It is a very difficult process to talk about this range of bills in this place because we know that there is so much pain and concern out there in the community about what has happened around the Stronger Futures legislation.
I am speaking tonight on behalf of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee that visited a number of communities in the Northern Territory during our look into this bill. We also received a range of evidence from community members, organisations and people who care about the future of Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal people, not just in the Northern Territory. Certainly, the Stronger Futures element of this batch of legislation does refer specifically to the Northern Territory, but we also heard evidence about Aboriginal people, their rights and their futures, across the whole of this county.
One of the core issues that our Senate community affairs committee believes in is ensuring that every person who comes to our committee is treated with respect and their evidence is listened to. We read their submissions and we try our best to ensure that they feel safe and respected and that they know that the committee cares about their evidence. One of the more distressing parts of this process has been some allegations that because the committee did not respond directly and agree with some of the positions that were put before us we somehow did not have appropriate respect for Aboriginal communities and elders. I assure you that this is not true. In fact, as a government senator I can put on record that we all share a genuine concern that what comes next in the future of the Northern Territory legislation under this title of 'Stronger Futures' will be appropriately discussed and worked on and that together we will be able to come to a future direction.
I make this point because consistently in the evidence we received there was widespread concern about the consultation process used. You would see from our report that we looked at that closely and we answered those concerns. We listened and we cared about the responses that were made. I truly believe that there is no such thing as a perfect consultation process. I also truly believe that the processes that the department has used over the last many years in dealing with Aboriginal people have not been perfect. I believe that there have been genuine efforts made to ensure that, as far as possible, the issues with the Stronger Futures process and what has gone on in the past-it is known as the NT intervention process-have been on the agenda. People from the department as well as ministers and parliamentary secretaries and local parliamentarians have all made great effort to visit communities, to sit down with people on their lands to ensure that there is an exchange of information.
I do not believe that that has been perfect. I think our committee report put that forward. There must be, in the future, ongoing work to ensure that there are appropriate consultation mechanisms to ensure that culturally appropriate consultation is put in place in any discussion about legislation with Aboriginal and Islander people. I also believe that in terms of any government consultation with any community those principles should be in place. In particular, because of the pain, confusion and anger which we found when we visited some of the Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, the committee put forward a recommendation that we ensure, in the future, that the departments work effectively with the Human Rights Commission to consider strong and effective protocols and consultation processes.
On this basis, we take some of the comments that were made by people across this country about their concerns about the consultation extraordinarily seriously. We also know-we have it on record-that significant efforts were made by the department to visit communities and talk with people. One of the processes and the problems, of course, is that when you visit communities you often only have some people attend sessions-sometimes people who have a particular view they wish to share. Of course that is their right but, in terms of ensuring that everybody has a say, that is always a problem.
Another point that was brought out consistently in previous evaluations of consultation was the fact that Aboriginal communities, over many years but in particular since 2007, have suffered from consultation overload. One of the clear points that was brought out was that there are perhaps too many visits by too many people who have not effectively prepared the way for that process, and one of the things that is brought out in the Human Rights Commission information is that this needs to be done better. So in any discussion around Stronger Futures we need to ensure that people feel that, whilst every effort can be made about effective consultation, there must be an effective interchange and also a commitment from all involved that they will engage in the process.
In discussing stronger futures, you cannot move forward unless you effectively deal with the past. One of the most confronting elements of our visit was that there was, clearly, palpable pain, suffering and regret about what had gone on when the original intervention took place. That is probably no news to many people in this place because it has been raised in the past in various debates around Aboriginal policy. But, for the wider community, in talking about where we are going to go with the Stronger Futures legislation it should be understood that there seems to be continuing confusion about what was in place beforehand. Consistently, in evidence from people who are very well informed, there was confusion about what exactly was different in the Stronger Futures legislation from how things had occurred in the past.
We heard quite confronting stories about how disempowered people felt by the way the original intervention took place. And that pain continues to be there, not just in individuals but within whole communities, and while it is not addressed and not acknowledged it is impossible-and I use that term quite deliberately-for us to look effectively at any change in the future. So we acknowledged that as a committee. We said that we must acknowledge the past, and not just what happened at the intervention but also the years of Aboriginal and Islander first peoples' disadvantage in this country. We know that within the Northern Territory a large percentage of their population have felt this disadvantage and isolation and have felt a lack of respect by the rest of their communities. In terms of the Stronger Futures legislation, we have to work through that process beforehand.
Importantly, the Stronger Futures process addresses that. It says, clearly, what has happened in the intervention, what has changed between 2007 and now, and looks at where we can go. It points out in the legislation exactly what has changed. In particular, we look at the aspects around alcohol management. We look at the aspects around community growth. And we say that there is a genuine responsibility for all parties to play a role and to make sure that they play that role cooperatively with others. So there will not be stronger futures unless there is a genuine engagement, from all parties, in terms of where they are moving and, most particularly, of the funding that is necessary to ensure that the projects that have been put in place will be able to be effectively funded into the future.
There was great debate about the time frame that has been put into the Stronger Futures legislation. The government's proposition is a 10-year project, and that did cause great discussion. Within the evidence, there were views from all sides saying that 10 years possibly would be an effective time frame on which to move the future legislation because that would give time for an effective settling in of the programs and a chance for people at the local level to engage in and take ownership of the programs. That would give everybody the best chance for an effective future, because that is in fact what the legislation is all about-stronger futures. So there has been debate, and I believe there will be amendments moved while this debate goes on about looking at changing that time frame, because some people-and this was put to us very effectively-felt that that was too long a time frame and that there needed to be a shorter time frame to allow more evolution of what was happening and allow for concerns. So, whilst there must be a clear, independent evaluation of any of the changes that are put forward, the discussion about how long that will take will be determined by the debate in this forum.
The reason for the 10 years is to ensure that people have the time, and the funding has the time, to really make a difference. We heard in evidence that people, over many years, have suffered from too much short-term emergency funding without the chance for long-term, effective development and effective responses to people's needs. If there is going to be a stronger future that must be within the communities themselves, and people need to feel that there will be effective responses to their needs-in particular in the areas of health, employment and education.
I want to spend a bit of time on the background to what we are putting forward in this legislation about education, and also on the clear distress and confusion that was put forward to our committee because people had not had accurate information about the programs that the government was putting forward. We have had debate in this place before about the SEAM program. That is a program that looks at working effectively with parents, schools and also the Centrelink network to consider how best to ensure that families work with their kids and their schools to ensure that there is a higher attendance at school. One of the major issues in the report that led to the intervention in 2007 was the concern that too many young people were not having the chance to attend school and therefore were entrenched in disadvantage from which they could not escape because, without effective education, there is no stronger future. In fact, there is no future. There is no disagreement-everybody understands that that is a reality. Yet, from the best information and evidence we received when we were in the Northern Territory, people were at the stage of celebrating 50 per cent attendance at school. That would not be tolerated in most communities. Whilst it is important that the attendance rates have risen from below 50 per cent, when you actually have a school with facilities that are available, with teachers that are available, and the fact that the young people are not actually engaging in that process, we have a problem and we have an ongoing problem.
The SEAM program is one that has been trialled now for a couple of years in, I think, six trial sites in the Northern Territory. Certainly that actually engages with families to ensure that they work with their school and with their children to ensure that kids get to school. Unfortunately, there seemed to be a degree of confusion-and I am saying that quite diplomatically-about exactly what SEAM is about. We heard from people that the intent of SEAM was just to rip their Centrelink payment away from parents as soon as kids were not at school. We did not hear that once; we heard that consistently, and that is an inaccurate and quite misleading view of the operations of the SEAM program.
We talked with teachers, we talked with people from the NT government and we talked with people from the department, who all reassured us that that was not the way SEAM was designed to happen. The idea was that there would be an engagement facilitated by having the process that Centrelink could be involved in. But the idea of people losing their Centrelink payment was a last resort, and that was after consistent nonattendance and a lack of engagement by parents in their kid's attendance at school.
Sometimes people seem to think that I tend to take a different view on some Centrelink and social security views, but on this one I will strongly advocate that I believe the SEAM program is one with which we can cooperate actively. It has a great outcome if parents-and family members, not just parents-see the value of their involvement with their children and their school. So the process that I think we need is to ensure that we get the communication right, that we do not run scare campaigns with families and do not distance people from the very programs that are there to help them.
One of my greatest disappointments in the evidence which we received was that the degree of confusion and fear was so great that it actually stopped people thinking about where the positive outcomes could be. That is something I think that as a government and as a parliament we need to work more effectively on with communities to ensure that does not happen.
I know that there are going to be many people wanting to take part in this discussion, because it is happening in the community as well, and I will not have time to look at all the different issues that were raised with us. I know that the issue around income quarantining, which has been expanded in the social security bill that is part of this package to trial sites in other parts of the country, has caused great discussion and debate. It is most important that we continue to work effectively with the communities taking part in these trials as well as the ongoing process in the Northern Territory, to see what the intent of the program is and what the cooperative arrangements with Centrelink and with job assistance will be to ensure that people are able to engage effectively with their own budgeting and to ensure that they will be able to move forward. I know that this is a sensitive issue in some areas, and I think that this debate will go on. But I am confident that the people who had the real interest in the issues and who came and gave us extensive evidence in our inquiry will continue to work with government and also with departments to make sure that respect for people will be maintained through any decision.
The worst thing that could happen would be further division. I am confident that if we work effectively that will be overcome. But one of the messages I want to make very clear is that the discussions must continue. There cannot be a view that these changes are being forced on people and that there is no sense they are being respected in the process. The intent of the legislation all the way through is to maintain that there will be stronger futures. That must be continually in front of all the people who are working in the field and also in government.
One of the aspects of the legislation that did cause considerable discussion was around alcohol management plans. And you would remember, Mr Acting Deputy President, that in the Little children are sacred report, the report by the Northern Territory which led to the original intervention response, the issues around alcohol and drug abuse in communities and their then impact on the safety of families and children were extremely serious. I think there has been positive movement in this area, and certainly the evidence we received indicated that people felt that the stronger futures processes around alcohol management were, indeed, a step forward and that the continued ownership of local communities of their own alcohol management plans is a key part of that. There is great willingness for the communities to work with government.