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Monday, 23 November 2009
Page: 12539

Mr MORRISON (5:08 PM) —The coalition supports the Native Title Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2009. The bill makes amendments to the Native Title Act 1993 by the insertion of a new subdivision into part 2 of the act. It facilitates the construction of housing and associated community infrastructure in Indigenous communities that are or may be subject to native title. The bill seeks to consult meaningfully with the native title parties through a legislated consultation process of up to four months. The new process ensures that the representative Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander body, or any registered native title claimants in relation to an area of land or waters, are notified and afforded an opportunity to comment on future legislation—future acts—that could affect native title.

The purpose of this bill is to simplify the process by which tenure issues can be resolved to enable the construction of public housing on native title lands. The reason for this is to ensure that the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been allocated to building housing in remote communities for Indigenous Australians might build an actual house at some point in the future. To date this program has been, I would argue, one of the sorriest chapters of the government’s administration. This is a program that has failed at every single point. The coalition, who support this program and the investment of these funds and have done so right from the outset, will do what we need to do to ensure that the government has the support to get this program working. But we remain horrified and disappointed, as do Indigenous Australians and Indigenous communities right around the country, at the incredibly poor progress that has been made with this program.

It is also my hope that the consultation processes that are set out in this bill will indeed involve talking to the native title custodians of these lands and that we will not have the situation where this process, as we have seen too often, particularly in Central Australia, is hijacked by land councils. I recently visited Central Australia with my shadow ministerial colleague, the member for Warringah. We met with quite a number of Indigenous native title custodians who had been shut out of many consultations by the Central Land Council, and that was cause for great concern. I hope that what we see and pay for in this bill will actually translate into some genuine consultation with those who have a long-term interest in these lands and they will not just be subject to some sort of bureaucratic process overseen by the Central Land Council in particular—ticking boxes rather than carrying out the purpose of this bill. The purpose of our support for this bill is to provide genuine consultation with the traditional owners.

Where a future act is covered by these amendments and certain procedural requirements are met, the future act will validly affect native title. These amendments will operate for 10 years, which matches the 10-year funding period under the national partnership agreement entered into between the Australian government and the state and territory governments for remote Indigenous housing and service delivery. The key issue here is that when you undertake an activity like this type of construction on these lands it has the effect of extinguishing native title. So it is important in order to guarantee the faith of this process that we put in place a measure that will guarantee the security of the title while at the same time trying to provide much-needed services to these communities.

I have referred to some of the significant problems that have occurred with Indigenous housing programs in debates in the House of Representatives on numerous occasions but I will repeat them here again. In September 2007 the former government signed a memorandum of understanding with the Northern Territory government as part of the Northern Territory intervention. The delivery of housing formed part of that landmark action, an action which coalition members were and remain keenly supportive of and proud of. In April 2008 the Rudd government announced a funding package of $647 million over four years to deliver 450 new houses, 233 builds on existing houses and the refurbishment of 2,500 existing houses spread across 73 remote communities. The announcement, made by the minister, indicated that work under this program would begin in October 2008. The October 2008 deadline passed by and no work had commenced. A further $25 million was allocated to the program between October and December 2008 and a new start date of February 2009 was announced. It too passed by. In response to a question about the start date for the program on 20 August, Minister Macklin avoided answering why no new homes have been built under the program. She just repeated her government’s previous announcements. We have had many announcements and many start dates that have passed but sadly we have had very few, if any, houses built. This was particularly so back in August.

A review of the program undertaken by the Commonwealth and Northern Territory governments found that the program had been slow to deliver housing. That is not a great revelation. It found that the structure of the program is too bureaucratic and costs associated with the program are too high. It recommended a refocus of the program in order to achieve the desired targets. It found that the objectives were working against one another—design and consultation against cost—and that this was caused by the lack of effective oversight at the delivery level.

It was found that the program’s governance and management arrangements would need to be restructured. The program is clogged up with unnecessary bureaucracy. There are unresolved leadership and capacity issues that have affected the ability for outcomes to be delivered under the program. Continuation of the program structure without change would cause unsustainable unit costs and result in future targets not being met. Most significantly, the review found that more than $45 million had been spent under the program without a single house being built. That finding alone has, in my view, not really attracted the same level of profound accountability in the minister that I would expect for such a profound failure. We are talking about $45 million being spent when not one single house has been built, and without an answer or explanation for that and with no great sense of responsibility or accountability for what is an appalling outcome.

The initial unit cost for the program was revealed to be too ambitious. The average cost of projects was revised down from $560,000 to $450,000. It could be argued that, given the cost of delivering programs in these places and the way in which they are administered by, in particular, the Northern Territory government, it would almost be cheaper—in fact it may well be cheaper—and a better use of public money to simply give the homes away. Administration costs have been found to be more than 11 per cent of the program’s budget, and steps were recommended to reduce the proportion of the program’s budget devoted to administration. It was recommended that the layers of management involved in the delivery of the program be reduced from six to three.

On 31 August 2009 the minister gave the Northern Territory government a four-month deadline. Remember that this was a program where the MOU was first agreed in September 2007. By August 2009, almost two years later and following these catastrophic failures, we gave them a four-month deadline to lift their game on Indigenous housing. We are still in this deadline period. Unless the Territory government improves its management of the program, the Australian government may step in and take charge. I am flummoxed as to why we are not at that point already. A minister who was really in charge of this program would not have suffered such appalling outcomes and allowed them to drift and to continue. She was in fact warned by her parliamentary secretary at the time, Senator Ursula Stephens, that these programs were out of control. No action was taken effectively on this, because the poor outcomes continued. Both the minister and the then parliamentary secretary have been reported to have been subsequently comforted by the progress of the program and no longer as concerned as they might previously have been.

I had the good fortune recently when I was in Central Australia to meet Alison Anderson, who was the Northern Territory minister for Indigenous housing and Indigenous affairs. She is a remarkable person. She is an individual who has a real strength and inner conviction to pursue the interests of her people. She, frankly, was not going to cop it any longer—she was not going to sit there and watch this waste and this abuse of public funds, which were intended for the welfare of Indigenous Australians, continue. She called it. She said enough was enough. She called the Labor government in the Northern Territory for what it was. When you read her description of that government you could easily mistake it for referring to any Labor government in the country, particularly at a state and territory level. It may well be a prophecy of what the current federal Labor government will be like in the years ahead. Nevertheless, she called it as it was. She was prepared to ‘out’ this shameless waste and this shameless abuse of public trust in terms of the moneys that were available for this important program. She resigned, and in doing so I think Alison Andersen has been a brave advocate for her people because she has finally stood up—someone in that government finally stood up—for their interests and ensured that governments could no longer look away.

It is my hope that the federal government will not look away, that their four-month deadline period—and I understand they have embedded federal public servants into the process in the Northern Territory—will yield some results. But based on the form, I am not encouraged. The government’s failure to properly deliver this program has resulted in the need to scale it back. Just last week the Australian reported that four out of five proposed renovations were scrapped because of cost blowouts. A lack of funds has necessitated cuts to the scope of renovation works to be undertaken. Homes that required more than 50 refurbishment items would now have an average of only 10 items performed due to funds not being available.

I was in Santa Teresa not that long ago and I saw four homes whose roofs had blown off. I understood, from speaking to some of the residents and officials in that town, that more than $200,000 had been allocated to fix the roofs on those homes. That did not happen just last month; it happened one year previously. The roofs blew off, the money was allocated and, up to a year later, the roofs were still off those buildings: a year to fix four roofs. I would like to know whether those roofs have subsequently been fixed. I hope they have. The money was made available. The government was aware of the problem and I would hope that it had been fixed, because the people who were living in those homes have had to go and live in other homes. As we all know, overcrowding in Indigenous housing is one of the key problems facing these communities. In terms of closing the gap, as the government refers to it, one way of ensuring that the people who live in these homes in these communities do not suffer any greater disadvantage than they already suffer is, when a roof blows off a house and money is provided, you have a system that enables the roof to be put back on that house within 12 months. Within 12 months would be nice; within one month would be appropriate, but I think it would be the absolute expectation of any Australian in this country that we would be able to at least get that done within 12 months.

This bill seeks to ensure that there is a more streamlined process for making sure that these homes can be built where they need to be built. The coalition supports that. What we are troubled about is the complete incompetence and inability of the governments working in this area to actually deliver these homes, and this is a major concern. The broader issue of tenure—while we are talking about tenure—goes further than just the delivery of public housing. The broader issue of tenure is critical to resolving what can be a great opportunity for Indigenous people in this country, and that is the opportunity to own their own home. That should be a primary objective of any Indigenous housing program that any government in this country, particularly a national one, pursues. The opportunity to buy your own home and for others to see that opportunity not only existing but being achieved for Indigenous Australians has the very real potential to help people turn their lives around.

Mr KatterInterjecting

Mr MORRISON —I am glad that the member for Kennedy agrees with me, because I am sure he would agree that we need to have this as an objective. As long as we provide the opportunity to extend the type of interventions that we are looking at in this bill to broaden opportunities for Indigenous Australians to realise home ownership, then I think we are seeing only part of the picture. But it is consistent with this government’s focus only on public housing in this area, never looking beyond public housing to see where the opportunities are for achieving private ownership.

The International Real Estate Institute, or a variation thereof, runs a program in South America called the Strategic Housing Initiative. They have come to Australia and looked at the potential for the program’s application here. When the institute went into the slums of South America they discovered that the people in these slums had jobs. They were teachers, they were policemen, they were nurses—they had a regular income. What they did not have was the opportunity to buy a home that they could afford.

They have gone to the governments in these countries and said, ‘If you provide the land, we can build the houses.’ They have designed the homes so that they can be built and purchased at an extremely affordable rate, and micromortgages are offered to people so they can buy their own homes. So you now have in the slums of South America governments working with private industry. They are setting aside land on which to build homes and people are being taken out of the slums, where they are the victims of slumlords, and they can buy their own homes. If that can be achieved in the slums of South America, it can be achieved in this country. I would certainly support seeing that happen.

Secondly, dealing with the issues of native title and enabling these lands to be used by those whom they are entrusted for, it is important to develop commercial opportunities not just for the land councils—or not even for the land councils—but for the interests of private individual Indigenous citizens of this country. We need to find a way so that these lands, which are theirs, are able to be used for their private purposes in order to create wealth and opportunities for them. Whether it is supporting businesses or other endeavours, this is critical.

We see an example of this in the government’s ETS bills that are currently before the Senate. Most recently—on the weekend and over the last week—the opportunities for commercial abatement under that scheme that the coalition has been arguing for and how that might impact on individuals who live on those lands being able to utilise those opportunities and attract a commercial gain have been raised. This is something that is currently not resolved in those bills. I think it is something the government should be paying attention to.

Thirdly, there is the chronic need to see these lands that are affected by native title used to unlock land supply in remote regional centres. In particular I refer to Alice Springs. It is unthinkable that a town such as Alice Springs could be landlocked, but it is. Commercial rents in Alice Springs have literally gone through the roof. Companies are bidding against private individuals, they are competing against private individuals, to secure housing for people who come to work in that town. Their inability to do that is limiting the opportunities for that town to grow and for jobs to be created. Even worse for the citizens who live in that town, rents are going through the roof.

The federal government believes that the problems of housing affordability are limited to the availability of social housing. In a housing forum I conducted in Alice Springs the advocates for social housing sat next to the private real estate developers and sung the same tune: unless we release land supply in Alice Springs then this town is heading for a crisis, or in fact is already in a crisis. You have people living in tents in Alice Springs and that is not just in the town camps. That is the only form of accommodation available to them because of the inability of the Northern Territory government to deal with land supply. Alice Springs’s land supply is controlled from Darwin, which is further away than Adelaide. There is a great need for some master planning to be conducted for the township of Alice Springs that equally addresses the native title issues on the surrounding land and the other lands that are available to be freed up for housing development.

My recent visit to Central Australia revealed not only the chaos with the failure of the housing program but the frustration and the loss of hope that has followed the government’s lack of commitment to follow through on the intervention program. The failure of the housing program has really shattered confidence in the intervention. The intervention has produced some excellent outcomes in terms of nutrition, income quarantining and improved security with the placement of police, who have worked closely with communities. I think they have achieved some very good outcomes. Sadly, the failure of the strategic housing program has completely shattered faith and confidence in the program. Once faith and trust are shattered, they are very difficult to restore. So, while there have been successes, it is very important that we build some momentum again and have a renewed focus on where we go to from here.

There are some good things occurring, as there are in all places around Australia in this area. Those good things occur—from what I can observe—not so often due to good policy but due to good people. There is some good leadership, some good vision and some great commitment of individual Australians, Indigenous and otherwise, working in townships and working in remote outstations across the country. The presence of police, as I said, has created safer communities. These are the good lessons that we have learned from the intervention.

We need to learn more in terms of the design of accommodation in these places to ensure that the type of housing built is most appropriate to the needs and lifestyle of the communities for which it is intended. We need to ensure that we provide an ongoing and robust system of governance. The left hand simply, in a lot of these places, does not know what the right hand is doing. There has been a complete breakdown of the integration of the delivery of government services and support across many of these places. My colleague the member for Warringah and shadow minister for Indigenous affairs recently wrote in the Australian about this topic and made an excellent suggestion about the possibility of an expanded version of the Cape York system, where:

… an appointed administrator, advised by local elders as commissioners, can decide all local governmental matters not just ones to do with welfare. For such a system to work, decisions about land use would need to give rise to secure title at least in townships.

He said:

To work, the administrator would need general authority over all the local functions of government such as policing, health and education, as well as municipal services.

The integration of the delivery of services, the clear presence of accountability and the clear presence of authority to direct and act are something that is sadly lacking in these communities and are something that I believe they are desperately crying out for. They are something I commend to the government to consider.

Just last week in this place I talked about the kiaps, who worked in Papua New Guinea over a long time during the period in which Australia had some responsibility for that place. The kiaps had similar authority, not just for issues of law and order and security, health and various other things but for things like economic development, and they had some authority over the coordination and the delivery of government services right across those remote villages and communities. A model similar to that, as the member for Warringah and shadow minister for Indigenous affairs is suggesting, I think would put some real governance on the ground. And real governance on the ground, with the ability to direct traffic, to make decisions and to get actions, would ensure that the roofs of the four houses in Santa Teresa which were blown off over a year ago and for which funding was allocated would get on a lot quicker than the current system is delivering.

As long as we have the situation in the town camps in Alice Springs and in towns like Hermannsburg where children are simply not safe, we also need to ensure that the remote outstations have the opportunity to develop economically and to provide a viable community that can support their population. I am reminded and will always be reminded of young Shirley Ngalkin, a six-year-old who was killed in Hermannsburg in 1998. The subsequent trial for those who perpetrated that crime was the trigger for the Northern Territory intervention. We visited the remote outstation where she used to go to school before her family took that fateful decision to go into Hermannsburg, where she was raped and drowned. It was a very sobering moment to look at the plaque outside her former school. I wish she had been able to stay in that community. I wish her parents and those responsible for her had not felt the need to go and spend that time in Hermannsburg. Maybe Shirley would be with us today. Maybe she would not—there are many other problems in these communities, as we know. But, as long as the Shirleys of our country are at risk, I think it is critical that we get these things right.

I do believe the government want to get this right. I do not doubt their sincerity on the issue. I do not doubt the sincerity of the minister on this issue. It is not a question of sincerity. It is not a question of purpose. It is a question of being able to deliver on the ground. This bill should assist in the delivery of these programs, but, unless the significant bureaucratic problems associated with the delivery of housing to Indigenous communities in remote areas are overcome, this bill will offer little substance. Really, at the end of the day, it comes down to the government’s ability to deliver policy.