Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 4910

Senator SCULLION (3:37 PM) —I move:

That the Senate notes the failure of the Rudd Labor Government to construct a single new house in remote Northern Territory Indigenous communities due to its mismanagement of the $672 million Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program.

On the first full day of sitting of the parliament after the last election, we will always remember the carnival atmosphere of that very special day in Australian history when the Prime Minister of Australia delivered his apology speech to Indigenous Australians. I, along with most Australians, recognised the importance of this symbolic gesture to the stolen generations. Notably in his speech, the Prime Minister said:

I said before the election that the nation needed a kind of war cabinet on parts of Indigenous policy, because the challenges are too great and the consequences too great to allow it all to become a political football ...

He went on to say:

I therefore propose a joint policy commission, to be led by the Leader of the Opposition and me, with a mandate to develop and implement—to begin with—an effective housing strategy for remote communities over the next five years.

Clearly from these statements, the Prime Minister was saying that housing was an absolute, fundamental problem and that it was the very first issue to be tackled by his government, and so a war cabinet was set up to fix the problem. The tough talk on practical issues gave hope to Indigenous Australians. The Labor government was going to continue with the work commenced under the intervention to deliver the housing that is critical to fixing so many of the other problems in Indigenous communities that are linked to health and educational outcomes.

I think we would all understand that it is pretty hard to listen in class—it certainly was for me—if you have not had any sleep because you are sharing a home with 20 people who are bumping around the place, having showers and so on. I think just that number of people would make it very difficult for anyone to get enough sleep at night and then be able to listen to their lessons. It would also be very difficult to avoid things like ear, nose and throat infections if you could not have a shower. The basic elements of hygiene are simply not there in so many of these communities, and that has an inordinate impact on the health and educational outcomes of the people who live in them.

Indigenous people welcomed the Prime Minister’s commitment. They were prepared to take the Prime Minister at his word, that he was all about action and not just talk. That was the tenor of the speech. Indigenous people agreed to support the government on the basis of practical results. We knew that the practical results were coming down the line, and Indigenous people were certainly not going to rely on platitudes and symbolism alone. But Indigenous Australians, as we know now, have been let down in the most callous way. The tough talk of the Prime Minister has now been replaced with complete incompetence and neglect. The TV cameras have been packed away and copies of the apology speech have been distributed. The Prime Minister, wherever he travels, is very proud of his apology. However it seems that now the spin and the media opportunities have disappeared, the focus of this government on Indigenous housing has also disappeared. The housing task force appears to be a distant memory. Remote Indigenous Australians have been left behind and forgotten in the fiasco that is the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program.

A lot of money has been spent—we still do not know how much—and many people have been making a tidy income from implementing these schemes. Yet after so much time, few houses have materialised. There has been so much time, so much money, yet no houses. Even those Australians who have not been following this issue would have to think that, if there are no houses—that is, zero—out of the 750 houses, that benchmark is one that we have probably failed. But we are told time and time again by the government that things are on track and that everything is going to be okay. No minister with responsibility for delivering on Labor’s housing program should dare raise their head. This is a shameful outcome, delivered as a result of the government’s mismanagement of the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program. It seriously exposes the way in which the Kevin Rudd government operates. We have heard in this place in answers to questions the words—obviously taken from one of the government’s focus groups—’swift and decisive’. That certainly has not applied to this program. I would say ‘slow, indecisive and completely hopeless’. There are no houses out of 750. It beggars belief that such an important undertaking of ‘we will fix this’—a compact with the Indigenous people of Australia—was made by the Prime Minister in his first speech in the new parliament, and here we are, many, many months down the track, and not a single house.

One of the things I have noticed that the government are quite good at is manipulating the media cycle with stunts and announcements. It seems that whenever the government have a bit of problem they simply make another announcement. They just have another media release. They have a bit of a press gathering. They might even roll out another tax. This program is a perfect example of the government’s reliance on spin over substance. There have been announcements made over the months. There have been full-colour, roadside media releases announcing bigger and better sums of money and espousing the commitment of this government to address inadequate housing. Yet not a single house has been built.

I rang the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and relayed the concerns of some community members who are very disappointed. They had exposed the fact that they had walked through raw sewage in the community of Ampilitwatja and had walked off. There would not be many Australians who would not have heard of the Kalkaringi walk-off. I spoke to the members of this community at an old soak outside of Ampilitwatja when I visited there a few days ago. The entire sad scenario was played out in the national media. These people said, ‘We are protesting. We are walking away from this community. We would rather live in the bush than live in this community.’ Astonishingly, not one person from the Northern Territory Labor government and not one person from the federal government had even bothered to go and see them. The community was waiting. I explained these circumstances directly to the minister. Given that the minister has charge of this portfolio and given that the situation had been broadcast across the airwaves, it should have been well known to her.

At that stage, I would have generally expected action. The minister’s only response to all of this was to have her spokeswoman say, ‘They’re committed to improving conditions on Territory Aboriginal communities.’ That is almost as pathetic as the answers given by the Leader of the Government, Senator Evans, in this place today in question time. It is just pathetic. The minister’s words—‘We’re committed to doing this,’ and ‘We’re committed to doing that’—are supposed to make people think that they are actually doing something. But what people want is practical outcomes, and they certainly have not had that.

I read with some interest the other day the ANAO report, where Mr McPhee, on the subject of the importance of effective implementation in achieving policy goals, says:

Amongst other things, implementation requires effective governance, risk management, procurement and contract management, the right type and quantum of resources, oversight and review.

This would be a litany of how not to do it. None of those things have been organised. We have Senator Crossin on the other side shaking her head. She is part of the government. She looks after the interests of Territorians, she purports to look after the interests of Indigenous Territorians and I have not heard a peep from her about this. I have not had media releases from her office saying that this is an outrage. I have not read any of that. Out of how many houses—750? Zero. Just give me a moment; let us weigh that up.

Senator Crossin —What you say is wrong.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Crossin, I see your name on the speakers list. You will have your chance.

Senator SCULLION —The policy idea, and it was a great one—it was a coalition policy idea, and I was proud to stand in this place and make those announcements as part of the intervention—was that the money was allocated. It is very interesting, because I suspect by some of the interjections coming from the other side that Senator Crossin is actually going to say to us, ‘No, they have been built.’ This was the spin of six months ago, when I started talking about this. But when I went to estimates and said, ‘Yes, the houses have been built,’ but, asked whether that was programs that were actually going on at the time or whether it was part of the new program, they had to accept that not one house had been built as part of this new program. It is a complete and utter outrage. I have been trying for months to get some answers on these very serious questions as to the status of—

Senator Crossin —You are not asking the right person.

Senator SCULLION —We have got more and more mutterings from Senator Crossin. I do not know if you pay any attention in question time, but the questions were asked again today and the government came up with absolutely nothing. There was not one answer. How much had been spent? How many houses had been built? Nothing—there is no answer. You know why? Because they do not know. This has been the worst managed, most horrifically bungled bureaucracy in the history of Federation. I am sure, as more of that comes out, we will have more spin from those on the other side.

There are a number of things we have asked for. I have written to the minister. We have said that we would like the budget to be released. That is similar to many of the questions we asked the minister today: where is the expenditure? Of course, it cannot be released because, as I have said, I suspect people do not understand what is going on. It is a complete disgrace: $672 million and not a single house. So what they have promised is a program of around 750 new houses, including new subdivisions; 230 new houses to replace houses to be demolished; 2,500 housing upgrades; essential infrastructure to support new houses; and improvements to living conditions in town camps.

I was just visiting a friend of mine, Queenie—I was dropping off a couple of kangaroos at a town camp last week. I said, ‘How’s this accommodation going?’ This was in the town camp. It is a piece of tarpaulin, an old spring bed and half a car body. Of course, there is an Indigenous organisation for that that charges them for that luxury—they charge them rent. There is no shower; there is no toilet; there is no power. Each one of the five people in that shelter gets charged $50 a fortnight for the privilege of being able to use a tap that is out on the flat. They are the circumstances that Senator Crossin’s government is quite happy with. The situation is normal! Nothing has changed. Everything is okay! It is an absolute outrage, and I will continue to attack the government on this matter until some changes are evident in these camps.

We have had a number of media releases. We had one dated 28 October that said an additional $6.5 million is going to be spent on new housing in Tennant Creek—that is above and beyond the $30 million that was provided by the previous government in other promises. That was going to help stop the overcrowding across seven community areas. That was, as I said, in addition to this money. There have been a couple of refurbishments at Tennant Creek, I understand—a new fridge or something like that—but the media release also revealed, ‘Civil works will begin next month.’ That would have been in November 2008. The media release also said, ‘Housing construction and refurbishment works can begin as planned in early 2009.’ Well, it would have been a very cold and cramped Christmas, Senator Crossin. Did you enjoy your Christmas pudding, Senator Crossin? They did not. They were there that entire time, and they had absolutely nothing done.

Senator Crossin interjecting—

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Scullion, please address your remarks through the chair. Senator Crossin, would you cease interjecting.

Senator SCULLION —Of course, nothing has happened. It was a very cold and crowded Christmas. In February, we started asking some questions again: ‘What’s happened now?’ The Northern Territory News on 25 February said that construction had not commenced on a single house, but what the government did was to put another media release out. Territory Labor decided that this was all getting a little bit awkward for them, so the Chief Minister decided to release the first annual report card on the Closing the Gap initiative. It says how much money they spent. It talks about the recruitment. But there is not a single benchmark outcome in health or education or anything like that. Labor believes that if they spend a lot of money—if they put a dollar sign there—it equals an outcome. Well, we can see there is no outcome. There are no houses. The parlous state of the welfare of our first Australians in the Northern Territory remains largely the same.

Whilst they are delivering illusions of actions, and broken promises, we can see that there is now a very clear series of steps. We fast-forward to May 2009. A further announcement was made by the government on the construction of houses. Again, it was an admission of a delay in construction. We were told that work was due to start in a few months time, in May 2009—seven months after the announced start date. I have to say, the Tiwi Islands inform me that there are still no houses today. I had a photo of a 50-millimetre peg in the ground. That is the sum of the new housing construction.

Senator Crossin —Rubbish.

Senator SCULLION —‘Rubbish’—again there are interjections from those on the other side. I have been there and I have not visited a brand new house on the Tiwi Islands. If the senator would like to correct me on that when she is on her feet, I would be delighted. If she can give me a name and an address, that would be very useful.

Senator Crossin —You don’t understand what SIHIP is about.

Senator SCULLION —If you do not mind, I will take that interjection, through you, Mr Deputy President. What we understand, Senator Crossin, is that those on the other side promised 750 houses and they have not delivered one. They should be ashamed of that. We have a complete series of spin that continues to roll out. One of the things those on the other side should really think about is that you cannot protect your baby son from the freezing desert wind with an announcement; you cannot keep the rain off your children’s heads with a press conference or a promise. We need action. We have had enough symbolism, we have had enough rhetoric, but we actually need action. This is one of the most shameful events in the history of Indigenous affairs.

I acknowledge that this is a very hard area. Today in question time, Senator Evans said we should show some bipartisan support. We did. We supported it in the intervention. Galarrwuy Yunupingu said he supported the intervention, but he said to me, ‘Senator, the problem is that we have had all the painful bits. We’ve had our income quarantined. You can’t take grog into the community. You can’t do this and you can’t do that. But, on balance, we thought it was okay because there were some good bits too—infrastructure, houses, better conditions.’ Of course, none of that has happened.

We would really like to know what is happening in the Northern Territory government. There seems to be a bit of a mess there at the moment. The Northern Territory government is expected to take about $76 million out of the $627 million. They only contributed $100 million and out of that they have apparently, at the moment, taken $76 million. That is not bad, is it? They cannot make a house but they can put the hand in the skyrocket of the taxpayer, just like that, and knock off their $76 million. We do not actually know if any money has been spent on houses. We keep asking and we are not getting any answers at all.

It really is important to understand that, in the context of the apology—which I know was supported in a bipartisan sense by this entire parliament; it was a great day for Australia—symbolism alone is not going to help the lives and the welfare of our most vulnerable and our first Australians. A message to the Prime Minister—I do not think there is any mischief in this; I am not saying that Prime Minister Rudd was saying things he did not believe would happen—is that he needs to get a minister on the ground who is capable of delivering to our first Australians. Clearly she is not at the moment. Under any measure, this program is a complete and utter failure. Senator Crossin will try to put a case that houses are there. As I have said, those in the media are requesting: ‘What we’d like from her is a name and an address.’ Announcing programs, posing for pictures and wearing hard hats is no substitute for action and results. I again remind Mr Rudd that, in terms of symbolism, our most vulnerable Australians cannot shelter from rain, cold winds or the elements under an apology. We acknowledge the importance of symbolism, but, without the backup of some practical changes on the ground, our first Australians are never going to have the opportunity to be able to embrace the lifestyle that the rest of Australians take for granted. The government stands condemned.