ADJOURNMENT - Indigenous Housing
Posted in Pat's Speeches | February 07, 2018
I rise tonight to put on record my serious concerns about the funding for building housing and for maintenance in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. There are grave fears in Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia that the minister is preparing to crab walk away from a decade of Commonwealth commitment to the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing. These fears stepped up when funding for future years failed to rate a mention in the budget forecast in December. It now seems that only the minister's electorate in the Northern Territory has been guaranteed any funding beyond June 2018. The government is not closing the gap. By pulling out of one of the fundamental building blocks of economic development, employment, education and community safety in remote Australia, it is widening the gap. Without safe, secure and uncrowded housing, the targets for closing the gap will never be achieved.
I met yesterday with mayors from Queensland's remote Indigenous communities—from Kowanyama, Wujal Wujal, Hopevale and the Torres Strait. As leaders of their communities, they are very worried about the lack of certainty for housing beyond June this year. Cancelling the program will have huge impacts on the growth of local community jobs that has taken place since the program was introduced by Labor a decade ago. If the program stops in June, first nations apprentices, subcontractors, labourers and tradesmen will have to put down their tools and look for work somewhere else, to say nothing of their families. In those four communities alone, 198 local people are employed in the program, and 30 apprentices will be off to the Centrelink office to apply for the Newstart allowance. If the program stops in June, the minister will need to step in and make sure that alternative arrangements are there to support investment in our communities. The Commonwealth cannot take its bat and ball and simply walk off the field.
The national program has grown in significance and effectiveness over the decade. Commonwealth investment has facilitated state and territory co-investment, which has grown over time. We need a committed, ongoing partnership from all levels of government to meet the scale of the need in remote communities. I have received strong expressions of concern on this issue from the Western Australian government, community organisations and Indigenous leaders. On the one hand, the minister is saying there are negotiations taking place with state governments on a shared contribution going forward. I'm at a loss to know whether the minister is obfuscating, telling mistruths or simply playing games. The minister must come clean about this issue because so much of the future of these remote communities rests upon it.
In my own state of Western Australia, some 12,000 Aboriginal people are living in remote communities. The quality of their services and infrastructure is generally poor. Overcrowding and poor housing standards are rife, leading directly to poor outcomes in health, education and family violence. Of the state's 274 remote communities, most do not have municipal or local government services. Indeed, the state government's funds for services do not stretch to the smallest 110 of those remote communities. The minister's own evaluation of these matters said that 1,300 houses were needed in the next decade just to keep up with the population growth. The Shire of Halls Creek expressed its concern and fears over a year ago that the overcrowding would worsen within its boundaries if the federal government Indigenous housing program were discontinued. As a consequence, 30 illegal dwellings have been constructed outside the township of Halls Creek.
Housing is a basic human right. It is wrong morally, politically and economically for the Commonwealth government to abruptly and unilaterally cancel the investment in remote community housing. The government's Closing the gap public discussion paper, released in December, says, 'Australian governments have committed to work in genuine partnership with Indigenous leaders, organisations and communities.' I call on the Commonwealth government to get back to partnering with the Western Australian government and all the other states and territories to co-invest on a long-term basis in remote Indigenous housing. Housing is a right, not a privilege. Without decent housing, the yawning gap in first nations health, employment and education standards will never be closed.