Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Cape York Institute Leadership Academy

Location: The Cape York Institute Leadership Academy, Cairns


First I would like to pay my respects to the traditional owners and elders of the Cairns and Cape York Region, especially those whose land we are on today, the Gimuy Walubarra Yidinydji.

The Cape York Policy Institute is a leading policy voice on Indigenous issues and its initiative in establishing the Cape York Leadership Academy is testament to its proactive, forward-looking approach.

This Assembly is an important opportunity for Indigenous leaders in the region to come together to share experiences and expertise and discuss options for the future.

Strong Indigenous leadership is critical for closing the gap. We know that government efforts to rebuild Indigenous communities won’t get far unless Indigenous leaders drive the change.

You are all leaders in your communities, representing a range of organisations and professions. Every day you deal with the challenges of working on the ground in Indigenous communities.

Your experience and perspective – what you’ve learnt and what you can share – are a tremendously valuable resource for policy development.

I want to assure you that the Australian Government values your work and wants your input into Indigenous policy ideas and solutions.

And we are determined to find more ways of supporting and nurturing Indigenous leadership. Earlier today I visited Djarragun College – a fantastic school that can be an incubator of leadership for young Indigenous people locally.

The College places great emphasis on developing leadership skills that will support the students become active and contributing citizens of the global community. That’s why the Government is providing $2 million for a separate boarding campus for nine to 12 year olds – to help the school embed these skills from an early age.

The Prime Minister has made it clear that tackling the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is a national priority. And we have laid out targets to make the desperately needed inroads.

Over the next decade halving the gap in infant mortality rates; in the same time frame halving the gap in reading, writing and numeracy for children. And over the next generation closing the 17 year gap in life expectancy.

The Council of Australian Governments has also endorsed targets to halve the gap in employment outcomes within a decade; give all four year olds in remote Indigenous communities access to early childhood education within five years; and halve the gap for Indigenous students finishing Year 12 or equivalent by 2020.

These targets are the basis of a big reform agenda that has put Indigenous issues squarely where they should be – at the heart of the Government agenda.

But meeting these targets won’t be easy. It will involve unprecedented and sustained effort across all levels of the community.

We are committed to some basic guiding principles.

First, evidence. This Government’s abiding fixation is with hard data about what actually works. We’re not interested in what’s popular or what’s ideologically convenient. We’re only interested in what gets results. That also means one size does not fit all.

Second, we know that Indigenous people must be involved in developing solutions. Otherwise those solutions just won’t work.

Third, we know that genuine change will only happen if we can make a difference in social norms. Basic services and income management are important, but they are not enough to re-build Indigenous communities. They are necessary but not sufficient.

We need to change how communities function; the protocols and expectations that govern people’s behaviour; the level of responsibility people feel to their families and peers. You all understand that this has been lost in many Indigenous communities.

Government spending alone is not enough. Unless spending can be harnessed to shape social norms, we won’t get far.

Of course, the importance of social norms is not news to any of you here today working in the Cape York region.

Under the leadership of Noel Pearson, the Cape York Institute has been at the forefront of policy development in this area. For many years, Noel has been pushing for Government policies directed towards re-building social norms in Indigenous communities.

My first visit to Queensland as Minister for Indigenous Affairs was 4 weeks after the election. I came to announce, with Queensland Premier Anna Bligh and Noel Pearson, the welfare reform trials in four Cape York communities – Aurukun, Hopevale, Coen and Mossman Gorge.

The Cape York Reforms represent an innovative collaboration to tackle community breakdown and dysfunctional behaviour in the Cape. The reforms aim to fundamentally reform social norms through four key areas:

Welfare dependency – including income management and parenting support programs

Education – including support for secondary students to attend boarding schools, and trusts for low income parents to budget, plan and save for their children’s educational expenses.

Employment – including support services to leverage employment in nearby mining projects and reform to CDEP.

Housing – including Shared Responsibility Agreements where families receive funding to improve their houses in exchange for labour to contribute to the improvements.

In all these areas, government action is directed towards increasing personal responsibility as well as access to services.

The trials are now underway with one of the key planks – the Family Responsibilities Commission – starting on 1 July. The Commission is made up of a mix of community leaders and other people of standing. It has the power to refer people who aren’t meeting parental and community responsibilities to support services including drug and alcohol, mental health and relationship counselling. It can also recommend income management.

The point of the Commission is that its authority is based primarily in the community, backed by government, and its effectiveness is linked to the community systems that support it. It is not just focused on individual behaviour but also on community and social norms.

Today I can announce another important Indigenous policy development in Queensland.

The Australian Government has made an initial offer to the Queensland Government of $60 million to upgrade to an acceptable level houses currently managed by Indigenous Community Housing Organisations.

This deal will kick start our reform agenda for housing in remote and rural Indigenous locations in Queensland.

As part of the deal, proper tenancy management practices will be introduced for all Indigenous community housing in Queensland and the Queensland Government has agreed that it will work with community housing organisations to improve tenancy and property standards and to help the organisations transition into Queensland’s social housing system.

Under ‘normalised’ tenancy agreements, tenants will be expected to pay fair market rents, pay their rents on time, cover the cost of any damage and not interfere with the peace of their neighbours.

Our package of reforms will fundamentally change how housing and municipal services are delivered to Indigenous communities in remote locations.

It will:

  • ensure tenancies for Indigenous housing are properly managed, and that homes are upgraded and maintained
  • secure long-term tenure for Government of Indigenous-owned land
  • open up pathways for home ownership
  • stimulate local economic development and investment

This deal is a part of the Government’s national strategy for addressing Indigenous housing in remote areas.

Housing is an important lever in the drive to rebuild social norms is housing.

Everyone here today knows that a decent home is crucial for unlocking personal, social and economic development. In a very real sense, a house defines the hopes and possibilities of the people who live in it. No child can expect to broaden their life chances in a house where 15 people are sharing three rooms, with no running water, where they are at risk of abuse or neglect.

A safe and secure place to live is fundamental for physical and mental health, to living with dignity and respect, to overall quality of life.

Housing is a basic element of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

    Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care…

But the sorry fact is that in remote Australia, overcrowding and sub-standard housing are the norm.

In some places, the levels of overcrowding are appalling – up to17 people crammed into a three-bedroom house. Broken toilets and showers, kitchens that don’t work.

As well as being a factor in houses falling into disrepair, overcrowding also increases the risk of infectious diseases such as meningococcal, rheumatic fever, tuberculosis, skin infections and respiratory infections.

Rather than being a secure haven these houses are health hazards.

How can people living somewhere that has no working shower or stove or no proper place to sleep, be expected to perform adequately either at work or at school?

How well can people do if they live in chaos, in a house so overcrowded they are never alone, where the basic hygiene just isn’t possible. In a house out of control.

While the national average is 2.57 people per dwelling, in Indigenous communities the average is 9.6 people – that is, four times the national average.

And because the Indigenous population is younger than the non-Indigenous, with a fertility rate 50 per cent higher, this means that the current situation will only get worse unless there is urgent and sustained action.

Housing is absolutely central to the Government’s agenda to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

But we are determined to address the desperate housing needs in remote communities in ways that shape how people value and treat houses. We are determined that housing will help rebuild social norms. Governments also have to be accountable. Yes, rent should be paid. But maintenance should also be done.

Through the Cape York trials, for example, we are introducing more robust tenancy management arrangements.

Already in Hope Vale, for example, 194 tenancy agreements have been signed, out of a possible 220.

These agreements will make sure tenants don’t use the premises for illegal purposes, that they pay their rents, that they pay for any damage, that they don’t interfere with the peace of their neighbours.

They also make sure market rents are charged.

Without this kind of agreement, people have few incentives to take responsibility for their housing.

And the community housing organisations and Aboriginal Shire councils have few incentives to properly manage them.

In many cases, rents aren’t collected, the houses aren’t maintained and families don’t have to pay for any damage.

Now, in Hope Vale, instead of ignoring problems, tenants are reporting problems with maintenance and with disruptive neighbours.

Rent arrears have dropped dramatically. Only 8 per cent of residents are in arrears on average every fortnight, whereas before the tenancy agreement, it was anywhere between 20 and 50 per cent.

This is a remarkable turnaround, and the Hope Vale Aboriginal Shire Council and other partners should be congratulated.

The housing model that exists in most Indigenous communities is at odds with the overarching goal of personal responsibility.

The Government recognises that old housing models have not served communities well.

Over the decades, many millions of dollars have been poured into housing and still the outcomes are abysmal.

We need to fundamentally shift what we are doing and how we are doing it. The newly established National Policy Commission will provide important advice on this.

Yes, it will need more houses built and that costs. But we are determined to work with state and territory governments and non government organisations like the Cape York Institute to develop new housing models that increase, not just numbers of houses, but the respect and responsibility people show towards houses; housing models that change the houses into healthy homes.

We need models that require responsibility for tenancy management and maintenance and give people a chance to own their own homes where they can and where it makes economic sense.

The critical systemic obstacle that underpins any discussion of housing reform is land tenure.

Without long-term tenure, ownership of houses is uncertain.

Without long-term tenure, residents and tenants have no security or certainty.

Without long-term tenure, potential investors have no incentive to invest.

Without long-term tenure, Aboriginal people in remote locations have minimal chance of home ownership.

It is fundamental to both upgrading housing in remote communities and fostering economic development.

The Aboriginal land rights movement has a proud place in Australia’s history but it is not a finished story.

We must work together – the Australian government, the States and Territories and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – to ensure that owners and residents of Indigenous owned land can use it to boost their participation in the real economy and in the life of the nation.

We know that the right kind of tenure can encourage economic growth and prosperity.

We also know that the wrong kind of land tenure can hinder it.

Land arrangements in township on Indigenous held land, in particular, must mirror to the greatest extent possible the land dealing arrangements off Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land – to attract investment, to allow a market to develop and to foster individual and community economic development. Whole of township leases make good sense and I will be working hard to encourage their uptake.

While the work is urgent, we must be careful and consistent, working with Indigenous people to develop the best and most appropriate arrangements for the circumstances of communities.

There is important work going on in the States to this end.

I congratulate Queensland for its major reforms to its land tenure arrangements through the recent passage of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Amendment Act 2008.

This Act will enable long-term leases of up to 99 years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land for residential and public housing, commercial development or community infrastructure.

And it greatly strengthens the opportunities for partnership between the Australian and Queensland governments – leading to new opportunities and agreements like the $60 million for remote housing upgrades in Queensland I’ve just outlined.

We want to work with states and territories in new ways for better outcomes.

It’s time for a new chapter of Indigenous housing. One where constructive reform is the driver. One where the Australian Government, state governments and Indigenous people are all prepared to work together to take on new levels of responsibility for changing not just houses but the future of the people living inside them.