Speech by The Hon Mal Brough MP

Commonwealth’s intervention into Aboriginal Communities in The Northern Territory

Program: National Press Club - ABC Channel 2, Canberra

COMPERE:Today at the National Press Club, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Family and Community Services, Mal Brough. In the past two months, Mr Brough has put child abuse and dysfunction in remote Indigenous communities at the heart of the national political debate.

And the legislation to authorise the Federal emergency intervention in the Northern Territory is expected to be passed by the Senate today.

From the National Press Club in Canberra, the Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough.

KEN RANDALL: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the National Press Club and today’s National Australia Bank address. It’s a pleasure to welcome back Mal Brough. Last time he was here, which he reminds me rather pointedly, was three years ago.

He was Assistant Treasurer and Minister responsible for revenue in an election campaign, surprisingly enough, talking about superannuation. Since then, of course, he’s been elevated to the much more complex portfolio of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

It’s those last couple of words of the portfolio title which have been creating so much attention in the last few weeks and probably will for some time to come. The intervention in Indigenous affairs in the Northern Territory is perhaps one of the most dramatic we’ve seen in a long time and I’m sure he’ll be telling you more about that today.

Please welcome Mal Brough.


MAL BROUGH: Well, thank you very much, Ken. Thank you very much to the Press Club for the invitation. I’m not so sure that this is less complex than superannuation and taxation but it is incredibly important.

At the outset, I’d just like to acknowledged Dr Sue Gordon, Magistrate Sue Gordon, who is the Chair of our task force, our intervention and the NIC who we met with last night and thank you very much for being here today.

Ladies and gentlemen, today or tomorrow we will see legislation pass through the Senate and pass into law which will put, for the first time in a very, very long time, front and centre of the national stage, vulnerable children of our nation; not just Indigenous children but children wherever they live.

Because whilst the focus in the last few weeks has in fact been on the Northern Territory’s intervention and the big decisions that have been taken and the interventions that we’re rolling out, there are other bills in this legislation which go to helping those children who don’t have a voice, who are vulnerable, who are not receiving an education and they’re not necessarily Aboriginal.

In fact, they come from all walks of life, all parts, geographical parts of this nation, and many of them have never been enrolled at school and those that have, many don’t ever get to go to school.

Only last week in my electorate office, I had a phone call from a principal in Queensland; not an Aboriginal community, from a mainstream suburb of Brisbane, who said, I have 30 students in my school who have not attended school for at least 60 days of this year. Think about that for a moment. That’s at least half the year or close enough to it.

What chance do those children have? What chance do they have of actually ending up in prison or being a statistic? It’s very high. And the reason he gave is because the parents are on drugs or they’re on alcohol and they simply don’t care for the welfare of their children.

The bills that are before the House that I hope will pass into law today or tomorrow will, for the first time, focus on what is a minority of Australian children but who are over-represented both in the Territory and throughout this nation in unfortunate statistics.

We, as a nation, must not take our eye off the ball for these children. We must put aside political fears about dealing with these issues, admit in some cases our failings, but first and foremost and always, say that it is time to actually give those children the same chance that a wealthy nation gives to the majority.

Now, often we talk about family tax benefit. We talk about childcare and we talk about all of those things which the majority benefit from in a wealthy community and in loving environments.

But it is really the judgment of a nation and the judgment of a government when you actually have a look at what they are doing for those who don’t have a voice, for those who most people never come in contact with.

The question I’m going to put today is, as was pointed out in the introduction, these are sweeping changes, they are breathtaking, they are bold, and would they have been done by a Labor Government?

Would a Rudd-led Labor Government have taken on Clare Martin, another Labor minister or Chief Minister, taken her on and said, you have failed the people of the Northern Territory?

Would they take on the state education ministers and Premiers and say, why is it that we have thousands of children who are not attending school regularly when it’s against the law?

And my fear is that in the unfortunate circumstances if a Labor, Rudd Labor Government is elected some time later in the year, will they have the courage to follow through with these changes or is it just more me too-ism for the moment to see the issue pass us by?

We cannot, as a nation – not as governments – we cannot as a nation and you as individuals miss this opportunity to give people the chance that they need.

This has been a government of reform in this area of social welfare. Go back to work for the dole. There were those who said at the time it wouldn’t work and I had the privilege of being the minister in that portfolio. It’s not only worked; it has changed lives for the better right around this nation and it continues to do so.

But those on the other side at the time, they derided it. They said it wasn’t any good.

Then we had welfare reform. There was going to be another army of unemployed who were going to be pilloried. Wrong. It’s about picking up people who are vulnerable, disabled perhaps, and giving them the opportunity to work to their capacity. The government has done that. Supporting them.

It’s about taking young parents, single parents, who in the past were told, you wait until your youngest child is 16 and you lose the benefit, then we’ll try and do something for you. Your skills base has gone, your confidence is down but now as a nation, we’ll take some interest.

We put the money in and we put the effort in and we reformed that.

I ask you, do you really believe a Labor Government would have taken those decisions? I don’t and we, as a society, would be weaker.

Now turn to contemporary. Here we are in 2007 and look at the reforms that we have announced, that we have legislated for and that we now have the responsibility for implementing.

Of course, the implementation of our reforms in the NT are the headlines. But what about disabilities? What about the $1.8 billion and the guarantee that the Howard Government has now said to older carers that we will ensure that you have a place and that you will have the services that you need as you grow older and frailer and that you have given your love and your life to your child who’s disabled, we’ll guarantee that. No state government has done it in the past.

Now, why have we done it? We have done it because state Labor Governments refused to do it. When I sat in Brisbane on 3rd April with ministers across the board and I said, here’s the deal, we’ll have another disabilities agreement but only under certain circumstances.

In the last five year agreement, you all said a priority would be to have accountability, transparency and you’d have external validation of services and we’d meet the unmet need. That was your priority but it hasn’t happened.

So I’ll tell you what we’ll do. The Commonwealth will actually put dollar for dollar on the table, you come back to us with a plan that says we will meet that unmet need. What was the response?

The minister at the table, Minister Warren Pitt from Queensland chairing, adjourned the meeting, went outside, caucused, came back in, read a statement, closed the meeting without further comment.

I then wrote saying, this is a genuine offer. We are offering you dollar for dollar to actually meet the needs of these people who have given more than any of us can actually imagine to the lives of their children because they love them so much and they simply want to know that there’s going to be a place for their child when they can no longer care.

Only Western Australia, the Northern Territory and the ACT responded. There was no response from the other Labor Governments.

So we had to step in or we could’ve taken the politically expedient route, which would’ve been to say, here’s a bit more money, we’ll throw a bone in the corner like it’s always happened, you go and chase it and we’ll move on.

We weren’t prepared to do that. But I ask you, would a Rudd Labor Government have taken on those Labor states?

And the battle is not over. The battle is not over because what we have said to the states is that between now and 30th November, we must agree on dates for there to be external validation of disability services.

Can you imagine for one moment, just one moment, the nation now saying, we will not have validation, external validation, of our services in childcare or aged care? The nation would throw its hand up and say, don’t be ridiculous.

But here we have the most vulnerable and we are fighting tooth and nail to ensure that those people have a secure, safe environment. It’s the least we can do as a nation that genuinely cares for those that struggle to have a voice.

But we don’t have the complexities as a Howard Government of worrying about the niceties of the relationship between the Premiers and the Prime Minister because we’re actually not interested in those relationships. We’re interested in the relationships about what services get delivered for those people who don’t have a voice. And we will do that.

That is the commitment. We will take them to the wall so that the people with disabilities in this nation get a better deal. And we put $1.8 billion on the table.

Can I tell you, the first of those interviews with the older people have already started rolling out and they’re so appreciative that someone has come to talk to them and that they feel that they have some comfort for the future. That is what we should be doing in government.

Child support. It doesn’t get a big mention these days. Tough. I’ve been involved with this since I came into parliament for 11 years. You’re dealing with the corpses of dead relationships. It doesn’t get much more emotive. They’re the words of one of my Labor colleagues.

We’ve taken that tough decision on. We know that it’s going to upset some people but why? Because we’re trying to do what’s right for children; not the mum, not the dad, not the custodial, the non-custodial, the residential or the non-residential parent, but the child. The child of first marriages and second relationships so that they can flourish in Australia.

The Howard Government took that on and it was supported by the Labor Party. But does anyone here genuinely believe that left to their own devices, the Labor Party would have taken that issue on? It was too hard but we’re doing it and we will implement that through the next term.

Come to housing. Well, for the last 10 years we, as a Federal Government, have given housing a billion dollars to the states. In the last five years that equates to about $5.9 billion.

You’d think that we’d have more public housing but in New South Wales, since the turn of this century, 2000-2001 through to 2005-6, which is the last official reporting date that we have, New South Wales has managed to have its housing stock of public and community housing decline by 1,600 homes.

The Labor Party talks about affordability of housing. They talk about availability of housing. These are people that don’t aspire at this point to own a home. It’s just to have a roof over their head and there’s 1,600 less houses, despite an investment by the Federal Government to state ministers of 1,500 – 1,600 houses in New South Wales, 4,000 less houses in Victoria, 1000 houses in Tasmania and more than 6,000 houses less in South Australia. The public wonder where the hell has that money gone?

Well, what has happened is the money has gone to state governments over a five year agreement and what I’m now saying is, can we do it better?

So we called for expressions of interest and we’ve had over 245 expressions of interest already. People saying, we can build on the stock, we can actually provide solutions to the housing industry and we can use that money more effectively than the states.

I ask again, would a Rudd Labor Government take on state ministers, like Minister Schwarten in Queensland who gets on air and says, today I’m declaring war on Brough. Why not declare war on the people or the failings of his system that hasn’t delivered housing for the people who need it the most?

Why not say to his bureaucrats, we can do better and we must do better? That’s what we should be doing.

So we are holding the states to account in a way in which you would not expect to occur if you have the same colour throughout this nation; nation controlled and run by a one party state.

That’s not going to hold anyone to account. It’s not going to help the people with disabilities. It’s not going to help the people who need the public housing.

And we’ve done exactly the same thing in Indigenous housing. We faced up to the fact that over years, ATSIC and successive federal governments have gifted over $3 to $4 billion worth of housing, lost control of it, don’t know who’s in the houses, whether they’re appropriate people, whether rents are being paid, whether the maintenance has been undertaken.

We said, no, that’s got to stop. Put away the political correctness, let’s stop that and let’s do something that actually will provide more housing and better housing.

And again, I ask the question, does anyone here genuinely believe that that would have occurred under a Labor Rudd Government?

Let me turn to the Northern Territory. The Northern Territory intervention has come about after an enormous amount of consultation. Consultation with people at the coalface like the woman at Wadeye who said to me, you’ve done a lot in this community, there’s no longer 300 blokes rioting in the streets. It’s not perfect but at least there’s police here now. At least we’re a bit safer.

People are starting to look to the future with some confidence, but there’s something you haven’t done for me. I said, and what’s that? She said, when I turn up to the ATM at the store, the one store in a community of about three, two and a half, three thousand people, when I turn up to the one store, to the one ATM, I have young men there who stand over me and demand my money because they’ve been high on ganja, marijuana, they’ve come down and they’re hungry and they want food or they want it for drugs.

And you know what happens when they do come down, she told me? Is the meagre pittance that they have left for her to feed her grandchildren they come and demand the food off their table. She said, when are you going to stop that for me? When are you going to take that pain away from me? When are you going to help me to be able to care for my grandchildren? And she said, there’s too much disposable income in this community.

Kalumburu; been in the press because 15 men out of a male population, adult population of about 90, have now been charged with child sex offences. Fifteen out of 90, people in positions of great authority.

And they said to me there, too much disposable income being spent on the wrong thing. And the lesson I learn in Kalumburu, face to face, in consultations, when I said, well, why – what can we do about getting mums and dads to help in the schools?

They said, they’re not allowed to. I said, what do you mean they’re not allowed to? They’re not allowed to because they can’t get the police approvals to do so because too many have transgressed the law.

Little did I know at the time how they had transgressed the laws. Little did I know that the charges have been to people who are the truancy officer, the police liaison officer, councillors and the mayor or the chairman.

These are the people who are now facing charges, people of authority and you say, what chance have they got?

These are the stories that I have got time and time again. And I think the other one that will never leave me, and it goes to the point of why we are trying to get every child an education, every child just simply to be in school, is because there’s 2,000 children in the Northern Territory, according to the Chief Minister, at least 2,000, that have never been enrolled.

Forget about attendance. Have never been enrolled, between the ages of five and 16. And they said, treat us like white fellas. Some people would see that as racist. I said, what do you mean treat us like white fellas?

They said, well, the point is if a white child doesn’t go to school, you generally do something about it, don’t you? And I said, yes, we do. They said, but when our children in this community don’t go to school, no one cares.

Well, we have to care, and therefore if we actually have a cause and affect and we give people responsibility and respect, then that can happen.

The group sitting before me, if you knew nothing other than passive welfare, if you knew nothing other than a drug filled, alcohol filled, gambling filled day where that was your life, what chance do you think this group would have after 10, 20 or 30 years?

None. These are the things that people are clamouring to change. They want to have the fog lifted. And can I tell you, you don’t lift the fog of drug addiction with a permit system. You don’t say, no one’s going to come in here because I’ve got a bit of paper.

This bit of paper is going to protect you. That’s a fraud. That is a lie. That’s saying to grandparents, hide – they’re hiding behind this. Do you know who’s hiding behind that? Us, the authorities and in particular the Territory Government’s failure to provide police.

People need to have someone to report a crime to. We’ve just heard in Western Australia how 11 year old girls have walked into a police station without emotion, poured out the circumstances that have happened to them. No emotion but they’ve been talking about the most heinous crimes.

What’s the difference there in Halls Creek to the communities in the NT? There are no police stations, there are no people of authority. Well, there are now. We are determined to make sure that there is (a) law and order; (b) governance; (c) a clean environment where children don’t have the infections in their ears, where children do go to schools, where parents can be respected and a very interesting thing happens when that occurs.

And it happened in Wadeye. We didn’t cause this to occur. But people always ask, it comes to where did this all come from? It came about through experience.

When reciprocity was returned to Wadeye and people cleaned up their own houses and people painted their own houses and were responsible for their own environment, the elders who’d been so disrespected for so long came to the top again naturally. The natural order of things which are important to Indigenous communities actually came back. And that is a powerful thing to happen because that means that elders are empowered again.

To that end, I make a commitment here in public that whilst we are taking over, for five years, leases, I know how important it is that sacred sites and places of significance are protected. I’ve heard that message and I will ensure that all of my managers on the ground who will be responsible directly to me, through Sue and through Major General David Chalmers, will be given advice from elders about the significance of things in their communities and they do not trample over significant issues unintentionally.

Because we need to do two things here. We need to protect what is important in Indigenous culture, but we can’t do it at the expense of denying a child the right to a life, and that is what we’ve done.

Ask yourself, when Clare Martin said to me 12 months ago when we had the summit into sexual violence in remote communities, her exact words: put up or shut up. Put up or shut up. When I said to her in Galiwinku, you don’t have one policeman for a community of 3000, that is unacceptable in a modern Australia, that has to change.

I was told at the time, sorry, Galiwinku’s one of the better communities, it doesn’t need a policeman. Give me a break. Are you telling me, would anyone in their right mind really believe that a Labor Federal Government would’ve taken them on and accused them of failing their most fundamental right under the constitution, the protection of their citizens? I don’t think so.

What we would’ve had after the Little Children are Sacred Report came out is what we would’ve had every other time. We would’ve had, woe is me, and we did. We had a day or two of outrage in the press.

Come Monday morning – it was a Friday, I’ll remind you, it was a Friday, the 15th, come Monday, parliament sat. Did we hear a question from the Democrats? Did we hear a question from the Greens who are up there right now with a lot of amendments? Did we hear a question from the Opposition? No.

Did we hear any outrage from health groups, the AMA, from the churches, from Indigenous groups? No. Not Monday, not Tuesday, not Wednesday. Was there anything in the press by Wednesday? No, it’d gone pretty much. It’d found its way into the history pages. But no, it hadn’t.

People sitting at these tables, my officials, and myself and my staff, passionately worked on this because we felt this was an opportunity to fundamentally change the history of our first people once and for all and to give them a chance; a chance of a choice in life.

Come Thursday when we make our announcement of what the Prime Minister and I had undertaken to do on behalf of the government, suddenly there’s outrage as to, why hadn’t you done this earlier? I asked the rhetorical question, where was Pat Turner when she was the CEO of ATSIC? Where was the Member for Lingiari who has been the member for nearly 20 years in so many speeches to parliament talking about child abuse?

If, as they have all stated, everyone’s known about this for so long, where were they during those years? My predecessors did what everyone else has done. They did things such as night patrols, safe houses, trying to help people with healing circles, all of those things. Millions, billions of dollars.

But we forgot the fundamentals that underpin a society: safety, security, respect. Without that, we don’t have a society, not today, not a hundred years ago, not 2,000 years ago, and we won’t have it tomorrow. What we now need to do is to say, this is not about governments, not the NT Government, not the Federal Government, it is about the nation.

I challenge every group that I speak to to say it’s time for us all to put our shoulders to the wheel. I say it’s time for us to take the power and the authority that has been vested in the government by this legislation and use the opportunity as we can. Not to yet again build up people’s hopes and then rip them away from them and leave them there exposed to the elements. We can’t do that.

Whilst many of those people now, for the first time, are just gaining a little bit of a voice, they are just starting to put their head above the parapet. They’re starting to say, it’s okay for me to say this is wrong, what’s happened, it’s okay for me to come forward.

Then we can actually ensure that this generation of children don’t live in a living hell, living with fear, living with the disgust that can only come with your very being having been destroyed by someone in authority. We can also ensure they don’t become perpetrators, and that is what we’re trying to stop.

This is a massive task. I have no illusions about how difficult it is, but I also have an entire commitment to doing this. Noel Pearson said, most of us get to sit in our own homes at night in the luxurious position of knowing our children are safe in bed. These people don’t.

We can talk about land rights, we can talk about permit systems or we can actually deal with the difficult core issues of children being raped, babies with gonorrhoea, children having their absolute hearts ripped out by people who are supposed to be people of authority, and we can say, no more. If we do that, then we, as a nation, can look ourselves in the eye again.

So many people have come up to me with a sense of relief. They have said, I’ve seen this, I’ve been a teacher, I’ve seen this and I’ve reported it and nothing’s happened. They felt powerless. We have no excuse as a nation to feel powerless anymore.

The challenge is for what the Northern Territory Government to do is what the Western Australian Government must do, the Queensland Government, the South Australian Government and the New South Wales Government, because this does not finish at the borders.

I’ll leave you with one last thought. This report, Little Children are Sacred, there it is. It says in its very first recommendation: this is an issue of national urgency. Urgency. The interim report was presented to the Labor Government of the Northern Territory 309 days ago. More than a hundred days, 98 days ago they released this report. Next week they’ll make a statement about it. That is unacceptable, that is a betrayal of those people.

Sixty-seven-odd days ago, the Commonwealth received the report. Today there are police in communities, children are actually having health checks and changes are being made. With the vagaries of the Senate, one can only hope that this will pass into law by the end of the week and that we’ll be able to make the changes that are necessary.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Howard Government has a lot of work to do in disabilities, in housing and in Indigenous affairs, and in a lot of other areas. The question for the Australian public is can they trust a Rudd Labor Government to put his party politics before the children of Australia?

Well, you know what? I believe they actually believe in protecting children, but it’s a difficult, tough area to embrace. It’s a difficult, tough thing to take on the states and I don’t believe they have the strength to do it.

I believe the only people that have the strength to do it are the Prime Minister and the Howard Government. That that is why I remain determined and put my reputation on the line and say, I will take personal responsibility, if given the chance, to make sure that once and for all, we do what is right by the first Australians. Thank you.


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