Aboriginal crisis spreads to west

Amanda O'Brien | www.theaustralian.com.au | August 13, 2009

The paralysis engulfing Aboriginal housing in the Northern Territory has spread to Western Australia, with the Barnett government admitting a $496million federal injection will not fix the crisis.

Native title, unsustainable communities, Aborigines barring bureaucrats and the extraordinary cost of delivering services to remote areas are frustrating state and federal attempts to solve the problem.

WA Treasurer and Housing Minister Troy Buswell -- who revealed in December that 2400 houses in the state needed upgrades or replacing at a cost of $500m -- said the challenge was daunting.

Figures obtained by The Australian show that just five new remote homes and 27 refurbishments were completed in the first half of this year, at a cost of more than $6m.

Northern Territory MPs will vote tomorrow on a no-confidence motion against the Labor government sparked by the resignation last week of indigenous policy minister Alison Anderson, who claimed bureaucrats were failing to deliver much-needed remote accommodation.

Arnhem Land leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu withdrew on Tuesday his support for the NT federal intervention, condemning Canberra's inability to deliver on Aboriginal housing.

Mr Buswell acknowledged the plan to fix WA remote housing was "beyond our financial capacity".

"In the current format, in terms of the number of remote communities and their spread, I think it's beyond our financial capacity to deliver upgrades in all of those communities," he said yesterday.

"Part of the public policy discussion that needs to happen around addressing this issue is around this concept of community sustainability."

Mr Buswell said the government was blocked from building homes in many areas because to do so would extinguish native title.

"Building new dwellings on new footprints, we simply can't do that until we resolve this native title issue," he said.

"It's an enormous concern to the people in the communities. It's very frustrating for us. It's a real blocker.

"The commonwealth are aware of that and are moving forward in relation to some legislative changes."

A spokeswoman for federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin said a discussion paper would be released soon, but gave no indication of when legislation would be drafted.

Mr Buswell said homes in some areas would "struggle to reach a reasonable test of being habitable" and he wanted people out of them as soon as possible. However, he said even with the significant federal funding, there would not be enough money to go around.

Under the national partnerships agreement, the federal government will provide $496m over five years for indigenous housing. The first instalment of $19m was received in mid-June.

"There is state money as well and that will address some of that $500m backlog, but it won't address all of it," Mr Buswell said. "We're currently conducting an audit of essential service delivery into remote communities, and I think the financial challenge there will be at least as daunting as the challenge around housing."