Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory

All three follow through on measures that had their origin in the ‘Northern Territory Emergency Response’ (often referred to as the NTER or ‘The Intervention’) initiated by Prime Minister Howard and Minister Brough in June 2007. To refresh your memory, there were four bills.
  • the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Bill 2007 provided for banning the consumption, possession or supply of alcohol within prescribed areas, the installation of filters on publicly-funded computers, the acquisition by the Australian Government of five years leases over Indigenous township lands and certain titles over town camps, the closer management by the Commonwealth of community stores, and, to facilitate the above, the modification of acquisition-of-property compensation laws and the partial suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. For more see  Bills Digest, no. 28, 2007–08
  • the Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory National Emergency Response and Other Measures) Bill 2007, provided for banning the possession of pornography within ‘prescribed areas’, extending the mandate of the Australian Crime Commission to include ‘Indigenous violence and child abuse’, deploying Australian Federal Police as ‘special constables’ to the Northern Territory Police Force, allowing the Commonwealth to retain an interest in infrastructure on Aboriginal land which it built, and modifying the permit system for access to Aboriginal land in the NT. For more see Bills Digest, no. 21, 2007–08.
  • the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Payment Reform) Bill 2007, provided for the introduction of an Income Management Regime (IMR), wherein some individual could have welfare payment quarantined for priority purchases and be obliged to use a ‘BasicsCard’ at approved stores. For more see Bills Digest, no. 27, 2007–08.  
  • the Appropriation (Northern Territory National Emergency Response) Bill (No. 1) 2007-2008 [and] (No. 2) 2007-2008, provided for the appropriation from the consolidated revenue for various measures. For more see Bills Digest, no. 24, 2007–08.
Over the following years there was much debate over the degree of consultation, the appropriateness of suspending the application of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, the likely efficacy of some measures and the effect on indigenous governance.
The Labor Government revisited many measures in 2008 and 09. It aborted the suspension of the permit system andchanged the policy language to ‘National Partnerships’ and ‘Closing The Gap’. The Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Welfare Reform and Reinstatement of Racial Discrimination Act) Bill 2009 reversed the suspension of the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, and sought to recast measures as either for ‘all’ (e.g. generalising the possible application of income management) or ‘for the benefit of Aborigines’ (e.g. building in more consultation into alcohol restrictions). For more see Bills Digest, no. 94, 2009-10.
Despite the changes, criticisms of the policy thrust continued to be heard. In response, in June 2011, the Government issued Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory, discussion paper, and instigated wide consultations. A report on the consultations was released in October 2011, together with a report on the methodology. In November 2011, the Government introduced 3 bills into the House. These, according to the Government, were informed by the consultation process.
These bills have caused people to look afresh at the situation on the ground in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and reignited debate about the policy direction of the last few years. As has been noted in our Stronger Futures bills digest, some of the criticism of the bills has been targeted at provisions that are believed to provide for measures that are too costly, too compliance-oriented, too regulation heavy and/or too far off the mark to be successful (particularly in the area of school participation and income management), while other criticism has been aimed more broadly at these bills as perpetuating an ‘intervention’ that is believed to have involved insufficient consultation, too few positive outcomes, infringement of rights and/or avoidance of underlying issue.
The bills themselves do not create any radically new situation or set any new direction. They do as follows:
  • The Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011 makes various arrangements for the control and regulation of alcohol in ‘alcohol protected areas’ of the Northern Territory, gives the Commonwealth certain powers to regulate town camps and community living areas in the Northern Territory, and gives the Commonwealth the power to regulate community store licenses in the Northern Territory, including the power to impose conditions on licenses granted to store managers and owners. For more see Bills Digest, no.103, 2011-12.
  • The Social Security Legislation Amendment Bill 2011 seeks to allow income management to be triggered by referrals by state and territory agencies, to facilitate the introduction of a new targeted ‘place-based’ income management and to provide for income management to continue for people despite a change of residence. It also amends the exemption for acceptable absences from school for people subject to the ‘triggers’ for income management, and amends the social security law that underpin the Australian Government’s School Enrolment and Attendance Measure (SEAM) so that a parent in receipt of income support who does not meet certain compliance arrangements may have payment suspended. For more see Bills Digest, no.105, 2011-12.
  • The Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2011 repeals the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007 and makes certain consequential saving, transitional arrangements and amendments to other acts, as well as providing for restriction on prohibited material to continue and for customary law and cultural practice to be considered in bail and sentencing decisions for certain offences.
All 3 bills have been referred to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 29 February 2012. For more on this inquiry see here. Hundreds of submissions are available here


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