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Senator Siewert 5-2-10

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert - 5 February 2010

We've had a number of contacts from concerned people on this issue as a result of an email apparently circulated by a person connected to the Minister's office.

We are concerned with the nature of this email, which we consider is both inappropriate and extremely misleading - so I am drafting a longer response for you which I will also share with others.

Firstly the Greens objected strongly to the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act under the NTER. We were the only party to vote against it being suspended - the ALP in opposition voted to suspend it.

Subsequently, as a result of strong community campaigning, the ALP then promised to reinstate the RDA. Over two and a half years have passed since that promise was made.

On the basis of this commitment the Greens introduced amendments to reinstate the RDA when further changes were made to the NTER laws by the Rudd Government - but they voted against these provisions.

After waiting two and a half years the Bills in question, which the Minister claims will ‘reinstate' the RDA were introduced during the very last days of the last sitting of Parliament last year - at the time of the furore over the CPRS and while the eyes of the nation were focused on the meeting in Copenhagen.

There was no press conference and not even a media release when the laws were introduced - the Minister simply briefed a few chosen sympathetic journalists. The small articles that appeared to our mind misrepresented the nature of the proposed laws, implying that they would only apply to the Northern Territory and that they were really about the RDA. This is not the case.

These laws if introduced apply in principle to all people on a range of Centrelink income support payments across Australia in areas designated by the Minister.

The current Senate inquiry is considering both the bills introduced by the Government and a bill introduced by Senator Rachel Siewert on behalf of the Greens that would in fact fully restore the RDA.

We are now at the end of the very first week of Parliament sitting and the Minister is complaining that a very brief Senate inquiry - which was supported by the Senate and is due to report on March 9th - is delaying ‘reinstating' of the RDA. In fact many Aboriginal and community service organisations have contacted me and I understand the Government asking for the inquiry to be extended because they haven't had time to properly review the legislation and get their submissions in.

After sitting on this issue for two and a half years it is a bit much to want to stop Senators from doing their job and holding these proposed new laws up to scrutiny.

The decision about whether an inquiry is held and when it reports is not one that can be made or changed by the Greens - it requires a decision of the whole Senate.

These laws are introducing the most major changes ever seen in Australia to our welfare system. The Introduction of national income quarantining attacks the basic tenet and fundamental underlying philosophy of the inalienability of social security entitlements.

On this basis alone there is a compelling argument that such wide-sweeping changes require proper parliamentary scrutiny.

Let us also remember the evidence to date (and its lack) on the costs and outcomes of blanket quarantining in the Northern Territory. It cost $150m to administer the system alone, and yet there has been no conclusive evidence that it achieved any of the child protection outcomes which were claimed to be the reason it was introduced.

Potentially extending this to hundreds of thousands of other Australians on income support will be very expensive indeed.

Of course the Greens do not consider that blanket quarantining of income recipients on Aboriginal communities in the NT is any less wrong than quarantining single mothers in Sydney, or people who lost their jobs during the financial crisis in Morningside... which is why we were the only party who stood up against the introduction of these measures in the first place.

Submissions to the inquiry from experts in human rights law, from large national welfare providers and Indigenous organisations have all raised serious concerns about these proposed laws. Their conclusion is that, contrary to the assertions of the Minister, these laws will not restore the Racial Discrimination Act and do not meet our international human rights obligations.

I urge you to go to the committee website and look at the submissions from non-government sources and make up your own mind.

In particular, to the extent that these laws will still impact disproportionately on Aboriginal people they are considered ‘indirect discrimination' under the UN Convention of the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

To the extent that these laws discriminate in a manner which is not considered by the people to which they apply to be beneficial.

In the manner in which the ‘consultations' with Aboriginal people on these laws have not been open and transparent and have occurred after these decisions have been made, this is not considered ‘informed consent' and these provisions do not quality as ‘special measures'.

Despite the efforts of the Minister and the department to describe the new income management scheme as ‘non-discriminatory', analysis of these measures by independent experts suggest that this is not the case.


Reproduced with the kind permission of Senator Rachel Siewert.