WEDNESDAY, 12 JUNE 2019
SUBJECT/S: Changes to Indigenous Legal Services, Cashless Debit Cards, John Setka
MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY, SENATOR FOR THE NORTHERN TERRITORY: I want to acknowledge that we’re standing on the country of the Larrakia people and we were able to discuss some issues today which are quite critical to First Nations people right across the Northern Territory. I’d like to introduce and welcome Mark Dreyfus, our shadow Attorney General, and to Linda Burney, our shadow Indigenous Affairs Minister. It’s wonderful to have both of them here. We are dealing with some very serious issues in terms of the legal concerns and I’ll hand over to Mark.
MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thanks very much, Malarndirri. This morning Malarndirri, Linda Burney and I have been meeting with Priscilla Atkins, the CEO of NAAJA. And Priscilla has explained to me a very serious concern that NAAJA has – that every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service in Australia has – about a proposal that the government has made in the budget, which is to reverse decades of self-determination in the provision of legal services to Indigenous people in our country by rolling the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services into a single national mechanism for legal assistance. It’s Labor’s view that this is completely inappropriate. We call on Mr Porter, the Attorney-General, and Mr Wyatt, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, to immediately reverse the decision that they announced in the budget, which was in effect leading to an abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services.
NAAJA, which is where we are standing today, is the largest legal practice in the Northern Territory. It has provided excellent legal services to Indigenous people across the Territory together with CAALAS based in Alice Springs for decades. So too have the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services across Australia provided excellent services to Indigenous people across Australia. Without NAAJA the court system of the Northern Territory would collapse. Legal services generally would collapse without the vital role that NAAJA plays.
The government should reverse the decision it has announced. It’s inconsistent with the Indigenous Legal Systems Program Review that was provided to the government in December and released by the government in early April just before the election was called.
In the heat of the election campaign, I suspect that some of these issues might have gone unnoticed. Well, they’re now being noticed and it’s essential that the government actually return to governing properly and not going against a very complex review that was conducted into Indigenous legal assistance programs, which recommended that they continue to be separate services, that self-determination continue, which recommended that they not only continue with separate service but they receive five year funding agreements – and recommended an increase in their funding. It’s a very clear call that they’re making, it’s long past time for Mr Wyatt and Mr Porter to not proceed along this path but to actually start talking properly to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Legal Services in Australia.
JOURNALIST: So what’s your argument as to why it is so important that the services remain independent?
DREYFUS: It’s a vital principle of self-determination that’s underlain Indigenous services in our country for decades now. The Australian Labor Party has fully committed to self-determination. I fear that this government is only paying lip service to self-determination.
Some of the policy documents that the Liberal Party took to the election talked about continuing to support independent Indigenous-controlled services, not just in legal services but across the board. They need to actually put their money where their mouth is and carry through with that principle that they say they support by not abolishing Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services everywhere in Australia by rolling them into a single stream.
JOURNALIST: Anyone can answer this one, but if they were rolled into one and brought under one umbrella, what would be some of the biggest problems to come out of that?
DREYFUS: Well, just for a start, the separate focus that Indigenous-run services bring to legal services for Indigenous people would almost certainly be lost. There’s a risk that the funding, the very large amount of funding that comes to NAAJA and services like it across Australia would dissipate because it would be used for other purposes within the legal system and within legal assistance. But it really comes down to the core principle of self-determination. We think, in particular in the legal services area, self-determination has worked. We’ve got 170 staff at NAAJA right across the Territory. Four of them are Aboriginal lawyers. There are more Aboriginal lawyers coming. Fifty percent of the staff of NAAJA, we’ve learned this morning, are Aboriginal people. That’s a terrific achievement.
All of those achievements I fear – and the very, very strong reputation that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services have within Indigenous communities, particularly here in the Northern Territory – that would be lost if rolled into a single stream of legal assistance funding.
LINDA BURNEY, SHADOW MINISTER FOR INDIGENOUS AUSTRALIANS: Can I just add to that? I mean, when you look at the level of incarceration rates of First Nations people here in the Territory, as well as across the country, and young people as well, it is absolutely critical that there be a strong Aboriginal legal services provision to make sure the needs of those Aboriginal people are being met. We are the most incarcerated group in the world and it is absolutely fundamental that there be a good guaranteed line of funding to Aboriginal Legal Services.
JOURNALIST: Another sort of legal policy question that I’ve been talking to NAAJA about post-Royal Commission phase and implementation of those recommendations - the Territory Labor Government looks like it is not going to follow through with a plan to enshrine in legislation that arrests should only be used as a last resort for young people. They say that they’re going to consider changing that legislation because of concerns from police about how that would work in practice. They also had – they haven’t raised the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 and we’ve learned in the last couple of weeks that that wasn’t the first draft of the piece of legislation before Parliament that’s now been taken out. What can Federal Labor say about what the Territory Labor Government isn’t doing in implementing those recommendations from the youth detention Royal Commission?
DREYFUS: I would want to see the detail of what the Northern Territory government is proposing to do along with the detail of the legislation. It’s very much in these areas, as you’d understand, about the detail. I’m not aware of what you’ve just told me about those changes of position of the Northern Territory government but we’ve got long standing principles we’ve expressed in this area. We are committed to looking at the age of criminal responsibility at a federal level but obviously it’s also a state and territory matter. We are opposed to mandatory sentencing – that’s part of the national platform of the Australian Labor Party – and as always, there’s an ongoing discussion between federal and state authorities, between federal and state parties because criminal law is a shared responsibility.
JOURNALIST: I do have a couple of caucus questions but one last Australian politics question. Mr Setka has announced this morning that he doesn’t have any plans to step down from his position despite pressure. Do you have a view on what he should have done?
DREYFUS: Ms Burney is going to answer that one.
BURNEY: I’m not going to go into the details and the toing and froing about John Setka and his membership of the Labor Party. Our leader, Anthony Albanese, has been very clear and decisive in relation to Mr Setka and his continued role or position within the Labor Party.
What I think we need to focus on is that domestic violence in any form, be it harassment, be it emotional, be it physical, be it sexual, any type of harassment or sexual violence towards women is completely unacceptable. I’m aware that there is a court case on foot and I respect that, but I’m making a broad point that domestic violence for us in Labor is unacceptable. There are no bits and pieces, there are no ‘a little bit, a little less’ on this. It’s completely unacceptable and that is our position.
JOURNALIST: Malarndirri just some caucus questions, after your meeting yesterday, is there an issue or some issues that you say are going
to be your focus of your attention?
MCCARTHY: Firstly, I’d like to just say it has been really important to have some of the members of the Shadow Ministry here. Obviously with the First Nations portfolio responsibilities: Linda Burney, Senator Patrick Dodson and Warren Snowdon as Assistant Minister to Linda Burney.
What we’ve been able to do is obviously look at the issues that matter to us going into the election. Clearly the matters that we still stand strongly by, is the CDP program – the Community Development Program. We are deeply concerned about the ongoing entrenched poverty of First Nations people on this program, not just here in the Northern Territory but right across Australia. We’re talking about over 30,000 Australians who are on that program and certainly one of the conversations we want to have with Ken Wyatt is to change that program immediately.
The other area that we know that the Australian Labor Party has been passionately supportive of is a voice to the Federal Parliament and that is the role of Senator Pat Dodson – now with the responsibility of reconciliation and the voice.
We do want to see a First Nations voice to the Parliament. We are passionate, we are committed and we are firmly focused on the fact that the absence of the First Nations voice is not good for this country, it’s not good for Australia and we certainly call on all those organisations and businesses who put their hand up to support this journey to continue to fight for a First Nations Voice to the Federal Parliament.
JOURNALIST: And what is Labor’s position on the proposed changes to the income management cards in the Territory?
BURNEY: That legislation has not been drafted as we understand it. Legislation in terms of the basics card and transfer of people on basics card to the cashless debit card in the Northern Territory has been announced by the Federal Government. It has not introduced legislation. Obviously we need to see that legislation and we need to consult with people that are directly affected by these changes.
We’re also wanting to say very clearly what will be the quarantine amounts that people transferring to cashless debit card will be. It’s complicated but this is going to affect people’s lives here in the Northern Territory. Anyone that’s on a welfare payment other than the aged pension will be affected. We need to see the legislation, we need to have those consultations and we’ll be making a decision closer to when it’s introduced into the Parliament. But obviously one of the fundamental principles which we are looking at is people’s choice and people’s rights when it comes to this particular program.
JOURNALIST: That’s all
DREYFUS: Thanks very much.