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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 4932


Senator PAYNE (5:09 PM) —It is interesting that Senator Furner chose to end on name-calling, if you like, about political stunts. Having determined that to be an art form on the other side of the chamber, most particularly in the last week or so, that is unsurprising. The most disappointing thing about the consideration of this motion from the other side of the chamber is that apparently there is a continuing view that rhetoric and numbers add up to results. It is patently apparent to the residents of the communities that Senator Scullion spoke about in his remarks at the beginning of the debate on this motion, if people are realistic about the situation in the communities of which we speak this afternoon, that rhetoric and numbers are not adding up to results.

It is disappointing to see references invoked to the apology that began this government’s engagement in what they have described as perhaps a new relationship with Indigenous Australians. In some very small and probably, ultimately, not particularly relevant way, I took part, as many of us did, by way of a small contribution in this chamber in relation to that apology. It was very important to me personally at the time. I know that, for every other individual member and senator who chose to engage in that discussion in this chamber and in the other place, it was personally very important to them as well. I do not believe a single individual chose to participate for any other reason.

But what we are talking about this afternoon in this debate about the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program is something very different. It is actually something as fundamental in this country as bricks and mortar. If bricks and mortar are not the most appropriate building materials, I am happy to be advised by someone far more learned on these matters than myself about what should be used. But that is the colloquialism, isn’t it; that is what we are talking about—bricks and mortar. That is pretty simple really, when all is said and done. But it is not simple to try to get to the bottom of not only where the money is and is going but where the homes are or actually are not.

I do want to put on the record some of the history of this program, because it is something that I have been exploring for some time through the estimates process. It did begin its life, as others have said, under the former government, and at that time I certainly believed it held great promise to dramatically improve living conditions for Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory. In September 2007 the coalition government signed an MOU with the Northern Territory government to deliver the SIHIP. But it seems to me that, with the arrival of the Rudd government in November of that year, the program is at best at this point drowning not waving.

On 12 April 2008 the now Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, announced that the Rudd government would contribute $547 million over four years to the program, with an additional $100 million coming from the Northern Territory government. It was described as a landmark joint housing program that would deliver vital construction, refurbishment and infrastructure developments as well as jobs in 73 Northern Territory Indigenous communities and some urban areas, to come to that total. Then it was said—and these numbers have been repeated by a number of contributors this afternoon—that the funding would deliver around 750 houses in 16 communities, over 230 new houses to replace houses due to be demolished, over 2½ thousand housing upgrades, essential infrastructure to support those new houses, and improvements to living conditions in town camps. One would have thought that equated to bricks and mortar. But since then the value of the program has risen further, to $672 million, which is a very, very significant amount of money in anybody’s language and an amount that has, one would hope, the potential to transform remote Aboriginal housing in the Northern Territory.

Despite those promises, despite the rhetoric, despite the words, under this government SIHIP has been a disappointment from the very start. Let me go through the deadlines—we have examined these in estimates—to assist us with this information. In the first announcement which I referred to earlier, in April 2008, the minister said that work would begin on the 750 new houses by October 2008. That seemed a reasonable proposition.

By the end of October no work had started, but they had built a new time frame—which I do not think you need bricks and mortar for—and the commencement of housing construction and refurbishment work was said to be planned for early 2009. But, in February 2009, construction still had not commenced. So in May there was another announcement, which said that construction work would finally begin in the Tiwi Islands later that month. At the same time, we had reports circulating about the sucking up of program funds in administration—up to 70 per cent—with the Northern Territory government alone expected to take around $100 million simply to administer the program. That matter was raised in question time this afternoon. Ironically, it is very close to the amount they had originally agreed to contribute. In June of this year, one of the construction firms involved in SIHIP was reported as saying that they would have to build fewer houses than originally promised, due in part to increased costs and GST.

So almost every day we see new reports of the failure to actually deliver bricks and mortar. In fact, just yesterday it was reported again, I believe in the Australian newspaper, that the Northern Territory statutory body in charge of housing, Territory Housing—which was much vaunted by Senator Furner, if I recall correctly—has allowed new homes on the Tiwi Islands to sit vacant for five months while local community members continue to live in overcrowded, virtually condemned houses because of unnecessary obstruction by the bureaucracy. So the government has allowed SIHIP—a vital infrastructure program in these communities—just to fall over or, to go back to my previous metaphor, to drown in a mass of mindless bureaucracy, it would seem.

When you look at the combined failure of both the Northern Territory and federal Labor governments, it does not simply represent a really unimpressive waste of taxpayers’ money; it is also a real failure for the people they are meant to be serving in these communities. We endure hundreds of minutes of criticism of us on this side and then we endure hours of rhetoric and tons of documents from those opposite touting and lauding their own achievements and their own aims—and for what result? There is not very much to show for it unless you want to start counting the sorts of properties that Senator Scullion referred to earlier: overcrowded, in many places described as squalid, with rubbish contaminating communities and with all of the concomitant challenges.

It is a complete failure on any assessment, and it is a story which is repeated in more than one area, particularly in the Northern Territory. In fact, Senator Scullion referred to one community which has attracted a great deal of public attention—a small community which made the national news for possibly the worst reason you could imagine. The elders were so sick and tired of the appalling state of their community that they were actually considering abandoning it and moving to traditional lands outside the control of government. Their community was unliveable. They had poor housing—including a number of people who were consigned to living in houses made completely of tin in an environment which is clearly unsuited to that—they had malfunctioning septic tanks, they had uncollected rubbish and the list goes on. The ongoing problem also includes the fact that those sorts of communities, due to the media attention that they attract and the engagement that people have with the colour of that sort of story—the absolute frisson that is attached to that sort of powerful story on a newspaper front page in this country—end up being labelled, and labelled in the worst way. It is absolutely unfair. The people who live there are labelled, and children who do not choose where they are born are labelled as well.

It seems to me that one of the most important aspects of this debate today is that the government can no longer ignore the fact that people are noticing this problem. The government cannot just commit over half a billion dollars to make these much-needed improvements in remote Indigenous housing and a year and a half later not have anything to show for it. They cannot expect accolades and praise. We need to be realistic about this. I do want to acknowledge those particular members of communities and of the media who have gone out of their way—in sometimes, I would imagine, extraordinarily challenging circumstances—to point out these problems, to expose these issues and to expose the failure of the government to deliver on its commitments on remote Indigenous housing. They bring national attention through the pages of the newspapers—most particularly, it would seem to me, of the Australian—to what is really a national disgrace.

But you do not have to listen to me or to Senator Adams or to Senator Scullion. It is not like we are the only people in Australia who are saying that this is a very significant failure of government. Happily, in the byplay of the political process in this place, I would not necessarily expect the average listener to say, ‘Well, because the opposition says it’s so, it must be so.’ Let me cite a few other very concerned Australians who have drawn their concerns to the attention of the government and the Australian people. I start with Professor Marcia Langton, who has called on the government to establish a watchdog to ensure that the money of the Australian taxpayers which is going to the Northern Territory is dealt with appropriately. Professor Langton, a very well respected academic in this country, has criticised the rise of what she calls a Territory ‘consultancy class’, which she says is growing large on the profits of Indigenous housing programs. She calls it a ‘hopeless gravy train’ in the Northern Territory, where the mates of the Australian Labor Party were appointed on six-figure salaries to manage Indigenous social programs. When asked about reports that the SIHIP funds were being consumed by the Northern Territory government bureaucracy, Professor Langton said:

This will end in disaster ... everybody knows that housing is at the heart of the Aboriginal health situation, and we can’t go any further because of the hopeless gravy train prop of the Northern Territory administration.

Cabinet ministers are resigning from the Northern Territory government over this state of affairs—cabinet ministers from the Labor Party—and so the list goes on.

I do not want to unnecessarily politicise this discussion, because, as Senator Evans said in question time this afternoon, it is important to have a degree of bipartisanship on this particular area of policy. We have previously, as a government in fact, explored the opportunities for the emergency response and the intervention. That was a very important part of that process. But it seems to me that the government cannot pretend to be blithely unaware of these problems or conveniently ignore them. I am not sure which category we are looking at.

The minister has said that she does not want to buy into the politics of the Northern Territory but is confident that the Northern Territory government is working hard on the implementation of the scheme. I would have thought it more obvious that the Northern Territory government was working on saving itself, but that is neither here nor there. The minister has also said, ‘It’s just not right to say that nothing’s happening.’ Again, the minister is perhaps one of the few people left who think that that is the case.

SIHIP was defended some time ago, with the minister claiming that 96 houses had been built in the Territory in the last 18 months, but it then became obvious that they were not built under SIHIP but under pre-existing programs to improve remote Indigenous housing in the Northern Territory. We wait to see what will ultimately be delivered under SIHIP itself. It seems to me unlikely that we will get any clear indication from the government at the moment. The only thing that we hear repeated is the government’s good intentions. We know where the road that is paved with good intentions goes; we know where rhetoric and empty numbers take us. They do not seem to be taking us to bricks and mortar. Rhetoric will not build a single house either.

It is in fact quite difficult to obtain information on these issues through the processes of the parliament. As I said earlier, I have been asking questions during the estimates process, as have my colleagues, about how this will work, when the houses will be delivered, how much it will all cost, how the program will actually deliver on its promises and what is happening on the ground on training, employment and so on—there are lots of commitments under this program. I am sure departmental officers are trying their very best. I mean absolutely no criticism of departmental officers, but I am disappointed with the answers I continue to receive, and they are, of course, signed off at ministerial level, particularly when they are answers to questions on notice.

At the estimates of October 2008 and February 2009, in answers to questions about the cost of the program, departmental officials were unable to provide specific information and said they would not be able to until the package development reports—which is apparently an official name for a plan to deliver housing—were finalised. In October 2008 they said they would be finalised in February or March 2009. In February 2009 they said they would be ready by April 2009. When we asked again in February this year about whether construction or even upgrade work had commenced under the program, the officials effectively said no, but that ‘detailed planning, and community consultations’ had commenced in October 2008. That is an enormous relief! That is around six months after the program was announced. Why it took six months between the announcement of the project and the commencement of detailed planning is a mystery to me and a question for the government—one on which I will not hold my breath waiting for an answer.

I asked again in June 2009 about employment outcomes under the SIHIP packages. I was unable to obtain any information on two of them. In other words, I could not find out whether SIHIP in Tennant Creek and on Groote Eylandt had actually resulted in any Indigenous employment at that stage. Given the importance that was placed on the employment of local people under the program, I had hoped for better.

When discussing the views of people around Australia on this particular program, it is interesting that we have in the chamber this afternoon Senator Stephens, who I think has a very acute understanding, if I might put it like that, of the particular difficulties associated with this program. Last month there were reports of a leaked memo, which the senator produced in April 2008, soon after the funding for SIHIP was announced. The senator had the opportunity to attend a SIHIP industry event in Darwin, attended by apparently over 500 people. I think that memo, sent to Minister Macklin, is best described as a damning indictment on this over $650 million program—so much so, it was apparently kept secret for over a year, until a media outlet managed to obtain it one way or another. One never knows with these things.

In that memo were some warnings to the minister which may have been appropriate for her to note. For example, it said that no houses would be built under SIHIP until 2011—three years after the start date—and that it is unlikely to meet its 20 per cent target for Indigenous employment. It is said that lawyers at the gathering said that the tendering process was anticompetitive and possibly in breach of the Trade Practices Act and that not even the construction industry, which stood to gain from the project, thought it was a good idea. Representatives of the industry were said to be ‘flabbergasted’ by the approach and likened it to a ‘shoddy defence procurement model’. What is extraordinary is not that Senator Stephens, a person of great integrity and character, was so frank and honest; what is extraordinary is that no-one appeared to take any notice.

When the memo finally became public, the minister responsible—and I use the word advisedly—for the program did not give us an explanation about why it had been kept a secret for so long and just denied that there was anything wrong with SIHIP at all. In the face of calls for greater transparency from its own members, the government is apparently unmoved. I used the word ‘arrogant’ in a debate earlier in the week in relation to another issue—the proposed emissions trading scheme that Minister Wong was advancing—but ignoring that sort of advice, by someone who made the effort and took the time to be on the ground, is arrogance of the worst kind. None of this is good enough. The men, women and children of the Indigenous communities of the Northern Territory deserve to know when, if ever, they will receive their long-promised homes.