Stronger Futures bill introduced to Parliament


Originally published in Tracker Magazine.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard releasing the discussion paper Stronger Futures, which announced six weeks of consultations over the future of the NT intervention. (AAP IMAGE/ALAN PORRITT)

NORTHERN TERRITORY: The Gillard government has introduced its controversial Stronger Futures legislation into Parliament today, in a bid to repeal the NT intervention laws.

The package of legislation upholds many of the controversial aspects of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER), but it will also roll out the School Enrolment and Attendance Measure (SEAM) which links welfare payments to school attendance.

Compulsory income management will continue.

The alcohol bans will also stay in place under the new legislation and the bill cracks down on grog runners by including six months imprisonment in penalties for liquor offences under 1350 millilitres, while strengthening provisions surrounding alcohol management plans.

Restrictions on porn will also stay in place in “prohibited material areas”, and the legislation will continue to prevent customary law and cultural practice from being considered in sentencing and bail decisions.

It is proposed that customary law and cultural practice be included in sentencing and bail decisions when relating to cultural heritage offences.

The legislation does not extend the five-year compulsory leases over townships but voluntary long-term leases will still be negotiated with communities.

The package will also commit $19.1 million to fund new ranger positions over the next four years.

The Australian Crime Commission (ACC) will keep its powers under the existing legislation, allowing the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to perform the functions of NT police in relation to violence and child protection.

The Gillard government still claims that all the measures in the Stronger Futures will be consistent with the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), although there is concern the NT intervention’s “special measures”, upheld under the new legislation, are still discriminatory.

The original NT intervention laws by-passed the RDA, and were passed in 2007 with virtually no consultation with Aboriginal people affected.

Four years on, it is still the subject of heated debate.

The Stronger Futures legislation comes in the midst of this debate, following asix-week consultation period throughout the Territory.

It willhave a sunset clause of 10 years from its commencement.

The results of those meetings were released in a report earlier this month and have already attracted criticism for only focusing on a “pre-determined” set of points that didn’t represent the deep concerns held about the intervention, particularly surrounding compulsory income management.

The decision to expand SEAM throughout NT communities has also been criticized,with respected Aboriginal educator Chris Sarra saying it is a “big stick approach that delivers a minimal return”.

“The kids who are attending (school) regularly probably have the most to lose because all of a sudden their teachers are having to contend with kids who are chronically disengaged from school,” Mr Sarra said.

Aboriginal Peak Bodies of the NT (APO NT), which includes the Central Land Council, Northern Land Council, Northern Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) and other peak organisations, have also criticised many elements of the current legislation, calling on the federal government to rebuild trust with Aboriginal people.

In a submission to the Stronger Futures process, which is not available publicly on the FaCHSIA website, there are calls on the Gillard government to re-instate the permit system; allow custom and culture to be considered in sentencing and bail decisions; ensure Aboriginal legal services are funded; repeal the “prohibited material” restrictions; remove the Prescribed Areas signs; and remove the “extraordinary” law enforcement powers of the ACC.

There are also calls on the government to promote “positive rather than negative messaging around parental responsibility and school attendance” and for the controversial income management system – which has been slammed by the United Nations – to be made voluntary.

The submission has been backed by Australians for Native Title and Reconcilliation (ANTaR) and is available for download below.

APO NT Submission to Stronger Futures (260)Stronger Futures snapshot:

• The School Enrollment and Attendance Measure (SEAM) will be expanded throughout the Territory. It ties welfare payments to school attendance with the stated aim of reducing truancy.

• Alcohol and porn bans will continue.

• Penalties for grog running will be increased to include six months imprisonment for liquor offences under 1350 milliliters.

• The Australian Crime Commission (ACC) will continue to exercise powers to deal with violence and child abuse against an Indigenous person as under the existinglegislation.

• Community store licensing will continue.

• The compulsory five-year leases over townships will not be extended, but the Gillard government will continue to negotiate voluntary long-term leases.

• If passed by parliament, the legislation will be enacted for 10 years from its commencement.

• The legislation will be referred to a Parliamentary Committee for review.

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