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Wednesday, 17 November 2010
Page: 1516

Senator CROSSIN (5:41 PM) —There is no doubt that, since we came into government in 2007, the federal Labor government—under Kevin Rudd and now under Prime Minister Gillard—has been absolutely committed to closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage. We have stated it time and time again. The actions that we have taken in supporting programs and various outcomes and outputs would show that. We are deeply committed to ensuring that the gap is closed and to addressing that in partnership with state and territory governments, and, critically, with Indigenous Australians at the nucleus of any change and any gap that is to be closed. They are the driving force behind anything we want to achieve.

Housing is absolutely essential to the Closing the Gap agenda. It is one of the seven key building blocks that have been agreed to by the Council of Australian Governments, COAG, as being essential to this outcome. We all know the link between safe and healthy housing and broader life outcomes, such as health, education and employment, has been well established, and we know that getting housing right is critical to restoring positive social norms. Let me digress for a moment in terms of ‘getting housing right’. Getting housing right in an Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory means that you consult with Indigenous members of that community. Therefore, each community has had a housing reference group established; each community has negotiated a leasing plan under which the houses can be built on the land that is leased; each community has gone through the process of identifying where they want the houses put; and each community has identified the nature and the type of housing they want. Does that happen overnight? No, it does not happen overnight. It was never meant to happen overnight. It was meant to ensure that Indigenous Territorians drive the outcomes by getting the kind of housing they want, where they want it and the conditions under which they want it. That has been the nucleus of the program that we have embarked upon.

In remote Australia, the state of housing provides the most visible evidence of the persistent failure of governments—I emphasise governments—to address Indigenous disadvantage. For this reason we have taken very strong action to improve the delivery of Indigenous housing in remote Australia. As a government we have committed the unprecedented amount of $5.5 billion over 10 years through the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing to improve housing and living conditions in remote Australia. In talking about living conditions, we also have to look at extension of infrastructure. We have to look at extension of electricity, water and sewerage and, in many cases, an upgrade of that. I think I have already spoken in this chamber of how, when 25 new houses were to be built on Groote Eylandt at Umbakumba, the first thing people realised was that the electricity grid would not accommodate that many houses. Were you going to get a new house overnight? No, you were not, because the first thing you had to do was upgrade the electricity grid that would sustain that extra output of electricity in that community.

People opposite who tend to want to criticise this, day after day and week after week, do not provide the general public or this chamber with the totality of the work and the commitment that is out there. This is the single largest outlay that any government has ever made on Indigenous housing, and we have set ambitious targets for the construction of new and upgraded housing across remote Australia. Perhaps the fault was that we did set the targets. We did actually get out there and set some outputs and some key performance indicators. The opposition would have you believe that we are not achieving those. I and my colleagues who speak after me will prove that we are not only achieving them but achieving them beyond the target. Of course, if some targets had not been set, people on the other side would be jumping up like rabbits out of a burrow saying, ‘How many houses did you expect to build for that?’ or, ‘How many refurbishments did you expect for that?’ Of course, we have set targets—we have been ambitious: we have set KPIs—and we are now driving the agenda to meet those.

The Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program delivered through the national partnership agreement is the largest ever investment undertaken by the federal government and the Northern Territory government in Indigenous housing. Under SIHIP, housing and related infrastructure—and I really want to emphasise ‘related infrastructure’, because it goes hand in hand with any new or refurbished houses—will be improved in 73 remote communities and a number of town camps. Better housing, as we all know, is the cornerstone of healthy, sustainable communities. Yes, there were problems and concerns in the early days of SIHIP—and do you know what? As a government, we had the courage to actually admit that and have a look at what those problems were. The problems emanated from a model and an agreement that was designed under a previous federal government—one minister being Mr Mal Brough. That was a design model and an implementation model that the former federal government signed off with the Northern Territory government. When we got into government, there were problems. We have managed to review that, conduct research, have a look at where the problems were, and work with and iron out those problems along the way.

The transition to an entirely new model of delivering housing, including the introduction of new governance arrangements and a new large-scale procure model, was a major reform. SIHIP is much more than a construction project. It is a strategic infrastructure and housing program. So it is much more than just a construction program. It was always planned, under the delivery model of alliancing—a model that was put together by the former federal government. The SIHIP does not just build houses without addressing other issues of community disadvantage. It will leave a legacy of more functional and sustainable communities by providing real jobs and real economic opportunities for residents. Already the program is exceeding its Indigenous employment target, with more than 30 per cent of the workforce being Indigenous.

At 8 November, 93 new houses have been completed, 139 new houses are underway, 786 rebuilds and refurbishments have been completed, 105 rebuilds and refurbishments are underway and a total of 1,123 housing lots have had work. Three hundred and twenty three Indigenous people are employed on the SIHIP program, and the Indigenous employment rate across the program is currently tracking at 32 per cent of the total workforce. That is because, for the first time ever in the history of managing Indigenous housing programs in this country, we as a government mandated that, before any company could touch any tool, any brick, any piece of aluminium, any glass or any paintbrush, they had to sign up to ensuring that a percentage of their workforce was Indigenous. Did it happen under the Howard government? No, it did not. Was there any guarantee of Indigenous employment and Indigenous outcomes and training under the Howard government? No, there was not. So a very significant change and a very significant KPI under the Labor government is that we have Indigenous people employed. We have them off the Newstart allowance and we have them off CDEP where they choose to go off CDEP. We have them being trained. We have them out there as part of the workforce.

I have to say to my colleague on the other side of this chamber from the Territory: if you get around the Territory, if you went to Elcho Island or if you were at Gumbalunya, like I was last week, you would have seen more than a dozen men in those communities employed by Territory Alliance who are in training, who are very proud of what they are achieving, who boast about the full-time employment and who love the wages that they are bringing home to their families. They talked to me and Jenny Macklin just last week at Gumbalunya about the change they have perceived by being able to take up a trade that they believe will have lifelong benefits for their community. They said that the work experience and training makes them feel good about themselves. But it never happened prior to 2007.

So SIHIP is not just about building a house. It is about infrastructure and it is about changing what happens in those Aboriginal communities by giving people in those communities an opportunity to get into the workforce. That is because we mandated that. That is because you will not get one cent out of this program unless you provide at least a 20 per cent Indigenous employment target. I have to say that the alliances in the Territory have gone to 32 per cent of their total workforce. They are very proud of the fact that on the Tiwi Islands, out in Elcho and down in the town camps, they are getting Indigenous people onboard. They are getting them to be part of this and to own the outcomes. There are enormous legacy issues with housing in remote communities. We are not saying that SIHIP is solving all the housing problems in the Northern Territory; it is one program. There will be a need for more housing programs in the future and for the longer term. But SIHIP is a great start.

You can see the huge differences in the Alice Springs town camps. All 200 existing houses in the camps will be rebuilt or refurbished—43 three-bedroom houses and 42 two-bedroom houses will be built. A major clean-up through a fix-and-make-safe program was completed earlier this year under the $150 million Alice Springs Transformation Plan. In conjunction with the building program, 23 of the 40 staff employed to work on the Alice Springs town camps are Indigenous. And that figure is expected to grow as the construction increases. It has been an enormous transformation for the Alice Springs town camps. The standard of housing and the level of services are finally being lifted to that enjoyed by the rest of the town of Alice Springs. In May this year, Minister Macklin handed over the keys to the first of 85 new houses built in the town camps.

SIHIP is on track to meet its target of 150 new houses across the territory and 1,000 rebuilds and refurbishments by the end of this year. In fact, the national partnerships agreement building program is now being accelerated to deliver housing and housing related infrastructure ahead of schedule as the capacity of the construction consortia gathers strength. To take advantage of this demonstrated increased capacity, the Australian government announced on 10 October that it would bring forward $316.7 million over the forward estimates from the national partnership. Of these funds, $190 million will be used for housing related infrastructure, including sewerage and power. On top of this, the Northern Territory government in partnership is supporting the fast-tracking, by bringing forward $140 million of housing related infrastructure. This means that SIHIP will build around 180 new houses—and perform around 180 rebuilds—sooner than anticipated.

I just want to say in conclusion that, under the previous governments, none of these things were consistently in place—things like Indigenous employment targets, housing targets, funding reallocation where targets were not met and ensuring that skills and training for Indigenous people were happening so they could get a job. None of those things were in place—none of those were KPIs—under the mishmash of Indigenous housing arrangements we had under the previous federal government. There was no consistent measurement of progress, no national employment requirement outcomes, no tenancy standard agreements between landlords and tenants and no consistently secured tenure; there was just millions of dollars spent with abysmal outcomes.

One of the major things at the end of the day about this is that the houses that are built or refurbished become the property of the Territory Housing. They become the property of the Northern Territory government. So a major part of SIHIP has been a cultural change—when Indigenous people go into a SIHIP house, they are tenants of Territory Housing. With that comes all of the education that is required—to learn what a tenant means and what your obligations are. (Time expired)