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Wednesday, 17 November 2010
Page: 1523

Senator PAYNE (6:12 PM) —There is possibly one thing on which I can agree with both Senator Crossin and Senator Sterle this afternoon, and that is that the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program is a very important program and a very important investment of Commonwealth funds. I do no think there is any dispute about that. I do not think there is any dispute from this side of the chamber—no matter what cheap disparagement those on the other side decide is apparently appropriate parliamentary debate—about the importance of the program. I do not think there is any dispute about the importance of addressing the issues that come with a lack of housing or living in the other fraught environments in which so many Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory do.

That is not the point. The point of this discussion is about the mismanagement of a program which is this important. The point of this discussion is about transparency, accountability and responding to concerns which have been raised by locals in communities across the Northern Territory, by administrators who have been sacked, by the media, by members of parliament in the Territory parliament and in this chamber, and by others. I do not think any of those issues are unreasonable, and I do not think we should take as a fact or as a fait accompli that it is good because they say it is good, that it is above board because they say it is above board. Seeking, as elected representatives in this chamber with a responsibility for, and an interest in, these areas, the sorts of information that makes them more transparent and accountable is not an action from which I intend to resile—not now and not ever.

I listened to Senator Crossin carefully. It was certainly a more valuable experience than listening to Senator Sterle. It was valuable in terms of its rhetoric if nothing else. She has the rhetoric down pat, that is true, and the rhetorical story if it were backed by the facts would be a very good one. But our concern is that what matters in this program, as well as the construction of houses, is transparency, accountability and the facts. That is where our issue today with this MPI actually lies.

This is enormously complex and enormously important. It is a massive government spend. I have spent, along with many of my colleagues here now and those who are not in the chamber, hours and hours in Senate estimates and other committees—and Senator Adams would be a leading exponent in that regard—exploring these issues in detail because we all respect the estimates process like many of those on the other side do. It is not always easy to get answers, I have to say. I have a faint hope that we will get the answers to questions taken on notice at the last estimates on this by the due date of return, which I think is 10 December. I have a hope, but I am not going to hold my breath. It would be more helpful for us in our engagement on this program—the importance of which we do acknowledge—if we were able to receive those answers.

What is clear here this afternoon is that, while the Northern Territory government is responsible for providing housing in the broad of the jurisdictional break-up, it is the federal government who is providing the money, who is providing the funding to help with the construction and maintenance, and they have an obligation to ensure that the housing and value for money are actually being delivered. The example that Senator Macdonald referred to earlier of Ngukurr, which has been exposed in recent media reports, is reprehensible. I do not hear it acknowledged by those on the other side. I do not even hear the name Ngukurr come out of their mouths, only the good news stories.

There are good news stories. There is no dispute that the housing being built, and being built to the sorts of specifications and the sorts of requirements which make it appropriate housing, is a good news story. But what about those areas where the transparency and accountability is lacking? What about the community of Ngukurr, which Senator Macdonald referred to, where one particular senior elder is sleeping on his kitchen floor and has 24 relatives living with him? Apparently, this is after the delivery of the program in that area. We have examples, also exposed in the media, of individuals choosing to live outdoors under sheets of tin and tarpaulins because it is better than living with so many other people.

I understand that, as referred to by Senator Scullion, the Northern Territory government has just revealed that the budget for SIHIP will not in fact allow all of the promised 2½ thousand house refurbishments to be completed, that it will not extend to all of the 750 promised new houses, that 50 per cent of them will have two bedrooms or less and that10 per cent will be one-bedroom units. I do not know everything there is to know about Indigenous affairs, not by a long shot—in fact, I doubt many of us standing in this place ever will—but I do know one thing: I am yet to find a community where a lot of one-bedroom units will come in handy. The result of that will be that SIHIP will not be doing what it should be doing in the reduction of overcrowding and the raising of housing standards, and that is what concerns us. Not only is the government not delivering on its promises but it is going over budget as well.

Senator Scullion detailed in his contribution this afternoon a number of the failures that have marked this program. You cannot pretend that it is all peace, love and happiness when you have had an inquiry commissioned by your own minister. You cannot pretend that there is nothing to examine in all of this. When the work was scheduled to commence in October 2008 and not a single house had been constructed by mid-2009, how can you possibly be pretending that it is all peace, happiness and delight? There were reports which Senator Scullion also referred to of briefings of Northern Territory government ministers—last time I looked they were sitting on the same side of the chamber of the parliament there as those opposite us—when those government ministers themselves were forced to raise concerns about the administration of the Commonwealth funds. One minister resigned from the Northern Territory Labor Party, as I recall. Those issues are being obfuscated and ignored by those opposite. These are the concerns that we have.

We want to know where the employment is occurring, we want to know how it is structured, how people are being engaged, what sort of time they are spending, whether they are locals and whether they are imported into communities to work on projects and counted in the same way. We do not have information about those issues and we have been asking for that for some time. These are the sorts of issues which are important in the process. If you are going to claim a 30 per cent employment target being reached, then tell us how, tell us who, tell us how long they are working for, tell us how long they are engaged for and tell us what their roles are. We do not think they are unreasonable questions and we are still waiting for answers on those.