Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Government Whip) (18:56): I must say that I am pretty disappointed in the very mean-spirited, negative and overtly political way that the two speakers from the opposition thus far have approached this debate on the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Remote Engagement Program) Bill 2001. I come to this place as someone who represents a large part of remote Australia, and I work very hard for all of my constituents, including the eight per cent or so who are Indigenous. I believe that the overwhelming majority of members of this place believe in trying to provide a better future, and I think that we should be less critical than the way that those speakers have gone about it.
Most of the information that Australians have—and they are of the view that things should be better too—comes from television programs et cetera, which will have a slant on it that that particular program will want to give. You need to approach all of these information sources with caution. But those of us who have been privileged to go into these communities as part of our work will realise that these issues are many layered and these are difficult problems. But the problems, the challenges and the opportunities of the remote Indigenous population are poorly understood by most Australians, I would have to say.
The underlying belief that Indigenous communities will prosper if only we offer enough resource to maintain them in a traditional lifestyle is, I think, a premise that needs to be questioned by all of us. We supply housing, health services, schools and a pretty good standard in all those things. We could do with more housing—I certainly admit that—but the health services, the schools and the shops that are underwritten by the Commonwealth in most cases are of good quality, and we provide an income so they can buy food and shelter. Some might say that this equals an ideal outcome—that we are providing sustenance for these people to live on their traditional lands and live a ‘traditional’ lifestyle. But they are living far from a traditional lifestyle. Having provided all these things, we have, in many cases, actually taken the purpose from their life and their culture—their reason for existence. In a traditional lifestyle they were largely preoccupied with feeding and clothing and finding shelter for their families. Of course, that is not the case anymore. In many cases you can see the breakdown of what were their cultures and disciplines within. No longer do the younger generation need to listen to the older generation on how to live their life and how to apply themselves. The things that they used to do are really done for traditional purposes now to try to keep hold of those things that were the foundations of their societies, rather than for need.
One of the problems we have with many of these remote communities—certainly the ones that sit within South Australia, the most prominent of them being the APY Lands—is that they exist in a place where there is a very small natural economy, if you like. The APY Lands were given freehold to the Anangu, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara tribes in 1981 by the Tonkin Liberal government in South Australia. Historically, after European settlement, these were pastoral properties. At their peak they probably employed maybe 100 stockmen across that area, which is roughly 10 per cent of SA, and many of those would have been Aboriginal stockmen. But things change, and agriculture has changed mightily. If they were to run efficiently now as cattle properties, as they were then, they would probably employ 10 people, maybe 15 at the outside. They have helicopters to muster, electronic mustering systems on waterholes and electric fencing—all the things we can do now that we couldn’t do 100 years ago.
But over 3,000 people live on the APY Lands and there are 15 jobs there if things go well. The next question is: what is the next job? Obviously there are jobs providing services in health and education but, largely, this population is very poorly equipped to deliver those. They don’t have the education levels to do so and so those jobs go to outsiders—to whitefellas in most cases. So this has become a very difficult issue. I don’t see any easy way out of it. My hope is that in the longer term the education system is sound enough that a generation will take the position where, while the APY Lands might be their cultural home and where they return for cultural practices, they will go out and, as Noel Pearson would say, ‘live in two worlds’. They would go and compete, get educated, and join the workforce in the outside world, because I don’t see where that natural economy lies in those lands.
It would be about 10 years ago, I was the member for Grey, that I was wandering around Ceduna one Saturday afternoon. I called into what I would call the office of Aboriginal affairs but these departments change their minds often enough that I can’t be absolutely certain that that’s what it was called at the time. There was a woman there; she would have been about 35, I suppose—and, if she’s listening, I don’t remember your name and I’m sorry if I got your age wrong!—and I asked what she was doing. She said: ‘I’m just tidying up a few ends here. I just came in today.’ I had a bit of a chat with her, and I asked, ‘Where do you come from?’ She said, ‘I come from Canberra.’ I said: ‘Oh, really! What are you doing out here?’ She said: ‘Well, I was working in the department in Canberra. I was writing policy and I thought it might be a good idea if I came out here and had a look at what it was like on the ground. I said: ‘That’s an excellent notion, good on you. What do you think now?’ She looked at me and she said: ‘I don’t know what I think anymore. Everything I thought is upside down out here. All the things I thought would work in Canberra don’t work when you get on the ground out here.’ That’s one of the issues we’re dealing with. She wasn’t too sure what she was going to do after her stint in Ceduna, but I do think there would be great value in many more public servants who work in Aboriginal affairs doing exactly the same as she did.
This purposeless existence has largely exacerbated the abuse of drugs and alcohol, domestic violence—let me tell you, that’s terrible—crime, imprisonment and breakdown of family. Just as a point of reference for this, I think we all in this place are concerned about the percentage of Indigenous people in custody. The latest figure I have is that 70 per cent of those in custody are there as a penalty for acts of violence, mostly against women. For those who that think these people shouldn’t go to jail, I’ll ask: Who protects those that they’ve been abusing? Who incurred the wrath of the courts in the first place that placed them in the jail? I’m not saying any outcome is good and that I’ve got an easy answer, but I think we need to all understand what the real drivers of these issues are. So it is absolutely a vicious cycle, and that is where the value of a job comes in.
We all know in this place, or most of us know, that if you’ve got a job—the phrase we’ve used often is—it’s the best form of welfare. But it gives so much more than an income; it gives value in a person’s life, it gives a reason to get out of bed in the morning, it gives structure to a person’s life. It’s fair to say that governments of both persuasions have recognised the value of a job and there have been numerous programs.
I heard the member for Barton waxing lyrical about the CDP program, which Labor put into place. I think looking through rose coloured glasses in hindsight is not necessarily a good thing to do. The CDP program was abandoned because there was no viable pathway to permanent work. The problem was people got on CDP and stayed there permanently. The government attempted to put a sharper focus on climbing out of that and actually getting into a regular workforce.
Now we are to have another attempt at somehow trying to get the formula right, but I don’t say of any side of politics that they’ve tried to get the formula wrong; I think they’ve tried to get it right and it’s not easy. These instances and things that I’ve referred to already demonstrate how difficult this is. It shouldn’t be controversial that we’re having a genuine attempt to try and make things better for the lives of those who live in remote communities.
The Member for Bruce is in the chamber, I see. I do have to mention that this morning he brought a motion into the chamber which certainly foreshadowed a future Labor government’s intention to get rid of the cashless debit card. I’ve spoken to some Aboriginal people in the cashless debit card area, and I said to them, ‘You know, the Labor Party now seems committed to get rid of the cashless debit card,’ and one of the gentlemen virtually spat out, ‘What would you expect!’ I can tell you that there are a large number of Indigenous people in the community who do not want to lose the cashless debit card. But that is Labor’s prerogative, and I believe they would be putting that forward in good faith, and I make that point.
What they did not put forward in good faith was scurrilous. They were trying to establish the lie that it was the coalition government’s intent to apply the cashless debit card to aged pensioners. We never have and we never will. To bring that up is a complete echo of the ‘Mediscare’ campaign that the Labour Party ran in 2016, when, on the eve of the election they were robocalling pensioners and telling them the coalition was going to get rid of Medicare. What a disgraceful act, and that bill this morning was a repeat of that performance It’s a complete lie and must be labelled as such.
To move on, what we’re now doing, with the establishment of the regional engagement program, is searching for more community involvement and a bigger focus on skills development to provide a pathway off of these welfare systems into work. We’re doing it now with an enticement—a bonus, if you like. A word of warning though: I’ve been talking to some Indigenous communities lately, and they’re reporting that they’re getting more out-of-towners, people from the remote lands coming into places like Cooper Pedy, Port Augusta and Ceduna and not going home. When I asked the reason for this, it was given to me quite plainly: because you’ve made the CDP voluntary rather than compulsory, so now these people don’t have to go home to actually tick the box to make sure they can get their payment. So they’re leaving houses and families behind and going into the bigger urban centres where they can access alcohol, and that is causing great concern for my communities at the moment. That is a result of court action that occurred in Western Australia.
This bill establishes the new supplementary payment—the remote engagement program payment, if you like—to participate in a work type role in a volunteer capacity with a government service or a community organisation. The plan is to build skills and define a pathway to a job. Something I think has been a very successful government program is the government purchase ratios, under which government departments are directed to make sure they are buying roughly three per cent of their inputs from Indigenous controlled, owned or operated organisations. I understand that we are getting pretty close to those numbers. I have seen quite a number of Indigenous corporations and businesses get started on the back of that. That is a really good indication of where we want to go. With this program we are going to train up workers to get into those programs, I hope. It is a good tick. It’s one small brick in the building of a large wall.
This program is to be a pilot program, and we are consulting with the communities before, during and after the pilot to make sure we get the right kind of mixture for every community. At the end of the day, a job is the best form of welfare.