Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Address to the NSW Aboriginal Land Council

Location: Cessnock, NSW

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I would like to acknowledge the Wanaurah people who are the traditional custodians of the land, past and present.

I would also like to acknowledge the elders of the land and thank you for this opportunity to speak to you today.

I also want to congratulate the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council on the great work you do.

  • Your strong voice as an advocate for NSW Aboriginal people – pursuing cultural, social and economic benefits.
  • Including the $30 million education scholarship fund – to provide scholarships for 200 students to study at schools, TAFEs, colleges and universities.
  • And your robust contribution to national Indigenous policy issues.

A year ago, the Australian Parliament and the Australian nation came together in a defining moment in our country’s history – when we formally apologised to Indigenous Australians, in particular the Stolen Generations, for the injustices and mistakes of the past.

But it was more than symbolically acknowledging and confronting our history.

The Apology gave us the impetus to work together to overcome the legacy of the past – the entrenched disadvantage and marginalisation of Indigenous people.

It gave us the starting point to re-set the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians – a new relationship based on trust and respect.

Because we know that government alone cannot rebuild Indigenous communities. We won’t succeed unless Indigenous people drive this change.

Government and Indigenous Australians must work together in partnerships defined by clear objectives and responsibilities where each partner is effectively engaged.

Effective engagement is built on respect for Indigenous views and acknowledgement of the diversity and cultural resilience of Indigenous societies.

It also requires a commitment to open up pathways for sharing views and dialogue at all levels.

Engagement does not mean that there will never be hard decisions taken.

It is the role and responsibility of government to resolve difficult and contentious issues and sometimes this means decisions which are not necessarily popular.

It is my job to act in the national interest. But as part of our decision-making process, it is also my responsibility to consult widely, fully respectful of the views and opinions of Aboriginal people.

In his Closing the Gap report, delivered last week in Parliament, the Prime Minister spoke of the high expectations after the Apology that ‘change would be swift and results sudden.’

While high expectations are a positive, they can be difficult to meet when the challenges we face have been decades in the making.

In this first year, the Government has been laying the foundations for evidence-based action which is essential to bring about real change to close the gap.

We have set six national targets and established mechanisms, through the Council of Australian Governments, to measure the rate of progress by all governments against these targets.

In November last year, all Australian governments signed up to an historic investment to start to close the gap – $4.6 billion for health, housing and economic participation.

Of this, $1.6 billion has been committed nationally to improve Indigenous health.

The bulk will be spent in urban and regional communities.

But this is not only about dollars – it is national policy reform reflecting the commitment of government at every level to tackle entrenched problems in a comprehensive, national approach.

At the same time, consultations on a national Indigenous representative body – led by Indigenous people – are proceeding.

Another plank in our platform to re-set the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

And to build the solid foundations necessary for real and lasting change.

Housing is essential to making this change. It underpins the Australian Government’s comprehensive agenda to close the gap.

Housing is central to protecting children, getting them to school, improving health and hygiene and shaping parents’ everyday social norms like going to work.

The past twelve months have been a time to work through and resolve the many complex issues which have thwarted real progress in housing for decades.

All of us here know that investment in housing is essential to turning around Indigenous disadvantage.

Without decent housing we will never improve Indigenous health and education or boost participation in the labour market to build the economic development essential for viable communities.

Because children will never grow up safe and well and reach their potential in a house shared with many others.

Over the past year the Government has worked on two parallel paths:

First, we are working to establish the policy foundations required in relation to land tenure and housing reform; and
Second, we have made unprecedented financial commitments directed to changing the face of Indigenous housing across the nation within a decade.
No Australian Government has ever before matched this level of focus and commitment to redressing the contribution of poor housing to Indigenous disadvantage.

We are mobilising an additional $1.94 billion for remote Indigenous housing. This will bring the total investment in housing and infrastructure reform in remote communities to $5.5 billion over the next decade

The Remote Indigenous Housing National Partnership will see the construction of around 4,200 new houses and upgrades of 4,800 existing houses.

The NSW share of this package for remote housing is expected to be $396 million.

It is complemented by a similarly historic investment in social housing.

Through the COAG National Affordable Housing Agreement, we have committed $6.4 billion nationally for social housing over the next five years. A further $800 million has been committed to tackle homelessness.

It is expected that a very substantial proportion of the new funding will be injected into social housing in urban and regional NSW.

So that existing houses can be upgraded.

And new houses, incorporating design features to improve living standards and reduce living costs, can be built.

We know that investing in decent housing to give families and children a safe and healthy place to live is essential to expand the life chances of all Australian children.

We know too that most Aboriginal people live in urban and regional Australia – that more than 10 per cent of non-remote community and public housing is occupied by Aboriginal people.

Investment in social housing is central to the Government’s housing reform agenda and critical if we are to close the gap.

In NSW, we estimate our investment in social housing will mean an additional 1,600 Indigenous people will have access to new social housing and an additional 1,800 people will benefit from upgraded housing.

The Government’s substantial investment will also open up important employment opportunities for Aboriginal people.

And there will be scope for Aboriginal corporations to bid for contracts for construction and upgrades.

We must take the opportunity offered by the investment of new resources on this scale to deliver much needed housing reform.

In the recently finalised COAG National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing, all governments agreed to “develop and implement land tenure arrangements to facilitate effective asset management, essential services and economic development opportunities.”

As we embark together on this essential reform, we are determined to learn from the past so we do a better job building and managing housing, including housing on Aboriginal land.

We understand that land and waters are the basis of Indigenous spirituality, law, culture, economy and well-being.

At the heart of Government policy is our respect for cultural connections to land and our respect for communal and traditional land holding systems.

This is non-negotiable.

Within that non-negotiable framework, we want to work with Aboriginal people to also provide the secure tenure needed to attract government and commercial investment, to enable better service delivery and facilities, and to drive economic development.

Secure tenure underpins provision of mainstream public and community housing across Australia.

But housing on Aboriginal land has never been put on that secure footing.

The consequences of this can be seen across the country.

Houses that are unliveable because no-one takes responsibility for repairs and maintenance.

The absence of any incentive to collect the rent to help pay for repairs and maintenance.

Poor tenancy management where overcrowding isn’t checked and routine inspections are irregular or even non-existent.

All conditions which have contributed to a general reluctance to invest in housing.

With secure tenure arrangements in place government is accountable for the ongoing condition and maintenance of public housing.

Secure tenure firmly places the responsibility at the feet of each housing authority or community housing organisation to provide a decent level of housing service just as mainstream public housing providers must do in the city.

To put it simply, this is not about taking land away from Aboriginal communities; it’s about making sure housing providers do their job.
I have recently written to the New South Wales Housing Minister and to housing ministers elsewhere in Australia to set out the secure tenure requirements which will underpin our major COAG investment.

There are three requirements.

First, the government must have long term control over and access to public housing – and therefore responsibility – subject to the privacy of tenants.

Governments will be able delegate this control and responsibility to community housing organisations which have the capacity to manage housing assets at public housing standards.

Second, we must be able to put housing management reforms into place -better repairs and maintenance and ordinary tenancy agreements which protect tenants and clarify responsibilities.

And third, any native title issues need to be resolved to ensure that construction and refurbishment can proceed as quickly as possible

This approach means that governments must treat Aboriginal land owners like any other land owners,

If we want to build public housing on your land, we must negotiate a lease to do it.

And you have the opportunity to negotiate the terms of those leases including boundaries, the restriction of development in special places and to require that any new investment proceeds in places where a lease has been agreed.

Here in New South Wales the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983 provides clear processes for the leasing of land.

Leases can be granted only if the Local Aboriginal Land Council agrees.

And if the term of the lease is more than three years, the consent of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council is also needed.

These provisions give you maximum flexibility to negotiate the terms and conditions while ensuring that the land owners remain in control of the process.

Throughout this process there is no change to the underlying ownership.

It remains communal Aboriginal land – but communal land on which Aboriginal people can benefit from the Government’s ambitious housing investment.

In the Northern Territory and South Australia Aboriginal land owners have agreed to leases in over ten communities comprising 10,000 residents and covering over 1000 existing houses. This will allow the construction of around 240 new houses and 1000 upgrades of existing houses over the next three years.

The length of the leases varies. In South Australia in the APY Lands it is 50 years. In Tennant Creek it is 20 plus 20 plus years.

The Northern Lands Council has recently agreed to 40 year leases over four major communities.

Essentially we are looking for leases that reflect the life of the asset we are building.

Developing the foundations for greater security of tenure is driving a joint NSW Aboriginal Land Council and Australian Government project which I announced in November last year with your Chairperson Bev Manton.

Under the agreement, the Land Council and the Federal Government are each contributing $3.3 million to allow the subdivision of 63 former Aboriginal reserves.
Sub-division is important in normalising land tenure arrangements in these communities.

Subdivision also has the advantage of improved management and funding of infrastructure such as electricity and water.

The joint subdivision project is an example of Government and Indigenous land bodies working together to improve land holding arrangements.

The agreement of the Local Aboriginal Land Councils is required in order to subdivide land in accordance with the NSW Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1983.

The land owners can ensure that underlying Aboriginal title is retained while the opportunity for individual title can drive economic development.

I understand that the NSW Aboriginal Land Council will be working closely with communities over the coming months to further explain the benefits of the subdivision project.

The NSW Aboriginal Land Council and my department have also entered into a $2.3 million agreement for repairs and maintenance on 70 homes in the town of Walgett and on the Gingie and Namoi reserves.

Housing conditions have been scoped by Housing New South Wales and work is scheduled to start shortly after the appointment of a project manager and works contract managers.

As well as the focus on public housing, the Government is determined to support as many Indigenous Australians as possible to achieve their aspirations to own their own homes.

In New South Wales around one third of Aboriginal people either own or are purchasing their own home.

Indigenous Business Australia presently manages over 1000 active home loans in NSW under their Home Ownership Program.

We recognise that home ownership can bring important social and economic benefits. Greater financial security. Greater independence. A more stable environment for raising children. And greater confidence in engaging with the employment market.

One of the advantages of moving to put secure tenure arrangements in place on land council land is that home ownership will become an option for those tenants who wish to move in that direction.

I don’t underestimate the challenges of reform. The changes involved will, at times, be confronting for us all – governments, land councils, and tenants.

That’s why it’s imperative that we work together. I have asked my Department to make sure they work closely with NSW land councils in taking the housing agenda forward.

I know that David Borger, the NSW Minister for Housing is similarly committed to working with you on these issues.

To succeed we must have a robust working relationship based solidly on trust and good faith.

I look forward to continuing to build that relationship with you.