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HREOC cuts & NT Intervention - Estimates Transcripts / Spokesperson Rachel Siewert


HREOC cuts & NT Intervention

Estimates Transcripts | Spokesperson Rachel Siewert
Monday 20th October 2008, 12:00am

Legal & Constitutional Affairs Committee
Budget Estimates for 2008-09 (Supplementary hearings)

Senator SIEWERT: I have some broader budget issues and then some specific issues for Mr. Calma. At our last estimates, as I recall our discussions, it was a bit early for any real comments to be made about what the impacts of the efficiency dividend were going to be on the operations of the commission. Since that period of time, has there been any refinement or any better understanding of what impact the efficiency dividends is having in each specific area that the commission works in?

Mr. Calma: I defer to Karen Toohey.

Ms. Toohey: I think at that stage the budget issues had only just been notified to the commission. Since that time, the commission has taken the approach of spreading both the effect of the efficiency dividend and the budget cut that we incurred earlier this year across all areas of the commission. That has been taken as a 14½ per cent cut to each of the unit budgets.

Senator SIEWERT: Fourteen and a half per cent?

Ms. Toohey: Yes. To each of the unit budgets across the commission. Essentially it has been left to the unit managers and for the commissioners obviously to decide how best to implement that with respect to player program budgets.

Senator SIEWERT: I am conscious of time. I am conscious that I have a lot of questions. Maybe you could take on notice what that meant in terms of any cuts to your programs - your staffing and whether any projects have been cut. Are there any notable projects that have been cut? Are there big headline projects that you have had to cut because of the funding cuts?

Ms. Toohey: Senator, I would have to refer that back to the commissioners. We can take it on notice, if you would prefer to do that.

Senator SIEWERT: If you could, that would be appreciated. Thank you.

Ms. Toohey: Certainly.

Senator SIEWERT: As I understand it - I do not think this had occurred prior to the last estimates; I may be amiss in recollecting - Mr. Calma, you had not been made the race commissioner at that stage?

Mr. Calma: No. I was still acting at that time.

Senator SIEWERT: It seems to me -

Senator Chris Evans: The next line ought to be congratulations.

Senator SIEWERT: Sorry. Congratulations. What I am concerned to see is if in fact there has been a budget cut - as I understand it, each of the commissioners has had a cut across the units - does that mean that you have picked up additional workload with a cut in funding?

Mr. Calma: The two impacts we have had are the efficiency dividends and, as we mentioned, the cuts that were relating to the $1.8 million. The race discrimination commissioner position has never been funded. I do that gratis. My position is the social justice commissioner position. The impacts of the 14 per cent cuts have been across the board in my race policy unit. For the education projects section of race, which is $4.5 million we received under the national action plan, that funding has not been affected.

Senator SIEWERT: Has not?

Mr. Calma: No. That has not. But the 14 per cent cut was experienced in my race policy unit.

Senator SIEWERT: It was?

Mr. Calma: It was, yes.

Senator SIEWERT: What specific outcomes or lack of outcomes has that had?

Mr. Calma: It has virtually limited our capacity to undertake some of the race policy area work. Staff have been restricted to not doing the level of travel that they have previously done. So we are constrained to desktop audit as much as anything.

Senator SIEWERT: What does that mean? You actually cannot go out and talk to people on the ground?

Mr. Calma: My staff are having difficulty. They have to be very discerning as to who they work with. The other significant impact is our capacity to undertake education activities, particularly in relation to discrimination matters and race discrimination matters.

Senator SIEWERT: I would have thought that, given the issues around the Northern Territory intervention and the rather controversial exemption from the Racial Discrimination Act, you would have had quite a lot of contacts around these issues. Would that be a correct deduction?

Mr. Calma: We have. We have in the past. Since the cuts, we have had to be very discerning as to what travel we undertake.

Senator SIEWERT: Does that mean you have not been able to deal with all the issues that have been coming out of the NT intervention as they relate to the Racial Discrimination Act?

Mr. Calma: Well, the key issue is that the Racial Discrimination Act in those prescribed communities in the Northern Territory is suspended, so there is no role other than an anecdotal investigative role.

Senator SIEWERT: I understand the exemption. I know there is no formal role. But I would have thought that does not necessarily stop people complaining about it and trying to take it up with you.

Mr. Calma: That is right. Our capacity to travel and consult and to hear the complaints is very, very limited.

Senator SIEWERT: Which takes me on to the -

CHAIR: It is nine o'clock. We have it determined in our program that we will have a 15-minute break, which we have agreed to. The committee is suspended until 9.15 pm. Thank you.

Proceedings suspended from 9.01 pm to 9.15 pm

CHAIR: It is 9.15 pm. I am going to reconvene this hearing so that we can get through the next hour and three quarters. We will continue questions with the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Senator SIEWERT: Mr. Calma, I want to go to your social justice report and the NTER review. I have noticed that one of the recommendations for the NTER review is very similar to one of your recommendations about community partnership agreements. Has there been any progress in the recommendations you made in terms of starting to implement your recommendations in your report, particularly that recommendation?

Mr. Calma: We have had some discussions with senior departmental officers, but I cannot say that we have progressed very much along those lines. A lot of what the response has been to date is to wait and see what the review team recommended. We will be pursuing, now that the report is out, discussions with officers of FaHCSIA.

Senator SIEWERT: Do you have a timeline for pursuing that? Has the department indicated a timeline for pursuing that?

Mr. Calma: I have a quarterly meeting with senior officials. The next one is some time in November.

Senator SIEWERT: I am conscious of time. I have a series of questions to put on notice around the report. I am also particularly keen to talk to you about the Narrogin visit to Western Australia, my home state, last week I think it was.

Mr. Calma: Yes.

Senator SIEWERT: I am wondering if you could tell us the reason for your visit and what have been the outcomes of your visit.

Mr. Calma: Thank you, Senator. It was an important visit. It was an initiative by community members, who had had invited me to come down and hear their concerns within the Narrogin community, which is a couple of hours drive into the wheat belt out of Perth. They have experienced eight suicides and attempted suicides in the last six months with indigenous males. They were particularly keen to have me hear what their concerns were so I was accompanied by Yvonne Henderson, the equal community commissioner for Western Australia. We participated in a meeting of an estimated 150 Aboriginal people from Narrogin and the surrounding district. It was a very productive meeting where we heard the community share their concerns and the grief that they have experienced through the loss of so many people. They raised a range of issues and concerns that they had. We heard them. Yvonne Henderson will be taking a team of her people back to workshop within the community trying to inform them about their rights to be able to lodge complaints and concerns, particularly in relation to racial discrimination. I will be endeavouring to ask Ms. Henderson to represent our interests from the commission's perspective because we do not have the capacity to return there or the financial capacity to run those programs. I think it was a very productive meeting. Following the closed community meeting, we met with the mayor of Narrogin. She heard some of the issues and pledged her support to work with the Aboriginal community in addressing issues. There were senior police there. We had a brief discussion. I guess one of the major concerns that the community expressed was that at the moment Oxfam Australia is providing the financial resources to engage a psychologist one week per month to work in the community as well as a couple of case workers. They were concerned that the funding was running out and thought it was a responsibility of the state or the federal government to fund some psychologists or psychiatric support for the region. I have taken that issue up with the Deputy Premier, who is also the minister for indigenous affairs and the minister for health in Western Australia, Dr. Kim Hames. He has taken it on notice and will try and organise a meeting between the Commonwealth and the state government to look at that issue in particular and to see how they might work collectively and cooperatively within the community. We still see too much evidence of siloed activity in the area and a lack of really collegiate and cooperative effort from the state and the federal government.

Senator SIEWERT: Thank you. Did you say Oxfam are funding the psychologist?

Mr. Calma: A psychologist for one week per month, yes.

Senator SIEWERT: So there are no other resources available other than Oxfam providing it?

Mr. Calma: That is correct. That funding is due to cease some time, I believe, in November.

Senator SIEWERT: But the state government has now undertaken to talk to the Commonwealth?

Mr. Calma: I mentioned that to them and they will endeavour to take it up with the Commonwealth, yes.

Senator SIEWERT: Under what banner could the Commonwealth provide resources?

Mr. Calma: In each of the states and territories of Australia there are the indigenous coordination centres. They are to look at a response to the community on issues in relation to what programs the federal government might be able to mount. There is also funding in which they could look at this community as a community in crisis and to be able to provide support. But I think the real value is in trying to coordinate the efforts of the state and the federal government as well as how the local government can get better engaged.

Senator SIEWERT: Two questions come to mind directly as a response to that. Does that mean the ICC has not been engaged before?

Mr. Calma: We were not able to establish that they had been engaged, but I mentioned that to Bernie Yates this morning, who is head of the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination.

Senator SIEWERT: I think we will chase that up on Friday at the cross-portfolio committee hearing. The other issue is you said a community in crisis. Is that your opinion of Narrogin? Is it a community in crisis?

Mr. Calma: I believe that if we have a community where there are so many suicides and attempted suicides in a small population, it is a community in crisis and it needs to have a close planned initiative by all government agencies to be able to look at what sort of response can work within the community.

Senator SIEWERT: You also made a point earlier, if I understood what you said - I am going back to an issue I raised - about the budget and not being able to do community visits. Is that because your budget has been cut and you cannot go back?

Mr. Calma: For our staff to go back and deliver human rights training, yes.

Senator SIEWERT: What are the main elements that are causing the crisis in Narrogin?

Mr. Calma: It is difficult to be able to establish that in just a three and a half hour meeting. But there were a whole range of issues - major concerns about racism or perceived racism. It is important to recognise the impacts that racism can have on an individual's mental health and physical health and wellbeing. That is well documented. That is a real issue. There is the issue of opportunity for employment. There were concerns of disempowerment and some concerns about the uncertainty surrounding government programs, particularly CDEP, over there and what might be happening in that area. It is an issue that I think is a concern. People felt a loss of control over their lives, which is also a major stressor that impacts on a person's mental health. There were concerns about the changes to programs without the community really being engaged or understanding. They all get around to a clear partnership that needs to be established between not only federal and state agencies but with the community. So the community has to be actively involved. There needs to be greater engagement between agencies and the community to try to identify some of the solutions and to identify some of the major stressors that are impacting on people's behaviour.

Senator SIEWERT: So although you cannot visit or the staff cannot visit again, you will still be keeping an eye on what is going on there?

Mr. Calma: I will keep a watching brief over it. When I am next in the region, I will pursue it. There will still be discussions between key indigenous people over there. It is just that the capacity to be able to go from Sydney to Perth on a trip is difficult.

Senator SIEWERT: Thank you. I think probably every time, or certainly recently, I have asked you questions about representative bodies. You started undertaking a consultative process. That is a correct understanding, is it not?

Mr. Calma: No. Not really. What I prepared and submitted to the minister for indigenous affairs was an issues paper in July. That was looking at past national representative bodies in Australia as well as a number of examples internationally. From that, I drew out a whole range of lessons that could be learnt from them and presented that to the minister to consider and to be able to utilise and reference when the government undertook consultations with Aboriginal and islander people nationally.

Senator SIEWERT: Have you been involved in the subsequent consultations?

Mr. Calma: The consultations, no. The consultations were undertaken by the government.

Senator SIEWERT: Have you had any further involvement?

Mr. Calma: In recent times I have had discussions with the minister about how the report may be developed up and further consultations and how they might best be carried out. Those discussions are progressing.

Senator SIEWERT: The discussions are progressing between yourself and government, do you mean, or between the government and the community?

Mr. Calma: Well, I and the minister in relation to my engagement in the process, and the minister and her staff are undertaking the consultations. The minister is particularly keen to find out what are some of the best ways that government can consult with Aboriginal and islander people to make sure that good advice comes back to them about what models need to be pursued.

Senator SIEWERT: I realise you have not undertaken any formal consultation. Have you had any informal consultation or feedback from the community about the process? The reason I ask is I get around to a few communities and the feedback I have had has been, I must admit, fairly negative in terms that they do not feel they have been given an opportunity to have a say. Has that been reflected back to you or is that what they tell Greens pollies when they are out in the community?

Mr. Calma: I have had some of those same views expressed to me and I believe government has also. This is why we are undertaking this next round of discussions between me and the minister to look at other ways consultation might take place to ensure that we do have a fairly good cross-section of people inputting into what a national body may look like.

Senator SIEWERT: Are there timelines for the next consultation process?

Mr. Calma: I have called on the government to have a body established by the middle of next year - 30 June - as a target. They have indicated that they will try and achieve that target, at least with an interim body, and by the end of next year have a formal body.

Senator SIEWERT: The end of next year?

Mr. Calma: That has just been part of the discussions. I would not say that is a formal position of government, but they are the sort of timeframes that are being thrown around.

Senator SIEWERT: I have one final question and I will put the rest on notice. It concerns the new welfare reforms as they link to school attendance. Were you consulted about the government's reform program in terms of income suspension and income quarantining and school attendance?

Mr. Calma: No.

Senator SIEWERT: Not at all?

Mr. Calma: No. Other than submissions we have provided, we have not. Public submissions were called. We made submissions in relation to the NT intervention, yes.

Senator SIEWERT: You make some comments in here about truancy trials, but you were not formally consulted before any legislation was drafted?

Mr. Calma: No.

Senator SIEWERT: Thank you. I will put the rest on notice. Thank you.


Reproduced with the kind permission of Senator Siewert.