Friday, 9 December 2016

Homelands and Remote Essential Services

The recent Senate Estimates Hearings on 3 November 2016, and in particular the response to Questions on Notice lodged by Senators in the week or so following the Hearing (link here) has thrown up a range of interesting new information. This post is limited to just two closely related topics both of which have been the subject of earlier posts (See here and here).

In Question 210 on the topic of “Review on Homeland/Outstation Assets and Access”, Senator Rachel Siewert asked a series of questions related to this review which had been jointly commissioned by the Australian Government and the NT Government in March 2015.
I had previously raised the failure to release the report in my post on Homelands Policy in March this year.

Senator Siewert asked a series of questions regarding its status, and was told in response that it had been finalised in February 2016, the Minister had been briefed on 10 March 2016, and it had been published eight months later on the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT) website on 7 October. 

The decision to delay publication, and then arrange for the report to be published on the CAT website, without any statement by the Minister is quite strange, particularly as the answer to the Question on Notice confirms that the report cost $1,080,000 including $775,000 from the Commonwealth.
One can only assume that the Government did not wish to attract attention to the report, and in particular, did not wish to be asked what its intentions were in relation to specific findings of the report. Perhaps this is something which Senator Siewert might explore in future Estimates Hearings.

The other interesting information revealed in the answer to Senator Siewert’s question are the amounts provided to the states in one-off grants to persuade them to take over funding responsibility for municipal and essential services in remote communities.

The answer provides the following information:

Queensland $10.3 million from 1 October 2014; Victoria $15 million from 1 October 2014; Tasmania $15.9 million from 1 October 2014; Western Australia $90 million from 1 July 2015; South Australia (areas outside APY Lands) $15 million from 1 July 2015; and Northern Territory $154.8 million from 19 September 2015.

These amounts total $301m. It is not clear what terms and conditions applied to the funding, but my guess is that there were no conditions requiring jurisdictions to allocate the funds to remote essential services. In other words, it is not clear that Indigenous interests gained any tangible benefits whatsoever from the payment of these funds from the Indigenous affairs budget allocation.

Further, the lack of transparent reporting from jurisdictions on progress (WA is perhaps the exception) suggests that there is no process in place from the Australian Government to monitor and hold accountable the states and territories in relation to the discharge of their responsibilities for delivering these essential services. Again, this is a matter which Senators might wish to explore in future Estimates Hearings.

Turning to the CAT Report itself, a quick read suggests that it is highly informative and confirms the complex and fluid demographic dynamics of remote outstations and homelands in the NT. The report throws up a series of difficult and complex issues for both Governments and landowners. For example, the report identifies a number of outstations with potential water contamination issues (p 33), in 76 outstations, energy safety issues were identified (p36); and in 101 outstations CAT identified safety or maintenance concerns related to sewerage systems (p 37).

The report undertakes an analysis of the physical and social assets in each of the 400 outstations surveyed and ranks them. It finds that 274 (or 74 % of outstations surveyed) locations exhibit high functional assets and high social asset rankings. This is a very positive result, and reinforces the utility of this choice for the 5 to 10 thousand remote residents who choose to reside in homelands or outstations.

I have not attempted to summarise the Report, and commend it to interested readers. The Findings appear sensible, but do not take the next step of recommending to Government specific courses of action.

The Australian Government has a continuing “policy stewardship” responsibility for these remote settlements. It was the Australian Government which initially encouraged the moves to outstations for good policy reasons. Those reasons are still relevant and applicable. Outstation residents have better health outcomes, maintain links to country, and are able to exercise choices which sustain social and cultural well-being. The Australian Government also administers the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in the NT, which provides the land tenure basis for most remote outstations in the NT.

While it is desirable that governments continue to respect the choices of those remote residents who choose to reside in homelands or outstations, it is nevertheless important that Governments regularise the provision of core citizenship services.

It is positive that the Minister is considering allocating $40m from the ABA, however one might legitimately ask why it has taken so long to get this underway given that this proposal has been on the table for least five years.

More fundamental questions relate to the fact that remote residents are entitled to an appropriate level of citizenship services, including access to communications, essential services, and community safety from mainstream funding sources such as local governments, the NBN, and at the risk of flogging a dead horse, the Northern Australia Infrastructure facility. 

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