Opinion article by NIGEL SCULLION Minister for Indigenous Affairs
As published in The Australian March 2014
PICTURE ABOVE from THE STRINGER TONY ABBOTT MUST DO :Inspection of Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Programme work in Santa Teresa, Northern Territory, April 2011. Tony Abbott with Adam Giles, Alison Anderson and Nigel Scullion.
The National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing initiated by the former government in 2008, has not delivered on the promise of being a ‘long-term fix to the emergency’ in remote Indigenous housing.
The byzantine national agreement arrangement is unwieldy and does not reflect the very different environments that need to be dealt with across the country. Bilateral agreements with states and the Northern Territory may be a better way to go.
In very remote Australia, housing is central to meeting our priorities of getting kids to school, encouraging adults into work and providing for safe communities where the rule of law applies.
More than $2.5 billion was spent by the Rudd/Gillard government from 2008 through the national agreement. Indigenous Australians tell me that they have not got value for money.
Delivery of housing in remote communities has been marked by delays, cost blowouts and bureaucracy.
New houses can cost more than $600,000 and have an average lifespan of only 10 to 12 years. There have been poor standards of construction, unsatisfactory rental payment arrangements and sub-standard tenancy management.
Despite this massive expenditure there can be no argument that overcrowding remains chronic in remote Australia where there is no regular, functional housing market. There are no private rental options and no home ownership opportunities in most of these places. Most of these communities are dependent on Commonwealth funded public housing and this has been badly managed.
Residents of remote communities need to have the option, as others in Australia enjoy, of private rental and home ownership. Any strategies that we adopt must work towards that goal.
A radical rethink is overdue.
The states and Northern Territory governments must manage remote Indigenous housing just as they do other public housing. Rental agreements should be in place and enforced; rents should be collected; any damage caused by occupants should be paid for by occupants; and, municipal services should be delivered to acceptable standards by the jurisdictions.
This is how social housing operates in non-remote areas. Why should it be any different in remote Indigenous communities?
Why have we come to expect lower standards from housing authorities and residents in remote areas? Is it another layer of passive racism to accept less for Indigenous people in remote Australia?
Why are we building houses in places where land tenure arrangements prevent people from ever buying the house?
One aspect that I will be focusing on is how we can offer housing in a way that encourages mobility for those who want to move to areas with better employment opportunities.
I will be working with the states and Northern Territory governments to reform the current arrangements that are clearly failing residents of Indigenous communities.
In negotiations, I will want to set some conditions that might include:
- moving relatively quickly towards building social housing only in those places that have appropriate land tenure arrangements in place for home ownership;
- attractive mobility packages for remote residents, including portability of special housing and home ownership eligibility for those who want to move to areas with stronger labour markets;
- ensuring rents are set at mainstream social housing rates and requirements of tenants are specified, understood and complied with;
- a requirement for states and territories to apply their usual sale of social housing policy, as occurs in urban and regional areas, based on realistic market values; and
- priority for the allocation of social housing to families in employment or where children are regularly attending school.
We also need to ensure that people in social housing are not adversely affected when taking up employment opportunities. This however is mainly an issue for mainstream social housing rather than remote Indigenous housing.
I know that a number of jurisdictions are focused on reform and I look forward to working with them.
However, if a state or territory is not up to the task, the Commonwealth might have to step in and take over delivery of social housing or contract providers with significant Indigenous and community involvement to do the job.