Thursday, 25 November 2010
Native Title Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2010
I rise to support the Native Title Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2010. The purpose of this bill is to amend the Native Title Act 1993 to create a new process to deal with the construction of housing and other relevant infrastructure on land which is or may be subject to native title. This bill is almost identical to the Native Title Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2009, which lapsed on the proroguing of parliament in September this year. That original bill was referred to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee for inquiry, and the committee reported on it in February this year. The key amendments in the bill before us today provide a new process to assist in the timely construction of infrastructure that is being built for the benefit of the relevant Indigenous community by or on behalf of the Crown, a local government body or any other statutory authority of the Crown in any of its capacities, for Indigenous communities or on Indigenous held land.
Schedule 1 of the bill inserts new subdivision JA into the ‘future acts regime’ in division 3, part 2 of the act. The future acts regime sets out how acts that will affect native title, called ‘future acts’, can be undertaken. Importantly, if an act will not affect native title, it is not subject to the Native Title Act and the future acts regime in this bill. It is not an open licence to override the provisions of the Native Title Act. If an act will affect native title, it will be valid to the extent of any effect on native title only where it is covered by one of the subdivisions of the future acts regime.
The types of infrastructure that this bill applies to are set out in the new subdivision JA and include public housing for Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders living in, or in the vicinity of, the area—and it is not intended that this will extend to cover housing for private ownership; public education and health facilities; police and emergency services facilities that principally or primarily benefit Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders living in the area; certain facilities, such as sewage treatment facilities, relevant to this; and other relevant facilities. Furthermore, following stakeholder input and feedback from the Senate inquiry into the bill, the 2010 bill’s coverage has been extended to include staff housing. This is an important part of ensuring there are sufficient staff to deliver services in Indigenous communities and is important to remove systemic obstacles to the delivery of much needed services, particularly in remote communities.
I want to talk about consultation. There will also be a requirement for genuine and appropriate consultation with possible native title holders and this will require state and territory governments to lodge a report outlining how these consultations were conducted. As part of this consultation process, representative Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander bodies and any registered native title claimants and registered native title bodies corporate will be notified and have the opportunity to comment on acts which could affect native title with regard to the relevant land or waters.
Importantly, the consultation process may be enhanced through experience. The consultation provisions and definitions in this bill are strengthened by the provision that the Attorney-General has the power to make a determination to refine the requirements for this consultation process over time to reflect the experiences of the relevant groups as a result of this new process. This power with regard to consultation will ensure that the process can be adapted to deal with differing projects and community circumstances. This strong and flexible consultation process reflects the intention of this government to deal with native title issues in a way that is respectful of the interests of all parties but also serves to ensure the timely delivery of this important infrastructure. Native title is protected for the long term because, where this new process is used, native title will not be extinguished but merely suppressed.
This bill has come about because some state governments have indicated that uncertainty in relation to native title could be and is a barrier to meeting housing and service delivery targets, which could create a delay in the delivery of housing projects. The new process outlined in this bill will be subject to state and territory heritage processes, and this is an important provision. A sunset clause will apply to ensure the amendment operates for a period of 10 years, consistent with the current funding commitments under the national partnership agreements on remote Indigenous housing and remote service delivery.
There is no doubt that Indigenous Australians remain the most disadvantaged group in the country and that we need to take all practicable steps to improve the delivery of basic services to this community. At present, there is extreme overcrowding and an appalling standard of housing and public infrastructure, particularly in remote communities. Improving housing and reducing overcrowding in Indigenous communities is essential to the Gillard government’s efforts to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage. The amendments in this bill are therefore necessary to help achieve these important goals.
It is important to note in this regard that the Gillard government’s housing program in the Northern Territory is now on track to deliver 750 new homes, 230 rebuilds of homes and 2,500 refurbishments of homes by 2013—and all of that in remote communities in the Northern Territory. The Gillard government exceeded our target for the most recent financial year and, as at 11 October 2010, 82 new houses had been completed, and we have 101 houses under construction in remote communities in the Northern Territory. In addition, 645 refurbishments and rebuilds of houses have been completed and another 105 refurbishments and rebuilds are underway.
The Gillard government is also making important efforts to build a strong Indigenous workforce, which is another important part of closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage. This goes directly to the points the member for Kennedy is trying to make by interjecting. There are currently around 300 Indigenous people employed in this housing program—and around 30 per cent of the housing workforce in these remote communities is Indigenous, well above our commitment to 20 per cent Indigenous employment in the workforce. Despite these achievements, we are only too aware that we have got an enormous amount more to do in remote Indigenous housing, both in the Northern Territory and in other parts of remote Australia. The Gillard government has made a very significant financial commitment to addressing the need for Indigenous housing and intends to get on with the job.
As well as these important housing measures, other improvements are taking place in remote communities. The most recent monitoring report shows that there are now additional police in remote communities, and many of those communities have never before seen police on the ground. There have of course been tens of thousands of child health checks and specialist follow-up services with doctors and dentists. There are now an additional 140 teachers in schools in remote communities. More safe houses and creches have been built in these communities. The government is also in the process of putting in place the new income management system, which will improve parental responsibility to make sure that welfare payments are spent how they are intended to be spent—in the interests of children. Most significantly, for the first time we are introducing the new child protection income management system, which does mean that child protection workers can now refer parents for 70 per cent of income management in cases of neglect.
Most relevant to this bill we are debating today, it is good to know that there have been improvements in housing for Indigenous people in remote communities in the Northern Territory. Of course there is more work to be done, but improvements in these communities are occurring. This is important for many reasons, not the least of which is the reason highlighted by the recently released report of the most recent inquiry into child protection in the Northern Territory. That report highlighted how overcrowded housing impacts on family wellbeing. This reminds us that decent housing is vital if we are to see a safe environment in which children can grow up.
As I said at the outset, Indigenous Australians remain the most disadvantaged group in the country. There is extreme overcrowding and an appalling standard of housing and public infrastructure in many remote communities. Improving housing and reducing overcrowding in Indigenous communities is essential to the Gillard government’s efforts to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage. The provisions of this bill will assist us to meet this objective. For these reasons I commend the bill to the House.
I had not seen the Native Title Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2010 so I had a look at it this morning and it seems the building of every house in Queensland will involve taking land off the local community. I am staggered by that. Why do you have to take land off the local community to build a house? I built 2,500 houses—don’t pin me down on that—when I was minister in Queensland. I did not see the necessity to take any land off anyone. Why did I have to take land off somebody? Did those houses fall to pieces? No, our maintenance levels dropped dramatically. When the member for Throsby said they have created jobs for the people, he gave us the figure of 20 per cent.
You said 20 per cent, and the official figure of your government is 20 per cent. I know because I have battled over that figure on numerous occasions. Your former Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, in my presence and in the presence of the Mayor of Cairns and the Mayor of Yarrabah, made a commitment that the houses would be built by local Indigenous labour. So we had a commitment that they would be built by local Indigenous workers to a level of 30 per cent. I will tell you what the 20 per cent means—it means that we will be carrying the bricks and carrying the water and carrying lunch and doing the sweeping up afterwards, on $40,000 a year, and the whitefella fly-ins will come in on $80,000 a year and build the houses for us, because we are incompetent Murris; we are not capable of building our own houses. The problem for the government is that we built over 2,500 houses—again, do not quote me on the figures as I would have to check on them—with exclusively Indigenous local labour. If you think it was easy, it was not—it was pretty scary, as the minister, to take that decision. I took that decision on a number of houses, and they worked out well, so we took the same decision on a lot more, and then we did the whole program. So why does the government have to go back to 20 per cent? Why? Why can’t you create jobs for the people there?
When I look back on it, the housing was the most remarkable success story I can think of. In my lifetime in politics I doubt whether there was a similar success story—and I had absolutely nothing to do with. I am not in a position to say that. I am sure that if the former federal minister Gerry Hand were here he would agree with me that neither of us had anything to do with that program in Queensland. Greg Wallace was twice on 60 Minutesit was the only follow-up program ever done on 60 Minutesbecause he got people to work for the dole, which we came to call the CDEP program.
Noel Pearson’s brother, Gerhardt Pearson, was the CEO of the newly set up self-management communities, which were like local shire councils, although they had much more extensive powers than a council. Gerhardt rang me up and said, ‘Why can’t we use work for the dole labour to build the houses?’ Of course, this was a brilliant idea. I rang Gerry Hand and he said, ‘That’s too smart for you; you wouldn’t have thought up that one.’ I said, ‘No. It was a bloke called Gerhardt Pearson,’ who was more prominent than his brother in those days. Gerhardt thought it up, and Gerry and I did it immediately. We were able to almost double the number of houses being built because we were able to get that money from work for the dole.
That was not the end of the story. Lester Rosendale recently passed way. The death of Lester was a very sad day for all of us. He was one of the finest citizens of North Queensland. One of the great pillars fell over when he died. Eric Law from Cherbourg was one of the dominant figures in First Australian affairs in Queensland over many years and he was effectively the head of the department in Queensland, with some 3,000 employees working for the department. I must use the word ‘bludgeon’ because Lester and Eric almost literally bludgeoned all of the councils to agree that all houses would be built by exclusively local Indigenous labour. I can tell you that despite me being the minister they did not consult with me. It was done independently of me. We let it roll and we ended up with some 2½ thousand houses being built by almost exclusively local Indigenous labour.
That still was not end of the story. Donald Fraser, who married a local girl in Doomadgee and is a First Australian himself, was the executive officer and occupied a sort of audit role at Doomadgee. He came up with the idea that we should build our own blocks for houses—bricks, if you like. I was very sceptical about that, but he had worked in a block-making factory and said we could do it. So as an experiment we bought two block-making machines. They were $80,000 each—I can remember the figure because I was very scared about the whole thing. They worked magnificently well and we ended up buying eight block-making machines and placing them strategically throughout Queensland.
I think we received $45 million a year for housing in Queensland but this enabled us to almost treble the number of houses we had been putting out before all these First Australians made the decision to create this wonderful program. That enabled us to build 2½ thousand houses over a period of seven or eight years. This government purports to be very ambitious with their $5,500 million for housing. We had a figure of about $100 million if you adjust it for inflation, but this government is only going to built one-tenth of the number of houses we built.
What I am saying here is that today we are passing legislation which I will not vote for. To some degree, I feel I should have got to the opposition sooner on this bill. It would have been nice if the government had consulted with me before proceeding down this path, since I represent probably more First Australians than anyone else in this place. I will be certainly voting against this bill.
Mr Speaker, do you want to know the sense of frustration and rage in Queensland? For 20 years they have not been able to get a title deed on the 10 million-acre piece of land supposedly owned by the First Australians in Queensland. What the hell can you do with a piece of land if you cannot get a title deed to it? We come here today to honour and take into account native title. As the parliament of Australia, we are very sensitive on the issue of native title. Doesn’t anyone in this government or the previous government understand what has happened with the 10 million acres in Queensland supposedly belonging to First Australians?
Let me take Yarrabah as an example. There are supposedly 200 people from the original native title holders at Yarrabah. There are 4,000 people in Yarrabah. Are you moving forward into the future or are you going to lock us into the past? Clearly you are going to lock us into the past. Things became so bad at Yarrabah as a result of the decisions taken in this place that there were injunctions to prevent any houses being built. The minority group there, who had been given this great power through the Native Title Act, decided that they were really going to fix up the rest of them there and told them all to leave. I do not hold that against those people. If the parliament of Australia says, ‘You can own this land and kick everybody else off it because your great-great-great grandaddy lived here,’ you would be a fool not to.
Every community in Queensland on the mainland is occupied by people who, in the main, never came from that area. So what you did when you passed the Native Title Act here was to dispossess the vast bulk of the population of the people in Queensland who identify as First Australians and live in First Australian communities. Have you done anything in the 20 years since to fix it up? No, you have not.
After 20 years in Queensland, after the government fell there and the machinery for handing out title deeds to people was removed—and it was only there for seven years—can you imagine the cynicism and hatred of the First Australians towards the whitefella Australians? ‘They give us the right to own land for seven short years and then they take it back off us again.’ And it has been 20 years of fighting to get it back again. But under extreme pressure—and I think that I might have had a little bit to do with this, but then again I may be flattering myself—the Queensland government have deigned after 20 years to issue a title deed.
The title deed they issue is for a 99-year lease. So every other Australian gets a freehold title but we only get a 99-year lease. What are we, some sort of second-class citizen? We only get a 99-year lease. Why would we be given a 99-year lease? It is a flashing neon light to say: ‘We can’t really trust you with freehold title.’
That is not the end of it. The Queensland government has another little pernicious condition upon the issue of the title deeds: we have to give them $22,000. We have to give them $22,000 to buy our own land back, do we? I will tell you: there are not a lot of Murri people in Queensland who have $22,000 available to take up a piece of land which in the first place is their own.
We look for leadership amongst communities that have had the great privilege of education, as many people in this place have had the privilege of education. To some degree it is a privilege. Most certainly for people of my age it would be looked at that way because most of us did not get to 12th grade. In Yarrabah, most of the people are well educated. It is a very sophisticated community, with probably some of the lower alcoholism rates of any community, black or white, in Australia. It is a very religious community. The Anglican Church probably has as high an attendance as in any town in Australia. Yarrabah is under the brilliant leadership of a family that has given great leadership over the years when it has not been easy to lead—Percy Neal and his family and many others who are associated with them.
They have said to the government, ‘If we have to give you our land then we’ll go without the houses.’ What they are effectively saying is, ‘Better for us to live in a gunyah than to bend our knees to you so-and-sos.’ That is what they are saying. If the government is looking for a head-on collision, you will get it. And, if you are stupid enough to continue to take the advice from whoever the hell is giving this advice, whether it is the minister or some public servant, do not blame me for what you are going to cop very shortly and what you richly deserve.
As for your state government, let us just have a look at their record. Let us look at the number of children being stolen in Queensland—and I use the word ‘stolen’. They say ‘protection’; I say ‘stolen’, because I am young enough to remember the generation of stolen children, and I can tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that we were told then that they were being protected. Well, there are 300 per cent more kids being ‘protected’ now than there were in the days of the stolen generation, so please excuse me for saying that things have improved!
We just had the last speaker stand up in this place, and I am going to get his speech and use it. I am going to hand it out, because what he said was: ‘We will manage your money for you. We will see that your children get fed for you, and we will build your houses for you.’ That is what he said. That is what this government is saying here, and I will be opposing it. If I am the Lone Ranger, all the more credit to me, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I remind not only the member for Kennedy but other members of this chamber that, when they refer to ‘you’, the pronoun ‘you’ is referring to the person in the chair. It is a reflection on the chair. They should be referring to the organisation or the government or whoever it is that they are directing their remarks to. I do not use your speech, Member for Kennedy, in isolation, sitting in this chair; it is just a reminder generally to members—
Unlike the member for Kennedy, I will be supporting the Native Title Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2010. A couple of weeks ago I stood in this place and I spoke about a couple of other initiatives that I believe go a long way to addressing the disadvantage currently being experienced by Indigenous communities around Australia. I referred to the Clontarf Foundation and the work that that foundation is doing and I referred to the One Laptop per Child initiative and the good work that that organisation is doing in trying to ensure that the 400,000 or so young people of this country aged between four and 15 living in remote and regional Australia have access to a laptop.
This bill also, in my view, supports and enhances the opportunities for Indigenous people to make a better life from whatever opportunities they have. The bill is important because essentially it speeds up the construction of public housing and other infrastructure on land in Indigenous communities. I heard the member for Kennedy raise concerns that this bill will take land away from Indigenous people. I do not entirely accept his conclusions. The building of houses on Indigenous land does not necessarily take the land away from them. On the contrary, it is my view that it provides them with the housing that they so desperately need.
The bill will facilitate the construction of housing on Indigenous land that is subject to native title or may be so in the future. If it is subject to native title then the land quite rightly comes under the administration of the land management council of the area. The Native Title Act came under this bill in order to build the housing which in turn will be made available to the very Indigenous communities who have rights to that land. The Mabo case in 1992 gave credibility to the rights of Indigenous people over that land. This government has respected that decision ever since. This bill addresses concerns raised by state governments that uncertainty in relation to native title could be a barrier in delivering much-needed housing and other services. I make that point in the full knowledge that in only recent days in this House the government has been criticised for not being able to deliver this housing much as soon as it would have otherwise liked to. It is for reasons such as that that this housing has not been able to be delivered.
This bill creates a new process for the provision of housing and specific community services on Indigenous land. These specific community services include education, health and community service facilities and the staff associated with providing those services. The bill seeks to strike a balance between the urgent delivery of much-needed housing to Indigenous communities and the need for native title rights and interests to be protected. I believe the bill does exactly that.
The framework in this bill allows a meaningful engagement with all key stakeholders about this vital housing and community infrastructure. Importantly, the bill allows native title parties themselves to determine the level of engagement they feel is appropriate for each individual project. I understand that may not be to the acceptance level of some members of this place, such as perhaps the member for Kennedy, but that is what the bill does. The federal Attorney-General will be able to prescribe how consultations with native title parties should occur, including, if required, setting detailed requirements such as face-to-face meetings or the use of interpreters. Reports on these consultations will need to be provided to the Attorney-General and can be made public, therefore providing for public scrutiny of this new consultation process.
The bill also contains a sunset clause, meaning that this new process will expire after 10 years. This 10-year period is in line with the duration of the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing between the Commonwealth and the states and territories. Under that agreement, the federal government has committed $5.5 billion to Indigenous housing, about which I will speak more in just a moment.
The Labor Party is the party of Indigenous rights and native title in Australia. It was a Labor government in 1975 under Gough Whitlam which famously handed over the land of Wave Hill Station to Vincent Lingiari and the Gurindji people. This was the beginning of legal recognition of Indigenous land rights in Australia. It was a Labor government under Paul Keating that in 1993 passed the Native Title Act in response to the High Court’s Mabo decision. And it was a Labor government under Kevin Rudd that in February 2008 apologised to the stolen generations and began a process of ‘closing the gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
Housing is one of the areas where there has been significant work in ‘closing the gap’. I accept that there is much more to do. I do not for a moment pretend that we are nearing the completion of our objectives in that respect. But there has been significant progress made. In fact, that progress has been outlined in the annual reports by the Prime Minister each year since the apology.
The member for Kennedy quite properly asks, ‘Who builds the houses?’ I think that is a legitimate matter that could be looked at separate to the principal issue here, and that is about building the housing and not who builds it. But who builds it is not something I believe should be ignored either. The government is on track to build 750 new houses and rebuild or refurbish another 2,500 homes in remote Indigenous communities by 2013. In the 10-year life of the agreement between the states and territories, the federal government has committed $5.5 billion to build 4,200 new houses and refurbish 4,800 more. The commitments will benefit around 9,000 Indigenous families. Increasing the supply of housing available to Indigenous Australians will reduce the overcrowding we have often seen where families of up to 20 may be living in a house designed for one family. Overcrowding is more severe in rural and regional areas.
I want to speak about another matter that is also relevant to this bill, and that is the issue of homelessness. Homelessness Australia suggests that Indigenous Australians are six times more likely to be living in overcrowded conditions than non-Indigenous Australians. Living in overcrowded conditions can also contribute to poor health and family violence and it can disrupt the education of those living in the house. What is more concerning about the statistics, however, is that, of the 105,000 or so homeless Australians, Indigenous Australians are overrepresented in those statistics. Indigenous Australians comprise roughly 2.5 per cent of Australia’s population, but they represent about 10 per cent of homeless Australians. Indigenous Australians comprise 16 per cent of rough sleepers and 20 per cent of people living in temporary accommodation for homeless people. In Western Australia 34 per cent of people in temporary accommodation are Indigenous, and in the Northern Territory that figure is around 63 per cent. Twenty-one per cent of women who seek support from homeless services to escape domestic violence are Indigenous women. When it comes to homelessness, Indigenous Australians are much, much worse off than other Australians.
I come to another matter that is relevant to these statistics, and that is the matter of homeownership in Australia. Again, if you look at the statistics for homeownership, Indigenous Australians are about half as likely to own their home as other Australians. The latest figures, I have to say, show an improvement. I will quote some figures. In 1991 around 19 per cent of Indigenous families owned their own home. By 2006 the percentage had gone up to 36 per cent. For the nation generally, the figure has been consistently at around 70 per cent—in other words, almost twice as much.
Owning your own home is one of the key steps in trying to overcome disadvantage for any family, whether it is an Indigenous family or any other family. Home ownership creates stability in the home and once you have stability in the home then all of the other matters which arise from unstable homes, and which in turn cause a whole range of other social problems, begin to diminish. That is why home ownership is a priority of this government for all Australians, particularly Indigenous Australians. That is why this bill is important. It invests considerable funds in building homes which will be occupied by Indigenous families who currently live in crowded homes, do not have a roof over their heads or live in rental accommodation which is, again, unsuitable. The bill seeks to make the provision of housing and other services to Indigenous communities more efficient while still respecting the rights and responsibilities of native title regarding those communities. It is an important step in the Gillard government’s reforms to reduce disadvantage amongst Indigenous Australians and I commend this bill to the House.
I rise to speak to the Native Title Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2010. The purpose of this bill is to amend the Native Title Act 1993 so that the procedural rights of native title holders are curtailed when land is required for public education, health facilities, public housing and a wide range of other public facilities. Between the previous government being prorogued when this bill was first presented and this new government being formed there was one small alteration to the bill and that was to include, amongst the previous categories of public housing, an explicit reference to staff housing provided in connection with housing or facilities that benefit Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders—facilities which the legislation nominates as covering public education facilities, public health facilities, police facilities and emergency facilities.
It is the fact that in Australia we have Third World conditions in many parts of the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and, indeed, even in parts of more remote New South Wales. A lot of those conditions are being experienced by the first Australians—our Indigenous Australians. We lament the very great differences in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, we are concerned about the levels of deafness experienced by Indigenous children and we are concerned about the exposure to pornography of young children, which, too often, is simply blaring out into a community where houses have no walls. We have to be concerned about the part that decent housing plays. Quite obviously, if you do not have decent shelter, if your sewerage system does not work, if you do not have running water in your house, if you do not have access to warm or hot water, if you do not have screens on the windows of your buildings so there is no chance to keep disease-carrying mosquitoes at bay, if you have housing that is so overcrowded that there is no chance for a family to have privacy and if dysfunctional families are almost a given because of the numbers of individuals—adults, children and babies—that are trying to sleep each night in shocking conditions, then, I repeat, you have Third World conditions.
It is very important that we do whatever we can in this federal parliament to increase the chance that the dollars put aside, first by the coalition government and now by the Labor government, are actually spent and spent well on building and refurbishing houses. I would like to be able to say that there is now a strong record of housing construction going on and that houses are being refurbished at a great rate, but that is not quite the case. Despite, I am sure, the very good intentions of this Labor government, this is a government that, unfortunately, is not known for being able to manage projects. It has had a series of disasters since coming into power. I remind the Australian public of the pink batts debacle, the squandering of funds under the Building the Education Revolution program, the Green Loans debacle and so many cases of literally billions of dollars not being spent appropriately, not delivering value for money. Now we are facing a similar outcome with the National Broadband Network.
Perhaps the saddest, I would say desperately unfortunate, example of projects not being properly managed amongst all of those I have mentioned is the Aboriginal housing program. To quote from the Australian of 31 August 2009:
A report into a remote Aboriginal housing scheme in the Northern Territory has found it was behind schedule and over budget. Outrage over the lack of progress of the $672 million Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) prompted the NT and federal governments to review the scheme. Rebel MP Alison Anderson walked out on the NT Labor government last month after she was told only 30 per cent of the money would actually go towards new homes. She was also told less than half of the 750 homes promised almost 18 months ago would be delivered by the scheme, which is yet to produce a single new home. The report, released in both Darwin and Melbourne on Monday, has found the program is not on track to meet its targets.
Fast forward 10 months to 22 May 2010. One would hope that there would have been a different story of cooperation and outcomes between different territories, states and the federal government on building decent housing or refurbishing houses for Aboriginal families. Ten months later, on 22 May, the Australian wrote:
With only 11 houses completed during the program’s first 2½ years, The Weekend Australian has undertaken a detailed analysis of the progress under the nation’s largest single investment in remote housing.
A confidential document detailing progress under the SIHIP reveals that only seven of the 16 communities that were to receive 750 new houses among them have signed long-term leases with the federal government.
It went to say:
It then said:
A further nine communities…are yet to sign the long-term leases, which give security of tenure for housing investment.
Clearly there is something terribly wrong when it comes to the delivery of housing using the dollars that have been committed to this program. We have to ask why, and we have to see if there is some impediment in the legislation. Let us hope that this Native Title Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2010 has within it some better way to proceed.
On the surface, you could wonder why we need a bill that changes the arrangements of the Native Title Act. A previous version of this bill was referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs for inquiry. That committee reported on 24 February this year. Many issues were raised in the committee’s report, including that many Indigenous organisations, academics and indeed some state agencies argued that the amendments in the bill were unnecessary and paternalistic or racist and that the framework was already in place to facilitate the construction of facilities such as the bill had in mind. In particular, the report examined the evidence given by the federal government, in the form of the Attorney-General’s Department and the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, and by the Queensland and WA governments. They argued that the measures were necessary, were beneficial to Indigenous communities and should be seen as special and not, therefore, a breach of the Race Discrimination Act 1975. The opposition made a special contribution, saying it supported the recommendations of the majority report but also recommended that Indigenous land use agreements be given support and that a template for such agreements should be developed.
We in the coalition are saying that, yes, we believe there needs to be special measures when it comes to Indigenous housing. There have been literally decades of good intentions leading to nothing in the way of a significant change in the numbers or quality of housing available to Indigenous Australians. As I said, we see dysfunctional families, disease, the failure of children to thrive and an exacerbation of kids being unable to be properly cleaned, dressed and prepared to go to school. If you have spent the night going from place to place looking to sleep and then you are expected to be bright and shiny to go to school the next day, it is very hard.
I want to refer to our Liberal Country Party senator for the Northern Territory, Senator Scullion. He is very well versed in the inadequacies of housing in the Northern Territory. He is a man who I regard very highly as a person who knows exactly how it is in the Northern Territory. He has spoken in the parliament about the inadequate housing supply, commenting that it is not uncommon for 15 to 20 people to be sharing a totally inadequate dwelling in remote territory communities. They have non-functioning bathrooms and toilets and there is misery associated with their day-to-day living, to the point where some choose to abandon their hovels altogether and go and live in old cars, under tarpaulins or under sheets of tin.
As we all know, the very special report Little Children are Sacred, which was released in 2007, identified poor housing as one of the most significant factors contributing to child abuse and neglect. The coalition government was most concerned to make sure that we moved quickly on the business of putting in place better housing. We also understood the importance of Indigenous workers being upskilled and being able to work on those projects themselves so they would become more likely to find employment after the housing work was completed. It is a very sad situation—an indictment on this government—that that Indigenous workforce has not come forward. It has not been supported into place and, indeed, a lot of the excuses have blamed the failure to do the work or to build and renovate houses on the fact that there were no Indigenous workers to be found. You really have to wonder just what this government is doing.
I am repeating what is the case in 2010. In April 2008, the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, increased the commitment of funding to $547 million over four years with an additional $100 million to be provided to the Northern Territory government, given their massive failures. This $647 million was later increased to $672 million to provide 750 new houses—230 new houses that would replace houses that were earmarked for demolition because they were in such bad repair—and over 2,500 housing upgrades for essential infrastructure to support these new homes and improvements to living conditions in the town camps. Work was due to begin in October 2008 and was to be completed by 2012. Unfortunately, the Labor government has failed at every turn to deliver on these commitments and promises. This is a monumental tragedy with real human outcomes. We are seeing intergenerational poverty, shorter life spans and lost life opportunities because families cannot even have decent shelter. It is an insult to people who have to live in Third World conditions. Sadly, the dollars have been committed in the budget but have not been efficiently delivered via the states or territories, or in partnerships with them, so that our Indigenous Australians can at least be better served, have some privacy, look after their children better, have a toilet that works and have water infrastructure that functions.
The community of Maningrida, for example, was to be consulted closely on what sort of housing was to be built, and we have to say that sometimes it is this very consultation that takes up a lot of dollars and does not lead to an outcome. At Maningrida, Senator Scullion has said:
… more than $45 million was spent on consultations, administration and other bureaucratic expenses before a single house slab was poured, a single nail driven or a single brick laid.
That is, $45 million was spent on consultation and not one single step taken towards better housing for anyone in that community, and that is despite money having been available since 2007 to do that better house construction work.
This bill may not deliver what this Labor government hopes it will in the form of even better strategies to have housing constructed. I say it may not because this government sadly has a history of maladministration and poor project management. Unfortunately, with Indigenous housing, whether it is building or renovation, we cannot afford to have mismanagement continue. We saw mismanagement, as I said, with the pink batts, with the Building the Education Revolution program, with the Green Loans program and with child care. But in this instance we have to hope that this government finally gets it right. We understand they wish to make a difference; now they have got to put some skills and proper management processes in place. They have to hold states and territories accountable, and if this bill helps at all then of course the coalition will not oppose it. But we do say that time is passing. The dollars have been on the table for more than three years now. The people in those remote communities in Australia continue to live and die in conditions that we would be ashamed of if they were anywhere near suburban backyards or if our own relations were experiencing those conditions. We need to be ashamed of those conditions, because our First Australians are living like that.
in reply—I would like to thank members for their contributions to the debate on the Native Title Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2010 and thank the House for dealing with this matter expeditiously. There is no doubt that improving housing and reducing overcrowding in Indigenous communities is central to the government’s efforts to close the gap in Indigenous disadvantage and to address issues of abuse and community safety. To this end, the Council of Australian Governments has committed $5.5 billion over 10 years to deliver much-needed Indigenous housing in remote Indigenous communities across Australia.
The member for Murray, in her speech immediately preceding me, outlined some undoubtedly chronic issues and spoke of the shame that our First Australians are living and dying in such conditions. Indeed, these have been intergenerational issues. They did not happen overnight; they happened during the 12 years of neglect of the former government. It was not until the former government received the Little children are sacred report that they were motivated to action. It expedited their attention, but the reality is that the chronic problems and the cultures are set in and it is taking a great deal of work, obviously, to address these chronic issues that it would be incumbent on any government to address and to address quickly. Hence the reason why we are seeking urgency in the passage of this legislation.
I would like to respond to some specific comments from the member for Menzies and the member for Murray. The Australian government, as I have mentioned, is delivering $5.5 billion to address the significant overcrowding, homelessness, poor housing and severe housing shortage in Indigenous communities. The government has put in place secure tenure arrangements as a precondition for housing investment so that responsibilities are clear and people can be masters of their own domain. We are ensuring standard tenancy management arrangements are in place so that rents can be collected and repairs and maintenance can be carried out, and 352 new houses have already been completed, with construction underway on another 165 homes across the country. A further 1,186 houses have been rebuilt or refurbished, with 338 rebuilds or refurbishments currently underway.
We are holding state and territory governments accountable for the delivery of targets under the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing. At the Australian government’s insistence, the national partnership was renegotiated in December last year, when it became clear that insufficient progress was being made by jurisdictions to meet targets. These Australian government reforms created a renewed sense of drive and urgency across all jurisdictions. Consequently, the states and the Northern Territory delivered 316 new homes and 828 refurbishments in remote Indigenous communities in 2009-10. While this was just four houses short of the new houses target, the refurbishment target was exceeded by some 241 refurbishments. The Australian government is continuing to drive improvements in the delivery of Indigenous housing programs across Australia.
Returning to issues raised in respect of the content of the bill, I can confirm that the proposed amendments will enable housing and infrastructure to be built in Indigenous communities on Indigenous held land where native title may exist after—and I emphasise: after—consultation with native title parties takes place. The bill’s coverage of housing and associated infrastructure, including staff housing, represents a holistic approach that recognises that community health and wellbeing depends on the availability or all of these public services for communities. The new process gives native title parties an opportunity to provide input into the design and delivery of urgently needed housing and public infrastructure, and also flexibility to choose the level of consultation that is appropriate and necessary in the circumstances. In this way, the new process balances proper consultation with the need to ensure public housing and infrastructure projects proceed in a timely, definite and certain way.
The non-extinguishment principle, compensation and consultation mechanisms provided in the bill will ensure that any native title rights are not adversely affected in the long term. The bill’s sunset period of 10 years provides an incentive to state and territory governments to deliver on housing and infrastructure commitments in a timely manner in accordance with the national partnership agreements on remote indigenous housing and remote service delivery. That partnership stresses the issue of urgency.
The amendments in the bill are not intended to replace Indigenous land use agreements but provide an alternative mechanism to secure appropriate tenure for housing and infrastructure construction on land in Indigenous communities. The proposed amendments are necessary to mitigate the risk that uncertainty about the existence of native title and also uncertainty about which native title processes may apply will delay government’s ability to secure appropriate tenure for housing and infrastructure construction. There has been greater success in putting in place secure tenure arrangements in Indigenous communities where these uncertainties do not arise, such as on Aboriginal land rights land in the Northern Territory.
The bill addresses real concerns that state and territory governments would not be able to meet their Council of Australian Government targets because of delays caused by native title. So far, state and territory governments have largely met their housing targets, but they have been doing so by targeting non-native-title land. But that land is running out. With the construction expected to trigger native title issues, from 2011 to 2012, there is no certainty that existing native title processes can be relied upon to deliver secure tenure arrangements in a timely manner. There is also a risk that, without a bill, program delivery will be skewed towards sites where native title processes do not have to be followed rather than on the basis of greatest need, and that would be a distortion of where the services should properly be allocated.
In conclusion, this bill facilitates the delivery of the government’s unprecedented funding commitment to improve housing and reduce overcrowding in Indigenous communities, whether that is based on native title or otherwise. It does this by ensuring investment in housing and community infrastructure proceeds expeditiously and in a manner consistent with the government’s commitment to work in partnership with Indigenous Australians. I commend the bill to the House.
I thank the member for Kennedy. Under standing order 126, as you point out, we need two voices to have a division but you are entitled to have your dissent recorded in the Votes and Proceedings. I will ensure that such a course of action occurs.
Question agreed to, Mr Katter dissenting.
Bill read a second time.