People the pawns in show of brute politics

Opinion Piece by Stephen Hall. Published in the West Australian, February 02, 2018.

December 20, 2017, will be recorded as a day of great irony in indigenous affairs in Australia. On that day the Commonwealth launched its Closing the Gap Refresh program in Broome and 2000km to the south the WA Housing Minister accused the Commonwealth of abandoning indigenous Australia by axing funding for remote housing.

People were left scratching their heads because everybody knows that access to safe, quality, affordable housing — and the supports necessary to maintain that housing — constitutes one of the most basic and powerful social determinants of health. In other words, the connection between housing and health and the strategies needed to develop housing solutions to improve the overall health of the most vulnerable while building strong, healthy communities is well documented and undeniable.

There is a continuing effort by governments to close the life expectancy gap of indigenous Australians. However, in stark contrast, it appears the Federal Governm

ent is going to walk away from its commitment to housing in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Just before Christmas, officials from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet contacted their State counterparts to initiate negotiations for the renewal of Commonwealth funding for remote housing, which expires in June. It has been reported the officials were told that only the Northern Territory would receive ongoing funding. The existing arrangements were one-off, they said, and support for housing was essentially a State responsibility. The Federal minister had not formally written to the States or released any detailed policy framework.

It was brute politics at its worst.

The Commonwealth government has played a central role in funding social housing since WWII. Since the 1967 referendum, it has steadily increased its direct investment in indigenous housing programs, both through the Commonwealth–State Housing Agreement and via a number of indigenous-specific programs.

In 2008, the Council of Australian Governments established the $5.4 billion National Partnership Agreement for Remote Indigenous Housing, which was replaced by the Remote Housing Strategy in 2016, and a set of objectives that aimed to reduce overcrowding, poor housing conditions and severe housing shortages.

In October, the Commonwealth minister released the report of the remote housing review. The report’s two leading recommendations were:

• A recurrent program must be funded to maintain existing houses, preserve functionality and increase the life of housing assets.

• Investment for an extra 5500 houses by 2028 was needed to continue efforts to close the gap on indigenous disadvantage.

The funding crisis is a product of decades of Commonwealth, State and Territory dysfunction. The Federal minister failed to persuade Cabinet to renew the remote housing program and then decided on a cheap political tactic of creating a fight with the States to cover for his own policy failure and lack of coherent policy justification.

The debate is being framed explicitly as one about jurisdictional responsibility for remote housing.

Traditionally it has been the Commonwealth that has been the major funder. A debate framed around good policy would be focused on maximising the quantum of resources for remote housing allocated by both the Commonwealth and the States — a minister focused on such a policy framework would have convened a meeting with State and Territory counterparts in the relevant jurisdictions and engaged in a constructive discussion.

The case for an extension of the funding for remote housing is crystal clear. This is about a choice between short-term considerations and investing in the future. Without a renewed commitment, we will witness a national crisis, the loss of value of funds already invested and a severe impact on the health and wellbeing of indigenous people least able to bear it.

The imbalance between the short-term benefits of reduced investment and the longer-term social, economic and health costs is leading to decisions that are not in our long-term interests.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their communities must be part of local collaborative solutions. Remote housing is a crucial issue that requires leadership. It is too important an issue for governments to be blaming each other for lack of action and commitment. 


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