Monday, 27 February 2017

Statistical miasma: the Productivity Commission Report on Government Services and Remote Housing

I have commented on the challenges of remote housing in an earlier post: link here.

At the risk of some repetition, there seems merit in canvassing some of the data emerging from the Productivity Commission this month. The new data is available in the amazingly detailed Report on Government Services (link here) released annually by the Productivity Commission. Unfortunately, for anyone who is busy, there is just too much information to easily absorb.

Volume G (link here) deals with housing and homelessness services and including data tables runs to 463 pages.

The approach I have adopted is to merely dip my toe in the water so to speak, and make a number of observations focussed particularly on some of the data related to remote housing provision, which of course is almost entirely directed to Indigenous citizens.

Thus the largest social housing program is Commonwealth Rent Assistance (CRA). It involves transfers of $4.4bn per annum. Some 1.35m Australian households access CRA, including 67,000 Indigenous households, or 5 percent of the total. On one perspective, Indigenous citizens are over-represented as Indigenous people comprise just 3 percent of the national population. However, in remote and very remote regions, only 4000 Indigenous households, or less than one third of one percent of CRA recipients access CRA (Table GA.22); a function of the lack of private sector rental options in remote regions.

As a consequence, remote Indigenous citizens are particularly reliant on the quality and effectiveness of social housing provision, and have limited alternatives where those services are not adequate. It also means that remote Indigenous citizens are vulnerable to cuts in remote programs which governments would not be prepared to implement in mainstream programs.

So how effective is the provision of social housing in remote regions?

The answer is that is seems there are substantial shortcomings in the effectiveness of social housing provision, but there are also inexplicable data absences which make comprehensive assessment more difficult.

So at page 18.5, in Box 18.3, the report indicates that some 5000 social housing units in the Northern Territory were removed from the Indigenous Housing data set following their transfer to mainstream social housing in 2008-10, but seven years later relevant data is still not being provided and is expected to be included in the Report in 2018. This is entirely unsatisfactory and difficult to understand in a context where government rhetoric is focussed on the priority of closing the gap.

In terms of dwelling conditions, the report notes that in 2016 Indigenous citizens’ dwellings are much worse than mainstream tenants’ dwellings:
Nationally in 2016, the majority of social housing respondents lived in dwellings of an acceptable standard, though proportions were lower for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander households:
· for public housing, 80.7 per cent of all dwellings and 69.6 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dwellings ….
· for community housing, 88.8 per cent of all dwellings and 77.2 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dwellings (figure 18.6 and tables 18A.36, 18A.38).

Roughly one quarter of Indigenous social housing tenants lived in dwellings (provided by government) of an unacceptable standard. In the Northern Territory, the data suggests that this figure rises to around 50 percent for Indigenous community housing (see Figure G.5 of page G.10).

Turnaround times for managing vacant dwellings in social housing stock (a measure of overall efficiency of the housing management) is twice the national average in the Northern Territory (which has a preponderance of Indigenous tenants). See pages 18.27-8. The NT clearly has a significant challenge in front of it in managing not only its remote housing stock, but its total social housing stock.

In terms of overcrowding, the Report notes (Table 18A.23) that 4.2 percent of public housing nationally is overcrowded. In the NT, it is 8 percent, and the ratio has stayed roughly constant for the last five years.

Reading the Report on Government Services is not for the feint hearted, and if one is interested in social housing services for Indigenous tenants, the narrative is confusing and incomplete. For states such as WA and Queensland, most services to Indigenous tenants are included within mainstream services, and impossible to disaggregate. The NT is a useful barometer for remote Indigenous housing because the preponderance of social housing tenants outside the major cities are Indigenous.

However, close reading of the report suggests that the deep-seated disadvantage of remote residents continues, notwithstanding the $5.5bn invested by the Rudd Government in the National Partnership on Remote Indigenous Housing, most of which has already been spent or committed, notwithstanding that the National Partnership still has a year to run. Overcrowding is still a serious issue for remote housing.

The present Government has made no moves to supplement the NPARIH investment since coming to office, and indeed has cut $95m in funding for property and tenancy management within NPARIH as part of the funding reductions announced when it first came to office (refer to the answer to Question on Notice 331 from the May 2015 Estimates Hearings). The wisdom of this when over 20 percent of all Indigenous public housing tenants are living in unacceptable conditions in government supplied housing is impossible to fathom. The Minister’s defence was that the funds would be diverted to the RJCP (now CPD) program, and that program would assist in property and tenancy management services. There is no data or indications available that this is in fact occurring.

The Government has announced the transfer of NPARIH funding to a new Remote Housing Strategy, which appears to be laying the groundwork for a much reduced level of ongoing investment. Late last year the Minister announced a review of remote housing (link to media release is here). There has been no word on progress of the review, no discussion paper or as far as I can discern no call for public submissions (the PMC website indicates that submissions to the review have closed, but it is not clear to me that they were ever advertised publicly). Perhaps we may see a report in the lead up to the budget, though no time frame has been announced.

Hopefully one of the outcomes of the review will be a set of recommendations for rationalising the statistical swamp which oozes around all aspects of Indigenous housing. The Government has identified improved evaluation of government programs as a priority for closing the gap (a strategy which I am sceptical about) but it is clear that if any area needs a comprehensive and independent evaluation then it is Indigenous housing, and in particular remote housing. The establishment of a review by three well regarded Indigenous persons albeit with limited housing policy background, and supported by non-independent public servants, is in my view not the way to address the serious and longstanding challenges facing Indigenous social housing recipients.

The related issue which perhaps the Productivity Commission should address is that the Review of Government Services, while based on an extraordinarily comprehensive set of mainstream data compiled from a wide array of state and federal data sources, is not independent. The fact that it appears optional to provide potentially embarrassing data merely reinforced the point.

Like the Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage Report which is produced under the direction of a Steering Committee comprising public servants from state and federal governments (link here), there is a risk that the use of the Productivity Commission brand suggests an independence which is technically absent. It is undertaken on behalf of a committee of Commonwealth and state public servants, and thus is technically not owned by the Productivity Commission. The Report would benefit from some rigorous evaluation by the Commission so as to make it user friendly and allow readers to draw policy conclusions rather than sink into the miasma.

The Commission appears set to increase its profile on Indigenous issues following the recent announcement by the Prime Minister (link here) of the intention to appoint an Indigenous Productivity Commissioner. This is all the more reason for ensuring there is clarity between reports prepared on behalf of government and reports which are independent advice to Government from the Commission.