Malarndirri McCarthy calls on Federal Government to keep funding NT women's shelters

08 November 2019

SUBJECT/S: Federal funding cut to NT Aboriginal womens shelters; Productivity Commission Report into NT child and family services; Labor election review report; Sexually Transmitted Disease rates in communities; Closing the Gap; Community Development Program; Cashless Debit Card.

MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY, NT SENATOR: Morning, thank you for being here. I'd like to acknowledge that Regina Bennett is with me from the Darwin Aboriginal and Islander Women's Centre. We're very concerned that about the Emergency Relief Funding. The Darwin Aboriginal and Islander Women Shelter, Katherine Women's Centre, Tennant Creek Women's Centre will be experiencing cuts to their emergency relief fund next month and I call on the Federal Government to assist and keep that funding for our women's shelters across the Northern Territory. It is a very small amount of money and we genuinely need that emergency relief funding to continue. We have such a high rate of domestic and family violence across the Northern Territory. Cutting back on Emergency Relief Funding (ERF), the government may say that it's giving it to other organisations, but I would say to the Government that these are the organisations that need that emergency relief funding. They're the ones who deal at the frontline with women in particular and the children who are abused, who are caught up in serious acts of violence, who are escaping that violence. And who desperately need to keep this funding on the table for these women's shelters across the Northern Territory. I'll just hand over to Regina who can speak more personally about the impact on her shelter.

REGINA BENNETT: We're had the emergency relief funding through the Department of Social Services for the last 10 years. We only get $38,000 a year but it is a really quality service that we provide to our most vulnerable families out there and also because we're 24 hours, we also provide weekend and after hours services through ERF, which I am not sure the other providers can do that. And it's also with the other 2 shelters in Katherine and Tennant Creek, after speaking with them, they too, theyre services are very similar to ours. We also provide, if our shelter is full at the time, we can provide at least five nights accommodation either at Aboriginal hostels or other accommodation out there so that gives the family time to work out whether they'll continue there and work a payment plan out with Centrelink or if we have rooms available at the shelter, they can come back to the shelter. I've also had, just recently, a young woman that rang me that needed accommodation for three nights until she had enough money to go back to Mt Isa. I was always able to provide that in about 40 minutes without having to go through too much with her so that it didn't leave her sleeping out on the street. And you know, these sorts of emergency situations, if the funding is going to be cut off from the 31st of December, it's going to really affect our most vulnerable families out there. We're all very, very concerned that we won't be able to provide that in the community like we have been doing for the last 10 years.

JOURNALIST: When were you told about this, or are you still in negotiations?

BENNETT: Oh no, basically we have been told that we need to go and talk to all the other services that have got the funding and to work out how we're going to refer our clients to them. I find that very demeaning and insulting that being the only Aboriginal domestic violence service in Darwin and we're providing a culturally appropriate service, that it is quite insulting that we have to do that.

JOURNALIST: What would you have to do to try to help them without this funding??

BENNETT: There's not a great deal that we can do for them. We could refer them over to the others but --- I mean just recently, a couple of weeks ago, there was one of the services that was funded by ERF, by the Department, one of the case workers sought assistance from us regarding accommodation for two women and three children to be accommodated. We, without hesitation, with the information they provided, we put them into five nights accommodation and the caseworker was very grateful for that. And our worker said, Why what's happening with your program? [They said] Aw we can only do one night. You know, I don't think that one night accommodation for women and children is going to really solve the problem. They're straight out on the street and homeless again the next day. Another recent one too is on the weekend, one of members, the DAIWS governance members governing board members rang on a Sunday saying, look, I have a woman and four children that we need to accommodate. They have nowhere to go. So we just did it, you know, over the phone, organised for them to go into accommodation there then. Now, if that's going to be taken away, are these services are going to be operating on weekends and after hours like we do? You know, that's one of the questions I want to ask as well.

JOURNALIST: How would you describe the situation of domestic violence and [muffled] in the community?

BENNETT: It's getting worse, I believe, instead of better. I think with what's happening now people are being expected to be on MyGov, to find out whether their Centrelink allowances are going to be there for them to access, its going to create more hardship and poverty in the community, because not all of our vulnerable people from communities have access to computers or phones to look up MyGov to find out if you know - our Centrelink allowance are we going to get that? We're seeing people that are sort of going through rubbish bins at the moment to survive, to feed themselves at shopping centres at the moment, so it's just going to get worse. And if ERF funding isn't allocated appropriately so that the services are going to be out there, yes, it's going to create just so much more poverty to the community.

JOURNALIST: Malarndirri can I just ask the Productivity Commission report today that's found that Territory and Federal Governments are spending five hundred million dollars with no real outcome. What's your response?

MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY: Good morning Matt and I certainly want to have a look at that report this afternoon. Clearly anything that requires coordination is pivotal in terms of the health and wellbeing of families and children. It's always alarming when you hear the possibility that money may be not being utilised in the best way for those outcomes.

JOURNALIST: And can I just ask, there's also a report that came out late last month about the Syphilis outbreak - there's now more than 3000 people who've been infected and it's gone all the way to Western Australia. Has the Federal Government been too slow to act on this?

MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY: Yes that's an important question, actually. It's something that we raise in Senate Estimates on a regular basis: the concerns about STD and the high rates of STD, in particular across Northern Australia. The Federal Government says it needs to move much more quickly on it, the fact that there have been funding cuts to community Aboriginal controlled organisations, health organisations in regional remote Australia hasn't helped that situation and there is an urgent need, yes.

JOURNALIST: Ken Wyatt has spoken at the Indigenous Economic Development Forum at the Convention Centre this morning and mentioned that there's too much of a focus on the Closing the Gap deficits rather than the success stories and he wants to see a change in the conversation. What do you think of that?

MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY: It's all very well to have a change in the conversation, but only if it's real. The reality is that the poverty is increasing across regional and remote Australia. People still require adequate homes and housing. And we know that the homelessness rate is high. The fact that people are calling for Newstart to increase, and this is right across the board. There is a great deal of poverty. I've just finished an inquiry into the cashless debit card where people in the Northern Territory, 23,000 Territorians will be forced to go onto the cashless debit card as of April next year if this legislation goes through Parliament. Labor has tabled a report yesterday in the Senate opposing that and we heard directly from people here in the Northern Territory who said they don't want to do that. And largely there is no evidence to show that it actually improves people's lives. And I think that's a critical point in examining all people if legislation.

JOURNALIST: Ken Wyatt also I said this morning in relation to CDP, he said it was getting Aboriginal people into work and we should be talking about a positive change that's having in their lives rather than the negatives of this program. Whats your response to those comments?

MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY: Look I would talk about positive change if there was one. The real concern is that early this year, the former minister for Indigenous Affairs said he would look at 6000 jobs of the 33000 jobs in CDP. Now that figure has gone from 6000 down to 1000. And wait for it. Now it's only 100 jobs. So there isn't any real change in that program. And it's enormously disappointing. People are being breached at high rates. And therefore go with without money for up to eight weeks in their communities. And this is not just individuals and their families. Also, the shops in those communities are not having the financial cash amount or the cashflow going through, which impacts the kind of ordering that can be done to get the right kinds of food in. So I'd say to Mr Wyatt if there were positives there, I'd certainly be talking about them. But right about now we've got to be realistic about what's not happening.

JOURNALIST: The review that's been done into Labor's election campaign found that Labor was gaining ground in inner city areas but losing ground in regional and outer suburban areas, do you agree that Labor was too focused on the concerns of the inner city at the expense of people in other parts of the country?

MALARNDIRRI MCCARTHY: Look, I think people know that we're certainly passionate in terms of wanting to get the story of the Territory and the regional and remote areas on the record. Reading the report last night was quite depressing really but I think it was important to read it because there are so many factors where we could have done things differently. In terms of the Northern Territory, we clearly were concerned and I raised this when I was interviewed for the review, I raised the fact that the enrolment figures, in particular of First Nations people is almost absent, so negligent. And the cuts to the Australian Electoral Commission did impact that and do impact that. And there has to be a real critical focus, not just in terms of the Labor Party, but the Australian democracy. If we are a democracy, we must maintain people's enrolment status with the Australian Electoral Commission. The other area was naturally the First Nation's focus that I certainly pushed for coordination and CDP and the abolishment of that was a clear policy that was well received by our constituents here in the Northern Territory.