Archive for August, 2009


August 19, 2009

SIHIP is really in the news. Mostly as there appears to be a game of pin-the-blame-on-the-donkey. The donkey so far is one senior alliance executive, Jim Davidson. Given the growing media frenzy, it worth revisiting the origins of SIHIP.

SIHIP was singed into life in April 2008 and this is what I said about it at the time,

There is a new program, the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) which has a $647 m budget for the next 3 years. The plan is to build 750 new homes, demolish and replace 250 and refurbish a further 2500. …This isn’t enough funding to achieve the stated aim, so one objective of the program is to achieve significant reductions in building costs. Other than through economies of scale it doesn’t say how it will achieve this. By my reckoning, the cost savings will need to be in the region of 50%, which is highly unlikely.

Now we have the ex-head of SIHIP saying that a further $200-300 m will be required. Well, even that won’t be enough, as has been pointed out often enough, the current program will meet about 25% of housing needs. No matter which way you slice and dice it, no matter who gets sacked, or how many reviews are done on SIHIP, the funding is dwarfed by the scale of need. Without a $2-3 billion program, we will continue to see instances of people appearing in the media pointing out, quite rightly, how they haven’t had any change in their housing situation despite SIHIP.

One very unfortunate potential outcome of this is the perpetuation of a certain policy nihilism that pervades Indigenous affairs. It’s characterised by that oft-heard comment of – ‘so much money is spent on aborigines and it’s all wasted’, etc etc.

SIHIP will make a difference to many people, but at the end of it, there will still be people with quite dire housing needs. We need SIHIP every year for the next 15 years.

OK, now for some boring housing stuff. Part of the cost issue with SIHIP, is that SIHIP was tasked with simultaneously improving the standard of housing. Houses built under SIHIP are meant to be no different in quality to houses built anywhere else in Australia. This is a first for remote communities. This doesn’t mean that all previous housing was crap (but a lot was), but that relevant standards would apply. It’s basic stuff like all the appropriate certification (waterproofing, electrical certificates etc) which was always ignored before, and at the end, issuing a ‘Permit to Occupy’, certifying that the building is safe for human habitation and ensuring that the builders take responsibility for the quality of their work.

Housing and the NT Circus

August 4, 2009

The NT Labor Govt has again been teetering on the edge of oblivion thanks to some aspects of its Indigenous policy, and yet again so at the hands of one of its Indigenous MLA’s and Ministers, this time Alison Anderson.

It all started last week when the Minister for Indigenous Policy reacted to what she believed was news that 70% of the SIHIP funding was going into administration costs. It wasn’t, but it was an event that got the ball rolling, leading to her resignation from the Labor Party and NT Government today. How this came about isn’t clear, but one possibility is that Anderson was briefed on progress to date and might well have been told that 70% of expenditure to date has been on ‘administration’ ,which would cover a gamut of activities such as the housing surveys which are finding out what exactly is required on each house in terms of maintenence and repairs.

Anderson’s sudden disappointment over SIHIP is pretty odd given that hers was the face that co-launched the NT Govt’s new remote township policy just 6 weeks ago. And there have been no changes in the SIHIP program, and it all seems to running roughly to plan. Anderson’s concern that it won’t be adequate to address the housing issues is exceedingly odd, as that has always been obvious. SIHIP is a $600 m program, but that is roughly quarter the amount required for a comprehensive solution to housing issues in remote communities. As a result, a list of 16 priority communities was drawn up and they are first cabs off the rank . There are going to be plenty of disappointed people in remote communities waiting for some time for any change to their housing. As Minister for Indigenous Policy, Anderson should have been well aware of this. But given the number of people criticising SIHIP on procedural and administrative matters, maybe plenty of people aren’t.

But in a strange twist it wasn’t this that prompted her resignation, but this article in the NT News. It was critical of the political style of Anderson and her fellow Indigenous MLA’s. And again it’s not precisely this article itself, but the failure of the Chief Minister to defend her publicly from the criticisms in it, and she hinted that she believed the article was informed from within the Labor Government (local politics tip: the author of the article is married to an advisor in the NT Government). Anderson branded the article “racist”, but I think she was off the mark with this. Though it is certainly very wrong in its take on the political style of Indigenous MLA’s, describing them as “one-issue” and “self-centered”. There is some difference in political style which I’d attribute to a fairly robust Indigenous political environment, but that is a generalisation. It is apparent in Alison Anderson , much less so with Marion Scrymgour and not at all with Malindirri McCarthy. Anderson has a style which I call ‘crash-through or crash’, which I’ve seen a few times. And criticising the interest of the Indigenous MLA’s in Indigenous affairs as “one-issue” politics is quite something. I can only relate my personal experience with Malindirri McCarthy on this matter – she became the minister in my work area less than 12 months ago, but in that time we have had her visit our offices twice, just to meet staff and get a feel for the work area and what goes on – and that is two visits more than all other ministers combined over my 15 years.

The whole affair has exposed Anderson as being not particularly astute. It’s not clear what she hoped to gain from her resignation and, before it happened, whether or not it was just an idle threat. Perhaps she hoped to join with the CLP to change the government, but that hasn’t happened. But what did happen should have been obvious to her – within a few hours the other rebel ex-Labor MLA, Marion Scrymgour, rejoined the Labor Party and kept Labor’s slender majority alive. The NT Labor Government though does find itself in a weaker position. With Scrymgour as an independent it could still count on her vote for all important matters. That is less clearly so with Anderson. The biggest loser appears to be Anderson herself. While she is now one of two balance of power MLAs, she is no longer Minister for Indigenous Policy and is in a far weaker position to influence government policy on a day to day basis.

SIHIP will continue, renovations are on-going and the first new houses are due to start on Groote Eylandt in the coming weeks. This won’t be the last controversy over the new housing program, but until they focus on the manifest inadequacy of SIHIP, despite it being the largest Indigenous housing program in the countries history, it will all be a bit like arguing over the deck-chairs on the Titanic.