Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

John Curtin Institute of Public Policy

Location: The John Curtin Institute of Public Policy, Perth

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I would like to first acknowledge the Nyoongah people, the custodians of the land where we are meeting today.

Yesterday I was at Billard – a small remote settlement on the Dampier Peninsula.

The people of Billard have experienced more than their fair share of tragedy including the terrible loss of young men to suicide.

As Mary O’Reeri – one of their leaders told me, “as a family we could have been bitter and angry – we could have stayed inconsolable forever.”

But they didn’t.

Mary said: “The boys are always in our thoughts but from their deaths we have all learnt more about life.”

And from what they’ve learnt, they’ve taken action.

Adopting a ‘no humbug’ policy – with a community standard of concern and respect for one another.

Offering individual programs to help people get back on their feet and take responsibility for their lives.

Organising a Blank Page summit on suicide in July for 150 people with guest speakers including the Chief Justice and the State Coroner Alastair Hope.

In Billard, change is happening.

It’s happening too in the WA town of Fitzroy Crossing.

Strong Aboriginal leaders are speaking out and taking action for their people and their communities.

Among them, June Oscar and Emily Carter who saw the hopelessness and despair caused by alcohol and decided to take responsibility and do something.

They withstood opposition to battle for and win alcohol restrictions.

They did it they said: “because we had to fight for our families and our future.”

In Central Australia, an Aboriginal leader John Liddle brought 400 local men together to sign a collective statement of apology to women for past violence and abuse.

An apology for the hurt, pain and suffering caused by Aboriginal men to their wives, children, mothers, grandmothers, granddaughters, aunties, their nieces and their sisters.

Four hundred men acknowledging the past and taking responsibility for a different future.

Positive change is happening.

Across remote, regional and urban Australia, Indigenous people are seizing the opportunity to speak out and take action.

Drawing on the strength and unique identity afforded them as the custodians of the oldest living cultures in human history.

But, even as the mood for change grows the confronting fact remains – Indigenous Australians living in remote communities remain the most disadvantaged group of people in our country.

Consider the life chances of a typical child born in the last decade in a remote West Australian Indigenous community or a town such as Halls Creek or Fitzroy Crossing.

She was at high risk of being born with foetal alcohol syndrome – as was her mother – causing life-long learning and behavioural problems.

In remote Australia, 14 per cent of women are chronic or high risk drinkers and 15 percent are regular binge drinkers.

This child is 12 times more likely to live in an overcrowded house than a non-Indigenous girl.

The odds are she won’t have early childhood education; her schooling will be erratic and by the time she is in Year 9 her attendance rate will be less than 45 per cent.

Her poor education will be a significant barrier to getting a job. The Indigenous adult unemployment rate for the Kimberley region is 46 per cent and almost two-thirds of the working adult population are on CDEP.

She may become a mother at a very young age.

She is three and a half times more likely to be a victim of violence than other Australians.

And it is likely that she will die at a far younger age than a non-Indigenous woman born at the same time.

The cumulative impact of each of these challenges and disparities means that not only are her life chances and opportunities severely circumscribed, so too are those of her children.

What I have attempted to describe are the very daunting challenges facing any one of the thousands of Indigenous children born each year in remote Indigenous communities.

Yet people continue to overcome the odds to make valuable contributions to community and social life.

Tackling the Indigenous inter-generational transfer of disadvantage is a national responsibility and a national priority.

It demands a reform agenda which recognises that the old ways of doing things have comprehensively failed generations of Indigenous Australians.

It requires us to re-set our relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples using our combined will and resources to drive a new, national effort to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

We want Indigenous people to develop and drive solutions. They must be partners in driving change.

To attack the very roots of entrenched disadvantage there must be significant and sustained investment together with fundamental change to governments’ usual approach.

There must be a commitment to act and intervene when circumstances demand.

There must be new ways of engaging and new forms of partnership.

And at the individual level there needs to be the restoration of personal responsibility.

The personal responsibility that is at the heart of family life and the foundation of strong communities.

Parents taking responsibility for their family’s wellbeing and economic security and their children’s health, safety and education.

Working together, we must harness a critical mass of support and assistance to overcome the insidious and intertwined strands of disadvantage.

And most importantly our efforts must be both comprehensive and sustained over time – considerable time.

This cannot be a one-off, single burst of visible activity which runs out of steam before the job is done.

What is required is a fundamental re-engineering of our approach to overcoming Indigenous disadvantage, working in partnership with Aboriginal people.

As a starting point we must revolutionise the way we deliver vital services and infrastructure in remote Australia.

That’s not to say that we turn our back on disadvantaged Indigenous Australians living in our cities, country towns and regions.

They too are integral to our reform agenda. But today I want to outline to you our remote Indigenous policy.

For too long remote communities have been the recipients of disjointed, ad hoc and uncoordinated actions and responses from governments at all levels.

Communities like Wadeye in the Northern Territory where the numbers of students would swamp the available classrooms – if they all attended.

Where adequate teacher housing is not available.

Where outstation housing was built – at great expense – to separate warring gangs of jobless young people.

We must remove the stubborn, systemic blockages which over generations have deprived Indigenous Australians of the basic foundations of a safe, healthy and productive life.

To do this, we will completely overhaul the way governments deliver services and invest in remote areas replacing it with a co-ordinated approach across all levels of government.

Under this new – and path-breaking – Remote Service Delivery Strategy, all governments have signed up to a concentrated and accelerated approach to tackle deep-seated disadvantage.

We have the opportunity to work together harnessing our combined resources and efforts to deliver real and lasting change.

To deliver housing where the lights switch on, where water comes out of the taps; where you can cook on the stove, and where the sewerage works.

Where there are streetlights at night, police on the beat, a community hall to meet in, a sportsground to play footy on, a health clinic and a school with teachers.

A place where parents expect to work.

Our benchmark will be to progressively deliver in communities or townships the facilities and services you would expect in any Australian town of the same size.

The same infrastructure and services that support and sustain healthy social norms so people can reach their potential and businesses can thrive.

So children grow up safe and healthy and go to school; where they have the best role model possible – a parent who goes to work each day.

So children see their parents taking responsibility for the family’s economic security and planning and providing for the future.

As well as financial independence, a job gives purpose and meaning to people’s lives.

The fact that the global economic crisis presents great challenges requires us to be even more committed and focused in our efforts.

That’s why we are substantially reforming Indigenous employment and training programs to give people the skills they need to get and keep a job.

We must work with the people who have the primary stake in the outcomes of these reforms – the thousands of Indigenous Australians living in these remote communities.

They will be – must be – genuine partners in this project.

Our new model for remote service delivery will initially concentrate resources in priority locations across Australia.

So that in just a few years we can build a critical mass of support and assistance to bring services and conditions in remote Indigenous communities up to the same standard as comparably sized communities elsewhere in Australia.

Today I can announce the priority locations across Australia.

In Western Australia, we will implement the Remote Service Delivery Strategy in towns and communities around Fitzroy Crossing, Halls Creek and on the Dampier Peninsula, including the communities of Ardyaloon and Beagle Bay.

In the Northern Territory: Galiwinku, Gapuwiyak, Gunbalanya, Hermannsburg, Lajamanu, Maningrida, Milingimbi, Nguiu, Ngukurr, Numbulwar, Wadeye, Yirrkala, Yuendumu, Angurugu and Umbakumba.

In Queensland: Mornington Island, Doomadgee, Hope Vale and Aurukun (together with continuing work in Mossman Gorge and Coen which are also part of the Cape York Welfare Reform).

In South Australia: Amata and Mimili.

And in New South Wales: Walgett and Wilcannia.

We know the old “scattergun” approach didn’t work.

We need a new way of delivering services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

In identifying where to concentrate Government investment, we have developed a range of practical criteria including:

  • Significant concentration of population;
  • Anticipated demographic trends and pressures;
  • The potential for economic development and employment; and
  • The extent of pre-existing shortfalls in government investment in infrastructure and services.
  • In the Northern Territory, we have sought to build on the significant investment we have already set in train.

In each targeted location there will be baseline mapping of social and economic indicators, government investments, services and gaps in services.

A coordinated and comprehensive local implementation plan will then be tailored to the specific needs of each community.

Negotiated with the community and across government, these plans will be monitored to make sure they are on track and delivering agreed priorities – and revised if they’re not.

And as the accelerated measures are rolled out, we will develop a crucial evidence base measuring performance against clearly defined targets and standards that cut across agencies and levels of government.

This will inform implementation when we roll out the next tranche of priority communities.

Overseeing this program – making sure services are delivered where and when they are needed – will be a new and senior position of Coordinator General for Remote Indigenous Services.

Reporting directly to me, the Coordinator General will work across all agencies and will be responsible for the implementation of our major reforms in housing, infrastructure and employment.

The Coordinator General will have a critical role in driving our aggressive reform agenda addressing the delivery of services, maximising employment and training opportunities and overseeing housing tenure agreements.

Of course, other communities and townships will continue to receive government support and services.

This will include access to new housing construction and upgrades, employment programs and CDEP, and the range of normal funding arrangements across the whole of government.

But, the intention is to maximise the role of priority communities as service hubs.

The increased allocations under the COAG national partnerships will have a strong focus on improving health, education and housing for Indigenous people around the country.

Housing underpins our reform agenda to tackle Indigenous disadvantage across the country – in urban, regional and remote Australia.

The shelter and security of a decent place to live is fundamental to reaching the ambitious targets we’ve set in health, education and labour market participation.

No child can thrive in a house with no running water, where a dozen people share three rooms, where children are exposed to adult activities, unmonitored visitors or violent behaviour.

I’ve spoken about the plight of Indigenous people in remote communities.

But in urban and regional Australia where more than three quarters of Indigenous Australians live, there are also significant levels of disadvantage.

In urban and regional Australia, Indigenous Australians are three times more likely to be unemployed than other Australians; twice as likely to suffer poor health and illness and six times more likely to live in overcrowded houses.

In non-remote Australia, the Government is making unprecedented efforts to address disadvantage across the whole community and Aboriginal people are major beneficiaries

For example, as part of the Nation Building Economic Stimulus Plan’s $6.4 billion allocation to social housing, we are investing $646 million in Western Australia.

Over the next five years, $1.8 billion is being invested in housing across the board in WA – under the Nation Building Economic Stimulus Plan, the National Affordable Housing Agreement and other housing partnership agreements.

The bulk of this is earmarked for new construction and upgrades in urban and regional areas and will benefit additional Indigenous families.

In remote Australia, we have secured a housing agreement with the states and territories which is ground-breaking in both its quantum and its underlying reform framework.

It is the largest single outlay any government has ever made to address the appalling living conditions of Indigenous people in remote communities and brings the total funding for remote Indigenous housing to $5.5 billion over ten years.

As part of our national spending on remote Indigenous housing, up to 4,200 new houses will be built, 4,800 houses will be repaired and upgraded and tenancy management services improved.

It will significantly boost local training and employment opportunities in construction and housing management.

The States and Territories will take on additional responsibilities, including the management of housing assets.

And they will move towards taking on normal state responsibilities for ongoing funding of remote municipal services and essential services like water and sewerage.

The new arrangements will require Indigenous houses to be properly managed, maintained and upgraded by state and territory housing authorities or contracted community housing organisations on a regular and ongoing basis.

Tenants will be required to sign up to, and adhere to, normal tenancy agreements – an important lever in our drive to rebuild positive community values and behaviour.

As a pre-condition to new housing investment, the Commonwealth requires security of tenure.

This is essential to protect assets and establish with absolute clarity who is responsible for tenancy management and ongoing repairs and maintenance.

In the past, the absence of secure, long-term tenure has meant inferior repairs and maintenance which, exacerbated by overcrowding, has meant houses become unliveable well before they should.

Over the past year, the Government has resolutely pursued long overdue reforms to put security of tenure at the centre of Indigenous housing policy – in exactly the same way that it underpins the private and social housing markets around the country.

We are working closely with Indigenous interests and traditional owners, recognising that differing circumstances across jurisdictions will require different pathways forward in different places.

We see it as akin to a business partnership between Indigenous people in remote areas and government, building on the increasing trust and cooperation that exists between us.

Here in WA, many remote communities are on land managed by the Aboriginal Lands Trust – an arrangement different from any other part of Australia.

Some are also the subject of leases and many are likely to be the subject of native title rights.

We have some way to go before we can easily and routinely negotiate secure tenure for social housing investment in most remote communities in Western Australia.

But this complexity is no reason to change or defer our agenda to provide more and better housing.

The WA Government is looking at legislative action to ensure that housing management and tenancy reforms can be rolled out in Aboriginal communities.

For its part, the Australian Government will be considering how native title processes can help facilitate the early provision of infrastructure and services to the communities so desperately in need of them.

I would like to take you back to the child born in that remote Western Australian Indigenous community ten years ago.

While the odds remain devastatingly stacked against her, there are flickers of hope.

The mood for change is building.

It’s building momentum on the strong voices in Fitzroy Crossing.

On the shoulders of the 400 Aboriginal men from Central Australia and their collective apology to Aboriginal women.

And in the words of Mary who told me yesterday in Billard, “we hear a lot about closing the gap. And we asked ourselves what we can do, as Aboriginal people, to close the gap. And the answer is – lots.”

Sometimes slowly, sometimes tentatively, change is happening.

Increasingly, in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across the country, there are courageous voices for change.

People prepared to take on the responsibility of leadership.

In turn, it is the responsibility of governments to back them – recognising that business as usual is no longer a viable policy response for government.

The only viable response is the complete redesign of the Indigenous policy landscape itself.

With reforms to land tenure, tenancy arrangements, essential services, and to service delivery itself.

To give remote Indigenous communities the essential framework for a safe, healthy and productive life.

This will involve change at all levels, often uncomfortable, never easy.

But change which is fundamental to giving an Indigenous baby born today in remote Australia the chance at life that all Australian children deserve.

We can hardly do less.