10. Housing and Land Tenure
As a key social determinant of health and wellbeing, tackling the acute housing shortage and consequent overcrowding and sub-standard nature of existing housing in Aboriginal communities is an urgent task.
While significant new investment in new and upgraded housing has been provided as part of the NTER, it will not be nearly enough to address the current levels and types of need in Aboriginal communities. The $647 million joint Australian and Northern Territory Governments' Strategic Indigenous Housing Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) proposes an improved model for addressing Aboriginal housing needs, however the unmet need in Aboriginal housing in the NT is estimated at more than $2 billion.
This shortfall in housing funding is evidenced in the limited scope of the SIHIP which will provide new housing in only 16 of the larger communities out of the 73 prescribed communities. The other 53 communities will only have access to housing upgrades. Without a commitment to provide significant additional funding, the problems of overcrowding will continue in the majority of prescribed Aboriginal communities in the NT in the foreseeable future, thereby seriously undermining the NTER's primary objectives of addressing child protection, health and wellbeing needs.42 AMSANT has not been privy to the data on overcrowding collected during the community surveys, but we believe these should be made public.
The objectives are further undermined by the lack of coverage of the NTER, which covers only 73 communities in the NT with populations more than 100. There are an additional 8 communities with over 100 people and 560 communities with less than 100 that are not included. The latter includes an estimated population of nearly 10,000.43
AMSANT believes that an effective, sustainable, long-term strategy for Aboriginal housing requires the commitment of sufficient funds to address the unmet needs in all Aboriginal communities and must address the needs of smaller remote communities according to need within the same timeframe as that proposed for addressing housing needs in larger communities [See Recommendation 14]. One option for accessing additional funds is the Commonwealth's $10 billion Health and Hospitals Fund, announced in the 2008-09 Federal Budget.
The housing availability crisis in Aboriginal communities also relates to staff accommodation both for staff recruited externally and locally. All our member services experience difficulties with providing staff accommodation and have identified this as a critical workforce issue as it is a significant barrier to recruiting the additional staff required to lift the level of health service delivery in communities.
The NTER has paid insufficient attention to this issue and it has been observed that NTECC gave priority to the accommodation needs of NTER personnel over that of the long-term needs of health services and other service providers in communities. A small allocation ($6 million) has also been made for infrastructure and staff accommodation through the EHSDI investment plan, however, this will be totally inadequate to meet current need.
AMSANT urges that the Review Panel recommends that the issue of staff accommodation be given a higher priority than it currently has and be allocated additional resources for new staff accommodation. [See Recommendation 15]
Housing construction and maintenance
Housing construction and maintenance offers significant potential for the development of community-based and regional Aboriginal enterprises and employment. Linking this need with the initiatives to provide additional housing and upgrade current housing stocks in Aboriginal communities is essential. However the NTER has been slow to address the issue.
The following example from the former manager of the Aboriginal community of Robinson River in the NT's Gulf country, emailed to a friend on 10 June 2008, illustrates the dimensions of the problem:
"They bring in outside contractors to do housing maintenance. These people are on contract and are paid $147 per hour for the tradespeople and $252 per hour for the supervisor. In one community nearby the tradesmen were from Melbourne on a fly in/fly out basis - two weeks on site, then back to Melbourne for a week off. The same community has its own qualified painter who works with a group of locals painting houses. The intervention flew in people from Adelaide to do the painting and wouldn't allow the local team to do the work.
"Here in Robinson I insisted our own plumber and carpenters do the work. Thus the [local] Mungoorbada Aboriginal Corporation has been engaged to provide the workers and tradesmen. Last Friday our plumber did a number of jobs in 4½ hours which the contractors had allowed 29 hours to complete. On Saturday he did 9 hours in 45 minutes. They are replacing solid brass garden taps that are only about six months old with new taps and charging $30 for the tap and $52.50 labour to fit it. A new tap cost $6.17 to buy and can be fitted in five minutes. They are even replacing sink breaches that are fitted with stainless-steel seats with standard all-brass breaches. When a stainless seat is fitted the breach lasts forever but the brass will slowly corrode."44
Such a level of waste and contractor profiteering is indefensible, particularly in light of the urgent need to provide training and jobs to Aboriginal people in communities where there is little alternative employment.
However, the example is also indicative of a more widespread problem in the implementation of the NTER concerning the waste of money that has occurred as a result the lack of detailed planning combined with a centralised, bureaucratic "pull out all stops" approach that has appeared to be preoccupied with demonstrating that things are happening on the ground, regardless of cost.
Land tenure changes
AMSANT has previously stated our concern regarding the compulsory acquiring of 5year leases to prescribed Aboriginal communities by the Australian Government.
AMSANT supports the need to rationalise the way in which houses and other infrastructure are built and maintained and essential services are provided on Aboriginal land to ensure that new houses can be quickly built, be well-maintained and the necessary public health services provided.
However, AMSANT is not convinced that the only way for these issues to be improved is for the compulsory 5-year leases. It is possible that new houses and other infrastructure could be owned and managed by appropriate Aboriginal-controlled bodies or an Aboriginal Housing Authority and that this would be more effective than a Commonwealth take-over. This should be negotiated with the respective Land Councils under provisions already existing in the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976.
AMSANT also believes that there needs to be proper resolution of land title in negotiation with native title holders for the leasehold areas (town camps) around the regional centres.
42. For example, overcrowding is a large contributor to the (re)infection of children's ears. Thus the large investment in ENT follow-up as part of Phase 2 of the CHCs will be significantly compromised by failing to comprehensively address overcrowding. The Australian Government has also made it clear it regards overcrowding as a significant child safety issue (see, for example, House of Representatives Official Hansard No. 11, 2007, Tuesday, 7 August 2007, p108.
43. Altman, J, 2007, "National Emergency" and Land Rights Reform: Separating Fact From Fiction, An assessment of the proposed amendments to the Aboriginal land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. Briefing Paper by Oxfam Australia.
44. Quoted in "How to see $1 billion go down the drain", Alan Ramsey, SMH June 21 2008.