Transcript by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Indigenous housing, child protection and Alice Springs town camps

Program: ABC Radio National Breakfast

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FRAN KELLY: Now to the never ending challenge facing Aboriginal Australians, housing. The Federal Government’s flagship scheme to try and close the gap and improve living standards is the Indigenous housing problem. In the Northern Territory alone, that program is worth $672 million, with relatively modest objectives, you’d have to say. The construction of 750 new homes and the refurbishment of another 2,500. But the scheme is bogged down in red tape and political bickering between the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory Government. $45 million has been spent so far, but not one new house has been built. Jenny Macklin is the Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister and she joins us now. Minister welcome.

JENNY MACKLIN: Good morning Fran.

FRAN KELLY: Minister why is it so hard to build a house in the Northern Territory?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well I think two things need to be said at the outset. One is that over the last eighteen months while we’ve been getting this new major increase in housing underway, what we’ve also done is make sure that the old housing program continued. So we’ve actually had 102 houses rebuilt while we’ve been getting the new housing program underway. So I think it is important to recognise that that housing activity has happened. We’ve also made …

FRAN KELLY: But can I just point out that rebuilding is one thing, but the point here is overcrowding which is stemming to a whole lot of problems.

JENNY MACKLIN: No, no that’s not right. It needs to be very clear Fran. These are 102 new houses, so 102 new houses have been built since December 2007. New houses that of course have helped Aboriginal people in remote parts of the Northern Territory. It is the case that at the same time that those 102 houses were being built, we’ve been putting in place the new program, known as SIHIP. This is the new major program of $672 million that will deliver 750 new houses and 230 rebuilds of houses, these are major rebuilds, as well as 2,500 refurbishments.

FRAN KELLY: And is that program, the deadline for that, the date for that is 2013 as I understand it. Is that program which your own review found has already spent $45 million without a house being built. I mean people listening to this will think how can that be?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well, like you and your listeners, I’ve too been very frustrated and concerned about it which is why I sent a senior official to Darwin to go through this program line by line. That’s where we have identified savings that can be made in the administration of the program. That’s where we have confirmed that we will be able to build the number of houses that we’ve committed to. We are determined to make sure that the targets we’ve set, the 750 new houses, the refurbishments and the rebuilds will be done and will be done over the period that we’ve identified.

FRAN KELLY: When is it going to start? The Government keeps saying this will be done and there’s people arguing whether you’ve over promised, whether that target can be achieved in the first place. But I think that Aboriginal people out in the remote communities would think, forget how many, could we just have one, or ten or 100, could it start?

JENNY MACKLIN: It has already started and I’ve seen it with my own eyes in Tennant Creek. They decided in Tennant Creek that they wanted to rebuild what were previously unoccupied houses and do major refurbishments, and by that I mean new kitchens, new bathrooms, new ceilings, really making previously uninhabitable houses habitable. So the work in Tennant Creek is underway. There are 11 Indigenous employees working on those houses. Work in Groote Island and on the Tiwi Islands has also commenced. In fact, there’ve have been major refurbishments of houses already handed back on Groote Island and work has commenced on the new houses on Groote Island as well, so there’s certainly work underway.

FRAN KELLY: You mentioned the Tiwi Islands but just three weeks ago The Australian quoted the Chief Executive of the Bathurst Island Housing Association, Steve O’Keefe, saying there’s been nearly 12 months of consultation, we haven’t even given anyone a quote to build these houses, we haven’t seen the design, we haven’t even been included in the design, we’re being kept in the dark?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well as I understand it, there has been consultation with people and that there have now been refurbishments completed on Tiwi Island and handed back to the residents. What we need to do is get this moving far more quickly. That is exactly why I have got the Commonwealth far more involved than we would normally be. I’ve not only set in train a review that I talked about earlier. From now on a Commonwealth officer will be embedded in the management of this program in Darwin and we’ll have Commonwealth officers in each of the building contracting firms as well to make sure that these houses are built, are refurbished, and are delivered back to Aboriginal people as quickly as possible.

FRAN KELLY: And it’s true to say that this is the basic measure of how we’re going to go about closing the gap. Because if you don’t get housing right you can’t lift education standards, health standards, safety standards really can you?

JENNY MACKLIN: That’s absolutely right. We know how important housing is so we want to make sure we have kitchens that parents can cook a decent meal in. Where children can sleep safely at night and mum and dad can have a decent night’s sleep and get up and go to work. One of the objectives of this program has also been to increase Aboriginal employment and I’ve set a requirement on the contractors that they employ 20 per cent of their staff must be Aboriginal, and we’re already seeing the positive impact of that, both in Tennant Creek, Groote Island and the Tiwi Islands.

FRAN KELLY: Minister, on another issue, there’s been alarming claims of what some are calling a new stolen generation of Aboriginal children. More than 9,000 Indigenous kids being removed from their families in some States, at a rate 10 times the rate of white children. Have you looked into this? Why are so many children being taken from their parents?

JENNY MACKLIN: We certainly are aware of these horrific figures, not only the number of children being removed but of course the very high level of substantiated child abuse and neglect by Aboriginal families, and one of the most important things that I think we have to keep in the front of our minds is the safety of the child. That of course has to always be our number one concern. Of course, if there was any evidence that children were being removed or treated differently because of their race that would be an outrage, but the number one consideration always has to be the safety of the child.

FRAN KELLY: Yes, I’m just wondering. I mean if we look at the situation in Lightening Ridge, in particular, where 40 young kids have been removed from Aboriginal parents in recent times, and the women there say that there is a difference between poverty and abuse. I wonder if you’ve ordered your Department to have a look at this in particular?

JENNY MACKLIN: As you would be aware I can’t comment on any of the specific cases – that would be inappropriate. But what I can say is that we do have to recognise that neglect of children and abuse of children is something that we have to act on. We can’t sit by and say that neglect and abuse is something that can’t be dealt with when it’s in Aboriginal families. We have to protect those children and make sure that they’re safe.

FRAN KELLY: Again, I suppose that brings us back to housing and that’s what the people in Lightening Ridge say too. Just finally Minister, another issue to do with Indigenous housing. Where are you up to with the proposed Federal takeover of the town camps in Alice Springs?

JENNY MACKLIN: As you would be aware this is a matter that’s most recently been in the Courts and I’m awaiting the decision of the Judge. Like many other people, and particularly the residents in the town camps in Alice Springs, we want to get on with the job of building new houses, fixing up houses, making sure that children do have a safe place to grow up. And until this Court case is resolved I can’t get on with it.

FRAN KELLY: Will this whole issue of Indigenous housing, will this be the test of your political career?

JENNY MACKLIN: I think there are many issues in front of me Fran. One of the very positive things that’s about to happen, we’re about to deliver the biggest pension reforms that Australia has seen for 100 years, that’s going to happen on the 20 September. So some of the issues are frustrating. We’re getting on top of them. We’re putting some very different approaches in place in Aboriginal housing to make sure we deliver on our commitments. But some of the other areas that I’m responsible for we’ll be seeing a very decent rise to the pension in a couple of weeks time.

FRAN KELLY: Just staying on Aboriginal housing though. I mean, your political success is perhaps tied to the efforts of the Northern Territory Government. Just on the town camps for instance in Alice Springs, you know, how certain can you be that Northern Territory Housing is the right body to administer those given the lack of success they’ve had in building the houses in the first place?

JENNY MACKLIN: We are working in partnership with the Northern Territory Government. We have recognised the need to put Commonwealth officers into the Northern Territory to make sure that we deliver on our housing program.

FRAN KELLY: But you still think they are the right Government to administer the town camps?

JENNY MACKLIN: Well the Northern Territory Housing Authority, just like other State housing authorities, are responsible for tenancy management. The Commonwealth has never had a role in tenancy management. But what we do know is that we need to clean up tenancy management. We need to make sure that tenants get access to a house on the basis of need. What we don’t want is a situation where need is not the criteria upon which you get a house, that’s what I want to see cleaned up.

FRAN KELLY: Minister, we’ll leave it there. Thank you very much.


FRAN KELLY: Jenny Macklin is the Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister.