The Guardian 14 March, 2007

Brough’s housing bid sparks debate

A proposal by Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough to axe all Federal funding for urban Indigenous housing and divert it instead to bush communities has sparked a fiery debate. The Minister has been reviewing Indigenous housing funding for the past six months and announced last month that he would be seeking Cabinet approval for the changes.

He says they will help target Indigenous-specific housing funding where it is most needed — that is remote communities — and address corruption and mismanagement by Aboriginal land councils and housing bodies.

In September last year, the Minister warned State and Territory Governments not to expect big funding increases, saying they had under-spent Federal Indigenous housing monies by more than $150 million in 2004-05.

The Federal Government was embarrassed a few months later when an evaluation of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) trial site of Wadeye, in the Top End, revealed that each of several hundred homes in the overcrowded community housed an average of 16-17 people.

Now, despite growing fears of a rental and private housing crisis across Australia, Mr Brough says most Indigenous people in urban centres don’t need Indigenous-specific housing anyway.

"The fact is that Indigenous people in cities have access to housing through a variety of sources", Brough said. "The overwhelming majority of Indigenous Australians in cities live in state public housing, private rental properties or either own or are buying their own home.

"This is not the case in remote areas and my proposal would see all the Australian government’s Indigenous-specific housing funding directed to the area of most need — people living in remote communities.

"At present, only 40 per cent of the $240 million spent on new Indigenous housing and maintenance is directed to remote communities.

"This imbalance needs to be addressed if we are serious about tackling housing issues in remote communities.

"Redirecting the Indigenous-specific housing programs would have little impact on urban Indigenous Australians. It would however make a huge difference to remote areas where there are no alternative housing options."

While few further details of the plan have been released, it is understood that more than $100 million will be cut from the budgets of 600 Indigenous housing bodies throughout the country.

"Issues like overcrowding are chronic in many remote communities. A sensible, practical approach is to ensure that taxpayers’ dollars are directed to the area of greatest need.", Mr Brough said.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Com­mission­er Tom Calma has reportedly questioned whether such targeting of Indigenous Australians might breach anti-discrimination legislation.

However, like others including Northern Territory Housing Minister Elliott McAdam, Mr Calma wants to find out more.

"I would be interested to test whether this contravenes the Racial Discrimination Act — that’s something we want to find out when we see the details", he reportedly told The Australian newspaper.

Opposition Indigenous Affairs spokeswoman Jenny Macklin responded to news of the proposal by saying it would only exacerbate the current housing crisis, especially for the majority of Indigenous Australians who live in urban areas.

"Mal Brough claims there is rorting in the current system. Responsibility for Indigenous housing was transferred to the Commonwealth from ATSIC in 2004, so the government has had the power for two-and-a-half years to stamp out this alleged rorting", she said.

"Taking away money from Indigenous Australians in urban areas will not solve these problems. In fact it will only make them worse. Stripping money from maintenance of existing urban housing stock won’t help the situation either."

Queensland Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett also weighed in, saying the government’s reasoning was reminiscent of the same arguments promoted by controversial former One Nation leader Pauline Hanson.

"This sounds very much like yet another major, ideologically driven, ‘one-size-fits-all’ change foisted on Indigenous people and groups without consultation", he said.

"There are different challenges facing Indigenous people in urban areas to those who live in remote communities, but it is naïve to think that these can all be easily addressed by ‘mainstream’ services.

"We should not be reinforcing that myth that ‘real’ Aboriginal people only live in remote areas and not in the cities."

Redfern-based Aboriginal Housing Company Chief Executive Officer Mick Mundine issued a statement describing the proposal as ‘crazy’ and likely to worsen the homelessness problem, creating overcrowded ghettoes in the inner cities.

"Most Australians are not aware that last year the United Nations declared that Australia has the worst Indigenous housing in the world", he said.

"The fact remains the best way to deliver services to Aboriginal people is through well-resourced Aboriginal service providers.

"We know what our people need. For the most part, Aboriginal organisations have done their best to provide services within the financially anorexic environment the government has created.

"It is government neglect and stupidity that has led us to the desperate place we find ourselves today. Mal Brough says there is corruption in Aboriginal organisations. I say to him ‘show us the proof’… I also challenge Mal Brough to show us a perfect mistake-free system even within his own government. Need we remind him of AWB (the Australian Wheat Board)?"

Mr Calma was a strong critic of federal government changes to the NT Land Rights Act 1976 that last year paved the way for 99-year town or land leases to be issued over Indigenous land.

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