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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 4937

Senator STERLE (5:29 PM) —I wish to make a contribution to this debate and talk about the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program. This is a very emotive issue and I have been in the chamber to listen to the contributions of all senators, except that of Senator Scullion, who led the debate and whose speech I listened to in my office. Some of the contributions were very informative; some were heartfelt; some were absolutely shocking. Senator Scullion was on a rant and in typical Senator Scullion style he thinks he has to yell at people. Apparently, the more emotive he becomes the more that Australians might think he knows what he is talking about on this issue.

I would like to touch on a few of the contributions from other speakers because I have a very vested interest in this topic. It is not that I am a senator from the Territory—I am not—I am a senator from Western Australia who has spent a lot of time in Indigenous communities, both in my role as a truck driver delivering teachers, police, furniture to a new school or whatever it might have been and in my role as a duty senator running throughout the Kimberley, Pilbara, Gascoyne and Western Desert lands. There is nothing sadder than to see the plight of Indigenous Australians in the squalor that they do live in. It is absolutely heartbreaking. It is disgraceful, it is embarrassing and it is nothing short of disgusting.

In her contribution, Senator Payne mentioned the apology to the stolen generations. I do not think for one minute that she was anything short of sincere in her appreciation of that apology. Senator Scullion also mentioned the apology and I heard him do so. But I was in this chamber and had the misfortune to listen to some of the bile that came out of opposition parliamentarians, mainly Western Australian senators and members, when the parliament debated the making of that apology. I remember standing in the Member’s Hall for the very first welcome to country to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land. It was a very moving experience, but for some reason I looked up and saw the member for O’Connor, Mr Tuckey—I think the opposition refer to him as Uncle Arthur or whatever it may be. There was Mr Tuckey, who proudly goes by the name of ‘Ironbar’. Why? Because he proudly belted a few Aboriginals in his hotel in Carnarvon, as I think the legend goes, with an iron bar. It is pretty easy being tough with an iron bar in your hand, mate. Anyone is tough with an iron bar in their hand. But there was the member for O’Connor, with a face on him like a lemon, perched up on the first floor with his arms folded in absolute disgust that we were not only making the apology to the stolen generation but having a welcome to country, as we should have a welcome to country every time we stand on this land.

Senator Scullion got one thing right. He said that everywhere you go you hear about the apology to the stolen generation—and it is true. I have had the good fortune to be a part of some overseas delegations since the apology. It does not matter if we are in Europe or in Asia, the first thing that is usually put to us as visiting Australian politicians is how proud those other nations are that Prime Minister Rudd made that apology. Through you, Madam Acting Deputy President, I see a smirk on Senator Bernardi’s face—a smirk that looks like a split watermelon.

Senator Bernardi —It’s not a smirk; it’s a grimace.

Senator STERLE —I would suggest, through you Madam Acting Deputy President, that you are not doing yourself any favours, Senator Bernardi. In fact, you should stick to your day job of undermining some of those colleagues of yours in South Australia—because they need undermining. Our overseas friends proudly say how fantastic our Prime Minister and our government were for making the apology to the stolen generation.

I will return to the substance of the debate and talk about my ventures through Indigenous communities. I agree 100 per cent with Senator Evans, the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship. During question time today he made a big call, and his humble statement was to the point and so truthful: none of us—for those listening on the other side of this chamber—have got it right so far. They are very strong words and they are so true. That is why it is very frustrating when we are actually trying to improve the lot of our Indigenous brothers and sisters that we have to listen to some of the tripe that has come out in this debate today from senators opposite.

When you go into an Indigenous community there is nothing worse than seeing some of these—let’s call them buildings for want of a better word. No windows, no doors—

Senator Williams —What’s he said so far?

Senator Bernardi —Just more dribble.

Senator STERLE —Dribble? Through you, Madam Acting Deputy President, it is dribble, is it? When was the last time you were in an Indigenous community, Senator Bernardi? Through you, Madam Acting Deputy President, when was the last time Senator Williams, that intelligentsia of all things political in the National Party, was in an Indigenous community? When have you ever stood and said in this chamber how disgraceful the way our Indigenous brothers and sisters live on their traditional lands is? It is shameful, but our leader, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Evans, was man enough to say that no-one has got it right. I support Senator Evans’s statement because it is just so true.

To bring us back to where we are now, you hear comments in the hallways in this great building that Senator Scullion is just being devious in moving this motion, that Senator Scullion is being evil, that Senator Scullion—the former Howard government Minister for Community Services—is playing politics or that he is just being a complete and utter dropkick. I would not say that. Not for one minute would I suggest that Senator Scullion is being evil or devious. I would not even suggest for one minute that he is playing politics or that he is a complete and utter dropkick—I would not suggest that. I honestly think that Senator Scullion does have the interests of Indigenous people and their communities at heart. Being a Northern Territory senator, he should have. The sad thing is that I think Senator Scullion has been grossly misled. He is grossly misinformed. He can turn on the passion, as most on that side can when it suits them, but, quite frankly, Senator Scullion is way off the mark because Senator Scullion, as I said, was actually the community services minister in the Howard government.

For 11 long years—let us not forget, 11 long years—what did you lot over on that side do? Through you, Madam Acting Deputy President, this is the travesty: in opposition they can all start wrenching on the heartstrings about how concerned they are about Indigenous housing and Indigenous communities, and how dare we mention closing the gap in Indigenous health and education and housing. How dare we? So at every opportunity, all of a sudden, that mob on the other side of the chamber is the custodian of all things wonderful about Indigenous Australia.

When you go into the communities and you see the children—as Senator Payne said, children cannot help where they are born—one would think that that side of the chamber would do everything they could to work with us. One would think that we would hold hands as Australians, regardless of the colour of our skin, and say that we are going to do what is best for Australia, what is best for the next generations coming through, regardless of their skin colour, rather than just using it as a political football when it suits that side.

And as has been said, we inherited this SIHIP. We did inherit it, but we are going to make it work because one of the great things about spending over $1 billion of taxpayers’ money is that the Rudd Labor government is going to do one thing that that side of politics could not do in its 11 years, and nor could others before that—that is, we are going to do it right. I know that may give those on the other side grief—Senator Bernardi, Senator Williams, you know you can put your hands on your heads—but we are going to do it right. What has happened over the years, and it has happened in most of the communities I have visited, is that you might find the odd new home. Take the Dampier Peninsula. It is not the Northern Territory, but their living conditions are still squalid. You will occasionally see a wonderful new home. And I have said it on many occasions: ‘What a wonderful new home. How long did it take to build that?’ They say ‘six months’ or whatever. The way it was done under the Howard government it was mix and match; it was hit and miss. There was always a little bit of political pressure, ‘Let’s chuck a new home into this Indigenous community.’

And for some strange reason, if you wanted to build a home in an Indigenous community, they always had to add another zero on the end of it. I do not know how that happens, but I can understand it. When building companies tender for these one-off homes, it is costly for them. They have to get labour, they have to provide accommodation, they have to provide the wages and the travel costs, and then the trucks have to get the freight up there, and we know how that all happens. And we also know that in the middle of the wet season, forget it; it is not going to happen in the wet. So there is a window of opportunity, usually it is about eight months—I will stand corrected if the Northern Territory is seven months or nine months, or whatever—but it all has to come together very quickly.

But what actually happens if you have only one new home built in a community? Within a month or two there are 25 people living in that one house. But previous governments, who thought they had done their little bit because they had put one home in this community, one home in that community, would just say, ‘Oh, aren’t we fantastic?’ Well they haven’t been damned fantastic! They have been absolutely remiss in their service to Indigenous Australia.

The important part of the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program is the way that it will be done properly. What has been said here, and I will not go into it too much because it has been heard, but I must reiterate for those opposite in case it did not sink in, and I do not think it did sink in on a number of occasions—

Senator Polley —We haven’t got long enough for it to sink in, Glenn.

Senator STERLE —We have not got a big enough stick to whack it in! I believe three companies have formed an alliance. There has been a proper tender process. And rather than have one-offs here and there, these three companies in an alliance were asked to tender on building some 20, 30, 50 or whatever new houses and structures as well as doing up existing buildings in communities. But just as Australian taxpayers can get the best bang for their buck—it is a word that I hate, but unfortunately nothing else has come to mind at this stage—so can the Indigenous communities get the best outcome that they deserve. That it is why the tender process has gone in like that. That is why there has been not just one building here and one there. That is why there have been a number of tenders for buildings. I am led to believe of the 750 homes—Senator Bernardi sits there still shaking his head. Go back to your daytime job; undermine your South Australian colleagues, Senator Bernardi. You are good at that. You are not good at much else in this chamber when it comes to Indigenous affairs, but you are good at that.

Of the 750 homes these three big companies—I am led to believe one of them is Leightons, and I believe one is a very renowned and respected building and construction business in the Territory, Sitzler Bros, I think, but I will stand corrected; they are not fly-by-nighters. But the beauty of it is that not only are they tendering on large amounts, not only are they building and improving existing structures and building new structures, but, as part of the government’s package, we are also building communities. We are not just propping up one or two homes here and there; we are building new communities. And to make matters even harder for that lot over there to comprehend, we are consulting with traditional owners. We are consulting with the people who matter, the people who will be living in these homes. I know that is a revelation, but that is what we are doing.

Another very positive part of SIHIP is that the tender calls for training of Indigenous workers. Training of those who not only will be living in the new homes or living in those improved structures, but will be in those communities with construction skills for ongoing maintenance. We are talking about a window of construction, from 2009 through to 2013, and those young Indigenous boys and girls and men and women will be trained. They will have those skills to continue the maintenance. This is a wonderful thing. On my travels through Indigenous communities, I have met so many Indigenous people who are trained to the hilt because it has been fashionable or groovy to throw a few bob out here and get TAFE to do some training. No disrespect to TAFE, but they have not been trained with the skills that they need. They have to train them with skills that they actually need. And what a wonderful opportunity for these young Indigenous men and women to gain construction skills, to have the ability not only to put into their community for the next four years while this program is going, but to do ongoing maintenance jobs to keep them on their traditional lands. What a wonderful opportunity.

In saying that, I remember watching I think it might have been Lateline prior to the last election. I heard one of the now opposition members, but a government minister at the time, and I think it might have been the Leader of the Opposition at the moment—if he is still the leader. When I last read the Australian, he was still the leader. But they have been quiet, so he probably has not been knifed yet. I remember him making this wild and ridiculous statement that we—being Australians, I gather—have to get Indigenous people to where the work is. That is probably one of the most condescending remarks that I have ever heard come out of a politician’s mouth. They had absolutely no idea why our Indigenous brothers and sisters live on the lands they do, of their connection to their lands because that is where their forefathers walked their sacred sites. That is where they want to be. This will actually deliver in 16 communities the opportunity for young Indigenous Australians to gain fantastic construction skills and have an ongoing job—a proper job. Not sit-down money, a proper job.

If we are to be condemned for doing it properly, I do not mind being condemned, because these are big-ticket items. As I said, there is over half a billion dollars of taxpayers’ money and it is going to be done properly. In saying that, there were a number of other issues that we have had to work through with the traditional owners. There have been all sorts of issues, like sacred sites. If we are going to walk into a community and we are going to build 20 or 30 homes, you cannot just plonk yourself on a plot of land and say, ‘Pour the concrete, boys, and let’s start building.’ You have got to do it in consultation.

There is a very important thing that I also want to raise before I run out of time. It is another issue that confronted us and it has taken a lot of the time because it is being done properly. It is security of tenure. It is a key element of SIHIP. On top of governments needing titled assets, secure land tenure will encourage the development of markets in land, private investment and home ownership in the longer term. For this reason, SIHIP is closely linked to the broader reform of the NT remote housing system, where mainstream and consistent housing management practices will be put in place.

We expect that leasing negotiations will continue to be productive. At the current rate, we believe leases will be in place ahead of time and we anticipate that SIHIP may now be completed ahead of schedule in 2013. In formulating SIHIP, both the NT and Commonwealth governments agreed to quarantining 15 per cent of the overall $672 million budget for program management and the Northern Territory government’s operating costs. I just want to reiterate that 15 per cent is the original figure. The government did so knowing that this percentage would be reduced over the life of the program as we implemented new efficiencies. Operational costs are presently running at 11.4 per cent—well below the 15 per cent threshold—and operations will run at 10 per cent by the end of this month. We will cut that even further to eight per cent by October 2009. That eight per cent will cover program management and staffing costs, planning and mapping, design coordination, quantity surveying, auditing for finances, probity covering insurance and legal matters, and other general operational costs that are directly related to the program.

SIHIP is the biggest, most ambitious integrated housing program in Australia’s history. It is says it all there. It is an entirely new approach, with governments actually working together with communities. Once again, I know that is strange for that lot over there but we are actually working together. Governments are also changing their behaviour and the way they interact with people in the bush. The opportunities at hand can capture the imagination. That is important because the vision is critical to ongoing success.

In reflecting on all this, though, it boils down to an effort to change the lives of people—the citizens of the Northern Territory, like the previous examples that were given. The reality is that any significant improvement to the health, welfare and productivity of remote communities and individual residents will come through generational change. SIHIP is not a panacea but it is the start we need for that. All of us on this side of the chamber are more than certain about that.

In concluding, it is very mischievous to sit and listen to some of the arguments that were put up in this chamber by previous speakers. As I did say, some were very good, some from the other side were very good too, but some were appalling. For those out there listening, this is ambitious, this huge and this is part of nation building but it is, more importantly, about doing the right thing—doing the right thing properly, doing it in consultation with the traditional owners of the land and those first Australians who desperately and deservedly need our help. (Time expired)