Family Responsibilities Commission Amendment Bill 2014 - First Reading

Hon. GW ELMES (Noosa—LNP) (Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Multicultural Affairs and Minister Assisting the Premier) (2.50 pm), in reply: At the outset, I thank all members who have participated in today’s debate. I thank them for their considered contributions. I would also like to thank non-government members—particularly the member for Mulgrave—for the level of bipartisan support that they have provided to this very important initiative.

Underlying the Family Responsibilities Commission model is the belief that communities can take responsibility for addressing social dysfunction, and are best placed to do so. They are not only best placed to do so; it is absolutely vital that they do so. Complementing the commission’s direct operation are referral services and economic development, education, employment and housing initiatives to build individual and family capabilities and promote self-reliance and responsibility.

The main objectives of the Family Responsibilities Commission Act are, firstly, to support the restoration of socially responsible standards of behaviour and local authority in welfare reform areas; and, secondly, help people in welfare reform community areas to resume primary responsibility for the wellbeing of their community and the individuals and families of the community. It is simply not possible for the state government, in the best possible way and with all the understanding that we can muster, to pass laws or see legislation progress through this parliament here and expect it to push down into the community. The only way that we are going to resolve the issues that present themselves not only in the welfare reform communities but also in the Indigenous communities throughout the state in the long term is to provide as best we can, in partnership with the councils, the commissioners, the community justice groups and all of the other groups and individuals that make up those communities, the tools to see the restoration of those social norms from within the community and not the state.

The proposed amendments to the legislation that we are looking at today are, importantly, the removal of the sunset clause within the act which is currently due to expire on 1 January 2015. This more than anything else is crucial. Not only does it save an enormous amount of time and money but also provides long-term certainty. It provides long-term certainty for the communities that are part of the Family Responsibilities Commission. It provides long-term responsibility to Commissioner Glasgow and the commissioners the ability to continue to conference and to help people in their own communities. Adding further justice triggers to notifications to the commission from District, Supreme and Children’s courts is another amendment in the bill. The final amendment relates to moving the description of welfare reform communities from the act to the Family Responsibilities Commission regulation.

The success of the Family Responsibilities Commission model was highlighted in the Forrest report into Indigenous employment which was released recently. Mr Forrest, in his report, praised the FRC for the work it had done, particularly in helping to restore local leadership and authority in the communities in which it operates. He said lessons learnt from and innovation shown by the commission should be adopted for a national model to restore function and social cohesion in communities where it had broken down. 

I will now turn my focus to comment a little closer to home and talk about some of the contributions by the members in today’s debate. I firstly mention the member for Mulgrave. I am obviously very pleased that the opposition supports the bill. From my many conversations with the member for Mulgrave, I am pleased that he shares my desire that one day the FRC will be unnecessary because we will have restored stability and cohesion in the communities where it is lacking. I think it is fair to say that since Europeans came to this country we have spent a couple of hundred years not necessarily doing the right thing.

Sometimes when governments come in they expect to solve problems that have developed over many generations in a parliamentary term. That is not going to happen. One of the reasons I am pleased we have amended the Family Responsibilities Commission legislation and removed the sunset clause is that it provides certainty that we can continue to work with the communities to ensure that we get long-term benefits.

The member for Mulgrave also raised the need for documented guidelines for what will determine an FRC community. It is not possible to stipulate a one-size-fits-all approach. We have five communities that are currently part of the FRC operation. Places like Doomadgee are remote communities and others are very close to major towns and communities in the cape and Far North Queensland. It is very hard to stipulate a one-size-fits-all approach. A problem that might exist in one community will not exist in another. There will be variations along the way.

One of the things that I have learnt in my time as minister is that to try to draw up a list of rules and regulations and stick rigidly to them is not something that is possible in these circumstances. We have to be able to judge each community for what it is. We have to be able to engage with the community leaders. We have to try to establish the trust of those community leaders so that they are prepared to work with me or my assistant minister, David Kempton, to ensure we move in the right direction. It will not be quick and cannot be quick. As I said in my speech earlier, I am sure that in the long term we will get there.

There are a range of measures monitored across all the communities and different communities rate differently. There is no such thing as a single, discrete Indigenous community profile. One assurance I can give is that no community which maintains low harm and crime rates and has high school attendance need worry that the FRC will be introduced into its community. I also welcome the opposition’s support for the extra triggers included in the bill. The member for Mulgrave called for the inclusion of appropriate checks and balances to ensure transparency in the process. I do not disagree with him.

I will move quickly to the contributions by members of the committee and others in this place. What has been shown and understood by committee members, particularly after travelling to Aurukun and seeing the FRC at work and the community, is that you can never get it if you do not go. To be there, to see it, to experience it—and I am not talking here about the FRC but the communities and how they work—is something that every member of this House should do. If every member of this House did that much greater understanding about Indigenous affairs generally would come about. So I do want to thank the members for Kallangur and Ferny Grove for their contributions today and my good mate Tarnya Smith for also getting up today and obviously making a very impassioned contribution to the debate.

I think what we will do over a period of time is to work with the communities concerned. We need to work with those communities that are part of the FRC and in different ways we need to work with the communities who are outside of the FRC. I do really want to stipulate to the mayors, to the councillors and to the community leaders in the communities who are not currently part of the FRC and assure them that if we can work together and we can see those social norms heading in the right direction, if we can get our kids to school—this is not about protecting the mums and dads who really do not give a you know what about whether their kids go to school or not; this is all about making sure that the children in these communities get an opportunity to have a life far better than the mums and dads that have gone before them—this is central to not only making sure those communities progress but also giving those young kids an opportunity to have an education and a future, which is not something that has happened in many places before.

The work of the FRC complements other work being done by government to address historic disadvantage in Indigenous communities. We have made significant improvements with land tenure and town planning to underpin long-term economic development. I will continue to work with Minister Cripps and his department to support the implementation of proposals under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land freeholding legislation, which was passed by the House in August. The feeling I get as I move around the communities—I will be in Doomadgee next Wednesday, and I will be looking forward to speaking with the mayor and the councillors there—is a belief that better living conditions and a more normalised lifestyle are within reach. 

I meet young community leaders and community elders who have had enough of the bad old days of dysfunction, neglect and abuse and are prepared to work with governments and non-government service providers to put those days and that reputation behind them. By restoring social norms in welfare reform communities, we are reducing dependency on welfare income and supporting real improvements in school attendance and retention and employment opportunities.

In closing, I thank the member for Kallangur, who is the chairman of the committee, and the rest of his committee for the work that they did in preparing the report. I also thank the secretariat staff. I commend the bill to the House.