Tuesday, 20 March 2018
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 thank Senator Dodson for that question and for the opportunity to respond—as I have done in much detail, through the 52 documents we provided as part of this order for the production of documents. As the order demonstrated, I am clearly in negotiations with state and territory governments, and I refer you to the documents, particularly documents 1 to 6—reference to my letters to my state and territory counterparts. As this order for the production of documents shows, my officials have been in discussions with their state and territory counterparts since 2017, and that would be standard, for discussions to commence after the MYEFO, before a national partnership agreement expires. The order to produce documents also shows that I have written to the states and the Northern Territory government with an unequivocal commitment to future Commonwealth investment in remote housing.
But I asked the states and the Northern Territory to provide advice on any investment they have made in remote public housing, given public housing is a state and territory responsibility. I also asked for any future funding commitments states and territories are willing to make. I'm strongly of the view that state and territory governments should make a contribution and not treat the residents of remote communities differently from communities in any other part of their state or territory jurisdiction. Why should the residents of Bamaga, Palm Island, Mimili or Jigalong be treated any differently by their state governments? I welcome the response from the Northern Territory government in my negotiations and its commitment to $110 million a year, which I look forward to investing not only in partnership with the Northern Territory but in partnership with Aboriginal leadership and with Aboriginal control for the first time.
I'll obviously have to give some grace to the South Australian government, given it has been in caretaker mode through this process. But I have to say, Senator, I won't be as gracious with your counterparts in Western Australia and Queensland. To date, Queensland and Western Australia have not put a single dollar on the table when it comes to remote housing in either of those states. I will just repeat that: they haven't put a single dollar on the table when it comes to remote housing. So you should be asking Mick de Brenni and Peter Tinley, the housing ministers for Queensland and Western Australia, why no commitment has in fact been made. But I'm here and willing to stand up for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians living in remote Australia, despite your defence of Western Australia's and Queensland's lack of commitment in this important area.
by leave—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.
I rise to take note of the response from Minister Scullion. As shadow minister for housing and homelessness I deal with community groups who are trying to deal with homelessness and housing issues around the country. Today at the Press Club there is an engagement between community housing groups and faith based organisations, which they're calling Everybody's Home. Everybody's Home is absolutely essential, because without housing, you can't educate or look after your kids, nor get a decent health outcome for your family. Housing is so important. Day after day I get reports and see the problems of the lack of engagement from this government on housing and homelessness. What you see in the general community is nothing compared to what you see in Indigenous communities: the lack of effective policy for decent housing and the increase in homelessness are absolutely terrible.
For Minister Scullion to stand up and blame the lack of progress on what he describes as a lack of graciousness from state ministers is another demonstration of the incapacity of this government to show any leadership on social issues in this country. One of the key areas where some leadership should be shown is Indigenous housing. This minister put together a review of Indigenous housing. Let's have a look at some of the recommendations of this minister's own review:
A recurrent program must be funded to maintain existing houses, preserve functionality and increase the life of housing assets.
Minister, that's what you should be doing. You should be in there talking and engaging with the states, but you don't feel it should be done because ministers are ungracious. You should be doing it for Indigenous communities in this country, because they need decent housing. They need to get rid of overcrowding and improve their health and education outcomes. As Minister for Indigenous Affairs you should be engaging with the states, showing some leadership and dealing with this issue. You even put your own report on the backburner and did nothing about it, because you deemed those ministers to be ungracious. It's not about whether or not you're gracious; it's about outcomes for Indigenous communities.
Your own report talks about an additional 5,500 houses needed by 2028 to continue efforts in closing the gap on Indigenous disadvantage. You don't do that by coming here and having a pot shot at state ministers; you fix that by sitting down with the states and providing a decent outcome. It's alright for the National Party, who don't give a hoot about Indigenous disadvantage or disadvantage in regional and rural areas.
It's alright for you guys sitting there and going on at me when I'm raising a key issue. You're just not in the game on regional or Indigenous housing. You're absolutely hopeless, a government that has no idea about the key issues facing Australians—especially Indigenous Australians.
Mining jobs? That's all these people can talk about. Indigenous people are dying in regional communities because of bad health, have no access to decent housing and are living in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions, and all this minister can do is to say, 'The states are ungracious, because they won't talk to me.' You need to show some leadership. Why the National Party have been given Indigenous housing beggars belief. The National Party, of all groups in this area, have no clue about what is required for housing. Another recommendation the review talks about is:
The costs of a remote Indigenous housing program should be shared 50:50 between the Commonwealth and the jurisdictions.
I'm sure the jurisdictions—the states—would be happy to talk to this minister about the key issues needed. Because by not getting an agreement in place, we've actually seen some good things happen over the years as a result of the Labor Party's initiatives in this area to deal with insecurity in housing, bad health outcomes and bad education outcomes in Indigenous communities.
What this minister should be doing is getting on the phone today, ringing the various states and getting them to a meeting to get an agreement in place. He shouldn't be hiding behind the secrecy that this government revels in. You're a do-nothing government. You don't answer any questions and you ignore the key issues for Australians and Indigenous communities. You should stop hiding behind bureaucracy, and you should stop hiding behind your incapacity. You should be getting some decent advice. Look at the recommendations that have been put in place and actually deal with the issue of looking after Indigenous communities.
The recommendation also said that there should be a regional governance structure to facilitate better administration of the program. What has the minister done about improving regional governance structures? Not much. There should be greater transparency. A regional governance and performance framework would be better than a collection to be made available to individuals and communities. Where is that up to, Minister? All you do is come here and make excuses. All you do is come here and hide behind the bureaucracy. You hide behind what someone else is not doing, instead of showing some leadership as a minister and dealing with one of the great social problems in this country.
The recommendations also said there should be a five-year rolling plan to fix the program. Where is the rolling program? What initiatives have you come up with? Absolutely nothing. You can't even communicate effectively between your ministry and the representative minister in the House of Representatives. We get different stories from each area. This is a minister who is just not up to the task. I've come to the conclusion this minister is not up to the task. The National Party can moan and wail all they like, but they are not up to the task either. When it comes to housing, when it comes to homelessness, when it comes to Indigenous housing, the National Party do not have a clue how to fix any of those issues. These are key issues. When we've got Indigenous families with intergenerational health issues, surely the National Party and this minister should be taking the issues seriously, not coming here and simply saying it's ungracious of the state governments. You need a bit of leadership and a bit of backbone to stand up against those in your own party—those in the National Party and those in the Liberal Party—who don't care about Indigenous housing or Indigenous social disadvantage. How about a bit of backbone, Minister? Stand up and do something to fix these terrible problems that Indigenous communities are facing.
Where is the comprehensive planning across governments? Where is the funding that you should be putting in place? You have failed to do it as a minister, and you have failed to deliver for Indigenous communities. The first thing you lot did was to cut half a billion dollars out of support for Indigenous communities around this country—that was your first act. The 2014-15 budget will never be forgotten in this country. That was when you stood back and allowed Indigenous funding to be cut across a range of portfolios. You should stand up, you should show some commitment, and you should get in there and argue in your cabinet to make sure that the Indigenous communities in this country are looked after.
Senator O'Sullivan interjecting—
We've got Senator O'Sullivan bellowing away in the background continually. They're doormats for the Liberal Party until One Nation actually becomes the partner for the Liberal Party—they'll be pushed to the side by One Nation. You are too worried about your relationship with the government and your relationship with the Liberal Party.
Thanks, Mr Acting Deputy President Gallacher. Again, they're trying to shut people down when the message doesn't suit them; that's their position: We know that the National Party are in absolute chaos. We know that the National Party are leaderless. We know that the new leader of the—
I rise on a point of order, on relevance. Mr Acting Deputy President, Senator Cameron's contributions since you made your earlier ruling on my point of order have been simply to continue to talk about the National Party and not actually talk about the motion before the Senate.
Well, I'm happy to return to the incompetence of the National Party and the incompetence of the minister who is a member of the Liberal-National party and who is unable to deal with the issue of Indigenous housing, unable to deal with the issue of Indigenous health and unable to deal with the issue of Indigenous education. And when asked to show some leadership, failing to show any leadership is pretty typical of the National Party—pretty typical of the government from the Prime Minister down. They are not prepared to deal with the real issues affecting people in this country and are unable to make sure that there is employment in those areas.
Here we are with a national partnership that has created thousands of jobs for Indigenous people around this country. The housing program put in place by Labor created thousands of jobs. It created hundreds of businesses. It created hundreds of apprenticeships and brought some capacity for long-term, stable jobs relating to housing in Indigenous areas. And this minister has been incapable of understanding that it's not just about housing: it's about health; it's about education; it's about employment; and it's about getting an economy established in the Indigenous areas. This is a minister absolutely incapable of dealing with issues of importance in his own portfolio. He is an absolute failure in this area, an absolute failure. Just ask the National Party what a failure—a leaderless failure—we have as a member of this government.
We have huge issues for Indigenous groups around the country. Overcrowding has come down a bit, but not enough. Indigenous health is still a problem under this government. Indigenous education is still a problem. Indigenous people can't get decent health and can't get decent education unless they've got a home to go to, a home that is culturally appropriate for Indigenous groups. These are the issues that this minister should be dealing with. These are the issues that this minister seems to be incapable of dealing with. This minister allowed half a billion dollars to be cut out of Indigenous support in this country and said nothing about it; he was mute when it came to an attack on Indigenous communities around the country. That was how he started off his career as Minister for Indigenous Affairs—a failure to start with, a failure ongoing and a failure in the future.
That's why we need a change of government. We need a change of government federally so that we can look at exactly the issues that are needed for both Indigenous communities and communities around the country. We need to stop this ideological attack by the coalition against Indigenous people, against the trade union movement, against workers' penalty rates and against the rights of workers when they go on the job. This is an absolutely pathetic government that shows no leadership and has no capacity to understand how difficult it is for Indigenous communities around this country to make their way, with bad housing, poor health outcomes and poor education outcomes.
Minister, it costs money to fix these problems and you are incapable of getting a clear commitment or negotiating with the states to get an outcome on housing for Indigenous communities around this country. You should pick up the phone, you should talk to the various ministers across the country who have responsibility for this area, you should get a national agreement put in place, you should look at the recommendations that your own review recommended and you should start implementing them. We've got children dying in Indigenous communities because of overcrowding and unsanitary situations. You've been there now for years. You have failed to deal with some of the basic problems in Indigenous communities in this country. You are too busy carving each other up, too busy fighting with each other and too busy defending the absolutely indefensible as a government—a rabble of a government, a government with no capacity to lead, a government with no economic policies and no social policies. All you want to do is use fear and loathing as the basis of your policy proposals.
This is a government that is in absolute decline; a government in internal decline. And nothing epitomises the decline of this government more than their approach on Indigenous affairs. We've got the Closing the Gap approach, and this government, who were going to be the grown-ups—well, no-one can look at this government and use the word 'grown-up'—have failed to deal with the key issues that are important to all communities in this country, especially Indigenous communities. You can argue all you like about what you may have done and what you will do, but the reality is that you have failed miserably to deal with the issues of health, education and housing for Indigenous communities.
You must get a situation where we've got a minister that can actually focus on this. I don't think there is one politician on the Liberal-Nationals side, either in the lower house or in the Senate, who has the capacity to deal with these issues, because you are so obsessed with each other, so obsessed with having a go at each other and so obsessed with the rabble that you have become that you cannot concentrate on the key issues for Indigenous communities in this country. We need to improve the health of Indigenous communities. We need to improve education for Indigenous communities. We need to ensure that there is a business case to build these houses, and that's the job of this minister. This minister has been incapable of delivering on what is a fundamental right everywhere in the world, and that is to have a roof over your head. This minister is just incapable of doing that.
Senator O'Sullivan interjecting—
And it doesn't matter how much Senator O'Sullivan rants away behind the minister, trying to defend the indefensible; it is just not going down with the community. The community know that you are a rabble. The community know that you are incompetent. The community know that you are weak from the Prime Minister down—a weak Prime Minister and weak ministers, incapable of dealing with education, incapable of dealing with health and incapable of dealing with the issues facing Indigenous communities. Maybe, Minister, your next contribution should just be to resign and make sure that we get somebody in that can actually look after the Indigenous community, because you patently cannot. (Time expired)
I rise to take part in this debate on the motion to take note of the minister's explanation. This is an extremely important issue that, it is very clear, needed very strong leadership from the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth has been investing in remote housing—in fact, in social housing—for a long time, but in particular in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander housing. This is an absolutely essential area where the Commonwealth should be providing leadership, and it was very clear, even before the review came out, that there was a need for ongoing Commonwealth involvement and, in fact, an agreement with the states and territories around this issue. That was confirmed, of course, through the review document, which clearly points out in its leading recommendations:
1. A recurrent program must be funded to maintain existing houses, preserve functionality and increase the life of housing assets.
2. Investment for an additional 5,500 houses by 2028 is needed to continue efforts on Closing the Gap on Indigenous Disadvantage.
It was very clear that there was need for further investment and that there is a need to continue to build houses.
But just as important was to send the signal very early that this was going to occur. We all know in this place—because I'm sure every single senator has had representations from constituents on these programs, whether it's the remote housing program, soil and land conservation programs or whatever programs you're talking about—that, as programs are coming to an end, there is a need to send a very clear signal as to whether they're going to continue, because things grind to a halt. You lose essential staff, contracts can't be made and they can't plan for the future.
What we see here are a lot of organisations and a lot of people that are employed, because part of this process is employment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It's very clear that signals should have been sent much earlier than they were that this program was going to continue. There has been huge disquiet in the sector about knowing the future of this program. Yes, the program to date has been addressing issues of overcrowding, but, as the review pointed out, more houses are needed. You just have to go into communities to know that we still have an exceedingly high overcrowding problem.
On top of this, this has also manifested in concern in communities, because in my home state of Western Australia—and we heard Senator Dodson talking about our home state earlier—we have had to contend with the past government talking about closing remote communities. Then, when there's uncertainty over whether this housing funding is going to continue, that exacerbates concerns that still exist in communities about closure of those communities. Again, there is a need for some leadership to be clearly demonstrated by the Commonwealth.
I think that we could fund a number of years worth of election campaigns if I had a dollar for every time I heard the Commonwealth government blame the states and territories and the states and territories blame the Commonwealth. It happens in this place virtually every day, and that's exactly what we're seeing here: blame for the state and territories and failure to show leadership, despite the fact that it was very clear that further investment is needed and that the community expects the Commonwealth to be showing leadership on this issue and on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues in general.
On one hand, while we've got the government failing to take action here, we've got the Refresh program for Closing the Gap. We know that housing is absolutely fundamental to addressing issues of Closing the Gap. We need to be addressing issues around the social determinants of health, and we know that housing plays a critical role there. An issue we are yet to resolve is otitis media and the impact it has on Aboriginal children, and poor housing and overcrowding is a key component of that issue. We had a workshop in Perth the week before last, where we were talking about those essential social determinants of health to ensure that we can deal with this. Make no mistake, OM is at pandemic levels in this country. We have one of the highest rates of OM in the world, if not the highest. This is just one example of the issues that we are yet to resolve where housing plays an absolutely critical role. We have to reduce and get rid of overcrowding. We have to ensure that people can live in hygienic circumstances. As the review pointed out, we have to ensure that existing houses are maintained and we have preserve their functionality and increase the life of the housing assets. That is absolutely critical. But building more houses and addressing this issue in remote communities is absolutely essential. I have addressed OM in particular because it is an issue that I think is fundamental; it is a classic example of why we need to be addressing this issue.
I have had a lot of contact from constituents asking about this. People are asking a lot of questions. Why the focus first on NT? It has been commented that half of the housing problem is in the NT. Does that mean that half of the money is going to the NT? Why was the focus there first? I appreciate that there are some very important issues there. I have been in the communities a lot of times, so I understand the nature of those issues in the Northern Territory. But we also have those fundamental issues in Western Australia, as does Queensland. These are important issues that people want answers to. I put in a long list of questions at estimates, which I presume will go to the minister at some stage when the department has answered them. They are fundamentally important. Organisations also need to know whether this funding is going to continue. In terms of planning into the future, communities need to know. Employment programs will cease if there is not ongoing commitment to these programs in a timely manner.
As I said, we knew a long time ago that this investment was going to have to continue. Yet we are still playing the blame game. Yes, of course there has to be investment from the states and territories. But a much more conciliatory approach to negotiations, in a timely manner, should have occurred first instead of being reduced to this game of brinkmanship. From the outside, to a whole number of people, it looks like that is what is happening. Delays will cause very significant issues to building programs, to employment, to the outcomes that we are all looking for. So at the same time that we are talking about the Refresh program and updating Closing the Gap, we are back to basic principles of fighting over housing. That is essentially what we are talking about here. We are back to fighting over housing, and the delays that brings with it.
We know very well, as I said when I started, that urgent action is needed to address this issue. To those who have been working in this space—including the minister, who has been working in this space for a very long time, organisations that have been working in this area and communities that have been agitating to know what the future of this program will be—it's absolutely clear that it needs to continue.
Ever since I've been in this chamber, I think, we've been debating this issue. We've also been debating funding for this issue. Every time a funding program is about to run out, we are back to debating who pays, when they are going to sign up, how much it's going to be, and what the states and territories are going to kick in—all of those issues. You would have thought by now that we could have been addressing those issues in a timely manner. But, no, we're not. We're back to this issue yet again, with people waiting with bated breath to find out what funding will be available and what states are going to be putting in. As I said, it's fair enough that states are contributing as well. But it's all happening again at the very last minute. Again, how many times have we been in this place having these debates about programs? It comes down to the line when they are going to be funded, and this is yet another example.
It comes back to a lack of leadership in trying to get these issues resolved. The government are trying to withdraw the Commonwealth from these issues if they can possibly get away with it. It's time that this issue was resolved as a matter of urgency. That may mean getting the states together with the Territory to resolve this issue. It is absolutely critical that this issue be resolved, that there be certainty and that the recommendations be implemented, such as the additional investment with a recurrent program so that these sorts of debates don't have to be held every time a funding program is going to run out. We know, as was pointed out in the review, that 5,500 houses are needed by 2028. Let's get in place an ongoing recurrent program that deals with this issue so that we can accomplish the elimination of overcrowding, so that there is certainty for the program and so that there is certainty that we can have a Closing the Gap Refresh, knowing that a key component of that can be delivered. We are not going to close the gap if we don't address some of these fundamental social determinants, of which housing is a critical component. If we don't address that issue, we will fail to close the gap, and that has been pointed out by many people who have been contributing, particularly recently, on this extremely important area of investment, where the Commonwealth can show leadership and in fact must show leadership.
I rise to speak in response to the explanation on housing provided to the Senate by the Minister for Indigenous Affairs. In his statement, he mentions that he waits for each territory and state jurisdiction to show the money. Well, in the Northern Territory, the Chief Minister, Michael Gunner, and the housing minister, Gerry McCarthy, have worked on their preparation in terms of what they will offer with housing across the Northern Territory, and they have put forward $1.1 billion over 10 years. I would like to let the Senate know that this was the first offer, I think—and correct me if I'm wrong—from a state or territory jurisdiction to the Commonwealth in terms of that full-time commitment.
The minister made a comment in relation to that in Gunbalanya in January, and that comment was to support the payments by the Territory, so naturally there was a great deal of positive confirmation coming from the federal government at that point. However, that has since been rescinded. It is not the $1.1 billion commitment in equal terms with the Northern Territory over 10 years, which is a great concern.
Reading through these documents that have been tabled by the minister, a number of things come up. One of them that comes up straightaway—and I think it's important for the Senate to be aware of some of the issues—is that here we have a jurisdiction that has shown the money, so to speak, and yet we do not have the political will within the Turnbull cabinet to support a jurisdiction that has already shown the money. We know, in the Northern Territory in particular, the desire to have improved and certainly increased housing for our remote communities.
Looking through the papers that the minister has tabled here in the Senate, there is an agenda item, from 'Capital works milestone'—it has been redacted, so I'm not sure who it has been prepared by—which focuses on this situation: 'As of 30 November 2017, a total of 117 new houses have been completed since July 2016, with 122 new houses underway.' The Commonwealth, then—and I understand this to be the COAG meeting—in November, was alerted to the fact that the NT government 'remains committed to deliver the target of 300 new houses under the national partnership on remote housing, as per schedule F of the agreement, but the achievement of that target by 30 June this year is at risk, due to factors that are outside the Northern Territory government's control. These include'—again, this is for the benefit of the Senate, to understand the intricacies that impact on the lives of first-nations peoples in this country. The first issue here is leasing. Delays in securing land tenure have delayed contracts being awarded, most notably in the communities of Yarralin, Pirlangimpi and Mutitjulu. There are seasonal impacts. The wet season in the Northern Territory has considerable impact on the ability to deliver capital works, and the 2017-18 wet season has commenced early in some parts of the Northern Territory, including at Amanbidji, a community programmed to receive six new replacement houses. The third area of concern, in terms of these risk factors, is transitional accommodation. Capital works cannot commence in a community until appropriate accommodation is provided for people who need to move from a dilapidated house or those needing a new house, so they can be accommodated somewhere in the interim. So works have to be aligned to ensure transitional housing is in place, to avoid delays.
The Northern Territory government requested then, in November, via ministerial correspondence, that the new house target of 300 be revised to an achievable 243 by 30 June 2018, with a commitment that the remaining new houses be contractually committed to this date and then rolled over beyond June 2018 into the financial year of 2018-19. The status of that request is still unclear. But, again, that was an important request by the Northern Territory government.
There are issues that are compounding here for residents in the Northern Territory. Again, these are questions for the minister and his department. There is the issue of rental payments as a key element of funding for repairs and maintenance. The current system of tenancy management is dependent on large rental contributions from tenants. So what is the impact of the record and disproportionate number of fines and suspensions of unemployment benefits and CDP payments to Aboriginal tenants? We've had debates in here about CDP payments and the concerns in relation to breaching and those participants on CDP who are breached. There is actual evidence within the housing department that shows there are concerns as to the rental payments because of reductions in people's CDP payments and welfare benefits.
The other question around housing for the Northern Territory is homelands and town camps. In 2012 the Labor government set aside $10 million from the ABA funds for homelands and outstation housing. In 2015 a full audit of homeland and outstation housing and infrastructure was conducted by the Centre for Appropriate Technology in Alice Springs with the support of the Commonwealth and territory governments. The Commonwealth is now insisting that the land councils carry out a similar audit to determine the priority for infrastructure investment in the same homelands and outstations.
So what payments will be made for the land councils to be able to rescope infrastructure work on outstations? These are the conversations that need to be had well before June 2018. Hasn't the Commonwealth previously stated that it wants no further involvement with outstations since it paid out the Giles government? The Commonwealth created 600 to 700 outstations from the 1960s onwards, and has now walked away from any responsibility in that regard. In terms of town camps, the Commonwealth has offered nothing to address the substandard infrastructure that it created across the Territory.
We know that the minister is currently underway with the Closing the Gap Refresh. One of the areas that consistently comes up is the importance of housing. As we've heard previously from Senator Dodson and Senator Cameron, the importance of housing and homelessness links to the fact that we cannot close the gap in health, in education or in employment. I know that as part of the conversations that are now taking place around closing the gap, it is absolutely critical that this government looks at the importance of housing and the lack of it, and the impact that it's having on the very policy that it stands up to give a report on in the House in February every year on the life expectancy of first nations people. The government needs to connect it.
If there were the political will 10 years ago to have a 10-year agreement on an incredibly visionary housing program for our country and for our remote and regional areas, where is the political will today? It is completely absent, abrogating every kind of responsibility to find excuses and reasons why it is not this parliament's duty to the first nations people of this country to make sure that the government shows leadership in navigating a way through the absolutely complex and political process within the state and territory jurisdictions to have that vision again. Have that vision again! Have the backbone to have that vision again. Have the will to have that vision again. That's what is required for a 10-year vision on housing for our remote and rural regions in this country.
I'll give you another example. Only 18 months ago—in fact, the minister may remember this—we celebrated the handback to the community of Yarralin in the VRD region, west of Katherine. We celebrated the handback after 40 years where the people of Yarralin had been waiting and had their struggle for land. The story is that a group of Aboriginal workers walked off the job at a cattle station in the NT over 44 years ago to protest about a lack of pay and about mistreatment. Today, more than 50,000 hectares belong to them. Fifty thousand hectares of land were returned at that moment. I was there, the minister was there, the Northern Land Council was there and all the men, women and children of the VRD region were there. What was promised as part of that handback was at least 20 new houses and 17 upgrades. I have spoken with people from that region who are incredibly disappointed that not enough has been done in that space. And that's just one example of a number of communities that are waiting.
I say to the Prime Minister: if you want to close the gap, if you are sincere about wanting to close the gap, you have to be committed in every way—not cherry-picking when you want to dive in and dive out—and you've got to back it all the way. We know that housing is a critical aspect of improving the lives of everyone, and the ones who need it the most in this particular instance are the first nations people of our country. The cabinet needs to have the backbone and the vision, because it is within your power to make a real difference here. It is within your power to break the stalemate. It is within your power to rise above the politics of every situation here when you look at the figures of our families and our children on the ground, who desperately need this parliament to get it right. Thank you.
I rise to take note of Minister Scullion's comments. What we now know is that, under the Turnbull government, housing in remote communities will continue to be overcrowded for years to come. The minister's comments were underwhelming. No-one could have confidence that the Turnbull government has a commitment to remote housing with what we're seeing in how this policy is playing out and what we've heard today. We know this is not just a housing crisis; it's a jobs crisis. While the current program is not perfect, it's not adequate to the degree that's needed, what it has done is provide not only some houses but also desperately needed jobs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. What we have here is both a housing crisis and a jobs crisis because of the appalling way the government is acting.
We know that the current program had reduced overcrowding by 46 per cent. There are few success stories when it comes to this federal government and housing. Again, this program is not perfect, but it's heading in the right direction. So here we had something in the housing area at a federal level that actually had something to show for what it set out to do. What I'm referring to there is that it was delivering new homes, refurbishing homes, providing maintenance for homes. That is significant for anybody, but when you live in overcrowded premises it's incredibly important.
I thank Senator Dodson for putting forward this motion so that we can have this debate and assist the remote communities—particularly in Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory, as well as across the whole country—that are now in such an uncertain period. It really has put the spotlight on the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing. I also congratulate my colleague Senator Rachel Siewert for her work in this area, which has been very extensive. She spelled it out very clearly, as have others, in her speech about how important housing is for those other essential rights, basic human rights, of education, of health.
All of these issues are connected, and when you have overcrowding you're going to run into so many other problems that are impacting on people's day-to-day lives and costing the government money. So much of what they're doing here is short-sighted. We know the remote housing program is not a huge amount of money, so what is going on here? This is a real reminder of how this really is a government of inequality. Previous federal governments committed $776 million to the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing. It's been cut to $100 million. That extra $676 million that they think they're saving—I mean it's not a huge amount of money. It should have been improved, increased, not what we're seeing here today.
What we also know—and this comes from the latest census work of the Australian Bureau of Statistics—is the whole impact that overcrowding has on communities. It really is worthwhile reminding ourselves how serious this is. The ABS stated that the overall number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experiencing homelessness in 2016 was 23,437 and more than two in three were living in severely crowded dwellings. Those figures are shameful. We are a rich country and this should not be happening. The ABS stated that people living in severely crowded dwellings—which are defined as requiring four or more extra bedrooms to accommodate the people who usually live there—was the greatest contributor to the national increase in homelessness. It is disgraceful that this is where we are at in this country. These are recent figures; that is the latest census data.
Again, we should remind ourselves about the overall housing crisis caused by the shocking policies of the federal government—and I acknowledge that the work of many of our state governments in this area is also below par. The 2016 census data showed that the rate of homelessness in Australia over the last five years has gone up by 5.6 per cent. It is increasing, not decreasing; it is not even staying the same. At every turn, the way this federal government, under Prime Minister Turnbull, is handling housing is shameful. Again, that is why they are increasingly being called the government of inequality.
The National Partnership Agreement for Remote Indigenous Housing and the Remote Housing Strategy have been very significant. The remote housing review gives us some insight into how significant it has been. By this year, the strategy will have delivered 11,500 more livable homes in remote Australia. And I will repeat a comment I made earlier. When we are talking about the number of homes that are being delivered, there are new homes, there is refurbishment and there is maintenance. And what does that mean? It means hundreds and hundreds of jobs. And we cannot emphasise enough how important that is in remote Australia.
In regard to overcrowded dwellings for people in remote areas, the review found that 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. The panel projects that this will fall further—to 37.4 per cent by 2018. That is really welcome; those figures are good; at least it is heading in the right direction. There could be a lot more improvement, but I would still say that it is welcome; there is much more to do, but it is welcome. It is welcome because we know we need to improve the strategy and continue to invest in remote housing. The remote housing review has recommended that an additional 5,500 houses be built.
Where does all that sit with where the government is at now? I have not read all the documents that the minister has put forward, but you would have thought he would put all the good news up top—and there wasn't good news there in terms of the uncertainty this whole sector is facing. The minister has been incredibly inadequate in terms of how he has handled the portfolio. The minister really has questions to answer here. Why has it taken so long? Why has it got to this point? What justifies leaving communities and housing providers in so much uncertainty? That is one of the very shocking things that is going on here—where it leaves these communities. We don't know why they are doing that, but we do know the impact it is having. Firstly, it is reckless and it is mean-spirited and it is bringing more hardship and uncertainty. When it comes to housing, people should be confident that they and their family and their loved ones—the people they are sharing their home with—can have a roof over their head and not have to be worried about it in a month's time or a year's time. That is a human right. People have a right to homes and to have secure housing. It is actually set out as a human right, but this government appears not to know that.
Again, let's emphasise that we're not talking about a lot of money here. It's been about $540 million per year so far. Compare that to the roughly $8 billion of public money we're expected to dish out, and we do dish out, that goes on the negative gearing and the capital gains tax discounts in one year alone. This why I say we're a rich country and we can afford it. We know where the money can come from: clean up negative gearing and clean up capital gains tax discounts. That's one way to reduce the inequality in this country and have money to fund these essential programs.
Essentially, what the Turnbull government should be doing here is to end the uncertainty. That's the first thing. They need to come out with a very clear position that the current system remains and that it's going to be improved on, and we're not all left wondering what happens when this 10-year agreement ends. The state and territory governments should not have to siphon off already constrained funds for these housing programs. You get the sense when you listen to the federal government that that's their idea with housing, 'Oh, well, it's basically a state issue and so we can just get away with pushing it onto state governments.'
As I've heard other speakers say, the Turnbull government needs to find some backbone on this. They need to find a commitment. Again, we hear all the fine statements about Aboriginal rights and Closing the Gap, but here is a case in point: this is where they can actually do the job, and, surely, that's what they should be doing. What we've heard today from the Liberals and Nationals is another reason why this government needs to be defeated. It's ruthless, it's shocking and this is clearly another example why this government should be voted out of office. Thank you.
There have been a number of contributions and I thank everybody for them. I particularly acknowledge my senator colleague from Western Australia, Senator Dodson. I know you have an ongoing and genuine interest in this matter, and I thank you for your ongoing interest, mate.
I will try to deal with a number of the questions and assertions that've been put up, but let me, perhaps, get the dross out of the way first. Senator, your contribution certainly stood in stark contrast to the contribution from the shadow housing minister. I wasn't actually aware that Senator Cameron was the shadow housing minister. When he got to the four-minute mark he decided to blither on to personal insults and to say that the National Party doesn't care about Indigenous people. I guess we're used to it. There are some people in this place—there's certainly one—who everybody in Australia should factor in. He is so offensive in his nature that he should just be ignored. We do our best under a torrent of specific and personal offence given by this man. We don't forgive him. He's just what he is and we just ignore it. It was insightful that he ran out of steam after four minutes and went into the remainder with the of sort of rubbish he normally makes in a contribution.
But h should be held to account for a couple of things. He said that Indigenous homelessness has increased. He's the shadow minister, he should have a bit of a clue about that, wouldn't you reckon, Senator Dodson? He should have a clue about a fact that he's just put on the table. He said, 'Indigenous homelessness has increased.' Perhaps I can point him to a number of articles and statistics that he should inform himself of—after all, this is his shadow portfolio. The number of Indigenous people counted as homeless has fallen by 12.3 per cent in the five years leading up to 2016, and it goes on. I'm not suggesting in any circumstance that that is okay, but to say that it's gone up not down, I think, is something he won't ever be held to account for. Nobody takes him seriously, but I thought I would, again, just correct the record.
There were a couple of other issues. Senator Dodson, you brought up document 19, and I agree, to have an entire document that is redacted you'd think was a bit awkward, but I have it on good advice that this is the process. This process of redaction is by agreement. I will tell you, through the redactions, it was actually a draft letter from your colleague in the Northern Territory government. It was a confidential draft working document that belonged to Gerry McCarthy, the housing minister in the Northern Territory.
Throughout this debate, there may well have been positions put that have not been clearly understood. So let me be absolutely crystal clear: the Commonwealth remains committed to remote housing. But, as for the increase, we want the states and territories to take their place. We want them to take responsibility for their housing. It is entirely their responsibility, and I believe that they have abdicated that responsibility over the entire time of this agreement. I believe that if they are held to account in the way they can be we can get the same outcome that the leadership of the Northern Territory and the federal government have provided for.
What I'm saying about the Northern Territory outcome is that twice as much money will now be invested, twice as much as ever before. That's not a bad bloody outcome. And we have Indigenous people who are standing right there, making sure the administration and all of the other processes in place are actually observed in a transparent way. We have ownership by Aboriginal people and the land council. It is significant reform not only in the amount of money that goes in but in how it is provided. On all of those predictions, we can reach them in half the time if we can build twice as many houses, so this is an outcome that is achievable.
There's been a general theme of: 'I'm very nervous; it's all at the last minute.' But the fact of the matter is that in the Northern Territory, Queensland, Western Australia—the builds that are going on at the moment—the notion that everyone will finish on the 30 June 2018 is a complete nonsense. I'm very much aware of the program. And in Queensland assertions were made that everyone has to finish on the 30 June 2018 by no less than the Queensland local government authority, mostly from North Queensland. I had quite a large contingent come and see me to say they were concerned. I said, 'That's an odd concern to have. I'm not like that. Why would we do that?' They said, 'It was put to us by Minister De Brenni directly that I had written a letter to him saying that everyone has to put pens down on 30 June 2018.' I said, 'There's no such letter, I said no such thing.'
It's pretty disingenuous for people to suggest this program is suddenly ending. There's a large taper. In Queensland it will go on for a long time, 12 months or so in addition to the remaining period of time. And so I am absolutely confident that we'll come to a settlement on where we go in Queensland, Western Australia and in South Australia. The Northern Territory has already got a clear direction where we're going to go, so there's not going to be a hiatus of activity in this particular area.
People have been talking about leadership, particularly about me, and asking why don't I show some leadership? As I have just indicated, you could not ask for a better outcome. I went to the Northern Territory government. They run their budget on an annual basis, unlike the Commonwealth—we run our budget over three-year forward estimates. That is entirely a matter for them. It is just a different way in terms of scale. I am not criticising them for that. They've indicated they're going to put $110 million in a fund, not in their own budget, and I've said that we'll match whatever you put in that fund. They indicated there's one year's funding in the fund and they are going to get back to me about the second year, and I hope to have it on the second year. We'll be matching the funding they put in there. As I have indicated, you can't ask for much more than doubling the investment in some of the most needy parts of Australia. That opportunity is, in fact, available to Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia. As I indicated earlier, I can give some grace to the South Australian government, because they've just been in caretaker mode and they're unable to negotiate through letters—that's just a fact—but it is very important that we continue to make a joint effort.
What I want out of the state and territory governments and what I've asked them to provide—as you'd see by your letter, Senator Dodson—is effectively three things. I think people need to know how many dollars they have provided from their own budgets over the last decade. The Commonwealth are clear: we've invested $5.4 billion. That's been our investment in NPARIH. We've also made some investment through special purpose payments, national partnerships and Commonwealth rent assistance. Commonwealth rent assistance puts it up to about $49 billion or $50 billion in the last decade. Commonwealth rent assistance will take that apart. Whilst it's a huge number, I think we need to set that aside and just look at those funds that were available for investment by the states and territories that were funds given to them. I know that, because we have records of the funds that have been provided to the Queensland government, to the Western Australian government, to the South Australian government and to the Northern Territory government over that period of time.
I want to know how much of their own funds they've provided from their own budgets. I'm talking about 'in remote areas', and that's actually defined. I've asked them if they would provide the number of houses that have been built by them in those areas. I've also asked them: 'How many dollars are from the Commonwealth funds that we provided you for public housing for your most needy?' Between the special purpose payments and the national partnerships on homelessness, over the last decade there's been about $5.5 billion in those specific areas. That's an investment that could've been made to the most needy in those jurisdictions. The most needy live in those remote areas. That $5.5 billion is almost the same as the Commonwealth amount, isn't it, Senator Dodson? Imagine what you could do with that. I've asked them: 'How did you go with that, and how much have you invested?' Western Australia had $1.5 billion of discretionary funds that they could have invested over the last decade, Queensland had $2.6 billion, South Australia had a tad over $1 billion and the Northern Territory had $300,000. That's the discretionary funding that has been allocated over the last decade for investment in public housing. I wanted to know that. I think it's very important we all know that.
It's very important, as we go into the future, that people talk to me. Senator Dodson, you said, 'We need to be serious. We need to be respectful. This needs to be a joint effort. This needs to be a collaboration. This needs to be equally shared.' I agree entirely, which is why we're taking this approach. We've asked them that. I have to say, Queensland has written me back a highly political letter. You would have seen that. It doesn't tell me anything, and it certainly doesn't answer those questions. The most fundamental question, of course, is: how much are you going to put on the table in the future, given what you've just done? I haven't got an answer from Western Australia, but I'm really looking forward to meeting with their minister later this week.
The answers to those are the sorts of questions I think you should be putting to your Minister for Housing in Western Australia. We've had New South Wales take on its own responsibilities. That's it; they're out—they're taking on their own responsibilities. The funds that they get they're now allocating to the most in need, and their remote areas they're going to be able to service. Victoria have taken the same approach. They're going to be servicing those people most in need. Tasmania has said, 'I'm going to take over my responsibilities as a state, and a fundamental responsibility is the provision of public housing.' Yes, the Commonwealth help out in certain ways. We now need the same approach.
I know what the states have been provided. I want to know how much has come out of that. I want the answer to the question, but sadly—through you, Acting Deputy President O'Sullivan, to Senator Dodson—it appears, certainly in Queensland, and I'm looking closely at Western Australia, they haven't provided the answer to the question of how much of that discretionary $2.6 billion did they actually invest? I suspect the answer is zero. It is just depressing to think about why that would be the case. Perhaps because of the colour of someone's skin you would decide that these discretionary funds are not available to an entire demographic because they happen to live in remote areas. I'm not sure of the answers to those questions, Senator Dodson, but I am, as you are, looking forward to them. As I've indicated, I will share the answers in the letters from the jurisdictions with you and other interested parties.
I hope I have dealt with most of the issues that were brought up. People have indicated there is some concern. There were some discussions about outstations and the $40 million, of course, that is going through the ABA, Senator McCarthy. I have been in discussions with all four land councils, as you'd be aware, and we want to ensure that that is rolled out using Indigenous labour and procurement.
I thank everybody for participating in this important debate. It is so important, as Senator Dodson indicates, that this should be a shared responsibility. I think the rolled-gold example is the example of the Northern Territory government. The Northern Territory government have stepped up to the plate. They have been fair dinkum. Yes, they can only do it year by year, but they've indicated that about $110 million a year will be forthcoming. We've indicated that we'll meet that. We've also indicated that it will be separate from the Northern Territory government's budget and that it will be overseen by including the land councils in that. That's a significant move forward. I would encourage the other states to genuinely and openly embrace this opportunity to be part of a future in which your First Australians in your jurisdictions are an absolutely central part of that.
In conclusion, I thank the Senate for the debate, and I look forward to further negotiations with the state and territory jurisdictions.
Question agreed to.