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Opening address to the 5th National Housing Conference, Sydney.



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Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs

SPEECH

Opening Address to The 5th National Housing Conference

21/02/2008

Sydney Convention Centre Sydney

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Thanks for the opportunity to speak here today.

Now in its 5th year, your conference provides an invaluable opportunity for all sectors of the housing industry to get together under one roof and exchange ideas and views. I'd like to commend you all for the hard work you're doing in housing - which I think we'd all agree is a challenging area.

One of my early discussions on housing as a new minister was with Ian Winter from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute.

During our conversation he offered a challenging perspective on housing.

His proposition is that today's housing market now operates as an enforcer of inequality. Whereas once people on low incomes had an expectation that diligent saving would ultimately be rewarded with a home of their own, this is no longer the case.

If, as Ian says, the current housing market is an enforcer of inequality then nowhere is this more starkly apparent than among Indigenous communities where housing is often overcrowded and sub-standard. Together with health services, poor access to education and barriers to getting a job, poor housing fuels the starkest indicator of inequality in Australian society - the seventeen year life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

All of us here know the extent of the gap. We know that the health and wellbeing of Indigenous Australians remains dramatically worse than the rest of the community.

Closing this gap is a top priority for the Government. Quite bluntly, the old approaches have failed and what we need is a new era of co-operation and mutual responsibility and a new way of doing things.

That's why we've set ourselves concrete targets to ensure that the fundamentals of a decent life - good health and nutrition, a safe and comfortable home, a high quality education and the opportunity to share in the dividends of participation in the economy through work - are shared by Indigenous Australians.

As a sign of our determination to achieve these targets we're seeking a bipartisan approach. That's why we're proposing a Joint Policy Commission to be chaired by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.

The Joint Policy Commission's top priority is to develop and implement an effective housing strategy for remote communities over the next five years.

It will bring to bear, for the first time, a bi-partisan commitment at the highest level to addressing Indigenous housing needs nationally.

This will operate at two levels - one, to identify and fix systemic problems in the Indigenous housing sector, and two, make an early start to fix immediate shortfalls in a range of locations around the country.

We understand that the 'one size fits all' approach to housing doesn't work in Indigenous communities.

We recognise and support the aspirations of Indigenous people for home ownership. It is not our intention to remove the capacity for traditional owners to obtain 99 year leases.

At the same time we are committed to improving social housing for Indigenous Australians.

Over the next four years we are investing $1.6 billion to address Indigenous housing, including $793 million to help tackle severe need in remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.

And today I can also announce that the Australian Government will be providing $20 million in funding to the Northern Territory Government to implement a program of comprehensive upgrades for six communities in the Northern Territory to improve the standard of community housing. Work will begin as soon as possible. Around 270 houses will be substantially upgraded. This will include measures essential to good health including waterproofing wet areas, fixing kitchens and replacing gutters and cleaning out rainwater tanks. It complements upgrades being conducted on housing in 68 remote Indigenous communities as part of the Northern Territory National Emergency Response's Community Clean Up program. Of course, the Government recognises tackling Indigenous housing goes beyond the Northern Territory.

In my first months as Minister I have seen a number of positive examples of practical, on the ground approaches which the Policy Commission could consider.

One of these is the Fixing Houses for Better Health program, administered by my Department, which is funding repairs and maintenance in remote communities across the country.

But there is still a long way to go. A report released this week by Professor Torzillo from Habitat found that in half the 4300 houses surveyed across 132 communities it was impossible to give a child a daily bath; only 11 per cent met a national standard assessment for electrical safety and a staggering 65 per cent did not have a functioning shower. Rather than being a secure haven these houses were health hazards.

Overcrowding, of course, is a factor in houses falling into disrepair. It also increases the risk of infectious diseases such as meningococcal, rheumatic fever, tuberculosis, skin infections and respiratory infections.

Professor Torzillo's report says the vast majority of housing inadequacies are the result of faulty construction and poor maintenance. Only ten per cent were due to vandalism or misuse.

There are disturbing examples of shoddy construction that include new houses with a light bulb on the ceiling and a switch on the wall but no connecting cabling as well as the potentially fatal, faulty installation of wiring.

From conversations I've had with the Healthabitat team, who work on the ground in remote communities identifying housing problems, it's clear that while we have to get the design and construction of new houses right it's also essential to properly maintain existing houses.

That's one of the hugely positive aspects of the 'fix-it' element of the Better Houses for Better

Health program - when local teams arrive they do more than write down what's wrong - they fix it.

Imagine this scenario. It's nine in the morning and the survey team arrives. Most of the teams comprise local Indigenous people who've been trained to implement the 250 point check list. By the afternoon basic problems are being fixed and plumbers and electricians called for major faults. By day's end, the drains have been unblocked, the lights work and all details of the work have been entered into a central data base. And remember 78 per cent of the teams doing the work are local Indigenous people.

These are the sort of on the ground practical measures, employing local Indigenous people that are pivotal in closing the gap and I'll be raising them as the Policy Commission begins its work.

As I said closing the gap won't be easy but good work is being done. And strong, evidence based data is being collected to inform future policy development and implementation.

Using this data we have revised the National Indigenous Housing Guide which we are releasing this week. Building on surveys of over 3500 houses it identifies where housing design, construction and maintenance can be improved and now includes sections on community infrastructure and housing maintenance.

Of course it's clear that there can never be a one-size fits all solution to Indigenous housing problems. What works in the Pilbara won't necessarily work in Maningrida.

I saw this for myself when I was in the Pilbara a few weeks ago. Mining company Rio Tinto directly employs 251 Indigenous Australians and an additional 274 through its contractors. Over the next two years it plans to recruit another 300. But despite having invested in 4000 houses there is an acute housing shortage that is stifling employment. For example, Indigenous workers who get a job lose their entitlement to public housing and a large proportion of their wages goes on rent - hardly an incentive to work.

Indigenous students coming from remote areas to study at TAFE can't get decent accommodation. And as one senior company executive pointed out, in many cases the housing that's available is sub-standard. As he put it, how can an employee perform satisfactorily if there's nowhere to wash your clothes and overcrowding means you don't get a good night's sleep.

I want to finish on a more general note with an update on the progress being made by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) which has made housing matters a top priority in the year ahead.

As you know, Kevin Rudd went to the last election promising to end the unproductive and unnecessary duplication of government services and a pledge to end the blame game. This process is well underway.

At December's COAG meeting last year a new Housing Working Group was formed, chaired by my colleague Tanya Plibersek as the Minister for Housing.

This group has been set ambitious goals to make inroads into the problems of housing affordability and homelessness, including:

• First Home Saver Accounts to help first home buyers save for their first home; • A new National Housing Affordability Agreement; • The Housing Affordability Fund; • A National Rental Affordability Scheme • The release of surplus Commonwealth, State and Territory government surplus land for

housing development; • Building new housing for the homeless and developing a long-term and comprehensive plan to tackle homelessness; and • $150 million to construct homes for Australians in crisis

Tanya will be talking about this in more detail with you tomorrow.

This morning I've outlined some of the challenges facing the housing sector and how the Government is tackling them with sound, evidence-based policies. I can assure all of you here today that undertaking, commissioning and critically analysing research data will inform all this Government's policy decisions and implementation.

I know this same critical analysis will underpin the discussions you have during the conference. I look forward to getting feedback from officers in my Department who will be here for the duration of the conference.

Again, thanks for opportunity to be here and I hope you have a very productive and stimulating two days.