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Alice Springs Town Camps

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 17 Jun 2009

I rise today to speak about two issues that I feel very strongly about and am passionately concerned about: the Alice Springs town camp leases and the exemption of the Northern Territory intervention from the Racial Discrimination Act. I have been extremely concerned by the manner in which the government and the Minister for Indigenous Affairs have proceeded with the negotiations over the Alice Springs town camp leases and the way this issue has been presented. In many cases-and I am not accusing the minister of doing this-the way the government has gone about saying that they are going to be compulsorily acquiring leases has led to a blame game at Tangentyere Council. I am concerned at the way the town camp housing associations are being blamed for the appalling conditions that people live in in the camps and for the breakdown in negotiations over the leases and housing in the town camps. I absolutely agree that housing and infrastructure in town camps needs to be improved-there is no doubt about that. The issue is how it occurs and how you maintain the involvement of the town campers and the Tangentyere Council.

The terrible conditions of housing and conditions in town camps is the direct result of long-term neglect by successive governments-both Labor and Liberal at both Commonwealth and Territory levels-who have failed to deliver essential basic services, like water, power, sewage, rubbish collection and all those services that people outside town camps, and particularly in metropolitan areas, take for granted. The majority of water and sewage lines into town camps are over 30 years old. The NT government and the Alice Springs town council has, all this time, refused to take responsibility for delivering any services to the camps. In many cases, the lines are maintained to the camp boundaries and the rest is left to the camps, who are not resourced to fix or maintain them. The end result is that town camp residents have to pay massive excess water bills because of leaky pipes, but they do not receive a level of maintenance or service in return for those high fees.

Unfortunately the government has followed the practice of successive governments of blaming Aboriginal residents for the appalling state of repairs of their houses. Given this government continually emphasises its commitment to an evidence based approach to policy, I ask the government: where is the evidence? The research into the reasons for poor conditions and housing maintenance problems indicate very clearly that damage by residents is not the major factor and in fact makes a very minor contribution to the conditions of poor repair. The greatest factor is, quite simply, overcrowding. Things like doorknobs, hinges, showers, taps and switches wear out because of the sheer amount they are used by the excessive number of people that have to crowd into these houses. This, therefore, puts pressure on those houses.

The next major factor is faulty construction and faulty work in the first place, accounting for 16 to 28 per cent of the problems, according to a recent study. As part of the Fixing Houses For Better Health program, the functioning of housing in Alice Springs town camps was compared to the national and Territory averages. This revealed that, prior to further maintenance work being done, critical healthy living practices were better than the NT average on seven out of 10 measures and better than the national average on three measures-things like showers, toilets, working kitchens, lights and safe power.

This made the point that the very limited amount of maintenance money that Tangentyere and the town camp housing associations have is very clearly prioritised to target the most important issues. After work done as part of the Fixing Houses for Better Health Program, Tangentyere performed better than the NT average on nine out of 10 measures and exceeded the national average on eight out of 10 measures. This was despite the use of a relatively small amount of maintenance budget, which was $7,500 per house. For those who do not believe it, I have actually got the table here that shows those statistics. Anyone is more than welcome to come and get them from me. The minister and the government are now proposing to take control of these houses from Tangentyere and hand it over to the Northern Territory Housing Authority which, according to these figures, performs worse on maintaining critical healthy living standards on eight out of 10 measures. In other words, Tangentyere performs better than NT housing, which is where the government proposes to hand over control to.

The sticking point on negotiations between the government, Tangentyere and the town camps housing association has not been the 40-year leases. Despite their reservation about handing over their hard-won control of their land they have agreed to sign up. The sticking point has not been about good tenancy management either. Tangentyere have agreed to institute tenancy management reforms and to adhere to gold standard community housing tenancy and asset management principles. They have agreed to contract to an independent organisation to undertake this reform, with a gradual hand back of management to the proposed Central Australian Affordable Housing Company once it achieves governance milestones and passes accreditation hurdles.

The sticking point is the government's insistence that control of all housing in the town camps be handed over to the Northern Territory Housing Authority, which has a bad record on delivering public housing to Aboriginal people and which is simply not trusted by town camp residents. In fact, I have heard of a number of cases of residents moving out of the town camps into public housing, only to return to the camps after falling foul of Territory housing and being evicted. The town camps have acted for many as the place of last resort. If Territory housing takes over and starts kicking people out we can expect to see more families sleeping in creek beds or the long grass and we will be back to dealing with the same problems of fringe dwellers that led to the creation of the camps in the first place.

I have looked into the proposed model for the Central Australian Affordable Housing Company and spoken to community housing experts about it. It is a best practice model developed with one of Australia's leading community housing experts. It exceeds the standards currently being set for community housing that is being developed in our cities, urban and regional centres under the NRAS-the National Rental Affordability Scheme. The government did the right thing in providing funding for Tangentyere to undertake the development of this model and establish the Central Australian Affordable Housing Company. We congratulate the government for that.

In the transition period, while the Central Australian Affordable Housing Company is set up and the government puts in place its own community housing accreditation scheme, Tangentyere has proposed to partner with and contract management from Australia's largest, and arguably most reputable, community housing company. The work that this organisation has done in East Timor is amazing, and is truly world's best practice in housing and community development. They have gone in and trained local people to build and maintain the houses and to establish and manage their own community housing organisations. Ninety-six per cent of their staff is now Timorese. We should aspire to reach at least the same standards within our remote communities as that which we have helped achieve overseas.

Over the last few years there has been a conscious shift away from the public housing model towards a greater mix of social housing. Not-for-profit community housing associations emerged very clearly as the shining light for the future of affordable housing across the nation and, in particular, stood out in the recent Senate inquiry, and are preferred providers for NRAS in most cases. The Senate inquiry into affordable housing last year also heard about the crisis facing public housing and state housing authorities brought about by a combination of long-term underinvestment and an increasing focus on providing priority housing for those in greatest need. This ultimately meant that rents or ongoing investment by state governments have not been meeting the cost of ongoing management and maintenance and stock has been deteriorating. In many states, as we know, it has been sold off.

The latest study of operating deficits in public housing by the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute highlights the massive operating deficits experienced by most state public housing authorities. The Northern Territory Housing Authority, and to a lesser extent, Tasmania, stand out as being the worst of the worst by a long way. The Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute proposed a new model to fix public housing that they said would work almost everywhere in Australia except in NT because they were so bad.

The minister has suggested the problem is that tenancy management practices of Tangentyere and the town camp housing associations are characterised by nepotism and favouritism and this is why they must take over and hand control to Territory housing. Where is the evidence of corruption? Where is the evidence that a public housing model will produce better health and housing outcomes for town camp residents? Where is the evidence that 40-year leases will produce, and are necessary to produce, better health and housing outcomes?

I am disturbed by the manner in which consent to 40-year leases has been tied to the delivery of essential services, with communities being clearly threatened that they will not receive essential housing services if they do not comply. To the Australian Greens, this is not resetting the relationship with Aboriginal people. This is not consultation or informed consent. It is a mantra proposed firstly by the previous government and taken up by the Labor government. I cannot see how it will be possible for the government to restore the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act in the NT and still continue with the compulsory acquisition of leases and the blanket application of compulsory welfare quarantining.

I have very recently been critical of aspects of the government's Future directions for the Northern Territory emergency response discussion paper. This paper is meant to form the basis for consultation to ‘reset the relationship', to establish a new way forward in the NT with Aboriginal communities and to provide the necessary support to reinstate the application of the Racial Discrimination Act-the RDA-in the NT.

However, it leaves out a critical piece of information on how laws that apply on the basis of race can be deemed ‘special measures' that are beneficial to the community on which they are imposed. Given that the Future directions discussion paper is meant to form the basis of community consultation necessary to continue the NTER, the Northern Territory Emergency Response, and implement its minor reforms, we believe it is disingenuous to leave out this important information. I cannot see how this could be an accidental oversight on this issue, as has been discussed at length in this chamber, particularly by me; in the NT review report; and by the Human Rights Commission in its submissions.

This is an important piece of information. For any of the Northern Territory restrictions, such as compulsory income quarantining or mandatory leases, to qualify as a special measure, the government must be able to show strong evidence that the communities involved believe the measures are beneficial and support them. The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, commonly called CERD, is very clear in this regard, as are the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act. Special measures need to be positive measures that give additional rights or preferential treatment-so-called affirmative action-designed to achieve equality of outcomes.

Where a special measure requires a community to waive one of its existing rights-a negative measure-it can only ever be a special measure with the support and informed consent of the group concerned. Negative measures can only ever be temporary. In addition to informed consent, they require periodic assessment against specific, measurable outcomes. Special measures must also be necessary and proportionate.

I cannot see how 40-year leases and compulsory acquisition are necessary for the delivery of essential housing services and improvements. There is no logical link or evidence base to justify compulsory acquisition. The government simply has not made this case. Australian case law is very clear on the need for informed consent. Justice Brennan's findings in Gerhardy v Brown are very clear.

He stated:

"Advancement" is not necessarily what the person who takes the measure regards as a benefit for the beneficiaries.


... is not established by showing that the branch of government or the person who takes the measure does so for the purpose of conferring what it or he regards as a benefit for the group if the group does not seek or wish to have the benefit.


So the minister's continued assertion that she believes these to be a beneficial measure is in fact irrelevant if that belief is not shared by town camp residents wanting decent housing or communities who do not want blanket income quarantining.

We believe it is extremely strange. There is a strange description of ‘special measures' in the Future directions discussion paper, which is why the failure to clearly explain this in the discussion paper is, in fact, very disturbing. It would seem logical to assume that the intent of the discussion paper and the consultations associated with it is to provide a basis for arguing that the communities consulted support the minor reforms to the NTER for that purpose. However, if the communities are not explicitly told the purpose of this consultation and informed of their rights up front, this clearly does not qualify as informed consent. (Time expired)

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