Transcript by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Alice Springs Transformation Plan, Alice Springs town camps, SIHIP, National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing – Doorstop, Alice Springs

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JENNY MACKLIN: Thanks very much everyone for being here today. If I can first thank all the staff and people from the committee here at Yipirinya Thank you very, very much for having us here and showing us this wonderful child care centre that you have here. I’m very pleased to be here with my colleague Chris Burns from the Northern Territory Government, my ministerial colleague. We have a very special announcement to make today which is $1.5million of money that will come as part of the Alice Springs transformation plan. This money will go to Congress here in Alice Springs to do health checks on three and four year olds to make sure that they’re ready for school. What we all know is it’s absolutely critical that our children go to school and are ready to go to school. We want to make sure that their health, their ears, their eyes, all of the other things that they need to be able to learn well at school are looked after properly. These health checks will make sure that children are well prepared to go to school. We’ll also have family assessments where that’s necessary, which Congress will undertake and then they’ll be able to refer families to other services if those families need them. So this is another very important part of the Alice Springs Transformation Plan. We’ve already rolled out a number of improved services. This is the latest one so that we can see especially children here in Alice Springs get the best start in life. You’d also be aware that we’re expecting the Welfare Reform legislation to go through the Senate sometime before 1 July. We were hoping it might have been debated this week but it will now, we hope, go into the Senate in the weeks in June when the Senate’s sitting. And it’s important that we understand just how critical welfare reform will be here in the Northern Territory, both for Aboriginal people but also other people in the Northern Territory who need the support of income management. If we are successful in getting the welfare reform legislation through the Senate in June, it will start from 1 July with discussions here in the Alice Springs area. So this too, will be a very important part of our whole approach to working with children, working with families, doing everything we can to make sure that children grow up happy and healthy. I was also very pleased to go this morning to see the opening of the first house here in Larapinta Valley in the Alice Springs town camps. It was wonderful to see Pamela’s emotion and happiness at being able to take the key for this first home and to know that it will make such a difference to her family’s life.

JOURNALIST: How significant was that Minister in terms of everything the Government’s had to go through and push for that moment?

JENNY MACKLIN: It has been a very difficult time. It’s been quite a struggle to get to this point. As you’re all aware we went through the Courts and I think the wonderful thing now is that that’s all behind us. We’ve been able to really get on with the job. The clean up of course here in the Alice Springs town camps was so important to get rid of the rubbish, to make sure that we did a fix and make safe on each of the houses in the town camps. So all of the basics were checked. That’s been done. One of the things that I’m very pleased to see is the way that the Alice Springs Town Council has really stepped in and is doing the things that we expect Town Councils everywhere to do. We’ve got rubbish bins, the dog control is operating, and this too of course is making such a difference to people’s lives.

JOURNALIST: Can you explain for us what the Government’s doing to ensure a transition for the new tenants to normal tenancy or tenancy that other Australians use?

JENNY MACKLIN: I might ask Chris to talk about that because that’s really a matter for the state and territory governments, but from the Commonwealth’s point of view we have signed agreements, national partnership agreements with the states and territories. And part of that is to make sure that we have tenancy management introduced into each area of Australia that sees tenants taking responsibility for their homes. But also making sure that there’s a very clear line of responsibility on the part of the Northern Territory Government and of course also the other states, that they are responsible for collecting the rent and maintaining and up-keeping the houses. So I have a very clear expectation about proper tenancy management being put in place.

JOURNALIST: How much (inaudible) of the Council Territory collaboration to make refurbishments under SIHIP meet their original promise to bring houses up to scratch and not just be made safe?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well the number that they’re using is not correct, that’s the first thing to say. But I think the important thing to remember here is that we’re always willing to listen to people’s views about what needs to be done. This is the biggest housing program that we’ve ever embarked upon. We do acknowledge of course that there were difficulties with the speed with which we started the program. We instigated a major review last year which put in place a number of changes to bring down the administrative costs and really get it rolling. Just recently we’ve published an independent report of how we’re going and that independent report says that we are now back on track to deliver the 750 new homes, 2,500 refurbishments, and 230 major rebuilds of houses. I think the important thing now is to really get on with it.

JOURNALIST: Why should Indigenous people living in a remote community be expected to accept a housing standard that is less than what is the right even of a public housing tenant?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well, I’d just say to you and to everyone else who understands how difficult this issue is that of course we have a massive backlog, a massive backlog of housing need right over remote Australia. Aboriginal people have had to put up with decades of neglect. Decades of neglect has led to overcrowding, the houses not being up to scratch. We’ve now put in the Northern Territory, $1.7 billion into building new houses, upgrading houses, rebuilding houses, fixing infrastructure where that’s necessary. And what we’re doing is doing it in a very, very systematic way. As far as the refurbishments are concerned our number one priority is to make sure that we have functioning kitchens and bathrooms. We want to make sure that parents have got a clean place to cook for their children, that children can be bathed in a safe place. These are the priorities. We know we’ve got a huge backlog but we do have a very substantial investment to make.

JOURNALIST: The house that was delivered today, how much is it worth and how much rent are the family paying to be in that house?

JENNY MACKLIN: The overall cost, the average cost for houses that we’re building as part of our housing program is $450,000. So that will vary from place to place, but we have large contracts with large contractors, and they’ve got a contract to build a number of houses for an average price of $450,000. So I don’t have the detail of the individual contracts. Certainly don’t have those with me here today but we…

JOURNALIST: But what sort of rent could they expect to pay though? Is it in line with mainstream Australia or is it a lower rate?

JENNY MACKLIN: That also is a question for the Northern Territory Government, so when Chris comes you might want to ask him those questions?

JOURNALIST: How do you respond to the motion in the Senate that was passed last night? Calling for another audit of the SIHIP program, clearly people are still not accepting that these upgrades are value for money?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well I think the important thing to recognise is the enormous amount of work that we have done over the last year or so to get this program back on track. I’ll be the first to acknowledge and I’m sure Chris would too, that we had problems at the start. I sent very senior officers up to Darwin to work with the Northern Territory Government to get this program back on track. We’ve just published another independent review of how we’re going that says that we are now on track to deliver the houses and the refurbishments that we said we would deliver. I think it’s time for us to get on with the job. There are separate processes which Chris Burns might like to talk about that are happening in the Northern Territory. That’s really very critical that we get the houses built, get the refurbishments done, so that people who have waited decades for these houses can enjoy better housing conditions.

JOURNALIST: Minister the question of refurbishment and value for money is there $75,000 to, you now, tidy up a kitchen and a bathroom, it doesn’t seem like value for money?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well, I think it’s very important to have a look at the different standards of houses that we’re working with. It’s an average, that’s the first thing I’d say. The $75,000 is an average, and in some houses, we won’t have to spend $75,000. In other houses we’ll possibly have to spend more because of the standard that these houses were in when we started this job. So I think it’s very important to understand the huge problem of Aboriginal housing, not just here in the Northern Territory, but right across remote Australia. The standard has been extremely poor. We’re now in the process of upgrading these houses, and I think the important thing is to get on with it.

JOURNALIST: Minister all communities in this region where they’re waiting to sign lease deals, they haven’t signed the deals, as I understand it the housing is tied to those deals. Are they going to miss out ultimately in this program?

JENNY MACKLIN: No, the people in those communities to whom you refer have already in principle agreed to leases. There’s a few issues which they’re working through with the Northern Territory Government. I look forward to seeing houses built and refurbished in those communities.

JOURNALIST: Minister, will Whitegate town camp be enjoying any of the benefits that other town camps are receiving? They’ve so far had no rubbish collections, and we’re not sure if they have a housing reference group, we’re not sure if they’re even paying rates, or if Territory Housing has taken over, so what’s going on at Whitegate town camp?

JENNY MACKLIN: There are discussions going on between officials from my Department, from the Northern Territory Government, about the way forward at Whitegate. So I think it’s better if we allow those conversations to continue.

JOURNALIST: But what’s going to happen? Is anything going to happen (inaudible)

JENNY MACKLIN: We’re going to keep talking with them before we make any public announcements.

JOURNALIST: How much money is put towards Whitegate town camp?

JENNY MACKLIN: We’ll talk with them.

JOURNALIST: And Ilpeye Ilpeye? You had a deal with them in terms of just terms compensation. They haven’t been compensated yet? What’s happening there?

JENNY MACKLIN: I’m waiting for the Northern Territory Valuer-General to advise me on what needs to be paid, so once I have that advice it will be paid. But if I can just say on the issue of Ilpeye Ilpeye, we’re very pleased to be continuing to work with Ilpeye Ilpeye. We do see this as a very exciting way forward that we now can work with them on home ownership options and I know they’re very much looking forward to it.

JOURNALIST: Jenny, just before you hand over to Dr Burns, just wanting to check in relation to the health checks, how does that fit in with the mandatory reporting of suspected child sex abuse within (inaudible)?

JENNY MACKLIN: A Territory matter as well.


JOURNALIST: And can I just mention that I mean we obviously had a major expenditure on child health checks as part of the Intervention, why does it need to happen again?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well, of course if you’ve got little children you know that one health check is not normally enough and my children are grown up now but I certainly remember what it was like when they were small and the important thing is to make sure that the children’s health is checked regularly. What we are doing now is introducing some additional funding to make sure that children here in Alice Springs, Aboriginal children here in Alice Springs get regular health checks and where problems are identified that might make it difficult for them to go well at school, that they’re dealt with. So I think it’s a very positive move.

JOURNALIST: And just a question about the Basics Card, the Alice Springs Show has been knocked back for its application (inaudible) major event for Aboriginal families in the region. They feel it’s unfair that they haven’t been granted the Basics Card licence. Why was that decision taken?

JENNY MACKLIN: The important thing about income management is that 50 per cent of the parent’s Centrelink money is made available for essentials. The essentials that children particular need, so food, clothing, rent. We want to make sure that that money is spent on those essentials. People of course do have the other 50 per cent of their welfare payments available for other activities like the Show.

JOURNALIST: But why did you give one to Toyworld?

JENNY MACKLIN: We understand that there are many, many educational toys. Many, many children need to learn through play and we understand that parents need to be able to spend some of their money on toys.

JOURNALIST: This is a question to both Ministers. After the Council for Territory Cooperation delivered their findings this week, Dr Burns will you be taking their findings on to the Minister and asking for twice as much money for refurbishments out bush? And Jenny Macklin, if he does ask for that, will you be raiding the National Partnership Agreement?

CHRIS BURNS: Well, I’ll answer first. Chris Burns, Minister for Housing. Look, the amount spent on refurbishments have been targeted so that we can maximise the benefits to as many families right across the Territory in terms of their housing, making it safe and habitable. The wet areas, the kitchens, food storage, all of these are very important but moreover there’s more than just a cosmetic makeover here. The electrical wiring is checked for safety, the plumbing, toilets, bathroom, so this is very essential so whilst, you know, I understand what the Council for Territory Cooperation is saying. We will continue to maximise the benefits right across the Territory for those 2,500 houses that are receiving refurbishments. So that’s two and a half households, 2,500 households rather, two and a half thousand families, and so we’re maximising the benefit right across the Territory.

JOURNALIST: And Jenny Macklin, will you be (inaudible) the National Partnership Agreement?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well, I think you’ve heard what Chris Burns has had to say and really the answers that I gave to the earlier question is, we are targeting the money for refurbishments to the essentials. To the areas that will make houses functional. As I indicated before I’ll listen to what the Council has had to say. I’ll discuss the issues with the Northern Territory Government. But at the moment we’re determined to get on with refurbishing these houses to make sure that people have decent functional houses to live in.

JOURNALIST: We understand that some work camps or workers from interstate have been brought in to help finish this work in Alice Springs. Is that a sign that there is problems with the program here?

CHRIS BURNS: Well let me say that at the outset I’d like to really commend the alliance partners, Territory Alliance, for the job that they’ve been doing in the town camps in Alice Springs and the rate at which they’re now turning out houses. Now I enquired this morning and approximately 40-50 per cent of their workforce here are Indigenous. So you know, there are demands on trades right across Australia. This is an enormous project and it would be foolish to think that tradesmen might not come from elsewhere in Australia. But one of the major focus points of this particular program is training Indigenous people and providing sustainability for them to build and maintain houses. And I think that’s something that’s lost in a lot of the commentary around SIHIP. This is a very important element. It’s succeeding not only here in Alice Springs but in the top end also.

JOURNALIST: Have you imposed some deadlines on getting the work done in these town camps?

CHRIS BURNS: Well the deadlines are there. I mean, I’ve said on the public record quite a number of times, by the end of this calendar year, we’re looking for 150 completions on new houses, and 1,000 refurbs and rebuilds. So that’s an ambitious target. I spoke with the alliance partners there today and they’re very confident of meeting those targets by the end of this calendar year.

JOURNALIST: Why do you think that Indigenous people who are getting houses refurbished under SIHIP deserve the house that’s of a lesser standard than what’s in public housing standards?

CHRIS BURNS: Well, the need is immense. As Minister Macklin said, there’s been decades of neglect. SIHIP is a very important first step in redressing that, and so we’re not going to achieve everything in the first step. This is a long journey as Minister Macklin alluded to. There’s a national partnership agreement over ten years and we’ll be going along that path and providing better housing for Aboriginal people far more than what’s been ever provided in the past. So I think we need to recognise the immense nature of this particular project and I certainly applaud the alliance partners. I say to Aboriginal people living in remote communities, this is a first step and we’ll be progressing their housing needs over time.

JOURNALIST: What provisions are there in the Tenancy Act to ensure that overcrowding doesn’t occur in the new houses?

CHRIS BURNS: Well, I’m advised that our refurbished houses do meet the requirements of the Residential Tenancy Act within the Northern Territory. Overcrowding is always a problem in Indigenous housing and it will continue to be a problem while there are arrears in housing. So we’re not going to solve that overnight. And what we are doing is moving along a path, in collaboration and partnership with the Commonwealth, to start addressing these issues and it will have a profound effect in many ways for Indigenous health, for education, for economic advancement. So it is a step, but it’s a step in the right direction.

JOURNALIST: What requirements are there though on those residents in the new houses to keep up the standard and maintain that house?

CHRIS BURNS: Well, as Minister Macklin alluded to, there are tenancy management agreements in place and we are recruiting for more tenancy managers right across the Territory in terms of managing these houses. Now that’s an immense task in itself but as I’ve said before, overcrowding unfortunately has been part and parcel of Indigenous housing for some time. SIHIP is a step in the right direction but it’s not going to solve it overnight.

JOURNALIST: So how many people is the NT Government recruiting to police or make sure tenancy agreements are being met?

CHRIS BURNS: Well I think it’s in the order of twenty across the Northern Territory but I’ll certainly get back to you and confirm that to you later.

JOURNALIST: How many of the 150 houses that you hope are finished by the end of this year will be in this region?

CHRIS BURNS: I’d have to, that’s a bit of detail I’d have to actually get back to you on. Obviously in the town camps that we saw here today, there’s a total of 85 houses in the town camps, a total cost of $100million. So there’s a lot of work, ancillary work that goes along with the construction of those houses. There’s civil works, there’s head works, and I thought we saw today some great examples of housing for Indigenous people. We also saw the evidence of the clean up that’s gone, the massive clean up that’s gone on in town camps, and as Minister Macklin alluded to, we really have to congratulate Alice Springs Town Council for becoming part of this and facilitating the process of integrating the town camps in Alice Springs into the mainstream community life of Alice Springs.

JOURNALIST: Dr Burns, did the houses out in bush communities meet NT housing standards?

CHRIS BURNS: Well, many of them will exceed the NT housing standards. For example, the new houses and the rebuilds will exceed NT housing standards, but in terms of the refurbishments they certainly meet the Residential Tenancy Act. So what I’m saying is, this is an important first step, of maximising the benefit for 2,500 families across the Territory. It’s a first step, and in partnership with the Commonwealth, we’ll be taking further steps.

JOURNALIST: So are you not going to follow the recommendation of the Council of Territory Cooperation in terms of upping what these refurbishments should be?

CHRIS BURNS: Well this five year project of $672million has got a target of 750 new houses, 230 rebuilds, and 2,500 refurbishments. That’s what I’m focussed on with Minister Macklin. We will achieve that. We’ve got a target at the end of this year. I understand what the Territory, Council of Territory Cooperation is saying, but what we’re committed to is maximising the benefit with the funds that we have available.

JOURNALIST: You’re still facing delays in the National Partnership Housing Agreement Two. You have 237 houses to be built before the end of next month. SIHIP has delivered seven in two and a half years, how can you guarantee to people that the national partnership houses will be built?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well, as you’re aware, there are more than 80 houses under construction here in the Northern Territory. There are around, I think it’s 300 houses under construction, just under 300 construction in the rest of the country, I’ll double check that figure for you. We do expect these targets to be met. Each of the states and the Northern Territory have very clear expectations from the Commonwealth. I’ve made that absolutely plain to each of the Housing Ministers and the Prime Minister has made it clear to each of the Premiers and the Chief Minister. At a COAG meeting at the end of last year, it was agreed that there would be a renegotiation of the National Partnership Agreement. If the States and the Northern Territory don’t meet their targets, then some of the money will be put out for tender, to put some competition and additional pressure into the system. I expect these targets to be met.