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Wednesday, 17 November 2010
Page: 1526

Senator HUMPHRIES (6:25 PM) —I rise to join this debate and say that, if this program is considered a significant success, I would like to ask the government to explain the basis upon which they make that claim. We have a program here which is supposed to cost, at this stage, over a billion dollars. It was supposed to have been originally a four-year program, yet even those opposite admit that to date, after almost four years of operation, only 93 houses have been built—93 houses out of a $1.12 billion program which began in one form back in the middle of 2007. If that is a success, you guys have redefined success to a very, very low standard.

The opposition is raising these concerns because if ever there were warning signals about a program they are applicable to the SIHIP running in the Northern Territory. We are concerned about the cost overruns. When Minister Macklin announced the revamping of this program in April 2008, she said it would cost $647 million. Recently that figure has been revised to $1.12 billion but without any significant increase in the scope of the project. We are still going to have 750 new houses, supposedly. We are still going to have 230 houses replaced rather than demolished and we are still going to have 2,500 housing upgrades, apparently with associated infrastructure. Nothing more is being provided, but the cost is almost doubling.

We are concerned about delays. This was supposed to be a program that began in July 2007. Now it is going to run for five years, rather than four years as originally planned, from April 2008. With a program which has already been underway for almost three years, to have had only 93 houses built out of the 750 promised you would have to say that it is not looking good, given those serious delays when it comes to delivering on the expected level of housing.

The third point that we are raising is about poor value for money. Senator Scullion and others in this debate have already spoken about the incredibly poor-value outcomes people are getting in remote communities for very substantial amounts of money spent. Just this week in the Northern Territory News we saw pictures of some of the houses which have had so-called renovations under the SIHIP, and they look absolutely disgusting. There are houses covered in graffiti, with very poor quality work done on them. What was supposed to be a full refit of these houses, costing $75,000 per house, has turned out to be just repairs to electrical wiring, bathroom plumbing and fixtures, and new stainless-steel benches installed instead of a proper kitchen.

Senator Scullion made reference to his being invited to view a house at Ali Curung where, after it had been renovated, there was not a single cupboard or shelf in the kitchen, just a sink and bench. There was nowhere to put food, nowhere to put plates and saucepans, not even a drawer for cutlery. The house had a hole in the lounge room wall with the edges of the hole neatly painted, and outside there was no lid on the septic tank. That was a house where children were expected to live and it was anything but safe. That was for, apparently, an average cost of $75,000. Anybody else anywhere in Australia who saw that kind of work being completed would complain and say it was not acceptable, but, apparently, under this government it is perfectly acceptable.

The good intentions those opposite have to do something big in Indigenous housing and the commitment they have to close the gap are apparently adequate substitutes for actually delivering. If any program that this government is running has not delivered so far—and there are plenty of contenders for that title: home insulation, green loans et cetera—it is this program. The evidence is very clear that they are simply not bringing it together. There is clear evidence of concerns by individual contractors in individual communities, by individual tenants and by individuals all the way through to the Northern Territory government—one member of which felt so strongly about this mismanagement that he actually resigned not just from the government but from the Labor Party itself. This is a clear indication of the serious problems that everybody associated with this program has with it.

It is also not clear whether this program is providing the Indigenous employment which it is supposed to be providing. We have already heard that serious concerns are being expressed by contractors about people being employed not under full employment contracts but under Work for the Dole type arrangements or CDEP arrangements, which means they are not being paid at the appropriate rate. That comes from people actually working on the ground in Indigenous communities who are struggling to find the workers to employ and who are not employed at the appropriate rate. That is not an indication of a program in good health.

Senator Crossin pointed out that this is an unprecedented amount of money—the largest amount that any government has ever committed. Of course, when the costs are blowing out, it is not surprising it is a very large amount of money, and the amount will get bigger if the costs keep blowing out. If you want to deliver these sorts of outcomes but do not lift your sights with respect to what you are going to deliver and end up having to increase the costs because you cannot manage the programs competently, then of course the costs are going to be big. Big costs are no substitute for value for money for the Australian taxpayer and good outcomes for Indigenous people in these remote communities.

I acknowledge that this is not an easy problem to solve. I acknowledge that Indigenous communities have not had good outcomes under governments of all persuasions: territory, federal and probably many state governments as well. It is not easy to deliver in this area. We are simply saying to the government: pursuant to the principles of accountability which you signed up to under so-called Operation Sunlight, the warning signs for this program are very clear—things are going very badly. We are not getting value for money from this program, and the sooner the government accepts that and starts to act on these concerns rather than sweeping them away with the kinds of broad statements and glib comments we heard in today’s debate the better.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Moore)—Order! The time for the discussion has expired.