and has little or no training in how to run a retail business. Some make unreasonably high profits at the expense of local consumers who have no choice but to purchase from the one store available in their community.

Our community survey teams have found that stores in some quite sizeable communities have closed, which often forces the residents to get whatever food they can from the nearest roadhouse, or to travel large distances to another community or commercial centre for the basic necessities of life.

Over two-thirds of the communities surveyed have either no store or have a store that has poor retail practices or which does not sell quality healthy food.

Bad store practices will undermine the government’s efforts to improve the lives of Aboriginal people, and especially children, in the Northern Territory.

That is why we want to put more emphasis on stores meeting certain basic criteria around food quality and financial integrity. The introduction of income management for welfare recipients makes this all the more important.

A substantial slice of welfare payments will be quarantined for food and other necessities during the emergency period. If a store wants to participate, they will be required to be licensed to do so, meaning that they will need to meet certain standards. Otherwise, they will face the prospect of competition from other retailers including from ‘Outback Stores’ – an initiative of the Australian Government.

The small number of stores that are known to have appropriate financial and retail practices will be considered for a six-month licence shortly after the bill has been enacted.

In other cases, it will be necessary to undertake a detailed assessment against each of the assessable items before a licence can be issued.


The government is committed to protecting children in the Northern Territory and is prepared to spend the money necessary to achieve this.

The appropriation bills also tabled provide the money required in 2007-08 for the stabilisation phase of the response.

The need is urgent and immediate and the government is stepping up to the plate to provide the necessary funding now for additional police, for health checks, for welfare reform and the other measures necessary to achieve these outcomes.

But we also recognise that longer-term action is required to normalise arrangement in these communities. Funding for housing in remote communities received a major boost in this year’s Budget. Separate funds will be provided for other longer-term measures in the next budget process.

Funding for existing programs will also be examined for ways to use money more effectively to provide greater benefit to Indigenous people in the Northern Territory. For example, we have announced that CDEP will be replaced with more effective employment services in the Northern Territory.

The money is important but it is not by itself the answer. Success will be determined by the extent to which the local people are engaged in tackling their own problems. Our approach is fundamentally about empowering local citizens, releasing them from fear, intimidation and abuse. The overwhelming majority of these people desperately want the best for their children and we must encourage them every step of the way so that they can begin to hope for a better future.

The government has been tremendously encouraged by the overwhelming support for this emergency response from ordinary Australians. There have been hundreds of people volunteering to help. Police across Australia are volunteering their services. The Australian public want to see real change and are willing to put their shoulder to the wheel when they feel that finally they can help to improve the lot of their fellow Australian citizens – the first Australians.

This is a great national endeavour and it is the right thing to do.