DOCUMENTS - Indigenous Housing - Order for the Production of Documents

In accordance with the order of the Senate of 14 February 2018, I rise to ask for an explanation from the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Scullion, regarding the failure to engage in detailed consultations with the states and territories on remote housing.

I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

I thank the minister for complying with the order to produce documents and also for providing me with advance copies of his ministerial letters on the issue. His cooperation with the Senate order is noted and appreciated. Nevertheless, the issue which gives rise to the order remains. As we've just heard, he's obviously got problems with my minister in Western Australia and the minister in Queensland.

The documents confirm the fact that this government has abruptly and unilaterally closed the door on a decade of commitment to remote housing, primarily for First Nations families. Since 2008 the Commonwealth government has cooperated with state and territory governments to address the urgent needs that have been unmet of First Nations communities in remote Australia. These governments—Labor, Liberal and Liberal National Party; all political persuasions—combined to work together for a decade to improve health and wellbeing outcomes in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities through better housing outcomes. The thinking behind this cooperative approach is clear, agreed and a strong consensus view.

In 2008 COAG agreed to the National Indigenous Reform Agreement, which sets out a joint commitment to the National Integrated Strategy for Closing the Gap in Indigenous Disadvantage. A key building block of that agreement was healthy housing:

A healthy home is a fundamental precondition of a healthy population. Important contributors to the current unsatisfactory living conditions include inadequate water and sewerage systems, waste collection, electricity and housing infrastructure (design, stock and maintenance). Children need to live in accommodation with adequate infrastructure conducive to good hygiene and study and free of overcrowding.

To support this building block, the strategy was agreed between the Commonwealth and all jurisdictions, with the exception of the Australian Capital Territory. The main aim of the agreement was to decrease overcrowding and increase housing amenities. The Commonwealth committed $5.4 billion through the strategy from 2008 to 2018. The aims were to build and refurbish houses in remote Indigenous communities and, where appropriate, town camps, including delivery of housing related infrastructure; implement robust and standardised property and tenancy management of all remote Indigenous housing; and increase employment opportunities for local residents in remote Indigenous communities.

By 2018 the strategy will have delivered over 11,500 more-liveable homes in remote Australia—around 4,000 new homes and 7,500 refurbishments. It is estimated that over 2,000 jobs have been created, most of them in remote communities where a steady, secure job is as rare as a win in TattsLotto. This increase in supply is estimated to have led to a significant decrease in the proportion of overcrowded households in remote and very remote areas, falling from 52.1 per cent in 2008 to 41.3 per cent in 2014-15, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The government's own independent review panel projects that this will fall further to 37.4 per cent by 2018.

These are real achievements made by the program. Real jobs have been created, safety has improved and health preconditions have improved. If there were real leadership from the Commonwealth, this government would have built on these achievements and looked ahead to the maintenance of a joint effort. Getting in and keeping the work going: that's what we needed. The government's independent panel recommended that, after accounting for population growth, an additional 5,500 homes were required by 2028 to reduce the levels of overcrowding in remote areas to acceptable levels. It may well be beyond that figure, but that's the figure we were told. The remote panel recommended the key matters were: a recurring program must be funded to maintain existing houses, preserve functionality and increase the life of housing assets; investment for an additional 5,500 houses by 2028 is needed to continue the efforts on closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage; the cost of a remote Indigenous housing program should be equally shared—and I take the minister's point: it should be equally shared, not given up on because someone won't talk to you—between the Commonwealth and the other jurisdictions; and a regional governance structure should be established to facilitate better administration of the program.

It is clear that these are worthwhile recommendations that should be considered and carefully implemented. The documents produced by the minister—we have been pushing for them for some time, since last year—show that these recommendations have been followed through in part, but in a remarkably idiosyncratic way. Rather than considered negotiations, given the sensitivities and importance of this issue and its bipartisan basis, the minister has abruptly chosen this ill-conceived approach. Most of the documents provided—45 out of the 52—relate to correspondence between state and territory officials and Commonwealth officials from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Most of them relate to the organising of meetings with joint steering committees of officials between the Commonwealth and the states.

It is appreciated that, in supplying these documents, there needs to be some redactions to avoid providing information that may be commercial-in-confidence, or could damage Commonwealth-state relations and would infringe the privacy of individuals. We accept and understand that fact, but for the life of me I cannot understand which of these provisions is applied to annexure 19. The cover page is of an email indicating the content is a draft letter to the minister from the Norther Territory jurisdiction. Dated 5 December 2017, it's just highlighted with blanks. I'm not sure how to read this; I have no capacity to understand what it says. That's annexure 19. The attachments, some 22 pages, are completely redacted—black page after black page—except a few where the Northern Territory coat of arms is not redacted. That's the only reason I understood it.

I've looked closely at the correspondence between officials. It would seem to me that the release of the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook in December 2017 was the catalyst for a range of meetings between officials. This was when the states and territories were informed, directly or indirectly, that the existing arrangements for remote housing were not likely to continue past June 2018. This was the first indication that a decade of Commonwealth-state cooperation was coming to an abrupt end. Most of the papers, however, go to wrapping up the reporting to the Commonwealth on expenditure of the current financial year. There is little in the way of any negotiations with the states on any ongoing contribution to a bilateral partnership to continue the work. This is where the correspondence between ministers is critical to an understanding of how this was playing out. There is no indication of that.

For my own state of Western Australia—and I'm glad the minister is meeting with my ministers this week, and I hope something more productive than this exchange takes place—the first letter on the issue was dated 11 December. In that letter he indicated that his department had commenced discussions with states about 'the future of remote Indigenous housing and how a new housing program might look'. It seems from the documents provided that such a meeting was not scheduled until 22 February, just last month, at the regular meetings of the joint steering committee.

Minister, it is evident that there were no formal intergovernment communications on the issues of intergovernmental agreements on the future of the program. It is evident that there was no high-level dialogue aimed at ensuring that the states and territories were willing to contribute in a bipartisan way to the future of the program. There was no sustained effort to redesign the program to meet the recommendations of the independent review and to build on the successes of the program.

Minister, it seems evident that you got rolled in the ERC, the Expenditure Review Committee, that the cabinet of this government decided to pull up the drawbridge on a decade of collaboration, and that there was no effort on the part of you as a minister, or your officials, to enter into serious, respectful and transparent negotiations on remote housing. You did not pick up the phone, it seems to me, to commence negotiations or invite the participation of the states and territories into an ongoing program. Instead, there have been a series of statements from the Prime Minister, Minister Wyatt and Minister Scullion.

The Prime Minister responded to two questions without notice in the House on Thursday, 8 February, saying:

I just confirm that we are negotiating a new agreement for remote housing with the jurisdictions who remain part of the terminating program.

We can now ask if that statement was accurate at the time, given the correspondence shows that the ministers of South Australia, Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia were not signed until that day. On the same day, 8 February, Minister Wyatt told the House:

The negotiations that we will continue to have with state and territory governments on this are important …

Minister Wyatt had earlier said:

The funding has not been cut. It has not been reduced. Senator Scullion is in ongoing negotiations with the relevant ministers.

We now question whether Minister Wyatt's statement was correct. On 12 February, Minister Scullion told the Senate in answer to my question:

A national partnership involves every state and territory. It is self-evident that New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria are no longer in it. So now we're moving to a bipartisan approach. We've made the announcement with the Northern Territory and we're still in discussions with the other states and territories.

Minister, a couple of letters rushed out of your office to back up the statements in the House and a planned officials meeting in a couple of months time are not at all the grounding for solid bipartisan negotiations.

Regrettably, the order to produce documents demonstrates poor faith in negotiation matched by unimaginative leadership; a tendency to say that things are progressing when they have not commenced; and especially a lack of concern for First Nations communities in the maintenance of the essential building block of safe, secure and heathy housing.


Stay up to date by subscribing to my newsletter.