Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Closing the Gap – Building an Indigenous Future

Location: National Press Club, Canberra


First I would like to pay my respects to the traditional owners of this land the Ngunnawal people.

I’ve been a guest of the Press Club before but today for the first time, I’m here as the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs in the Rudd Labor Government.

So it’s with great enthusiasm and enormous pleasure that I’m back. As one of the class of ninety-six, this has been a long time coming.

Two days ago West Australian coroner Alastair Hope released a stark report into the deaths of 22 Kimberley men and women. Twenty-one suicides in 2006 alone, one of them an eleven year old boy. An increase in one year alone of 100 per cent.

He paints a picture of a failed community, in his words “appallingly bad” where the “plight of little children is especially pathetic. Many of them, he says, already suffer from foetal alcohol syndrome and most of them will never be employed.

Like most other people I was appalled to read another report describing the despair and hopelessness gripping another Indigenous community. But it didn’t surprise me.

And nor did the coroner’s claim that there isn’t just a gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians – there’s a vast and worsening gulf.

He’s right. It is a vast gulf and the job of closing it is enormous. It’s something I’m reminded of every day.

But however confronting the situation is, we can’t pretend it away and we have to fix it.

We must get it right this time; we can’t afford any more mistakes.

This week’s report from Western Australia confirms that.

So today, in line with the recommendation made by the West Australian coroner, I can announce that the Australian Government will proceed with a trial of welfare payment conditionality and income management to combat poor parenting and community behaviours in selected Western Australian communities, including in the Kimberley.

The Western Australian Government will join with us as partners in this trial, and will fund Parent Responsibility Teams to work with Centrelink to improve parenting where children are being neglected and at risk of abuse.

As part of the case management of a family, Western Australian child protection officers will be able to request Centrelink requiring that a person be subject to income management.

The WA Government will be required to ensure that the application of income management be balanced with appropriate services and I also support an expansion of alcohol restrictions across the Kimberley.

We will use existing legislative authority for the trial which will be part of the national child protection framework.

These are complicated matters, which require extensive on the ground support. We are determined to stop neglect and abuse and restore social norms and I am pleased the Western Australian government had joined us in this resolve.

The reality we are facing today in many remote Indigenous communities stems from decades of entrenched pre-conceptions and vested interests.

But we have to take it on. What’s at stake here is a generation of Indigenous children, Australian children, for whom time is fast running out.

Decades of failure have spawned, inside our national boundary, a country within a country. I’ve seen it. And it’s not just another country, it’s the unluckiest of countries – characterised by neglect, disadvantage and poverty.

Another country hidden within our borders. Not some foreign failed state but here in Australia – in our own backyard.

We all know the statistics – they are depressingly familiar but no less shocking for being repeated again. Life expectancy for Indigenous Australians stuck at a 17 year deficit; preventable, curable diseases like rheumatic fever crippling some communities and numeracy and literacy levels that condemn too many Indigenous children to a hopeless future.

They say nothing, of course, about the human face.

Just last week in Walgett I met some of the people who are the human faces behind the numbers.

People like Belinda Jones, a mother of nine, who shares her home with between 11 and 16 other people in a house infested by white ants.

This must not go on. We must find new ways of doing things because the old ways have so comprehensively failed. In doing so, we must work with Indigenous Australians in a partnership built on respect and mutual responsibility.

Inevitably there will be difficult decisions but all these decisions will be driven by one single criterion – evidence. This is the Government’s obsession and we make no excuses for it. It is my abiding fixation and I readily acknowledge it.

All our policy decision-making will be based on a thorough, forensic analysis of all the facts and all the evidence. Once implemented, all programs will be rigorously and regularly evaluated. This is the principle I will impose across my portfolio.

Spending buckets of money and hoping for the best, does not work – a point repeated again by Coroner Hope who says in the Kimberley there have been massive funding allocations with minimal accountability.

The Government realises that there is no single solution to what is a systemic, complex problem. It just doesn’t make sense to think that what works in one remote Indigenous community can be effectively transposed to another. This has to be tackled community by community, with local input and ownership.

The Australian Government sees decent housing as an essential foundation to bridging the ‘gulf’ which Coroner Hope describes in his report.

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.

This applies both to Indigenous people living in remote Australia and those living in regional areas, towns and cities.

While the poorest housing is undoubtedly found in remote communities, urban Indigenous people also face considerable challenges in the housing market. Many city dwellers, for example, are competing in highly competitive rental markets.

And with rental demand outstripping supply, Indigenous people are more likely to find it difficult to pay the rent. They are twice as likely to have household incomes in the lowest range that the ABS measures. And substantially more live in single parent families and in households with large numbers of dependents and smaller incomes.

Only a quarter of Indigenous adults live in homes owned or being purchased by a member of the household, compared to over three quarters of non-Indigenous adults.

However, in general home ownership is increasing for Indigenous people slowly but surely.

In remote Australia, where isolation and climate make houses difficult and expensive to build and maintain, overcrowding and sub-standard housing is far worse.

There are appalling levels of overcrowding – fifteen people crammed into a house, houses with nowhere to bath your children at night, toilets that don’t work, kitchens you can’t cook in.

No family can function in these conditions. You and I couldn’t. No one can hold down a job if they don’t get a good night’s sleep. Kids don’t have a future if they can’t sleep securely at night.

Overcrowding in Indigenous houses is not confined to the Northern Territory – the report by the Productivity Commission Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage, puts the percentage of overcrowding in households in very remote areas at 60.4 per cent for Indigenous people aged 15 years and over.

The Little Children are Sacred Report highlighted the link between overcrowding and ‘massive exposure to substance abuse and household violence – not to mention sexual abuse and other violence directed against children.’

When the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on Adequate Housing visited Darwin, Alice Springs and Santa Teresa they reported extreme overcrowding where vulnerable children live in close proximity to adults who are often intoxicated or violent or both.

And in a written submission from one non-government organisation working on the ground comes the warning that “there are often no lockable rooms in housing and the overcrowding results in children being exposed to violence with no respite. Even if violence is not occurring in their home they have limited protection from community violence due to the lack of security in their homes.”

We cannot allow this to continue. The safety of children is our highest priority and we will take every measure at our disposal to protect these most vulnerable children.

I have absolutely no illusions about the complex and difficult task that the Government has taken on.

What we’re attempting is something that no Australian government has been able to achieve – reversing the entrenched inequality and disadvantage that has consistently defeated all past governments of all political persuasions.

So much effort and money and so many years have been invested in closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and frankly, considering the size of the investment, progress has been far too slow.

What we confront is a national challenge that demands a new approach building partnerships at all levels – between government, Indigenous leaders, local communities and business.

We will engage Indigenous people in developing solutions. That’s not code for some ideological agenda. What it means is that solutions can’t be imposed on people. It just doesn’t work. To work and to be sustainable, the solutions have to be developed on the ground and driven by the communities that own them.

If we want to succeed we must take the politics out of Indigenous issues and look at the hard facts of Indigenous disadvantage and policy.

We genuinely want to work with the Leader of the Opposition. The Government wants a bipartisan approach through a Joint Policy Commission to be chaired by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.

The Commission’s top priority is to develop and implement an effective housing strategy for remote communities over the next five years.

For the first time we have an opportunity to adopt a national, bi-partisan approach that puts the needs of Indigenous people above politics.

This will operate at two levels – one, to identify and fix systemic problems in the Indigenous housing sector, and two, make an early start to fix immediate shortfalls in specific locations around the country.

Over the next four years we are investing $1.6 billion to address Indigenous housing in remote areas.

Housing projects in remote areas will be delivered differently under this government in a way that makes real headway. In the Northern Territory the model we are using is called a “strategic alliance’ approach.

The strategic alliance involves three design, construction and training consortiums each forming a partnership with the Northern Territory and Australian Governments to scope, design and construct works in Indigenous communities.

The scale of the scope of works will help attract larger, more experienced construction companies to build houses more efficiently.

The other advantages of the alliance are:

  • the involvement of each community in how the work is delivered in that community;
  • the open book approach that provides greater visibility of the cost of risk in remote works: and
  • innovation in design and development of logistic solutions to deliver better housing more efficiently across the NT.

The employment and training of local Indigenous people will be a key priority for remote housing construction projects.

The level of Indigenous training and employment will be agreed up front after community-by-community reviews and will be assessed throughout the life of the project.

Financial incentives or penalties for failure to perform in this area will be applied as part of the contract structure.

Building companies will be required to utilise local labour forces in this construction with accredited training provided to continually upgrade the skill levels and qualifications of these workers.

Through this process local people will be able to obtain work in other construction projects in the region.

Over time, the availability of local labour, both skilled and unskilled, will build local economic capacity and reduce some of the high costs associated with construction and maintenance in remote communities.

Local employment and training in remote communities will also be a key outcome that I will require from all State and Territory Governments in any joint housing agreements.

The substantial investment the Government’s making in housing and related infrastructure, including almost eight hundred million to help tackle severe need in remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory demands, as a pre-condition, the certainty of secure tenure.

We are accountable to all Australian taxpayers to make sure the money we spend achieves the best housing outcomes.

And we are accountable to the residents of remote communities to makes sure houses are properly managed and maintained.

And we are accountable to Indigenous Australians to provide the opportunity of home ownership.

These accountabilities can only be delivered where long term land tenure facilitates and ensures housing investment and reform.

Without secure long term tenure, ownership of housing assets is uncertain.

Without secure long term tenure, responsibility for the maintenance of facilities and housing is confused

Without secure long term tenure, residents and tenants occupy their homes without any security or certainty.

And without secure long term tenure, potential investors have no incentive to invest.

As part of the implementation of housing reforms in remote communities we will be insisting on appropriate security to underpin major housing investment.

That security must be a lease or other arrangement which does four things

  • It must ensure clarity of ownership and responsibility for assets.
  • It must deliver the effective provision and management of public or community housing.
  • It must ensure tenants are required to look after their houses and be held to public tenancy requirements.
  • It must encourage and facilitate private sector investment to expand the housing asset base and to encourage private home ownership.

While the Australian Government plays a major role in the provision of Indigenous housing funds nationally, legislation governing land tenure is a matter for the states and the ACT.

Under Commonwealth legislation, I have significant responsibilities for land tenure in the Northern Territory.

With this spread of responsibility, different approaches to secure tenure are necessary in each jurisdiction.

The Queensland Government is currently working on draft legislation to allow long term leases of up to 99 years for residential purposes, public housing and significant commercial development or community infrastructure.

In South Australia, we are working with the state government to provide public housing with appropriate tenure on the APY lands in the north of the state. We believe this can be achieved within the existing legislation which provides for 50 year leases to the Crown.

In Western Australia, the state government is working to implement long-term leasing arrangements to underpin the delivery of public housing and to create home ownership opportunities on Aboriginal land.

Public housing can offer a pathway forward, and in many States and the Northern Territory, tenants have the opportunity to purchase their homes either in full or on a shared equity basis.

In the Northern Territory we are working with the Territory government, Land Councils and Aboriginal communities to make sure we have the necessary pre-conditions for substantial housing investments.

In the Northern Territory our approach to tenure is neither prescriptive nor coercive.

Where communities and traditional owners wish to pursue 99 year township leases, I will consider each proposal on its merits. I consider there are many advantages to whole of township leases.

My approach will be the same for proposals from communities seeking more geographically limited ‘block leases’ whether for a 20 year plus 20 year term, or some longer term.

In addition, we are examining whether we might improve the flexibility of township leases by explicitly providing for a range of terms to apply rather than requiring every township lease to be only for 99 years.

This new flexibility could be coupled with a provision for the early renewal of leases, perhaps 20 years prior to their expiry, so that shorter terms can still provide secure tenure.

This will ensure investors will always have an adequate forward period to get a return on their investment and that the length of the lease corresponds to the life of the asset, including houses.

Of course the concept of providing long term leases to third parties is not new for Indigenous landowners.

There are scores of significant resource development agreements which transfer control of all activities to a mining company for decades.

What is important is that the conditions of the lease, whether mining or housing, adequately protect investors, traditional owners and residents.

I want to say something now about housing options – and the need to expand housing choices for Aboriginal communities.

Just last week the question of choice was brought into sharp focus during a conversation I had with Walgett resident Joseph Flick.

Joe told me that 40 years ago his grandmother had lived in a tin shed. It was only a humpy, he said, but his grandmother lived there with a sense of pride and responsibility. She kept it clean and tidy. And that, he said, was because his grandmother and her family had built the house and owned it.

Some tenants are good, he said, but the absence of ownership means there is reduced responsibility.

“If you have no say in the house you are given,” he said, “you have no incentive to look after it.”

Joe’s advice was this: “Take the blinkers off and look for new options”

“Take the blinkers off and look for new options.”

What Joe wants, like so many Indigenous people I’ve spoken to is a new approach which recognises there is no universal solution; that all options need to be examined.

During our visit local residents told us they wanted to explore home ownership options and mentioned in particular five houses currently being built by the New South Wales Government.

I’ve taken this on board and have begun exploring ways to create increased home ownership options.

I’ve written to the New South Wales Government, the NSW Aboriginal Land Council (who I met with yesterday) and the Aboriginal Housing Office to take the next steps towards home ownership in these communities.

Throughout our lives we live under many different roofs – from the family home into student accommodation, rental or public housing then perhaps shared equity with an eventual goal of private ownership.

Many of these options aren’t available to many Indigenous people, particularly those in remote areas.

I’m committed to increasing the range of choices. Of course it won’t happen overnight but home ownership must be within the reach of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Australians have always aspired to home ownership as a measure of ensuring economic, physical and emotional security. If I have equity in my home, I have a stake in my economic future. I want more Indigenous working families to have this sense of security and control over their future through home ownership.

Expanding housing choice in remote Australia is something I’ll be pursuing with state and territory governments, with Indigenous communities, and with the private sector. We all have a role to play.

It’s something I also expect the Joint Policy Commission on Indigenous Housing established by the Prime Minister, will take up.

Today I’ve been frank and honest about the job ahead. I’m a realist – it is going to be tough and there will be difficult decisions.

It will take years of hard work, determination and commitment to get the job done and that’s what I’m ready for.

So that in the next decade we do halve the gap in infant mortality rates; we do halve the gap in reading, writing and numeracy for children and over the next generation we do close the 17 year gap in life expectancy.

As a realist I know this is going to take a lot of doing, but as an optimist I know we can do it.

And if, on occasion my optimism threatens to falter, I’ll think back to the day we said sorry and remember the outpouring of good will, unity and purpose that flowed across the country.

And I’ll remember the wise advice of Joe Flick – to take the blinkers off and start moving forward.

Thank you.