Transcript by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Northern Territory housing announcement, update on formaldehyde in NTER accommodation


MACKLIN: Thanks everyone. I’m very, very pleased to be here with my colleagues, both my federal colleagues and my Territory friends and colleagues, for this very significant announcement that we’re making today.

This really is a landmark announcement; an announcement that we hope both the Commonwealth Government and the Territory Government hope will see major improvements to housing in many, many communities right across the Northern Territory.

The Australian Government is committing an additional $547 million over the next four years for housing in Indigenous communities and the Territory Government is contributing an additional $100 million.

So this is a very significant additional commitment. [Indistinct] commitment that’s been made to improve what all of us know is a huge task that’s in front of us.

There are major needs in these Indigenous communities. We know that many, many people are living in very low standard housing. We know that many families are living in overcrowded conditions. And so that’s why the Federal Government and the Territory Government have joined together in this very significant announcement today.

As a result of this commitment, we’re going to see 750 new homes built, including new subdivisions, 230 new houses to replace other houses which will be demolished. Very importantly two and a half thousand housing upgrades and these are serious upgrades of houses. Repairs and maintenance yes, but this is really about upgrading the houses to make them really up to scratch.

There will be essential infrastructure provided to support the houses and in addition to the commitments that we’re making, some of the funding will be spent in town camps to upgrade the housing in those town camps as well.

Of course it’s very important that we’re making such a significant announcement of additional funding. But there are very, very major reforms also part of this announcement today. I just want to go through those with you because they are an essential part of what we are doing together.

What we’re doing is announcing that for the first time, this money will be managed jointly through a strategic alliance. We’ve already with the Northern Territory Government put advertisements in the media to call for expressions of interest with major contractors to begin the task of building and repairing these homes. What we want to see is a strategic alliance that will, over the next five years, see this money spent in the most efficient and effective way possible.

What we want to do is concentrate the effort, so that we get significant improvements and you can see that we’re targeting a number of the larger communities and all the different communities are attached to the release but I’ll just highlight some of them so that you can see that for the – up for the new houses we intend to concentrate the communities that will receive these major capital works.

So places like Hermannsburg, Galiwinku, [indistinct], some of the larger communities will receive significant increases in the numbers of houses that will be built in those communities because we know just how significant the need is in each of those areas.

What we also intend to do as part of the agreement between the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory Government is insist that there be opportunities for employment and training of local Indigenous people. What we have to do as part of this very significant increase in funding is make sure that local Indigenous people have the opportunity to learn new skills, to learn the trades that will enable them to maintain these houses into the future. So it’s a very important agreement that both of us feel very strongly about to give people, not only the opportunity to have a new home but to also learn the skills that will be necessary to build those homes, to maintain those homes into the future. It’s something we both feel very strongly about.

We also recognise that there needs to be improved tenure and tenancy reform. What we don’t want to see is what’s happened in the past which is a lack of responsibility for tenancy management. We have agreed with the Northern Territory on a new tenancy management approach that involves two very important reforms. We will require longer term land tenure, so that we both get security of tenure over these new public houses.

Both levels of government have had very productive discussions with the land councils. And we expect to be able to come to a satisfactory outcome that will give us decent tenure over these – over the land on which these houses will be built.

The Northern Territory Government will take responsibility for tenancy management. They will make sure that rent is collected and they of course in turn will have the responsibility to make sure that the maintenance is carried out in an orderly fashion. So we don’t see the houses falling into disrepair in the way that’s happened in the past.

Tenure, land tenure, tenancy management will enable this to really be normalised in the way that it never has been before. And I really do want to thank my Northern Territory colleagues for the very productive way in which they’ve been prepared to come with us on these very, very significant measures, which are going to, in my view, change dramatically for the better the living conditions of so many Indigenous people here in the Northern Territory.

I might ask the Chief Minister to add to my remarks.

HENDERSON: Thank you Jenny and good morning everybody. This really is a landmark day in the Northern Territory. It’s an historical day in the Northern Territory. It’s the biggest single commitment of additional housing dollars that the Territory’s ever seen. And anybody who’s lived in the Northern Territory, anybody who’s travelled to these remote communities knows how absolutely desperately needed this infrastructure is.

It’s not just about improving housing conditions and improving overcrowding. When we look at the health problems for Indigenous people, when we look at the poor education outcomes for Indigenous people – just think of 17 to 20 people living in a three bedroom house and how those kids who don’t get enough sleep at night, how they’re supposed to be able to work at school the next day.

And so I believe as well as the vastly improved housing outcomes we’re going to see in the bush, this is a start. It’s a very, very big start. It’s a big contribution. But we are going to see over time better health outcomes, better education outcomes as part of this investment and that’s one of the really great things about it.

Can I say [indistinct] with our colleagues and Jenny as the Federal Minister, but what we also want to see and we’re going to achieve is significant training and employment outcomes. You know, we’ve got to get better job outcomes in the bush. We’ve got to give Indigenous businesses the opportunity to get up and running and with my colleague here, [indistinct] the Minister for Housing, one of the key challenges that we are going to grapple with and we’re going to succeed on is as well as training people for the construction of these houses, there’s the workforce to do the maintenance into the future. And not only maintenance of the houses into the future but the construction of further housing over the coming periods, not only housing but additional infrastructure that governments are going to put in, in terms of public infrastructure, health facilities, police facilities, school upgrades.

So it’s about developing the workforce. It’s about improving housing in the bush and very significantly it’s about achieving better health and education outcomes and it really is a demonstration as I said, from the day I became Chief Minister and took on the portfolio of Territory Commonwealth Relationships, it’s about working in partnership with the Federal Government to deliver for Territorians. And after this – this is the biggest single demonstration of that today, a $647 million investment in our regions and remote communities, that is really going to benefit Indigenous Territorians and that of all Territorians by getting those improved job outcomes, those improved education outcomes and really starting to develop economies in the bush that have never been seen before.

And I’d like to congratulate Jenny, my Commonwealth colleagues in terms of working in that partnership and certainly say as Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, I’m really looking forward to this program being rolled out. We’re hoping that the first works will be rolled out in Tennant Creek in October this year, in terms of upgrades of the town camps in Tennant Creek. And with the schedule of communities that have accompanied the press release, we’ll be developing that work program based on need over the next four years.

So a landmark day in the Northern Territory and all levels, both levels of government and very importantly Indigenous communities. We’re ready to roll our sleeves up and get stuck in. And can I also just make a comment on the positive discussions that we’re having with the land councils, the Northern Land Council and Central Land Council on developing a template lease. My advice is that template is nearly ready to go and we’re confident that we’ll be able to work with the land councils to deliver the tenure that the Commonwealth requires for the investment of this money.

And again it goes to show that when you work in partnership with people you can really get things done. And a big day for the Northern Territory today.

MACKLIN: That’s terrific. Thanks a lot. Okay.

JOURNALIST: What sort of housing are we going to see as far as new housing, how’s it going to be built? What form is it going to take?

MACKLIN: I think what’s very important, just to support the Chief Minister’s remarks in this regard, is that we will be talking with local Indigenous people and those about design, location and of course most importantly their participation in the training and building of these homes. So we want to get the design right. We want to make sure that local people are involved in getting it right.

JOURNALIST: How much work is going to go – how much are we going to see spent? What needs to be done to the average house in a community as far as upgrading?

MACKLIN: In some houses, having seen some of them myself it’s going to require major improvements. That’s why we are talking about major upgrades for these homes. Sometimes it might mean a complete fit out, re-fit outs of kitchens and bathrooms. Obviously that’s going to depend on individual homes in individual communities. But we’ve already had both Commonwealth and Territory officials doing those assessments. What we want to do is get those upgrades out there and starting.

JOURNALIST: Where’s the labour going to come from? I mean the Territory’s famous for its skill shortage?

MACKLIN: The Territory is obviously like the rest of Australia experiencing very serious skill shortage. That’s one of the reasons why we want to make sure that when we’ve got the capacity to engage local Indigenous people in training, in Indigenous businesses, that we do so. We’ve got far too many people who are living in these Indigenous communities who haven’t had the chance to get this training, haven’t had the chance to learn the trade skills that will enable them to participate in this program.

There’s a very big labour market out there. It’s our task together to make sure that they’re up there, job ready, able to engage in training and then employment. The good thing about this program, because it’s going to operate over a five year period, what we’ve got is a substantial amount of money that will enable the companies to take people on in a way that they haven’t been able to before.

When you just have a year’s program, you’re building a house here, you’re building a house there. Of course it’s a very hard for a contractor to take on the responsibility of an apprentice. What this will enable the companies to do is take on the responsibility of a trainee or an apprentice and make sure that they are trained up because they will have contracts that last long enough to secure that apprenticeship.

JOURNALIST: Given that we don’t know exactly what type of housing is it pretty hard to estimate how many houses can be built? I mean…

MACKLIN: Well we know exactly how many houses we intend to build. I just announced how many that will be. And we’ve done that because we understand just exactly what the need is and with the Territory government we’ve been out making that assessment. But I do think it’s very important that local people have a say in the design.

JOURNALIST: The temporary tenure agreements, I mean how long do you want the land for, or do you want access to that land?

MACKLIN: We’re in discussions with the land councils about those issues. So it’s probably better that we have those discussions before making that announcement that we are [indistinct] secure tenure. We’re putting a very substantial amount of money into this program, with the Northern Territory Government. We want to know that our homes are on secure leases. The land councils understand that and as the Chief Minister said and as I said before, we’ve had very productive discussion with the land council in that regard.

Okay. I might just make a few remarks about the other issue if you like, on formaldehyde. This is a very important matter and I just wanted to update people. Yesterday I indicated that I was seeking advice from the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer about our concerns with the reports of excessive levels of formaldehyde in some of the shipping containers, that some of our staff have been living in.

The Australian Chief Medical Officer asked the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme about their – for their formal advice about the levels of formaldehyde detected in the tested converted containers and the advice that we’ve had back from this organisation, the Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme is that it is unlikely the formaldehyde at the levels that have been identified, it is unlikely to cause long term health effects.

However because of our concern for the health and safety of our staff, we will be advising our staff to have health checks and we, we will – our department will make sure that the cost of those health checks is covered. We want to make sure that people are checked and I spoke to a number of our government business managers yesterday, while I was here in Darwin, to make sure that they were okay. They will now be encouraged by the Department to go and get those checks done.

I just want to reiterate just how important it is that the health and safety of our staff is cared for. We want to know that people are safe and that’s why we will make sure that they get the health checks that they need.

JOURNALIST: Will those containers – how long are they going to remain there? Will they remain in communities?

MACKLIN: What the Department has advised me is that they will now have an independent assessment done of each of these containers to look at the source, look for the source of the formaldehyde. So I’m awaiting that advice about when that will commence but we’ll make sure that people of course are kept away from these containers until we get an absolute all clear.

So at this point in time, the Department will advise me when they are going to engage an independent person to do an assessment of what’s causing these excess formaldehyde levels and what might be done to get rid of it.

JOURNALIST: Will this slow the intervention?

JENNY MACKLIN: No, I don’t expect so. Having spoken to a number of the government business managers yesterday myself, I have to say they’re a very resourceful group of people, most of them had already organised alternative accommodation. Most of them in their communities. And all of them said, that I spoke to yesterday, indicated to me how committed they are to the intervention. How they can see that their job needs to be done and I have absolutely every expectation that they’ll continue the commitment that they have shown so far.

Thank you.