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Speech: Indigenous housing

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (13:06): I rise to take note of Minister Scullion's comments. What we now know is that, under the Turnbull government, housing in remote communities will continue to be overcrowded for years to come. The minister's comments were underwhelming. No-one could have confidence that the Turnbull government has a commitment to remote housing with what we're seeing in how this policy is playing out and what we've heard today. We know this is not just a housing crisis; it's a jobs crisis. While the current program is not perfect, it's not adequate to the degree that's needed, what it has done is provide not only some houses but also desperately needed jobs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. What we have here is both a housing crisis and a jobs crisis because of the appalling way the government is acting.

We know that the current program had reduced overcrowding by 46 per cent. There are few success stories when it comes to this federal government and housing. Again, this program is not perfect, but it's heading in the right direction. So here we had something in the housing area at a federal level that actually had something to show for what it set out to do. What I'm referring to there is that it was delivering new homes, refurbishing homes, providing maintenance for homes. That is significant for anybody, but when you live in overcrowded premises it's incredibly important.

I thank Senator Dodson for putting forward this motion so that we can have this debate and assist the remote communities—particularly in Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory, as well as across the whole country—that are now in such an uncertain period. It really has put the spotlight on the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing. I also congratulate my colleague Senator Rachel Siewert for her work in this area, which has been very extensive. She spelled it out very clearly, as have others, in her speech about how important housing is for those other essential rights, basic human rights, of education, of health.

All of these issues are connected, and when you have overcrowding you're going to run into so many other problems that are impacting on people's day-to-day lives and costing the government money. So much of what they're doing here is short-sighted. We know the remote housing program is not a huge amount of money, so what is going on here? This is a real reminder of how this really is a government of inequality. Previous federal governments committed $776 million to the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing. It's been cut to $100 million. That extra $676 million that they think they're saving—I mean it's not a huge amount of money. It should have been improved, increased, not what we're seeing here today.

What we also know—and this comes from the latest census work of the Australian Bureau of Statistics—is the whole impact that overcrowding has on communities. It really is worthwhile reminding ourselves how serious this is. The ABS stated that the overall number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experiencing homelessness in 2016 was 23,437 and more than two in three were living in severely crowded dwellings. Those figures are shameful. We are a rich country and this should not be happening. The ABS stated that people living in severely crowded dwellings—which are defined as requiring four or more extra bedrooms to accommodate the people who usually live there—was the greatest contributor to the national increase in homelessness. It is disgraceful that this is where we are at in this country. These are recent figures; that is the latest census data.

Again, we should remind ourselves about the overall housing crisis caused by the shocking policies of the federal government—and I acknowledge that the work of many of our state governments in this area is also below par. The 2016 census data showed that the rate of homelessness in Australia over the last five years has gone up by 5.6 per cent. It is increasing, not decreasing; it is not even staying the same. At every turn, the way this federal government, under Prime Minister Turnbull, is handling housing is shameful. Again, that is why they are increasingly being called the government of inequality.

The National Partnership Agreement for Remote Indigenous Housing and the Remote Housing Strategy have been very significant. The remote housing review gives us some insight into how significant it has been. By this year, the strategy will have delivered 11,500 more livable homes in remote Australia. And I will repeat a comment I made earlier. When we are talking about the number of homes that are being delivered, there are new homes, there is refurbishment and there is maintenance. And what does that mean? It means hundreds and hundreds of jobs. And we cannot emphasise enough how important that is in remote Australia.

In regard to overcrowded dwellings for people in remote areas, the review found that this increase in supply is estimated to have led to a significant decrease in the proportion of overcrowded households in remote and very remote areas—falling from 52.1 per cent in 2008 to 41.3 per cent in 2014. The panel projects that this will fall further—to 37.4 per cent by 2018. That is really welcome; those figures are good; at least it is heading in the right direction. There could be a lot more improvement, but I would still say that it is welcome; there is much more to do, but it is welcome. It is welcome because we know we need to improve the strategy and continue to invest in remote housing. The remote housing review has recommended that an additional 5,500 houses be built.

Where does all that sit with where the government is at now? I have not read all the documents that the minister has put forward, but you would have thought he would put all the good news up top—and there wasn't good news there in terms of the uncertainty this whole sector is facing. The minister has been incredibly inadequate in terms of how he has handled the portfolio. The minister really has questions to answer here. Why has it taken so long? Why has it got to this point? What justifies leaving communities and housing providers in so much uncertainty? That is one of the very shocking things that is going on here—where it leaves these communities. We don't know why they are doing that, but we do know the impact it is having. Firstly, it is reckless and it is mean-spirited and it is bringing more hardship and uncertainty. When it comes to housing, people should be confident that they and their family and their loved ones—the people they are sharing their home with—can have a roof over their head and not have to be worried about it in a month's time or a year's time. That is a human right. People have a right to homes and to have secure housing. It is actually set out as a human right, but this government appears not to know that.

Again, let's emphasise that we're not talking about a lot of money here. It's been about $540 million per year so far. Compare that to the roughly $8 billion of public money we're expected to dish out, and we do dish out, that goes on the negative gearing and the capital gains tax discounts in one year alone. This why I say we're a rich country and we can afford it. We know where the money can come from: clean up negative gearing and clean up capital gains tax discounts. That's one way to reduce the inequality in this country and have money to fund these essential programs.

Essentially, what the Turnbull government should be doing here is to end the uncertainty. That's the first thing. They need to come out with a very clear position that the current system remains and that it's going to be improved on, and we're not all left wondering what happens when this 10-year agreement ends. The state and territory governments should not have to siphon off already constrained funds for these housing programs. You get the sense when you listen to the federal government that that's their idea with housing, 'Oh, well, it's basically a state issue and so we can just get away with pushing it onto state governments.'

As I've heard other speakers say, the Turnbull government needs to find some backbone on this. They need to find a commitment. Again, we hear all the fine statements about Aboriginal rights and Closing the Gap, but here is a case in point: this is where they can actually do the job, and, surely, that's what they should be doing. What we've heard today from the Liberals and Nationals is another reason why this government needs to be defeated. It's ruthless, it's shocking and this is clearly another example why this government should be voted out of office. Thank you.


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