Monday, 2 July 2018

Remote Housing Watershed: rampant political chicanery.

The ten year National Partnership on Remote Indigenous Housing, renamed the National Partnership on Remote Housing has completed its ten year course, and expired on 30 June. I won’t present a barrage of statistics, as my previous posts have done all that (link here and here) but will merely assert that the National Partnership over its ten year life made a substantial difference to the levels of overcrowding, community infrastructure and quality of housing in scores of remote communities and town camps on the edges of major towns across remote Australia.

The Commonwealth has failed to renew the ongoing financial investment directed at improving social housing for the most disadvantaged citizens in the nation. Instead, it decided to cut a deal with the NT Government where it allocated $110m per annum for five years to match the NT Government’s earlier decision to commit a billion dollars over ten years. The Minister has apparently been in negotiations with South Australia, Queensland and the Western Australian Government, but so far no agreements have been announced.

The WA Government has recently mounted a public campaign directed at gaining the Prime Minister’s attention (link here) but the likelihood of a major breakthrough appears low.

The Commonwealth has successfully framed this issue as a fight between the Commonwealth and the States. In its most recent manifestation, Minister Scullion’s reaction has again been to play the man and not the ball (link here) and provide the Western Australian media with a media release directed squarely at WA Treasurer and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Ben Wyatt and titled ‘Little Wyatt lies on remote Indigenous housing’. Dated 29 June 2018, as of today (2 July, 3.30 pm) it has yet to appear on Minister Scullion’s media release web site. I cannot remember seeing a ministerial media release which included such personal and vitriolic abuse, which literally attempted to belittle the Western Australian Minister and merely succeeded in squandering the little credibility Minister Scullion retains. As a public service, I have transcribed it in full in the previous post (link here).

To his credit, Minister Wyatt has gone public and called out the Minister on his bullying behaviour. See the Guardian article on the issue by Calla Wahlquist (link here).

But turning to Minister Scullion’s media release, it is a long time since I have seen a media release so redolent of flagrant hypocrisy, disingenuousness, and outright policy chicanery. Of course we haven’t seen the relevant correspondence, but according to the West Australians, the Commonwealth ‘offer’ is for $60.9m over three years, down from the $360m it would have received from the Commonwealth had NPARIH been rolled over. Minister Scullion states:

 As I have always said, the Commonwealth remains committed to future investment in remote Indigenous housing,

The pathetic combination of a ‘commitment’ to some unspecified level of future investment is breathtaking in its hypocrisy. Here is a minister who has allowed a $550m per annum ten year program to lapse and replaced it with a $110m per annum commitment for five years in the NT, and ‘ongoing negotiations’ with three other jurisdictions claiming the moral high ground. His rhetoric is disgraceful. As I have previously noted, given that the NT represents about half the outstanding remote housing need, the Commonwealth appears unlikely to offer more than $220m per annum in total, and not for ten years. Such an outcome would represent a $300m per annum cut to the Commonwealth’s remote housing funding.

Minister Scullion’s media release goes on to cite as evidence of Commonwealth effort vis a vis State efforts, the Commonwealth investments over ten years which were committed and allocated by the Rudd / Macklin administration, and which he spent years attacking in Senate Estimates. As I have stated before, the area of social housing is a joint federal/state responsibility, but it is the Commonwealth which is moving to abrogate its responsibility. The comparisons made in the last two paragraphs of Minister Scullion’s media release, where he accuses the WA Government of racism for not using mainstream funds from the Commonwealth and thus not pulling its weight in remote communities ignores two salient facts. The first and most obvious is that the state allocated mainstream funds to urban and regional social housing which itself includes higher than pro rata levels of Indigenous tenants. In a situation where a remote housing program existed, it was not inappropriate for the states to allocate mainstream funding to urban and regional centres.

Second, the largest housing assistance expenditure program in the nation is Rent Assistance. It is administered by the Commonwealth and totals $4.4bn per annum. It assists low income tenants in private rentals and community housing. In remote Australia, this program has very little traction for the simple reason that there is a very limited private rental housing market. The result is that remote Indigenous citizens are effectively excluded form the Commonwealth’s largest housing assistance program. This fact in itself provides a substantive policy rationale for the continuation of the remote housing program by the Commonwealth.

Minister Scullion’s criticism of the State and its Minister is not only unwarranted and thus unfair, but applies to the Commonwealth and arguably to the Minister himself, since notwithstanding much rhetoric, he has made virtually no headway on land reform which would facilitate the expansion of a private ownership and community housing options in remote communities, and thus open up access to the Rent Assistance program. For Minister Scullion to accuse the Western Australian Government of ‘racism at its worst’ is both wrong, and deeply ironic given the actions of the Commonwealth on this issue to date.

Of course what is lacking from the Commonwealth is any considered and cogent explanation for its decisions on remote housing. It has been a rolling maul of delays, misinformation, non-information, promises, threats, and now straight out abuse. Why is it too much to ask that a Commonwealth Minister lay out in a considered and careful manner the basis for the Government’s decisions, and how they see those decisions contributing to closing the gap?

Minister Wyatt’s comments as to the ‘unsuitability’ of Minister Scullion to resolve these issues appear to be well directed. One might even go further and ask whether a person who directs accusations of racism at the WA Government while seeking to explicitly belittle an Indigenous man and political opponent is up to the job of Minister for Indigenous Affairs in the Commonwealth Government.

To sum up, I will merely set down a letter I sent to the Prime Minister earlier today:

Prime Minister
Your Government's decision to substantially cut funding for remote housing following the cessation of NPARIH /NPRH will impact the most disadvantaged citizens in the nation. It will cause ongoing social, economic and health stress for individuals, families including children, and whole communities.

What exacerbates this decision is that your Minister has deliberately set out to obfuscate, to confuse, and to blame rather than set down a set of reasoned and rational explanations for the Government's decision.

I call on you to reverse the Government's decision and reinstate a substantial ten year program to underpin the provision of social housing in remote communities.

sincerely Michael Dillon

I think that says it all. I am not holding my breath for a substantive reply.

Personal Disclosure: I worked as an adviser to Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin between 2008 and 2011.

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