Indigenous Australians housing money squandered | Pacific Beat

Indigenous Australians housing money squandered

Indigenous Australians housing money squandered

Updated 15 February 2012, 14:02 AEDT

The question of how Australia addresses Indigenous disadvantage is again in the headlines with news that a big government fund for new housing has not produced a single dwelling.

A newspaper report says up to 70 per cent of funding for the $A672 million Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program, which has yet to result in a completed house, was being spent on indirect costs such as administration and contractors' fees.

Canberra says houses are being built using other money, but Indigenous issues are big political testing grounds for the government that delivered an apology for past wrongs to the first Australians. One former Aboriginal affairs minister has admonished both sides of politics for their failures on Indigenous issues, but it's not entirely hopeless.

Presenter: Linda Mottram, Canberra correspondent

Speaker: Paul Pholeros, director Healthabitat; Jenny Macklin, Australian Minister for Indigenous Affairs; Mal Brough, former Australian Minister for Indigenous Affairs

MOTTRAM: Drains that don't drain, toilets not connected to water, unsafe electricity, no shade over tin shacks in the harshest of Australia's hot climate. The conditions in some Australian indigenous communities are reminiscent of the most impoverished anywhere but these are in one of the world's wealthiest countries. Indigenous housing, especially in Australia's remote areas, has long been in crisis.

PHOLEROS: I think it's been in crisis for the 20 years that I've been involved in this work. I think it's a national disgrace.

MOTTRAM: Paul Pholeros is an architect by training who runs Healthabitat. Since the mid-1980s he's taken a very hands on approach to the problems, on the basis that Aboriginal people are often promised much but see little delivered.

PHOLEROS: So on day one the work we started in central Australia tried to improve really basic things in their houses and the surrounding living environment, the yards and the bits around the house. So for example in the early days we'd take in tap washers and a screwdriver and simple gear to fix a tap from working, we'd try and coerce a plumber or an electrician to get a hot water system working.

MOTTRAM: The philosophy he says is to make sure people see physical improvement from day one. Healthabitat's work has grown over the years to take on much bigger works over six months to a year, also grounded in the knowledge that poor housing and sanitation are a key cause of many of Indigenous Australia's equally disastrous health troubles. Paul Pholeros is also wedded to maximum indigenous involvement.

PHOLEROS: And it's through fixing things also you engage differently with indigenous people and about 80 per cent, as of yesterday 80 per cent of our teams nationally over the last ten years have been local indigenous people.

MOTTRAM: Healthabitat's work has proceeded without fanfare over the years. Government's though tend to favour big announcements. So for a government that delivered an historic and long-awaited apology to the Aboriginal people and which has spoken loudly of its commitment to making a real difference in Aboriginal people's lives, the news that its big indigenous housing fund hasn't delivered a single new dwelling sits uncomfortably.

Quick to point to houses being built using other funding, and upgrades to existing houses, Australia's Indigenous Affairs minister, Jenny Macklin, also portrayed a government not rushing to make the same old mistakes.

MACKLIN: We're getting on with the job of building and upgrading homes, in many parts of the northern territory and making sure that we don't make the mistakes of the past, that we don't just build a house here build a house there, that we don't get the Aboriginal employment that we need to get.

MOTTRAM: And while not losing a chance to score a political point against the Rudd Labor government, the Aboriginal affairs minister in the previous Liberal government, Mal Brough, delivered up one of the more frank assessments of the debate.

BROUGH: And I'm disappointed that the Opposition today is not asking serious questions on a regular basis in question time, and keeping this issue in the forefront of Australian society and Australia's consciousness, it's absolutely necessary, if we're going to continue to make headway.

MOTTRAM: The government is accutely aware of past criticisms about money wasted on consultants and projects badly delivered, criticisms that are eerily similar to those levelled at international development assistance. And some of these matters are currently under review. Paul Pholeros says the Billions of dollars government's promise are needed. But he says without a careful method of delivery, the money will be wasted.

PHOLEROS: That's been one of our greatest learnings over the years. Start small, develop local teams, develop knowledge, develop skill and then expand almost virally. So that one team, leads to two, leads to four, leads to eight.

MOTTRAM: How Australia is progressing will also shortly be scored, when the United Nations special raporteur on indigenous affairs visits Australia in August.

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