Transcript by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory – CAAMA Radio – Interview with Paul Wiles

E & OE – Proof only

Subject: Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory

PAUL WILES: The Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin has been out and about, she’s touring the Northern Territory, meeting as many people out in the communities as possible to find out what they think about their future. In fact the Government did release a discussion paper, and is giving Aboriginal people the opportunity to share their thoughts about how they might like to see their life pan out. Joining us live in the CAAMA studio this morning, an old friend of CAAMA Radio, Jenny Macklin joins us. Welcome back to CAAMA Jenny.

JENNY MACKLIN: Great to be here.

PAUL WILES: Well you’ve certainly been out and about, I mean you were in Docker River yesterday.

JENNY MACKLIN: Yesterday, yes it was a very very positive visit. A lot of people came and were very generous with their time, telling us what their priorities are for their future. There were really two over-riding issues, many many issues raised, but two over-riding issues; one is the standard and amount of housing and also policing. They have a police officer that comes during the day and sometimes stays overnight but what they’d like is a permanent police presence. So they were certainly the two main issues raised yesterday. When we were up in the north last week, we went to Maningrida and across to Groote Eylandt and then to Ngukurr. The issues there of course also were wide-ranging. The meeting at Maningrida was very large, more than 200 people, and lots of issues raised. But if there was one over-riding issue through the three of those meetings was education, particularly people wanting to think really laterally about how to get their children to school. They know how important it is, and they’re very anxious about the fact that far too many children are not going to school on a regular basis, so they’re really trying to think of as many different new ideas as possible.

PAUL WILES: Now Minister, you’ve already touched on the ability to think laterally. I mean as you’re taking all this information on board you’re hearing, obviously, from community to community, they all have their own concerns about their own community, and there are big issues that you’ll obviously take on board. But at the heart of it, the purpose of these meetings was to let Aboriginal people express to you personally what they wanted for their community, what they wanted for their future. I mean, when you take and collate all this information, where does that go? I mean from there where do you take that information?

JENNY MACKLIN: You wouldn’t be surprised to hear that people of course want very similar things. Similar to most Australians, they want a decent home to bring up their children in, they want to be safe and secure in the community they live in so they want police and they appreciate the police presence. They want to make sure that their school is working for their children and that the children are going to school on a regular basis, they want to make sure that the elderly people are being properly looked after, that aged-care is available, it might be a drop-in centre, a day care type centre, that was raised in Maningrida. So, it’s those services that everybody else expects that really haven’t been delivered in many many parts of the Northern Territory.

Now you’re not surprised to hear that, and I’m not surprised either, but the truth is, that isn’t being delivered for many many people. The quality of housing, we all know that this has been let go for 30 or 40 years, that’s why we’ve got this huge backlog of housing need now, that we’re trying to meet. We’ve built more than 300 houses but we’ve got hundreds more that have to be built, and even then the demand is going to keep growing. But just to go to your point, we will gather all of this together, of course we’re going to have to make some hard decisions about priorities, that’s life. I’ll bring that together, discuss it with people in the Northern Territory, but then that will go into our Budget process for next year.

PAUL WILES: You touched on the fact that the needs and the wants of Aboriginal people are similar to most other Australians, there has been criticism though of delivery of services as dependent on the lease situation. So how do you respond to that?

JENNY MACKLIN: But that’s the same everywhere too. Nowhere else in Australia would a public housing authority build a house on land that they don’t have access to. So the purpose of the lease is just to make sure that the Northern Territory Government, as the owner of the houses, can have access to those houses, can make sure they’re properly maintained, and can also put in place proper tenancy management. In the past, this hasn’t happened. This has been one of the major reforms that I’ve insisted on, that I feel very strongly about, that there needs to be clear responsibility for housing into the future. We’ve had the problem in the past that no one’s taken any responsibility for looking after the houses. No public housing authority made sure that repairs and maintenance were done, that’s one of the reasons that houses have not been properly maintained. People didn’t pay their rent and so the problem just escalated. The reason for the lease is just like anywhere else in Australia where we would normally insist on freehold. In this case, of course we say well we need access to the houses, we need the Territory Government to be clearly responsible for houses that they own.

PAUL WILES: We had a situation out near Santa Teresa recently with the loss of television transmission. And it does raise the issue of the significance of communications to many communities. I mean the discussion about communications in communities has sort of been sidelined by what’s going on. But you, by now, would have seen the significance of communication to communities. How do you think the government should be addressing the loss of 30, 40 years of infrastructure being put into communities?

JENNY MACKLIN: Of course this one of the great benefits the National Broadband Network is going to bring to remote Australia, with new satellites that will improve communications, not just in the cities and towns, but also across remote communities. So yes it’s going to take a little bit of time, you’re dead right communication is absolutely critical to people who live in remote parts of Australia. So we certainly look forward to improve communication capability. If I can just go back to your lease question there’s one more point I’d like to make. The underlying ownership of the land stays with Aboriginal people. So just like if Aboriginal people provide a lease to a mining company for a period of time while a mine takes place, of course the land still belongs to Aboriginal people. The underlying ownership in this case where we are seeking leases, agreed leases with people, so that we can build houses on their land. The underlying ownership stays with Aboriginal people, the lease will be held by the Northern Territory Government or the Commonwealth.

PAUL WILES: You say that Aboriginal people will have the final say but at the end of the day if issues come up where Aboriginal people don’t agree with Government, who has the final say?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well if they don’t agree, if they don’t want to provide leases for housing, if they want to take responsibility for their own housing, that’s their business. But if they want public housing, housing provided by the government, of course the government needs some security over access to that house so that they can get in there, fix the house when it needs to be fixed, and make sure there’s proper tenancy management. We can’t insist on proper tenancy management, on people paying their rent, on people saying – as they said to me yesterday in Docker River – if they have a tenancy agreement of course now they can insist that their house gets fixed. But if that doesn’t exist, they don’t have any rights to ask for that house to get fixed because who owns the house? That’s been the problem in the past, and I hope that helps explain why we’re doing this. But we’re doing it by agreement, if people themselves want to take responsibility for their own housing, do it themselves, that’s their business. But if they want public housing like everybody else, then I think there are both responsibilities on the government to make sure that they’re properly maintained, and also responsibilities on the part of tenants.

PAUL WILES: If we can just move on very quickly. The round of consultations now you’re well aware that there has been pretty widespread criticism, a former Prime Minister, we’ve had former High Court judges, legal people, all questioning the process itself. I mean obviously there was an urgency to engage with Aboriginal people but some of those big questions, the speed of the consultations from the release of the delivery paper.

JENNY MACKLIN: I have to say I find that really extraordinary that people are now criticising the fact that we’re getting out there. Of course as you would know, I’ve been out consulting with people ever since I’ve been the Minister. And so, yes we’re doing some concentrated consultations now on the basis of our Stronger Futures discussion paper, and we are wanting to talk to people about the future. But it’s not the case that it’s only for six weeks, so we can put that to bed. What we’re doing now is I’m taking this time when the Parliament’s not sitting to really spend as much time as I can here in the Northern Territory. But we’re also going to continue to do that with officials from my Department. They’re going to many communities that I can’t get to. They’re not just having community meetings, they’re meeting with people one-on-one or in small groups. You would be aware often people don’t want to say what they really think in a big group, they want to say it more privately. That’s being relayed back to me so that I get a good understanding of people’s views in many many different situations. We want to make sure that we do this, and we do it right across the Territory in the 73 communities, as well as in Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine and Darwin.

PAUL WILES: If I can just go back to this criticism though. Again, you did mention the fact that when you became the Minister you started engaging with Aboriginal people. At the same time though, we’ve heard in many communities when they’ve sat down and spoken, or tried to engage with the community advisers and people who are feeding you information. They feel that they’re not really being heard. They’re say the bureaucrats aren’t listening, the need to grow ears. Now I’d imagine this has come back to you, I mean how do you juggle all of that? What the community’s saying and what the bureaucrats are saying?

JENNY MACKLIN: If I can really reassure people that that information does come back to me and I do read it, I do go through each and every one of the community’s reports to see what individuals have said, what small groups of people have said. There’s going to be a comprehensive report that we will publish, we won’t have any names of course because people have often said things on a confidential basis. But that information will be available for the broader public to see. In the end, we’ll have to make some hard decisions. As I said before, that’s the way it is.

PAUL WILES: When you say hard decisions though…

JENNY MACKLIN: Well we can’t do everything at once. There’s always a limit to the Budget and there is very very significant disadvantage and very high needs for people. We would love to be able to build many many more houses, but we’re putting in more than we’ve ever done before. So these are the sorts of difficult decisions that you have to make, that’s my job.

PAUL WILES: Just at the end of the day if we look at the process once this has finished, you know all that information comes in. What happens if there’s a change of Government?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well we’ll have to negotiate any legislation through the Federal Parliament. So of course we’ll talk with all the parties in the Parliament, I think it is important to do that and I’ll discuss these issues with the Opposition. We’re certainly doing that as much as possible so that as we go forward and try to build a stronger future, we can get bipartisan support.

PAUL WILES: Just finally Jenny the relationship that you’ve tried to build with Aboriginal people, there are always going to be critics of any government, that’s part of the job. You’ve been doing this for a long time now, I mean, do you see any change in people’s perceptions of how life can be for them in the future and how they can deal with government at a grassroot level and hope that government is actually listening to them?

JENNY MACKLIN: Can I just say that is a really, really good question. And one of the things that has really made me feel very positive about these discussions that I’ve been having in this period is exactly that. That people have come forward, a lot of people are coming to the discussions, a lot of people want to have a say and people do really have a clear idea of what their priorities are. And the fact that so many people are saying education for their children is their top priority I think demonstrates that we are all very much on the same page, that without education children don’t have the chance for a strong future. So if together we can build that chance for kids to get a good education then we can turn some of this disadvantage around together.

PAUL WILES: Jenny Macklin thanks for your time.