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Walking away from indigenous housing

Weekly column from Council Courier e-newsletter by CEO Greg Hallam, Thursday, 25 January 2018.

Wherever you stand on whether 26 January is an appropriate date to celebrate Australia’s nationhood, you have to admit that there is much still to be done to ensure the country’s First Peoples have all the advantages - good health care, clean water, the chance of a decent education - that other Australians enjoy as a matter of course.

True, there is a concerted effort by governments at all levels to improve the lot of indigenous Australians through their commitment to a range of reforms aimed at Closing the Gap of disadvantage.

But as we prepare to mark Australia Day 2018 tomorrow, it is sad to see the Federal Government seemingly preparing the ground to walk away from its commitment to help improve housing in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Ten years ago, the then Rudd Government committed $5.4 billion to help fix the chronic overcrowding, homelessness and generally poor housing conditions that many indigenous Australians in remote places suffer.

The National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing (NPARIH) is a good program. The headline achievement in Queensland is the delivery of more than 1200 new houses and the refurbishment of nearly 1500 others. But it has also turned out to be a great job generator for indigenous communities in this State because much of the money has helped maximise local employment and boost skills.

This program has been a boon to local employment and business growth. Nearly 800 apprentices and trainees are attached to the NPARIH building program each year in Queensland. The proportion of local businesses and organisations involved in the program has jumped from just 10 percent in 2011 to 70 percent last year.

Success stories like these are what indigenous Australia strives for. They are vital to maintain the social fabric of indigenous communities.

Unfortunately, Canberra has a different view. All the signs are that the Federal Government will not renew its commitment to funding remote indigenous housing when the existing program ends in June this year.

It’s impossible to overstate what this will mean for Queensland’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Despite the investments made up until this point, we are still playing “catch up” when it comes to Closing the Gap on indigenous housing.

There are still instances where 20 to 30 people are living in a single house. Several indigenous councils have reported overcrowding rates in their communities of between 50 percent and 70 percent.

The LGAQ estimates that these communities will still need up to 2000 more houses when the current program ends.

The case for an extension of the funding couldn’t be clearer.

This is about a choice between short-term considerations and investing for the future.

The LGAQ’s message to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his Government is this: Walk away from indigenous housing now and you will condemn future governments to paying heavily in the future. Local economies will suffer and what jobs there are will dry up. Keep investing and you will reap the benefits in better indigenous health, education and more.

Public-servant-turned-academic Michael Dillon said it best when he wrote recently:

“Without a renewed commitment, we will witness a slow-motion national crisis. The asymmetry between the short-term benefits of reduced investment and the longer-term social, economic and health costs is leading to decisions that are not in the public interest, and certainly not in the nation’s long-term interest.”

So, let me put the Federal Government on notice. The LGAQ and its members will be using all means at our disposal to draw attention to the crisis that abandoning funding in indigenous housing will cause. Believe me, it won’t be a good news story.

Read: Inside Story: Tactics versus strategy in indigenous housing by Michael Dillon

Greg Hallam AM
Local Government Association of Queensland

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