Family Responsibilities Commission Amendment Bill 2014 - Second Reading

Hon. GW ELMES (Noosa—LNP) (Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Multicultural Affairs and Minister Assisting the Premier) (12.17 pm): I move— That the bill be now read a second time.

I thank the Health and Community Services Committee for its consideration of the Family Responsibilities Commission Amendment Bill 2014. I note that the committee tabled its report on 1 October 2014 and recommended that the bill be passed. The committee has made seven other recommendations and I intend to deal with them in turn. Before that, I would like to make some general comments about the content and the intent of the bill. 

The bill seeks to amend the provisions of the Family Responsibilities Commission Act so that the FRC can continue to operate beyond 1 January 2015. The Family Responsibilities Commission is an independent statutory authority established under the act. The underlying drivers for this bill are to support cohesive and stable Indigenous communities and to provide greater certainty in how we do it. The welfare reform program was introduced to address high levels of entrenched welfare dependency, economic exclusion and social dysfunction. It aims to restore local authority, social norms and move people from unemployment into jobs and from social housing into homeownership. The work of the FRC also reflects this government’s focus on education as a cornerstone of economic strength and future prosperity.

I want to make it very clear that a primary outcome of the FRC is to improve school attendance in Indigenous communities. The FRC has been a key aspect of Queensland’s Indigenous welfare reform program in the communities of Hope Vale, Aurukun, Coen and Mossman Gorge, where it has operated since 2008.

Since August 2014 the FRC has had the legislative authority to operate in Doomadgee. Extensive consultation showed community willingness for the commission to be introduced into Doomadgee. We are currently negotiating with the federal government and making preparations for that to happen.

The commission works in partnership with families and communities to re-establish acceptable social norms, local Indigenous authority, individual responsibility and accountability. The Family Responsibilities Commission is constituted by a commissioner, deputy commissioner and 29 local commissioners. Under current provisions, notifications are sent to the FRC by Queensland government agencies when a community resident who is a recipient of social welfare payments is found to be: the parent of a child who is not enrolled at school or who has unexplained absences in school attendance; subject to a child protection notification; convicted in a Magistrates Court; or in breach of a housing tenancy agreement.

The FRC Act enables the FRC to hold conferences with community residents who are in receipt of welfare payments and who are the subject of an agency notice to address the matter. Where a person does not comply with a direction or an order to attend support services, the FRC can order that 60, 75 or 90 per cent of a person’s welfare payments be managed via a BasicsCard which restricts the purchase of excluded items such as alcohol, tobacco and gambling products with or without the person’s agreement. A community resident is also able to enter into a voluntary agreement with the FRC to be referred to services or have their welfare payments income managed as part of a family responsibilities agreement.

Extensive consultations were conducted with community members and other key stakeholders of Doomadgee and the four initial welfare reform areas of Aurukun, Coen, Hope Vale and Mossman Gorge before this bill was introduced into the parliament. During the consultations members indicated that their communities had become quieter and that things were better. There was widespread support for extending welfare reform and the FRC as an ongoing initiative. Support came from all quarters including the Hope Vale Aboriginal Shire Council, which has previously opposed Cape York welfare reform and the FRC. The Hope Vale Aboriginal Shire Council is now seeing the benefits of Cape York welfare reform and the FRC, particularly with the establishment of the Hope Vale banana farm. These positive reports are supported by the separate and independent findings of the Cape York welfare reform evaluation report released in March 2013.

Community members advised the evaluators that income management helped people to manage their money and meet the needs of their families as well as reduce the money spent on alcohol and drugs. The act enables the FRC to make case plans and order that community residents who have been subject to a notification attend support services. The local commissioners, as respected members and elders of their communities, have assisted community members to take responsibility for their families and children, restored local Indigenous authority and tackled antisocial behaviour. They do this primarily through counselling and the referral of FRC clients to support services.

The Family Responsibilities Commission Act is currently due to expire on 1 January 2015. The bill will remove the existing sunset clause in addition to other amendments. The existence of the sunset clause necessitated legislation being brought to this place each year at unnecessary cost and causing unnecessary disruption to the work of the commission. Removing the sunset clause will give greater certainty and consistency to the commission’s operations.

The other significant component of this legislation is to extend the range of triggers for community members to come into contact with the FRC. The bill adds further justice triggers for the commission to receive notifications from the District, Supreme and Children’s courts. When the FRC first commenced, decisions could only be made at a conference constituted by the FRC commissioner and two local commissioners. Over time the FRC local commissioners have built on their skills and experience in conferencing and decision making. In 2013 the act was changed to enable three FRC local commissioners to convene a conference with a community member in the absence of the commissioner where income management is unlikely to be ordered. The three FRC local commissioners are able to enter into a Family Responsibilities Agreement or direct a person to attend community support services through a case plan. In 2011-12, local commissioners independently conducted 67 conferences in the absence of the commissioner.

The FRC commissioner, David Glasgow, has indicated that some local commissioners have developed significantly and now have the capacity to convene a conference in his absence and recommend income management. This bill will enable the commissioner to appoint three FRC local commissioners to convene a conference in his absence and recommend that the client’s welfare payments are income managed. That is well and truly restoring local authority. The commissioner will review the recommendation and approve the conditional income management order. I have also included an amendment to ensure that reasons for the local commissioners’ recommendation for a conditional income management order are recorded. This will ensure that the commissioner has access to all information before finally approving the local commissioners’ recommendation. The bill will strengthen the leadership role played by the local commissioners within their communities and represents a further step towards restoring local authority.

I am now pleased to address questions raised by the committee in their report. Recommendation 2 states— ... that the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Multicultural Affairs clarify, during the second reading debate, whether the policy intent is that only those communities which request to be included in welfare reform will be prescribed as a welfare reform community area.

This recommendation queries the policy intent behind the extension of the welfare reform initiative and the FRC to other discrete Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. I can assure the House that there are no new powers introduced by this bill. The FRC Act has always empowered the government to expand welfare reform, and thus the FRC, to communities in need. Moving the descriptions of particular welfare reform community areas from the FRC Act to the FRC Regulation, which this bill will allow, does not affect this power.

One of the submissions received by the committee raised specific concerns that this bill would allow the FRC to be extended without an independent evaluation and the informed consent of the elected council. The bill proposes an additional safeguard in that the minister ‘must have regard to the main objects of the act’ before recommending to the Governor that an area be prescribed in the regulation as a welfare reform area. The main object of the FRC Act is to ‘support the restoration of socially responsible standards of behaviour and local authority in welfare reform community areas’.

The first principle for administering the FRC Act is that ‘the act is to be administered under the principle that the wellbeing and best interests of a child are paramount’. The government retains the ability to introduce the FRC to a community where social responsibility, and most particularly the wellbeing of children, is at issue. In practice, the government can declare a welfare reform area following a request from a community or following an identification of social dysfunction in the form of responsibilities, particularly to the community’s children, not being met and/or harm being experienced; however, I can assure you that social dysfunction would need to be of a critical magnitude for the government to act without widespread community agreement and comprehensive consultation. In other words, if a community does not want the FRC all it has to do is make sure that kids go to school, ensure violence and neglect against women and children are minimised and ensure low levels of crime and abuse in the community. I can assure members that the FRC will not be considered for a community unless crime, violence and neglect statistics show that it is needed. Where the FRC already exists in a community, the simple way to see it removed is for community members to work towards seeing all of the indicators improved so that it is no longer necessary.

Recommendation 3 states— ... that the Minister ... ensure that information about the indicators and assessment methods to be used when considering whether to prescribe a community as a welfare reform community area is made available to community leaders and the public. The government does not accept that this action is necessary. This information is already made available to all discrete Indigenous communities on an ongoing basis. Relevant statistics are compiled and provided to Indigenous communities on a quarterly and annual basis. These statistics are also made available to members of the public who request them. Additional specific information regarding the indicators crucial for assessing whether to prescribe a community for welfare reform would be made available to individual communities by the Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Multicultural Affairs when undertaking community consultations.

Recommendation 4 states— ... that the ... Bill ... be amended to require that consultation, aimed at obtaining informed consent from community leaders, be undertaken with any proposed welfare reform community area prior to a decision being taken to prescribe the community as a welfare reform community area. Again, the government does not accept the recommendation because it is simply not necessary. Community consultation is central to any issues facing Indigenous communities, and the government is committed to working with local communities to improve outcomes. While informed consent for the introduction of welfare reform is not a requirement of the Racial Discrimination Act 1973 or the FRC Act, community consent would always be actively pursued.

The provisions of the FRC Act allow the government to intervene by declaring a welfare reform community area with the objectives of: supporting the restoration of socially responsible standards of behaviour; supporting the restoration of local authority; helping people to resume primary responsibility for the wellbeing of their community; and helping people to resume primary responsibility for the wellbeing of individuals and families within the community. While the results of the community consultation would inform a decision made by government, there is no intention to prevent the declaration of a community welfare reform area if this declaration would otherwise be consistent with the objects of the FRC Act.

The Family Responsibilities Commission serves to protect vulnerable members of the community, and the government does not relinquish its right to act to protect women, children and other vulnerable community members where it is shown to be necessary. The government has a responsibility to act in the best interests of all community members, and this government does not intend to shirk that responsibility.

Recommendation 5 states— ... that the Minister ... require the Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Multicultural Affairs to: • develop and publish guidelines for consultation with proposed new welfare reform community areas • publish the outcomes of consultation with proposed new welfare reform community areas. The first part of the recommendation is not accepted. The department follows consultation protocols for each community, but a cover-all guideline to address consultation procedures for all communities is not feasible. The second part of the recommendation asks that the outcomes of consultation with proposed new welfare reform community areas be published. I strongly believe that the publication of consultation outcomes needs to be considered in terms of the potential impact on community members. With this consideration in mind, the publication of consultation outcomes could be considered on a case-by-case basis. It is important that community views be respected and not become a matter for public debate.

Recommendation 6 states— ... that the Minister ... ensure that information about the indicators and assessment methods to be used when considering whether a welfare reform community area is ready to leave welfare reform is made available to community leaders and the public. Recommendation 6 is not accepted by the government as it is not necessary. Information about indicators and assessment methods is already being made to all discrete Indigenous communities on an ongoing basis.

the Minister ... provide the Legislative Assembly, during the second-reading debate, with details about the: • arrangements that will be put in place to ensure a smooth transition for communities out of welfare reform • measures that will be put in place to ensure that a former welfare reform community area continues to improve. An important element of this bill is that it recognises the need to have a mechanism to scale back FRC activities or remove it completely from communities where it operates. For existing welfare reform communities, an effective transition will need to occur to ensure that achievements in community functioning and re-establishing social norms are not lost. The type of data that will be examined to determine how best to transition a community would include information about school attendance, child safety notifications, breaches of tenancy agreements, positive trends across most or all harm indicators, and the resolution of land tenure issues to provide for home ownership, delivery of services and economic development. This data would be used as a basis for discussions with the community to determine an appropriate transition strategy.

For such communities which transition out of welfare reform, government will need to make decisions about the future of funded services under the program which have become central to community life. These include FRC conferences, the wide range of supports for school attendance, and parenting programs. Such service funding may be diverted to economic development and infrastructure funding in recognition that a community has reached a point of social stability where the benefits of such funding will be maximised. Where existing welfare reform services have taken the place of core services usually provided by other government agencies, government will also need to auspice the shifting of this service delivery responsibility onto relevant agencies.

Decisions about the future of welfare reform services and the selection of new welfare reform communities will also continue to take into account the level of investment in current communities. If, after a suitable period, a particular community shows improvement in harm statistics at a rate that can be sustained then the government will consider removing the FRC from that community.

Recommendation 8 states— ... that the Minister ... and the Department ... continue to work with local communities and stakeholders to monitor the effectiveness of the Family Responsibilities Commission to ensure that the current model of welfare reform meets the needs of those communities.

I thank the committee for the recommendation but do not accept that it is necessary. Amendments proposed in the bill include a reduction in the number of formal board meetings to enable more community-specific meetings to be held. These meetings will be in addition to the monitoring and engagement which occurs with the communities on an ongoing basis.

The government is committed to alleviating the disadvantage experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Queenslanders across so many aspects of life. We are committed to achieving this in conjunction with Indigenous people and their elected representatives at all levels of government through responsible programs, services and actions. The challenge now is to maintain the momentum of change in the welfare reform communities and spread the benefits to other communities where a desire is expressed and a need is identified.

I am looking forward to seeing how enabling welfare reform to continue into the future will help us make real progress and identify how we can best help Indigenous communities help themselves. Let us not underestimate the size of the challenge but celebrate the successes so far and look forward to a brighter future. I table the government’s response to the committee’s report.

Tabled paper: Health and Community Services Committee: Report No. 56—Family Responsibilities Commission Amendment Bill 2014, government response [6243].

The FRC has been instrumental in progress made in the welfare reform communities and restoring local authority. This bill builds on that success.

In conclusion, I would like to note the great work done by Commissioner David Glasgow and Registrar Rob White—for the leadership and guidance they have provided to the FRC. I would also like to commend especially the local commissioners, who have been at the forefront of the commission’s success. The independent evaluation of Cape York Welfare Reform found that the local commissioners have been instrumental in tackling antisocial behaviour and rebuilding Indigenous authority. As noted in the evaluation, their role in listening, guiding and supporting community members before ordering income management appears to have had a positive impact on changing behaviours and restoring social norms. Community members also advised the evaluators that income management helped people to manage their money and meet the needs of their family as well as reduced the money spent on alcohol and drugs.

As I noted previously, one of the aims of welfare reform is restoring local authority, and a key part of this was the appointment of local commissioners. I thank them for all of the work they have done in helping to rebuild their communities, and I look forward to the ongoing contribution they will make.

I look forward to the day the FRC is no longer needed in any Indigenous community. Mark my words: that day will come and it will come because of the excellent leadership by mayors and councillors in all of the communities, the FRC commissioners, the community justice groups and the other community leaders. They will make sure that day comes. The state government can help, but it must be in partnership with each individual community, and that is our promise. I commend the bill to the House.