How un-Australian is it for the federal government to invite submissions and input from an affected population and then expect them to spend Christmas doing the submission?

Imagine a hot Northern Territory Christmas dinner in one of the smaller communities targeted under the Stronger Futures legislation currently before the parliament.

Apart from the difficulties of managing the Christmas shopping with the BasicsCard, the family of 16 is settling down to discuss how to write a submission on how the proposed legislation will damage them over the next 10 years.  They are worried because their area will stop their income if their children miss several school days in a term. They had recently tried to explain to those running a consultation on the new laws that the local school had become less culturally friendly and attractive since the bilingual program had stopped, so it was harder getting the older kids to go.

However, they felt they were not listened to, even though they said that they cared about their kids’ education but want to fix the school so the kids would be happy to be there.

This imaginary scene is unlikely, as few people anywhere, including in the cities, will focus on politics over the Christmas holidays. As the Senate inquiry into the NT Stronger Futures laws by the Community Affairs Committee closes submissions by January 12, most of those affected or concerned about the new legislation provisions will not respond.

Most are unlikely to know that it is even under way. There has been no announcement of the inquiry and its closing dates despite the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin’s sanctimonious promise to leave time for submissions. The minister said on November 14:

“The Australian Government is committed to consulting and working with the Northern Territory Government and Aboriginal Territorians. We want to continue to hear from Aboriginal people and Territorians generally about how we can build stronger futures in the Northern Territory together. To ensure that affected people have an opportunity to comment on the proposed legislation before it passes through Parliament, the Government will ask the Parliament to agree that a Parliamentary Committee review the legislation over coming months. This will allow Aboriginal people and other members of the Australian community to continue to have a say about what the Government does next to build stronger futures.”

This sounds like a joke, given the timing of closing submissions in early January, and the report was due on February 29. Hearings, if held, will be in the holiday wet season when moving around was hard and nothing was really working! How could the minister claim she wants people to comment?

Presumably she is hoping no one knows it is happening. Have they told the many welfare, community and indigenous organisations that recently signed a plea that that legislation be not implemented? More than 30 organisations, led by ACOSS signed the statement this week, which concluded:

“The groups concluded that instead of extending the punitive approach the Government should take a new road. It should withdraw the current legislation and engage with communities and their community organisations and peak bodies on whether they want to replace policies such as SEAM and income management that were imposed on them compulsorily, with voluntary or ‘opt in’ income support arrangements and support services tailored to the needs of each community.”

This is a powerful diverse coalition including Aboriginal Peak Organisations of the Northern Territory, The COSS network, Northern Territory Council of Government School Organisations, Public Health Association of Australia, St Vincent de Paul Society, UnitingCare Australia, Catholic Social Services Australia, National Welfare Rights.

These groups suggests the legislation is badly flawed, so definitely should not be rushed through over the holiday period when nobody will notice. There is widespread criticism of the way the government undertook the so-called consultation and cherry-picked the results to support the decisions already made. The latest reports, touted by the minister as proving the benefits of some NTER programs, do not support her claims. The endorsements are few and are cautious as the data does not prove benefits, just records often flawed perceptions of possible benefits.

And many of proposed programs are also wastefully expensive. An ACOSS media release on possible better savings after the MYEFO cuts included:

“The $86 million allocated over the next decade to extend the SEAM program that withdraws income support payments from parents whose children aren’t attending school in the Northern Territory, is not only punitive, unproven and unnecessary, but also a waste of money.”

As the current legislation does not expire until late next year, why is the government in such a hurry to complete this legislation? Mick Gooda in his Next Steps for his Social Justice report asked:

“I strongly urge the Government to create opportunities for further discussions in affected communities and with stakeholders following the (original) allocated six-week period. Further negotiations should be held with affected peoples and their representative organisations throughout the legislative and budget development process regarding the future of the NTER …”

How about it, Jenny Macklin?