As the nation marks the fifth anniversary of the NT Intervention, the federal government wants to extend it for another 10 years. What are the key measures of the 'Stronger Futures' bills?
By
Chiara Pazzano

20 Jun 2012 - 7:00 PM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2013 - 10:48 AM

As the nation marks the fifth anniversary of the NT Intervention, the federal government wants to extend it for another 10 years. What are the key measures of the 'Stronger Futures' bills?

The 'Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011' is before the Senate and is likely to pass with bipartisan support at the end of June.

The laws aim to continue the Northern Territory Emergency Response, introduced by the Howard government in 2007, for another 10 years.

The emergency measures were initially designed to tackle suspected child abuse in some Indigenous communities. However, since the intervention was rolled out five years ago, not one person has been prosecuted for child sex abuse.

The measures are widely opposed by Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, who say they were not properly consulted on the government's plans and that the laws are racist.

The Coalition supports the legislation and proposed some minor changes, while the Greens have called for a series of amendments in line with recommendations by the Australian Human Rights Commission made in a submission to the Senate in February this year.

Australian Greens leader Christine Milne said she would present a petition to parliament showing 42,000 signatories opposed to the legislation.

Here is a list of key measures proposed under the 'Stronger Futures' laws, and what the government and critics say about them.

1. Increased 'star chambers' powers held by by Australian Crime Commission (ACC), which remove a respondent's right to silence and make it unlawful to disclose proceedings to anyone else other than a lawyer.

When the powers were introduced in 2008, The Australian Crime Commission said the aim was to obtain specific intelligence relating to violence, child abuse and related offences of substance abuse and pornography.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Services and Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory (APO NT) -- an alliance comprising the Central Land Council (CLC), Northern Land Council (NLC), North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (CAALAS) and the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the NT (AMSANT) -- say the measure is discriminatory as it applies only to Indigenous people.

2. Increases in penalties for possession of alcohol on Aboriginal Land, including six months potential jail time for a single can of beer and 18 months for more than 1.35L of alcohol.

The federal government says the measure is designed to reduce alcohol-related harm in Indigenous communities.

However APO NT says the principal effect of these laws is to "further criminalise and alienate residents", and called for the federal government to better resource community-run alcohol management and rehabilitation plans.

The Australian Human Rights Commission says unintended consequences of such laws are "displacement from communities into larger towns where alcohol is available; increased drinking in unsafe environments and criminalising behavior that is not subject to criminalisation in non-prescribed areas".

4. The expansion of the School Enrollment and Attendance Measure (SEAM) -- which means that parents whose children miss school more than 5 times over 2 terms will have their welfare payments slashed.

The federal government says such program will improve Indigenous children's school attendance. Key to the program will be engaging parents in school attendance plans, it says. Welfare payments will be suspended only if the parents do not comply with what they had promised under the attendance plan and after several warnings.

Income-support payments will restart "once parents begin complying with their responsibilities under the attendance plan and children re-engage with the school".

The Australian Human Rights Commission says when welfare payments are suspended, "there's is likely to be no income available for the period of the suspension, or in case of cancellation, until a new application is completed".

"During this period children and families may not have the means to access necessary food, clothing, housing and medical care. This will likely have a severe impact on the well-being of children", it added in the 'Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Bill 2011 and two related Bills' report.

The Commission also says "it's concerned there is not sufficient involvement of Indigenous communities in the implementation of the SEAM process".

5. Blanket bans on X18+ ('sexually explicit of very violent') material in 'prohibited material areas'.

The federal government says such measures make communities, and in particular women and children safer, but Indigenous organisations such as APO NT say the restrictions "serve no purpose other than the perverse stigmatisation of Indigenous men".

6. Prohibition of consideration of customary law in bail and sentencing decisions

Under the 'Stronger Future' laws judges won't be able take into consideration customary law in bail and sentencing decisions.

However, the federal government says under the laws, customary law and cultural practice will be considered in bail and sentencing decisions for offences that violate cultural heritage, including sacred sites or cultural heritage objects.

Advocacy group 'Stand for Freedom' says this measure makes Indigenous people in the Northern Territory the only group of people in Australia for whom the court cannot consider the cultural circumstances of an offence.

The Australian Human Rights Commission says "customary law or cultural practice should be only excluded from consideration in bail and sentencing decisions for offences that involve violence of sexual abuse".

7. Land lease reform

The federal government says under the Stronger Future Bills, the compulsory five-year leases acquired under NTER will not be extended.

However new regulations remove barriers to leasing on town camp and community living area lands. The government says this will "make it easier for Indigenous people to use their land for economic development and private home ownership".

The Australian Human Rights Commission says the federal government should make sure that land owners have "accessto adequate financial and technical assistance to utilise land leasing for their benefit". It says land councils should be better resourced to offer this kind of service.

Authors of 'An Alternative to the NT Intervention' are also calling on the federal government to lift the requirement that 40-year leases to government are signed before housing can be built.

They are also calling for the government to rescind all township leases signed since the NT Intervention began in 2007.

8. Continued suspension of the operations of the permit system

The federal government will continue the suspension of the permit systems in certain communities.

Currently, common areas in 52 major communities are accessible by members of the public without the need to obtain a permit if arriving by air, sea or public roads, while government employees and contractors don't require a permit.

The Greens recommend that the government repeal the permit system amendments made in 2008 that gave public access to certain Indigenous lands.

APO NT says "communities on Aboriginal land feel as though they have lost control ...the flow-on effects are overwhelmingly seen as negative and counterproductive to community safety".

The federal government says "while attempts to repeal the changes through new legislation failed to pass the Senate in late 2008, it remains government policy to reinstate the permit system in relation to public access".

9. Licensing of community stores

The government says community stores licensing will be continued under the Stronger Futures Bills.

The legislation sets out clearly the licensing procedures, conditions under which licenses are granted, business registration requirements and arrangements for the stores to be assessed. The new laws will provide a range of penalties for license breaches including fines and injunctions.

The Australian Human Rights Commission recommends that the federal government takes action on high cost of food in remote community stores.

10. Jobs

The Stronger Futures 'jobs package' includes 50 new ranger positions and 100 'traineeships'.

But advocacy groups such as 'Stand for Freedom' say "this will not compensate for the more than 2,000 remaining waged Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) positions that the government will cut this year; a program which employed more than 7,500 people before the NT Intervention".

10. Racial Discrimination Act

The Federal government reinstated the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) in 2010, but the Australian Human Rights Commission says, despite this, some measures contained in the Stronger Futures Bills still have a discriminatory and negative impact on the rights of Indigenous people.

The Commission recommended introducing a 'notwithstanding clause "that made it clear that in case of ambiguity between the RDA and the Stronger Futures Bill, the RDA should prevail".