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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 4924


Senator ADAMS (4:35 PM) —I rise this afternoon to speak to the motion moved by Senator Scullion. I would like to commence by saying that, as a member of the Senate Select Committee on Regional and Remote Indigenous Communities, I have, along with my colleagues, made quite a lot of visits to these communities that my colleagues have spoken about. I would just like to start by saying that the Rudd government’s implementation of the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program has been an abject failure. SIHIP was established with the best intentions to construct houses in Aboriginal communities to address the chronic need which currently exists. As a member of that committee, I have heard very good evidence of it. It is a positive policy that was instigated by the previous coalition government and was a key part of the Northern Territory intervention. Mr Rudd agreed. In his apology speech, the Prime Minister stated that housing is the single biggest issue which needs to be addressed.

The policy is not the problem. It is Labor’s lack of consultation and delivery of the program that has made this a complete and utter failure. When the Rudd government announced the new housing program in April 2008, it was described as a landmark joint program between the Commonwealth and Northern Territory governments which would bring construction, infrastructure and, very importantly, jobs to 73 Northern Territory Indigenous communities. The government announced that work was scheduled to commence in October 2008. The Australian government would establish the program and provide support in the developmental stages of the program and the Northern Territory government would deliver it. The program is large and the Rudd government said that it would build approximately 750 new houses and subdivisions, build over 230 new houses to replace existing houses which need to be demolished, refurbish over 2,500 houses, provide essential infrastructure to support the new houses and make critical improvements to living conditions in town camps.

Wherever the committee went, the biggest complaint was: ‘There has been no consultation with us. We are the people this is affecting; we are the public who want these new houses. But no-one’s been to see us.’ I would like to quote from the second report of the Senate Select Committee on Regional and Remote Indigenous Communities. This 2009 report was presented to the Senate last month. Recommendation 3 states:

The committee recommends that the Commonwealth government review its overall communication strategy for regional and remote Indigenous communities with the view to making information available to communities on an ongoing and regular basis and in an accessible way. In the instance of the SIHIP program the communication strategy should provide information on how the decision to fund housing in the priority communities was made, as well as regular information on how the construction of this new housing is progressing.

Unfortunately, they are being told nothing. Senator Siewert has already commented about the 15 communities in the Northern Territory that will be receiving new homes. Unfortunately, no-one knows on what basis these communities were chosen.

Contrary to the boasting and spin of the Rudd government of houses being constructed, when you go to these communities where the houses are supposed to have been built there is nothing—not a single new house. It is disgraceful. After 18 months, nothing has been done—except, of course, a multitude of media opportunities. Both governments should be working jointly on the program, but are clearly failing to do so. The Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Ms Macklin, has no idea about where the program is currently and the resignation last week of the Northern Territory Minister for Indigenous Policy, Alison Anderson, who was responsible for the program, speaks for itself. She resigned because the housing program had not been implemented.

It is totally unknown by the government how much of the allocated $672 million—$572 million from the Commonwealth and $100 million from the Northern Territory—has been spent to date. Most shamefully, they do not have a single house to show for it. Statements suggest that approximately two-thirds of funding will be spent on administration of the program and a third on bricks and mortar. Reports have been circulated that up to 70 per cent of all program funds will be spent on administration. The Northern Territory government alone is expected to receive approximately $100 million of the $672 million just to administer the program. With the entire Northern Territory government contribution to SIHIP being $100 million, this smacks of the Northern Territory putting money in for the sake of a media release and then taking it straight back to run their department. I can definitely see why Minister Alison Anderson removed herself from the government.

This is a good old-fashioned case of Labor bureaucracy and mismanagement channelling money around departments but doing nothing. The Australian and Northern Territory governments have appointed senior public servants to review the entire situation, yet the same people who were there at the commencement of the program are still in place. No-one seems to know anything. The government has not been able to answer questions from the coalition and has no idea how much money has so far been spent and who is being paid. This is the worst possible mismanagement of taxpayers’ dollars and the real people whose suffering is ultimately being neglected as a result are some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in the Australian community. Ms Lesley Podesta from the Commonwealth Department of Health and Ageing has made this comment:

... reality if there is a capital works project that is funded by the Australian government, the prices go crazy. We try to keep the market honest and reasonable about this. We try not to put billions of dollars into it because it just increases the prices everywhere. We try to be very realistic and pragmatic about building, keeping the costs within a contained environment, so that we just do not do this kind of: let us spend this much money here and have a Taj Mahal and the next one will be a Taj Mahal, and the tradies know that we are funding it so they increase the prices. We do try to be very tough about containing those costs and we get a good deal now.

I hope that Ms Podesta does get a good deal now. But when is all this going to start? It is very disappointing to think that the department is trying but not succeeding. How hard are they trying?

Following the original announcement, the government announced even more money to build more houses. There has been a lot of talk and a lot of money promised, but still not one house has been built. As I said, when I tour around these remote communities and see firsthand the plight faced by residents, it is sickening to think that out of all these funding announcements and hype nothing has yet been delivered to these people, who are in such desperate need. Senator Siewert talked about the town camps in Alice Springs. I suggest to those senators opposite that, if they go to visit Alice Springs, it would be a very good exercise for them to go to places like Hoppy’s Camp and the other town camps under Tangentyere Council, because they are an utter disgrace.

Years ago I was in Vietnam when it was a country at war. There were refugees and very, very hard conditions and I can assure you that the town camp in Alice Springs has exactly the same conditions. It is just a disgrace. Probably not even two kilometres from the main centre of Alice Springs we have these terrible conditions. I would have thought that, with the money that has been offered, they would have got on with doing something, but unfortunately it seems to be a stalemate. The people who are suffering are the very vulnerable and a lot of elderly people who have nowhere else to live. It is just a disgrace.

Indigenous communities are saying the government has promised but failed to deliver. The government is failing. It has failed remote Indigenous communities and it has failed the Australian taxpayer. As with so many other Rudd government policies, it is all talk with nothing being done. The whole debacle is littered with statements of progress by the government which have led the community to believe something is being done. Unfortunately, however, this is not the case. Despite the government saying in April 2008 that work would commence in October that same year, by the end of October no work had started. Instead of new houses being constructed on the ground, a new media release was issued by the minister promising there would be even more houses built in Tennant Creek. That media release of 28 October 2008 said that the government would provide an additional $6.5 million for new Indigenous housing in Tennant Creek to tackle the serious overcrowding in that community. It stated quite clearly there would be new housing for Tennant Creek. Where are those new houses in Tennant Creek?

It was also claimed by the government that these additional funds would help to ease overcrowding in the seven community living areas of Tennant Creek. This was in addition to the $30 million already committed for those community areas as part of the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program. The same media release also stated that civil works would begin the following month, that being November 2008. The housing construction and refurbishment work could begin, as planned, in early 2009. This same work, of course, had initially been announced to commence in October 2008. In February 2009, questions were being asked about the progress of the SIHIP. In a Northern Territory News story dated 25 February 2009, it was revealed that construction had still not commenced on a single house. The original April 2008 announcement had stated that 750 new houses were to be built. By June 2009, nothing had eventuated in Tennant Creek from the promise of new houses, and on the Tiwi Islands the promise of 90 new houses and a 62-lot subdivision at Nguiu had turned into a revised 25 houses and no subdivision. The Northern Territory Chief Minister says that this is all wrong and that the promised 750 houses will still be built in the Northern Territory. With so much conflicting information being spread, how can the Chief Minister or his Labor colleagues be believed on anything they say about this project?

After the Prime Minister’s apology statement in the first week of the new parliament, which stated that housing was a key priority of the government, and after nearly two years of the Rudd Labor government, nothing has been done and the process is a complete shambles. All the work from pre-existing housing programs has now ended and no new houses under the replacement SIHIP have commenced. This is nothing but failure and hundreds of millions of dollars are going to waste in bureaucracy. SIHIP has failed and the Closing the Gap program has seen millions of dollars spent with no assessment or measurement of improvements or advancements. While all this mismanagement unfolds, living conditions in Indigenous communities continue to go backwards under Labor. The Rudd Labor government and the minister have failed Indigenous Australians. They have failed taxpayers by spending hundreds of millions of dollars without achieving a single stated or publicised outcome and they have neglected some of the most disadvantaged members or our communities.