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Indigenous Housing

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 13 Aug 2009

I rise to make a contribution to this discussion over whether the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program has actually begun delivering. I am hearing a bit of hypocrisy from both sides of this chamber at this time. Federal and territory governments of both persuasions have failed over many years to deliver housing to Aboriginal communities throughout Australia-particularly the federal and Northern Territory governments in the Northern Territory.

In 2007 the Howard government suddenly decided that, almost 12 years into their time in government, it was time to deal with Aboriginal issues-particularly in the Northern Territory-and foisted onto the Northern Territory Aboriginal community the Northern Territory intervention. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars, they overrode people's rights, they exempted their discriminatory measures from the Racial Discrimination Act and they never intended to build houses. There was money in the budget allocated but that was to provide housing for government employees.

During that time, and prior to that time, they spent an inordinate amount of time reviewing various housing projects and then came up-as Senator Crossin pointed out-with the SIHIP project. That was the previous government's design. At the time, the Howard government was requiring 99-year leases. At the time, the then opposition spokesperson, Jenny Macklin-now the minister-made some very strong statements in the other place around opposing 99-year leases, how that was obstructing progress and how it meant that it would slow down building houses. Now this same minister is requiring communities to sign-admittedly they are not 99-year leases-40-year leases. And she is saying that, unless state or territory governments can get the communities to sign away their land, they will not get housing.

One of the key areas that is currently holding up building houses is the fact that this government-contrary to statements they made in opposition-is now requiring people to make the choice to give up their land so that they can have houses. The classic example of that is what is being done in the Alice Springs town camps, where in May the minister came out with announcements saying she was abandoning negotiations and she was going to compulsorily acquire the leases. She was not prepared to negotiate them anymore because the Tangentyere Council and the town campers would not agree to everything that she wanted. This is despite the fact that the town camps had actually agreed to sign 40-year leases, but they were concerned about having to hand over management of the houses.

Then, in July, the Tangentyere Council agreed finally that they would in fact sign an agreement for housing money to be provided to town camps and they would agree to the government's conditions. However, I will quote from a letter that Tangentyere Council wrote to the government and which has been reported in the media. Tangentyere's lawyers, Gilbert and Tobin, wrote to Minister Macklin, saying:

The housing associations have agreed to enter into sub leases for the simple reason that you have threatened them with compulsory acquisition if they do not ...

They go on to say:

The loss of tenure to these lands is something that is abhorrent to the housing associations and they could not run the risk that it might occur.

Gilbert and Tobin added that it was:

... in the overriding best interests of the associations and their members that their interest in these lands be maintained rather than completely forgone.

Acquisitions of these lands would not allow the associations or members to have any input into protecting their rights or interests.

This ultimate risk of compulsory acquisition has hovered in the background throughout the protracted negotiations.

On the public claims by the minister that the time for negotiation had ended, Tangentyere's lawyers noted:

It is simply incorrect to assert that time has run out. The timetable is completely within your power to set, as indeed you have done throughout these negotiations.

This is one of the reasons why housing is not being delivered in the Northern Territory. The government is still requiring people in 2009 to give up rights to their land and when they do not do what the government says the government comes in with its big stick and says, ‘We'll take your land away.' This is happening again; they have been through it once before. They have lived with it for centuries with people coming and taking away their land. After hard-fought battles they have won back their land but then the government comes in and says, ‘We're going to take it away again to give you what everybody else in Australia expects and gets, which is access to housing, access to infrastructure and access to sewerage and municipal services.' So this government says, ‘We're not going to give you that unless you give up your land again.' So, as the lawyers from Tangentyere Council point out in that letter, they could not allow that to happen again so they ended up agreeing to the government's conditions. How is that fair? It is not. How is that meeting our requirements under any international conventions on treating people equally? It does not. Yet this government has proceeded with that approach.

It has also been reported widely in the media that during 2008 the minister was informed by a colleague-a parliamentary secretary who, as I understand it, sent a briefing note to the minister-that everything was not plain sailing with SIHIP and there were some problems. As I understand it, Senator Stephens wrote to Minister Macklin, after meetings with people in the Northern Territory, to say that under SIHIP there would be little chance of a house being built before 2011 and that the entire project was really worthy of a review before too much more money was wasted. The original funding pool that was announced was $700 million but it was now down to $634 million yet no houses had been built for Aboriginal families. The model was likely to lead to high-level corruption because it lent itself to an insidious process that was the subject of a royal commission in New South Wales in the 1980s. The alliance model was supposed to reduce the cost of building houses through economies of scale but it would in fact ensure a race to the top rather than competitive pricing. The claimed promise of 20 per cent of Aboriginal employment throughout the SIHIP was in fact aspirational. The government bureaucrats running the SIHIP were commercially naive and had no genuine knowledge of how the construction industry actually worked. There were a number of other points: the only winners under the model would be lawyers and consultants; the building industry was flabbergasted by the approach being considered by the government.

Clearly, there were deep problems with this program, yet the government has continued with it and still no houses are built. We will take a step back to the intervention. Under the intervention, as I said a couple of moments ago, housing was to be provided for government business managers and other government workers in town and also, as I must add here, as safe houses. Some of the safe houses are still not operating. They have not got their staff there. They have only just been made available over the last couple of months and operational two years down the track. The houses, and admittedly they are largely prefabricated houses, were put in place in communities within months. Within months those compounds were up and running and were liveable and operational. So within months they could move to put houses in place for government business managers and government employees, but still no houses have been built in any of these communities for Aboriginal families.

We have this program being mismanaged with no new houses being built for Aboriginal families. We have also got the situation whereby the intervention was foisted on these communities, their income support was compulsorily acquired-in some communities that has been going on for two years-and their control over their townships was taken away from them. They have raised many other concerns about the intervention. They have had alcohol bans. In some communities they have been more successful than in others. But at the same time they had all that, they did not have the funding put in place to have adequate rehabilitation. Ask anybody as you go throughout the Northern Territory, ‘Are there enough resources for safe houses, for rehabilitation and for counselling?' and they will tell you no. So they copped all that expecting that at least they would get adequate housing delivered. They would get either new houses or maintenance done on their houses. So they suffered the intervention and all of the income quarantining and the shame-and many people feel shame-that goes with that and all the problems that go with that because they thought, ‘At least we'll get housing.'

But now the government has come along and changed its mind and not everybody in the communities subject to the intervention is going to get access to housing. While there are 26 communities Australia-wide, the government has decided that only 15 communities are going to be the focus of the provision of maintenance and new housing. So you can understand why many people in these communities are upset. They have copped what they think is the bad side of the intervention, expecting they would at least get something out of it, but they are going to get nothing out of it. Not only are we not seeing houses built under SIHIP, we are also seeing the situation where many of these communities are not going to see any houses at all. On top of that, they are being asked to sign 40-year leases and give up control of their land. You can understand why the people in the Northern Territory are mighty annoyed.

This is not only happening in the Northern Territory. In all the states the provision of housing for Aboriginal communities under Commonwealth funding is now dependent on communities and their people signing 40-year leases. Yet again, they see that as signing away their land under something that Canberra or their state wants to impose on them. It is not good enough. It never was good enough and it is certainly not good enough in 2009. It is certainly not a way by which we should be delivering houses to members of the communities.

Going back to Alice Springs, we had a situation where it seemed to be going okay for a while. Negotiations did seem to be going okay. The minister funded the community to develop a community housing model. They were using the top standards for developing that model. The actual entity is not in place yet, but it is moving quite rapidly towards getting established. The community was very clear that they wanted to maintain control of housing decisions. It would be under the government's guidelines but they wanted to maintain control. But the government was forcing, and wants to force, the community to agree to Northern Territory Housing making the decisions and doing the day-to-day management of those houses. Northern Territory Housing has a very bad record of involving and providing housing for Aboriginal members of the community in the Northern Territory. So you can understand why that community was very nervous about handing over control to Northern Territory Housing, when Northern Territory Housing has not proved they can provide adequately for members of the Aboriginal community. Instead of the government going, ‘Okay, we'll try to come up with a solution,' which a number of other organisations were working on trying to come up with, the government goes, ‘No, we'll compulsorily acquire your land. You're not doing what we want.' They bring in the big stick yet again. Of course, the community, ultimately, backed down because they did not want to be in a situation where their land was taken away from them-as I have already expressed by reading out the excerpts from the letters that the Tangentyere Council wrote.

It is about time the Australian government and Australian governments of all persuasions provided adequate housing to the Aboriginal community. They have gone down the path of a flawed model. I acknowledge that SIHIP was not this government's model in the first place; it started off with the previous government. Concerns were expressed from the beginning about the nature of actually forming alliances-the way of deciding that companies making up the alliance would be the ones that get to tender. There were concerns expressed from the communities where they thought that decision-making in the communities would be overridden-that some of the enterprises that were already existing in communities, such as provision of building materials, would in fact be overridden by this model. It is quite clear that it is very bureaucratic. I know the government is saying that the original level of funding would still be made available, but some level of funding has simply gone into the bureaucracy and is funding bureaucracy. There were promises from all levels of government that that would not happen. Yet here it is happening yet again.

There are questions that I ask in estimates that go unanswered about whether they have reviewed the model, where they were willing to, whether they had any advice that it should be. Other people have asked these questions. I have put a few on notice, but other people have been asking much broader questions. These questions remain unanswered. To proceed with a model that is clearly flawed, that is taking 18 months to build houses, is not good enough. Fair enough, we do want provision of Aboriginal employment for these houses. We do want good design. Absolutely, because design in the past has been completely inappropriate: three-bedroom houses, one bathroom when we know it is going to be used by a number of occupants. Designs that simply are not appropriate for the environment in which they are placed or to match the situation. It is completely inappropriate. But, instead of working out how you could do a stage process to get to the perfect model, we have not built any houses. Yet we can build houses for government business managers. How is that fair? How is it fair that we are requiring communities to sign over 40-year leases? That is also holding up the program. We are making them sign 40-year leases. People do not want to. But the government is not prepared to come up with another model or to look at how we can get around that so communities feel comfortable that they do not have to sign 40-year leases or sign over control, because that is how it is seen-that they are signing over control again. It is simply inappropriate.

It is time the government looked at SIHIP and it is time it actually provided housing on the ground and it did not just restricted to those 15 communities that they have decided on. The government made that decision without, again, consultation. ‘They are the communities we are going to focus on. We have subjected everybody else to this discriminatory intervention, but we are only going to focus on those communities.' Those communities do not have houses. Those communities do not know what is going on. They have not been consulted. It is a mess and it is time it was fixed. It is continuing. We just have a series of messes when we are dealing with these issues and nobody seems to be able to get it right. It is not rocket science. We should in 2009 be able to get it right-end discriminatory practices, end taking away people's land and actually provide decent living conditions. We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the intervention. We have got a bit better, I will acknowledge-we have police in some communities, and everybody likes that. But, besides that, we have nothing to show for it-nothing, other than we have taken away people's rights yet again. We still have not got it right. We still have not got members of the Aboriginal communities living in decent living conditions-and they still have their rights taken away. It is time we did better.

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