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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 4915

Senator CROSSIN (3:57 PM) —I rise this afternoon to provide a contribution to this MPI. I actually welcome the opportunity to provide some history on this program, some completeness about the rationale for this program, and to fill some gaps that have existed, certainly in the last couple of weeks and in the last few days, in the emotive tirade of Senator Scullion. It provides an opportunity to put some facts and history on the table about this. I want to try and bring back the Indigenous housing issue that confronts all of us in this country in what we had hoped would be an unemotive but bipartisan way, but obviously that is not the way Senator Scullion wants to play it.

SIHIP stands for Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program—and I clearly want to emphasise ‘infrastructure’. This is not just about housing; this is also about infrastructure. It is a jointly funded program between the Northern Territory government and the Australian government which was instigated under the Howard government in 2007. So this is a program that is the making of the previous federal government. It has been progressively rolling out new and upgraded service land and related infrastructure, as well as new, replacement and upgraded housing in communities across the Northern Territory. It has a budget of $700 million, which will be spent over five years. It is one of the largest investments in Indigenous housing to be made by a government. SIHIP is about much more than building houses. It is also about creating healthy homes, real training and job opportunities for local residents.

There are some fundamental differences between what has been done in the past and what we want to achieve under this program. The SIHIP vision is to provide Indigenous Australians with adequate, appropriate and sustainable housing, whilst creating opportunity for employment and workforce development in Indigenous communities. So SIHIP is different from every other housing program that has been delivered. That is the cornerstone of this program and is the very essence of what Senator Scullion has failed to grasp—in fact, does not want to grasp. This program is fundamentally different and I am going to spend my time outlining why that is the case.

Under this program we will work closely with communities to build homes that will work for them, unlike in the past. Those homes will be safe and robust and are designed to last for decades, not just years. They will be well designed and they will link construction to the delivery of real training and unemployment opportunities for locals.

Senator Scullion —Eighteen months!

Senator CROSSIN —I want to remind the Senate, Mr Deputy President, that it is unparliamentary for a senator to yell out in this chamber while not sitting in their designated seat. You might want to remind Senator Scullion that if he is going to interject he should do it from his own chair, not somewhere else in the ether of this chamber.

SIHIP is a complex program representing the largest investment in Indigenous housing that has ever been undertaken in the Northern Territory. That is why it is essential that this program is properly established with careful management and coordination. SIHIP has set the direction for investment in housing for Indigenous Australians for the long term. It has in fact provided a basis for the new National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing, which will now cover all Australian jurisdictions. The perception that the program is faltering, that the collective resolve of governments is wavering, is clearly wrong. The truth is anything but that. Breaking Indigenous disadvantage in this country does require long-term effort on behalf of governments, and that is what the Commonwealth and Territory governments have committed to.

In the debate on SIHIP, some have claimed that there have not been any new houses built in the bush for over a year. Over the last 18 months the Commonwealth and Northern Territory governments have built 90 new houses under programs that overlap with SIHIP. Those claims about no new housing are misleading. What people do not fundamentally understand is that SIHIP replaces all previous housing programs—it is a new program. What underpins this program? Property rights, geography, low levels of employment and economic activity and other factors have meant that the private sector has never moved to address the supply of housing on the Indigenous estate. Those same factors have complicated the delivery of government housing and infrastructure programs for over 40 years.

Before some activity occurred in 2007, for 11 years Indigenous housing was in a state of inertia in this country. For 11 years the previous government sat on their hands before they decided that they would provide the injection of money that was needed to address this problem. What developed over that time was an Indigenous-specific housing system, which was allowed to morph under the Howard federal government, comprising a large number of Indigenous community housing organisations that only managed to build a small number of dwellings—on average, about 100 homes per organisation. Funding for the construction, maintenance and management of those housing organisations came from 12-month grants—let’s get this right—to a collection of programs. We had a mishmash of grants right across this country getting doled out to Indigenous housing organisations on a yearly basis. What progress could possibly have been made under that structure? The answer is very little.

Senator Scullion —You’ve done nothing. You are a failure.

Senator CROSSIN —Under your government, Senator Scullion, very little progress was made. These programs include the longstanding Aboriginal Rental Housing Program, the Community Housing and Infrastructure Program—or CHIP—the National Aboriginal Health Strategy and some smaller niche programs. It was a complex network of programs to navigate. Annual grants did not encourage long-term planning and the management of the housing was further complicated by the Indigenous community housing organisations not actually owning the assets, as most discrete communities are located on inalienable communal land. For these housing organisations, property and tenancy management was difficult, sometimes poor, and rent revenues were often low. SIHIP actually demands that housing amongst the Northern Territory Indigenous population living in remote communities be effectively addressed by governments.

In 2007 the backlog for housing and related infrastructure in the bush was around $2.7 billion. When we came to government, we inherited from the Howard government a backlog of $2.7 billion. That figure was indicative of the chronic overcrowding experienced by many households across the Territory. It was and still remains a daunting prospect, and big changes are clearly needed for housing in the bush. We knew that in the Northern Territory housing of course underpins the creation of new markets in remote communities—it could be a source of sustainable economic development for remote townships and entire regions. With housing, jobs and skills can be created, enterprises would grow, markets in land and housing would emerge and private investment in communities would increase. SIHIP is the first housing program to set meaningful targets in addition to bricks-and-mortar targets. Community involvement and jobs now and for the future are critical, as is securing the value of assets with leases.

In September 2007, the Commonwealth and Northern Territory governments struck up a memorandum of understanding for Indigenous housing, accommodation and related services that would see the Commonwealth—

Senator Scullion —That’ll be helpful. Will it keep the rain off your head?

Senator CROSSIN —September 2007, Senator Scullion, was actually under your government, the previous federal government, so why don’t you just try listening for a few seconds? That saw the Commonwealth contribute $793 million to improve housing for Indigenous people in the bush over the 2006 to 2010 financial period.

The work with Connell Wagner examined the remote housing supply chain in great detail, and made clear why small programs could continue to fall short of the objectives. The traditional grant programs were never going to achieve the necessary economies of scale: the mobilisation costs were too high relative to such small returns; the logistical costs reduced the value for money that we were getting and construction programs were too short; and employment and training outcomes were rarely mandated. It was a chronic situation that was being strangled and needed to change. So both governments determined that the alliance contracting model was the best way to deliver SIHIP—both governments: the previous federal government and the Northern Territory government. This is an alliance model that we have inherited and we have accepted and it will continue to deliver this outcome.

Senator Scullion —How much did they get paid for that? What’s it going to cost?

Senator CROSSIN —It outstripped traditional management contracting against all of the NT’s and Commonwealth’s evaluation criteria. It had transparency, whole-of-life costing, stakeholder involvement, local employment, flexibility, quality and continuous improvement to name a few. Strategic alliance models have proven successful across a range of projects where government and the private sector work closely and collaboratively to reduce and manage risks, achieve time and budgetary savings, and deliver objectives that are normally difficult to quantify.

Senator Scullion —You haven’t built any houses!

Senator CROSSIN —So SIHIP is actually a federal government, Northern Territory government and private sector partnership. Parsons Brinckerhoff is actually managing this project, not the Northern Territory government. It is a key fact here that has been lost—

Senator Scullion —Oh yeah, blame game! Who does he work for?

Senator CROSSIN —and it is a key fact, Senator Scullion, that this is the model that your government put on the table, your model that we have all agreed to, your model that everyone has signed up to.

So, both governments set about formulating SIHIP under an alliance model. On 12 April 2008, just after we came into government, the Chief Minister and Minister Macklin launched the $647 million landmark housing project that covers 73 remote communities and some urban areas. As we know, SIHIP would deliver 750 new houses, over 230 new houses to replace derelict structures and upgrade 2,500 existing homes. It would also provide essential infrastructure to support the new housing developments, and better conditions in town camps. At that time the program took in 3,500 houses. Absolutely nothing has changed. Each and every one of those commitments holds true today.

The preliminaries for SIHIP were completed on schedule. A commercial manager was engaged in March 2008. The alliance participants were contracted and awarded the tender in October 2008. There are three alliances: New Future Alliance, Territory Alliance and Earth Connect Alliance.

In November 2008, the alliance groups for the Tiwi Islands, Groote Eylandt and Tennant Creek packages of work began engaging with the communities in question. The programs at those locations are now in full swing, with over $145 million worth of work already being delivered. The next tranche of $355 million is being scoped for 47 communities and 25 town camps, so that will be $500 million in housing programs—not all new houses: upgrades, refurbishment and infrastructure by the end of 2009. On the Tiwi Islands, with the first phase of work, overcrowding will be reduced by around 60 per cent. The program will achieve this by building 29 new houses for 170 people, putting extensions on 25 existing houses so that they can accommodate a further 50 people and refurbishing 155 homes. Ninety houses will be constructed on the Tiwi Islands over the life of SIHIP. We have set an Indigenous employment target on the Tiwi projects of 20 per cent—something that has never been done in the life of Indigenous housing upgrades and builds in this country before.

The Territory Alliance has already employed 10 local people at Nguiu, and another 15 are being trained for work. That is an outcome I would have thought Senator Scullion would applaud.

Senator Scullion —But they haven’t got a house to work on. That’s not a job!

Senator CROSSIN —The alliance is also working with Tiwi Enterprises to establish a local labour hire company and has held a skid steer, backhoe and heavy truck driving course for eight Indigenous trainees so that they can work on the refurbishments at Pirlangimpi and Milikapiti. Because what we do not want to do is go into the communities and build houses anywhere that are totally inappropriate and walk away without any local people trained or engaged in work. This is a new model that will redesign the way in which Indigenous housing is delivered out bush, but Senator Scullion does not want to know about it. He does not want to know about the facts and he does not want to talk about some of the positive elements that this program is starting to deliver.

The first phase of work at Groote Eylandt and Bickerton Island will improve the housing situation for more than 600 people. There will be 26 new houses that will have a collective capacity for 184 people, and the capacity for 80 visitors. This feature was requested by the community. What we are doing in this program is consulting with Indigenous people. You see, you cannot stand up here and say, ‘Don’t build houses anywhere, don’t build designs that are inappropriate, don’t talk to Indigenous people,’ and then say, six months later, ‘But you’ve got no outcomes.’ We have gone into communities and engaged with them and consulted them. Because the local population swells during the wet season, 75 of the 152 existing houses that are not up to standard are to be upgraded as requested. That is what the community wanted. Eighty new and replacement houses will be constructed over the life of SIHIP. And they are specially designed because the people at Groote Eylandt suffer from the Machado-Joseph disease. So there has been time taken to consult with the people about the design of the house that they want that suits their disability.

In Tennant Creek, the New Future Alliance is working closely with Julalikari Council and local subcontractors, who are doing the majority of the work in the town camps. As I mentioned, all 78 houses in the town camps will be refurbished and new homes will follow. There will also be an upgrade of power, water, sewerage and road infrastructure.

Senator Scullion —When?

Senator CROSSIN —There is an Indigenous employment target of 30 per cent at Tennant Creek, and the New Future Alliance thinks, at this stage, that they can improve that. To total those figures: these initial alliance packages will deliver at least 55 new houses in the first instance—

Senator Scullion —When? Where?

Senator CROSSIN —308 refurbishments, significant infrastructure upgrades, real jobs and training opportunities and reductions to overcrowding, and they will drive local economies by engaging local people and local businesses. Before any of the work has started under the strategic alliance—

Senator Scullion —When?

Senator CROSSIN —Senator Scullion keeps saying, ‘When?’ You obviously failed to hear that I said contracts were not actually signed until November of last year. This was under your model, the strategic alliance: ‘Let’s get out there; let’s have three alliances; let’s actually advertise for tender, get expressions of interest, award the tender and sign the tender contract.’ That was done in November of last year under the model your government put forward.

But, before any of that work is actually started, the alliance group is engaging with the community to bed down an important range of issues. There is land tenure: all of this sits on a 40-year lease. It has to be negotiated with the Land Council. There is land use and planning of the area, housing design, priorities, options, jobs and training opportunities, and how local businesses can benefit—experience tells us that the cookie cutter approach does not work for Indigenous housing. We have established in each community Indigenous housing reference groups that actually provide advice and recommendations on the community and cultural issues affecting housing work. We have listened to Indigenous people, who have said to us, ‘Don’t just come in here and build houses and upgrade our houses. Talk to us.’ So we have set up Indigenous housing reference groups in communities to advise this work.

This is a comprehensive package for Indigenous housing in this country and it has never been done in any way like this before. It is a package that was put on the table by the Howard government. It is a package that we have picked up and refined—we have asked for Indigenous employment and training targets—but, by and large, it is the same package that both governments committed to in September 2007.

The first round of packages has reinforced the importance of meaningful engagement. As I said, on Groote Eylandt the engagement was to ensure that the houses that were built actually met the needs of the people who suffer with disability in that community. As I said, some people have questioned the wisdom of investing in existing remote housing stock rather than directing all SIHIP funds to new construction. I would say this: to not invest in existing stock would represent a waste of our resources. Refurbishment has not just meant a coat of paint. It has meant a complete upgrade. (Time expired)