What is Stronger Futures?
Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011
Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2011
Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011
What will the legislation do?
The Stronger Futures legislation plans to replace the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007 (otherwise known as the “Northern Territory Intervention”), which was due to expire in August 2012. The Northern Territory Intervention has attracted national and international condemnation for its racial discrimination against Aboriginal people and their culture.
However, the new legislation plans to maintain many elements of the Northern Territory Intervention for a further 10 years, and will further increase Government control over Aboriginal people and their lands.
These measures include:
- Prohibition of consideration of Aboriginal customary law and cultural practice in criminal sentencing. This makes Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory the only group of people in Australia for whom the court cannot consider the cultural circumstances of an offence.
- Blanket bans on alcohol on Aboriginal Land, despite consistent opposition from the Aboriginal Peak Organisations of the NT (APO NT) who have said, “The decision regarding alcohol restrictions should be for relevant residents to make… The principal effect of these widely flouted laws has been to further criminalise and alienate many residents”.
- Increases in penalties for possession of alcohol on Aboriginal Land, including 6 months possible jail time for less than 1.35l of pure alcohol and 18 months for more than 1.35L of pure alcohol.
- “Star Chamber” powers by the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) for investigations in Aboriginal communities, including removal of the right to silence.
- Special powers that allow police to enter houses and vehicles in Aboriginal communities without a warrant, on ‘suspicion’ of possession of alcohol.
- Makes laws allowing for information to be transferred about an individual, to any Federal, State or Territory government department or agency, without an individual’s knowledge or consent.
- Blanket bans on “sexually explicit or very violent material” on Aboriginal Land, making it a crime to possess pornography.
- Commonwealth control over regulations in Community Living Areas and town camps.
- Continued suspension of the permit system in Aboriginal townships, in direct contradiction of APO NT who have said that: “communities on Aboriginal Land feel as though they have lost control… the flow on effects are overwhelmingly seen as negative and counterproductive to community safety”.
- An expansion of the School Enrolment and Attendance Measure (SEAM) means parents whose children miss school more than once a week will have their welfare payments slashed. This comes despite consistent concerns raised by Aboriginal families of inappropriate education in Aboriginal schools that is failing to engage their children.
- The Stronger Futures “jobs package” includes 50 new ranger positions and 100 “traineeships”. But this will not compensate for the more than 2000 remaining waged Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) positions that the Government will cut by April 2012; the final attack on a vibrant program which was the lifeblood of many communities, employing upwards of 7500 people before the NT Intervention.
- Proposed amendments to the Social Security Act will see further attacks on the rights of welfare recipients. These measures will initially be targeted at Aboriginal people in the NT, but have national implications, especially in areas such as Bankstown or Shepparton where Income Management is being rolled out from July 2012.
Has there been any consultation with the affected communities?
There has been consistent criticism of the Government’s consultation process in developing this legislation; from communities in the NT, from national organizations and from the United Nations. The Senate Committee’s Inquiry, upon visiting Aboriginal communities in the NT to be affected by the legislation, found: “significant evidence to indicate that there was a high degree of confusion amongst people in the communities who will be most affected by the measures in the Stronger Futures bills.”
It goes on to say: “There was a lot of concern about the perceived lack of consultation, but also about the way in which the consultation occurred, with evidence to suggest that officers and consultants running the consultations need to be better prepared for the task, and that more time needed to be taken building relationships with people to support effective communication.” (p.59, Report of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, March 2012)
“The committee notes with serious concern the degree of confusion, and frustration expressed in relation to the Stronger Futures consultations. There appears to be a discrepancy between the level of consultation undertaken, as reflected in FAHCSIA’s evidence and the consultation evaluation report, and the level of understanding within communities.” (p.62, Report of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee, March 2012)
The report was signed by Labor Senator Claire Moore, who said during questioning of FAHCSIA officials: “I fail to see how you can say with confidence (Aboriginal) people knew what was going on, I just fail to see that after the kinds of feedback we’ve had”.
Independent transcripts of 10 of these consultations also found that what was actually said by community members present was not accurately represented in FAHCSIA’s own reporting of the consultations. This represents a serious breach of trust by the Government and undermines its assertion that it seeks to represent the concerns of Aboriginal people.
This demonstrates that the Government has failed to secure the “free, prior and informed consent” of the people to be affected by the legislation; the lack of which would make the laws contrary to international human rights principles.
Within its mandate to consult with the broader community on the legislation, the Senate Committee’s Inquiry received more than 450 submissions from organisations both in the NT and inter-state. The vast majority of these submissions oppose the legislation.
What has been the response of Aboriginal leaders in the Northern Territory?
Aboriginal leaders and Elders across the Northern Territory are opposed to the legislation, and to further Government control over their affairs.
What has been the response of civil society in Australia?
Over 450 submissions have been made to the Senate Committee’s inquiry into the legislation, drawn from a range of organisations across the country. Over 95% of the submissions oppose the legislation. You can view these submissions on the Senate Committee’s web-page. Here are also some links to some statements that have been made by leading organisations:
What about international law?
The Stronger Futures legislation goes against numerous international laws to which Australia is a signatory, including:
“All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development”. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 1(1)
“States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the Indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.” United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, Article 19
A number of parts of the legislation have been justified as ‘special measures’. Special measures have been described by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in 2009 (General Recommendation 32), as needing to be:
- Goal related and based on data
- Appropriate and legitimate
- Necessary in a democratic society
- Respect principles of fairness and responsibility
- Temporary, and not to be continued after the fulfillment of their objectives
- For the sole purpose of ensuring equal enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms
- Should not lead to the maintenance of separate rights for different racial groups
The Senate Community Affairs Committee Inquiry, and its reception
The Senate Committee Inquiry received more than 450 public submissions, the majority of which opposed the legislation. The Committee also held public hearings in affected communities in the Northern Territory between 20 and 24 January 2012, which provided scenes of fiery community opposition to the legislation.
The Inquiry’s report was presented to the Government on 13 March 2012.
The report has been widely condemned by human rights, welfare, health, religious and Aboriginal organisations has having ignored and disrespected many of the concerns raised by the community sector in their submissions and public testimonials. Whilst the Committee’s report recommends minor changes to the legislation, many solutions offered by communities in the areas of governance, alcohol management and education have been ignored. Even the call by Australia’s peak representative body for Aboriginal people, the National Congress for Australia’s First Peoples, to have the bills tested for human rights compliance in accordance with the new Parliamentary Scrutiny (Human Rights) Act have been ignored.
Below are some of the concerns raised by different organisations:
Community responses to Stronger Futures
Ban on consideration of customary law and cultural practice in bail and sentencing
More than 370 submissions and 510 letters have been received by the Senate Inquiry into Stronger Futures. The full list can be found on their website here.
Some significant submissions include:
Rebuilding from the Ground Up: An Alternative to the NT Intervention
A website built around an alternative program to the NT Intervention widely endorsed by Aboriginal leaders and organisations. Summaries, video and collection of extensive research can be found on all NT Intervention measures. Visit the website