Archive for the ‘Indigenous policy’ Category

The Amazing Shrinking Housing Program.

September 13, 2010

It’s been quite a while – fulltime work and post-studies have left the well of motivation dry. But now that is over, hopefully there’ll be some regular updates here.

SIHIP continues to be the most salient aspect of the ongoing NT Intervention, so I’ll give a brief summary of what’s been going on.

Houses are popping up all over finally. There are now around 30-40 completed new houses at Nguiu on Bathurst Is. Things are moving along at Wadeye, and there is finally some action at Groote Eylandt and Oenpelli, where the most dramatic events unfolded. One of the alliance partners was Earth Connect, which managed to get itself sacked earlier this year due to the absence of KPIs, i.e, houses. As of January this year, Earth Connect had managed to put up 2 houses in Oenpelli despite having been on the ground for about 9 months. It’s not straight-forward to build in remote locations, but this is what these companies tendered to do, so one would expect they had worked out how to do it. But you’d be wrong. Earth Connect was plagued with problems getting staff, keeping them, plus some good old cock-ups. Oenpelli is cut off in the wet, so if you want to build between December and April, you need everything freighted in before the road closes. A key shipment arrived just prior to the wet – with nothing in it. Just empty shipping containers. Oops. Naturally, very little building went on in the following months.

This is key to understanding the whole SIHIP saga. A fundamental premise underpinning the Governments approach to SIHIP was the involvement of the private sector, and in particular, the bigger construction firms. The reasoning was that they would bring experience, economies of scale and private sector efficiency to the process that would help achieve the Governments crucial strategy of reducing overall costs, so that the projected number of houses could be built within the allocated budget. Which always struck me as a dubious proposition, given that the private sector is about turning a profit, and that profit had to come out of the SIHIP budget. This requires a belief in the myth of private/public duality; private – lean, mean and efficient, versus public – fat, bloated and inept. Which takes us to a particular example, highlighting this flawed conception.

The NT Auditor-General has been having a look at SIHIP and found this little gem; some aspects of project management were overlooked, so a private firm was put in charge. This function was eventually put back to the public service, who managed to do it for only 20% of the cost of the private firm. Never underestimate private sector incompetence or their ability to get their snouts in the public trough.

Which leads us to the title of the post. While things have been going along OK at Wadeye in terms of building (in no small part thanks to the Alliance sub-contracting out the work to the local Thamarrurr Corporation), a new controversy has erupted. Funding hasn’t shrunk, in fact given the above problems, it’s been increased. But in light of the hoped for cost-efficiencies evaporating, the new idea is to reduce the size of the houses and sub-divisions! Brilliant. Elders in Wadeye are far from impressed. Understandable, given that the original designs and plans were negotiated with them in a lengthy consultation process. It’s this kind of thing that informs the general Indigenous view of Government – that you never know what’s going on. Just when you think you some kind of understanding, they change the rules.

This is as a result of the SIHIP review (here – PDF), which, not surprisingly, found that the anticipated savings weren’t materialising.

IMHO, this was quite predictable and the fault lies with an overreliance on the private sector. What should have happened is that the existing housing associations, woefully underfunded for decades, should have been the frontline workforce. If private sector building expertise was needed at the start, it would have been quite reasonable to follow the Wadeye model and have an Alliance partner support the local association with surveys, planning, scoping, technical expertise and training with a view to then funding the local associations directly once they had demonstrated their ability to do the job. SIHIP could have been a fantastic opportunity for training, job creation and local economic development.

With SIHIP due to finish in 2013, let’s hope that some lessons have been learnt and the Federal Govt is having a good hard look at sustainability in remote housing building and maintenance programs. My suggestion – dump all the Alliance’s.


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.

Safe Houses

June 18, 2008

In theory a fine idea and one of the many that sprang forth from the NTER. There are now 12 remote communities with safe houses that are to serve as either a shelter for women or a “cooling off” space for men. This ABC News report makes clear the kind of uncertainty surrounding what appears to be a fairly straight-forward plan,

Malcolm Wall, the chief executive of the Yuendumu community, says he does not think men will choose to go to the safe house voluntarily.

“I think that’s probably where there’s going to be an issue because night patrol isn’t going to be able to grab these people and restrain them, maybe police will be able to use these facilities, I really don’t know,” he said.

Not that the idea is anything new. And if past lessons were learned, a good deal more thought may have gone into it, than just throwing down a bunch of shipping containers.

Once upon a time, in a remote community of Arnhem Land there was a domestic violence problem (and still is). Surely a ‘safe house’ would be just the trick, just like they have down south? Safe House was made. Safe House was very safe – no one ever went in it.

Some bright spark thought that they should talk to the locals and find out why, despite a real domestic violence problem, no one ever used the safe house. What they found, was that people viewed their social and family contacts, supports and networks as an indicator of competence in daily life. If you had a problem, it was these networks that you leant on, making use of the obligations that others owe you. The only reason that someone would go to the safe house would be if they lacked these networks of ties and obligations. In would be an admission of social and familial destitution.

More Housing

May 22, 2008

The planned bipartisan Indigenous Housing Policy Commission is bipartisan no more. Federal Opposition leader Brendan Nelson has declined to be the co-chair of the Commission after one (only one) of his nominees for the Commission – Mal Brough – was rejected. The reason given was that the Govt. didn’t want politicians appointed to the Commission.

I’ve an even better reason for finding Brough entirely unsuitable – his conflict of interest. It’s wasn’t enough for him to walk out of his Indigenous Ministerial role straight into one of private business man looking to earn in a quid in indigenous housing projects, he now wants to simultaneously serve on what will be the pre-eminent policy making body for indigenous housing!

Clue meter reading – zero.


May 21, 2008

The Intervention hasn’t been front page news for some time (besides the odd hiccup), but things have been quietly ticking over behind the natural disasters and scandals of the headlines.

The Intervention is in 3 phases, and we are currently in all three. Phase 1, the child health checks, are still going on, for reasons which remain unclear to me. Phase 2, the health ‘blitzes’, particularly for ENT surgery, are happening, and the planning for Phase 3, the permanent enhancement of health services, is underway.

The abolition of permits to enter Aboriginal Land has itself been abolished.

Welfare Quarantining
Has hit it’s first, very much expected, hurdle, and is being revised. Having found that the store cards were being traded for cash, the Govt has announced that it will phase out the store cards and introduce debit cards.

Slow but steady progress in being made. As pat of the intervention, house ‘surveys’ are currently being conducted. The surveys are identifying urgent work that is needed to be done to ensure that houses are safe to live in.
The NT and Federal Govt’s have come to some basic understandings on funding and objectives for housing. There is a new program, the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) which has a $647 m budget for the next 3 years. He plan is to build 750 new homes, demolish and replace 250 and refurbish a further 2500. The stated aim is to reduce the average occupancy rate to 2 people per bedroom. Not 2 per house, 2 per bedroom. It’s currently a bit higher than that. 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.

Health Services
Phase 2, providing the follow-up services identified as required in Phase 1, is facing workforce problems. Dentists are hard to come by. In one central Arnhem Land community where Phase 2 services are meant to begin in a few weeks, the doctor shortage is such that the doctors from the Clinic have been approached to help out. Kind of defeats the purpose.
Looking to Phase 3, the boosting of Primary Health Care services across the NT, the Federal Govt has just called for tenders to establish the Remote Health Corps Agency. This will be the organisation/group charged with the weighty responsibility of finding all the extra health staff required to expand services. The unwise idea of looking for short-term appointees (fancy a holiday in the desert?) still seems to be a core strategy. $100 million has been allocated for these services over the next 2 years and the NT Govt, DoHA and AMSANT are working on basic criteria to ensure a conssitent and workable approach to distributing these services across the NT.

The Intervention has certainly changed significantly since June last year. Some of the pointless aspects have been jettisoned though a combination of common sense and a change of government, while some significant funding commitments, that were originally excluded, are now coming front and centre.

Can You Believe This?

February 11, 2008

I was over on the Tiwi Islands a few weeks back and people told me that Mal Brough had been in town (Nguiu). I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, while I had no doubt that it was true, I had no idea what he was doing there.


However, today the ABC has confirmed the reports and revealed what the ex-Minister for Indigenous Affairs is up to these days.

I almost choked on this bit,

Mr Clancy [Tiwi Land Council] says Mal Brough is set to profit from the project [housing], but says Tiwi Islanders will also benefit.


Sure, an ex-pollie has gotta make a crust, but this is unethical. Some countries have business appointment laws that prevent ex-Govt ministers and officials moving from their publicly funded positions into private industry that is directly related to their areas of former responsibility.  How do we know that Mal wasn’t positioning himself (and Govt policy) for this as he saw defeat for the Coalition looming on the horizon?  He probably didn’t, but we don’t know.  What is clear is that he is about to profit from laws and policies that he, as the Minister, had a role in formulating and implementing only 3 months ago.  There has been plenty of opposition to the idea of David Hicks profiting from his recent past, but as a matter of ethics and public policy, this is a far more serious matter.


We need similar business appointment laws here, ones that cover former-Ministers as well as public servants.


January 18, 2008

Here’s very brief wrap-up of events over the Christmas – New Year period. 

As predicted, the ineffectual NIC was allowed to fade into history. 

COAG announced an extra $49.3 million for alcohol treatment and addiction services, which has been welcomed  by NACCHO , along with commitments to reduce the gap in live expectancy and educational outcomes. Some have noted that this will require significant funding to succeed.  

The Rudd Govt will apologise to the Stolen Generation but will not offer financial compensation. Indigenous Territory MLA, Marion Scrymgour, publicly backed this stance. 

Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin, announced that the welfare quarantining would continue to roll out across the Territory, but that the abolition of the permit system on ALRA lands would be reversed.  Though it isn’t clear how this will be achieved as the legislative mechanisms but in place by the previous Federal Govt grind on towards the automatic abolition of the permit system, due to occur on February 19.  Marion Scrymgour has backed an elective system of permits, which is sensible.  This is what makes the intervention so bizarre.  Under the ARLA, as it was, communities always had the ability to waive the need for permits. 

The mostly useless child health checks will recommence in a few weeks time in Top End communities.  How the necessary follow up will be delivered remains the subject of much speculation.

The Three C’s

December 15, 2007

Consultation, co-operation, commitment.

The new Federal Govt is showing early signs of understanding all three.

Kevin Rudd and Indigenous Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin, are in Darwin today meeting with the both the NT Govt and Indigenous leaders from across the NT.

This is Rudds commitment, which his Govt will need to be kept to,

We want to ensure that our overall objective of closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous life expectancy, Indigenous and non-Indigenous education attainments is done on a cooperative and consultative basis, so that we achieve progress together….

Sanity. Some might say that’s it only words, but the meetings occurring today are what had been missing from the Brough/Howard approach.



Fences are Evil.

October 29, 2007

So says Mal Brough.

He was in Darwin yesterday and had this comment to make about a fence at the Aboriginal community of Bagot, located right in the heart of Darwin,

It is an appalling circumstance when a government of any persuasion puts a fence up between one part of its community and another and lets what goes on behind the fence hide behind it.

According to Brough, problems are being allowed to “fester” behind this awful fence. It must be a veritable Berlin Wall in Darwin the way Brough is talking.

In case you don’t have the pleasure of living in Darwin, here is the offending structure,


A 2 m high section of corrugated metal cladding, interspersed with roughly equal parts of this,


1.5 m high pool fencing, which, lest my eyes deceive me, seems rather transparent.

The new fence replaced a dilapidated falling down cyclone fence a few year ago. One the reasons it was replaced was for safety, as the previous fence allowed people to cross the road at any point, which they did, often at night. Bagot sits right on Bagot Rd, a 6 lane stretch that is one of the busiest in Darwin. I’ve had personal experience of almost running someone over as they made the dash across.

Mad Mal promises to tear the new fence down. Apparently Aboriginal people are not allowed to have a fence and a bit of nice shubbery.

But just a kilometer away on the same stretch of busy road is the relatively new housing development of Parap Grove and the fence they erected in response to the traffic noise.



2.5m of pure concrete unbroken for about 250m. What are they trying to hide?