Indigenous Housing

Senator BARTLETT (2.51 p.m.)—My question is to the Minister for Community Services. Noting the minister’s comments during a number of question times, including today’s question time, about ‘the complete failure of state governments in regard to public housing’, why is the federal government choosing this moment to defund the community housing program for Indigenous Australians, which will shift most of those Indigenous Australians in community housing in urban areas onto the record waiting lists for public housing—which are overseen by those very same state governments—at precisely the time of record competition for private rental housing and the worst housing affordability figures on record?

Answer
Senator SCULLION—I thank the senator for the question. Whilst the senator is aware of yesterday’s $514 million commitment to Indigenous housing and the maintenance associated with that, he may not be aware of some other circumstances that would perhaps put that contribution and our policy in context. At the most recent housing ministers conference that I chaired in Darwin some time ago, we provided to the remaining housing ministers an explanation of the current and future policies with regard to the Commonwealth’s investment in Indigenous housing. The way of the future is this: we will no longer be funding Indigenous housing organisations. The senator is quite right there. But we have no intention of moving people out of those houses; in fact, quite the contrary. We have now said that we will bring every one of those houses up to an acceptable standard, if an Indigenous housing organisation chooses to do so. That acceptable standard is the same standard as we would accept. The houses and infrastructure will be brought completely up to standard.

There is an interest, then, to ensure that the standard of those houses is maintained. We will be asking the Indigenous housing organisation to pass the responsibility of maintaining the tenancy agreements and those houses over to the state and territory governments. So the houses will be brought up to a standard and then passed over to the state and territory governments, whose responsibility is then to ensure that those houses are treated in the same way as every other house. So, for example, if you are a tenant in a public house, someone will come every three months and inspect the house. For example, if there is some damage—a door is kicked in or something like that—it is the responsibility of the state or territory government to not only repair the damage but also have some mechanism by which it can recoup the cost of the damage. They are the same maintenance requirements that are on any other public house.

The reason we have gone that way is that the current arrangements for Indigenous housing organisations, which I am familiar with in the Northern Territory, simply have not worked. Whether it is the capacity of the organisation or the governance arrangements we are not really sure, but they have not worked and that is why we have gone to this new model to ensure that Indigenous Australians will be able to live in the same place and the same houses and that those houses will be built to a standard. There will now be a responsibility for the tenants that reflects the responsibility of any tenant in a tenant-landholder arrangement. It will now be the responsibility of the state and territory governments to maintain those tenancy agreements.

Question
Senator BARTLETT—Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. My question remains: given that the minister has confirmed that responsibility for maintaining these houses in acceptable standards will be pushed over to state and territory governments—exactly the same people whom he labelled earlier today as complete failures with regard to public housing—how is it that Indigenous community housing organisations can have any confidence that this will deliver better outcomes for Indigenous Australians in urban areas? Is the minister saying that there is not a single Indigenous community housing organisation around the country—he may be familiar with those in the Territory; I am certainly familiar with some in urban Brisbane—capable of maintaining their housing to acceptable standards and that all of that housing should be transferred across to a state government that he has labelled a complete failure in this area?

Answer
Senator SCULLION—I thank the senator for reminding me of my earlier statements regarding how we trust, and sometimes reflect on the performance of, state and territory governments. Yes, of course we are nervous about those processes. But we are now in a situation where we are going in with our eyes wide open. There will be contractual arrangements to ensure not only that the standard that we have undertaken is an acceptable standard and that it is delivered—that is on our side of the bargain—but also that the state and territory governments abide by their word and that those maintenance obligations are adhered to, as they would be in any tenancy agreement.

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