Senate debates

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Statements by Senators

Borroloola: Housing

12:55 pm

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Borroloola is a community almost 1,000 kilometres south-east of Darwin, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Borroloola is home to four language groups; to the Yanyuwa, the Garrwa, the Marra and the Gudanji peoples; and to all those non-Indigenous families and other First Nations people who've moved there. It is a very beautiful place in the Gulf of Carpentaria. This time last week families in Borroloola were called to a room in Borroloola School. They were called to that room in urgency by staff from special envoy Tony Abbott's office, by the Army and by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. They were called to that room and they were told in that meeting this time last week: 'Do you want houses here in Borroloola? Do you want houses? Because, if you do, we can bring down 12 houses to you. We can get them on a truck and we can send them down to you, but we need to know now because we want to get those houses down here straightaway.'

Let me tell the Senate about the people of Borroloola. They have been waiting 10 years for $15 million from the federal government to provide houses—10 years. In that time children, parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles have been living in extraordinarily overcrowded homes—20 people to a house or a room. They had this offer come to them and they had to sign on the dotted line quickly, with no questions asked. Never mind that those houses are former Defence houses that have been sitting by the side of the road for four years. They were deemed unusable. There was no opportunity to really ask questions. Are these houses safe? Can these houses make the distance? Are they going to be permanent homes? Who's going to help with repairs and maintenance? Who is going to own them? Who's going to put them up? None of these questions were able to really be discussed.

A month ago, special envoy Tony Abbott flew into Borroloola, and he was humiliated by the people there when they reminded him on two occasions that (a) they didn't know he was coming and (b) they don't have problems getting their kids to school. I understand that when some of the elders there said: 'Our biggest problem is housing. We've been waiting for 10 years and nothing has come,' he said, according to the elders there: 'Well, kids should be going to school. Even if they are living in caves, they should still be going to school.'

This supposed offer that has come from the federal government has suddenly gone quiet. A week later, none of those families in Borroloola have heard anything. They don't know if those houses are still coming. They've had no-one communicate with them again. No-one has bothered to ring up or fly in to say: 'How are you going? Is this what you want?' There is dead silence, despite numerous attempts to find out what is going on from the Commonwealth government and from the missing-in-action Minister for Indigenous Affairs, who's doing nothing about housing in the Northern Territory, even though $550 million is there for the Northern Territory to sign up on with the federal government for future funding. None of that is happening.

It's the people who are most impoverished in our regions of the Northern Territory who are suffering at such an alarming rate, more so because of the appalling chaos of this government. Who's in charge? Is it the Indigenous affairs minister or is it the special envoy, Tony Abbott? Did he just come back to Canberra and then go into the Prime Minister's office and demand, 'I need millions of dollars to go back and see that 12 houses are taken down to the remote community of Borroloola?' Why? Not for the people of Borroloola. Maybe it's about fixing up the pride, the ego, the humiliation that Tony Abbott felt when he went into the community. This is not about respect. There is no dignity in any of this. This is not an engagement with First Nations people in a respectful manner. This is all about power—those who have it and making those without it feel degraded, despairing and hopeless. That's what you're doing when you show no respect whatsoever in a conversation that is absolutely vital to people who are homeless and living in absolutely Third World conditions. Lift your game. Who is in charge? Is it the special envoy, Tony Abbott? Is he now the Indigenous affairs minister who happens to have the ear of the Prime Minister and who can suddenly click his fingers and get these houses moved? Yet when Labor starts to ask questions and when the people in Borroloola start to ask questions, everything goes quiet. Nothing is happening.

Minister, Prime Minister and special envoy, what are you doing? How much are these houses going to cost? When are the long-term houses going to be built for the families of Borroloola, Garawa One Camp, Garawa Two Camp, Mara Camp, Yanyula Camp and the subdivision? When will you talk to the people of Borroloola in a respectful way so that they can define and determine what they want with the money that is rightfully theirs and has been theirs, sitting there and doing nothing? The ineptitude of the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, and now the meddling of the appointed special envoy, is continuing to cause chaos and neglect in First Nations communities. The Indigenous Advancement Strategy is treated as the minister's slush fund. We found out during estimates that he granted nearly $500,000 of IAS funding to three Northern Territory non-Indigenous industry peak bodies. Minister Scullion said that the funding was just for the legal fees, effectively, but we now know it is not. The Northern Territory Seafood Council has been very clear that they don't want to use their grant to pay legal coasts. The Cattlemen's Association wants to use some of theirs, as does the Amateur Fishermen's Association, to fund cross-cultural courses for their members.

Of course, as part of the land rights process these organisations have a right to argue detriment, and this is taken into account by the Aboriginal Land Commissioner, but there is a process under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act, section 54C, that provides for funding of legal representation in detriment cases. So why wasn't this process used? Why did the minister decide it was appropriate to use IAS funding money, which is meant for the expression, engagement and conservation of Indigenous culture, to fund detriment cases in land claims?

After I first raised this IAS funding issue, I received a message from a New South Wales woman, which I would like to share today with the Senate. She said: 'I am so disheartened by this because, as I read that story, I knew this was the same funding which had been cut from my daughter's primary school, Maclean Primary School in the Northern Rivers of New South Wales. This school has at least 25 per cent Aboriginal students, the majority of which are Yaygirr. This is also the school I went to, as well as my mother. We are proud Yaygirr women, and for the last few years they had been teaching a wonderful community-endorsed Yaygirr language program. They haven't been able to continue teaching this year due to the original funding from the IAS being cut. The cost to run such a program is roughly $18,000 each year. Yet you can go and give away $500,000 just like that.'

This school in New South Wales is desperately seeking funding, and it's not the only story. There are many examples coming in from around the country of organisations and individuals who feel this and who are questioning what is going on with the Indigenous Advancement Strategy. What is going on in Indigenous affairs under this government? Who is in charge? Is it the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion? Or do we have another Indigenous affairs minister in special envoy Tony Abbott? Where is the Prime Minister in all of this? Who is making the decisions?

We're not having the respectful engagement on the ground with First Nations people, and the people of this country are sick of it. The people of Borroloola are sick of it. Lift your game! People desperately need houses. Don't play with their lives like this.