The next BER debacle: indigenous housing - The Punch

When it comes to waste and mismanagement, Julia Gillard’s Building the Education Revolution debacle is recognised as the gold standard, but it has a new challenger in the form of the Labor government’s Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP).

However, federal Labor – like its state Labor counterparts who gave themselves glowing reports for their management of the BER – has insulted our intelligence by their boasts in early January that it has exceeded its 2010 targets for building houses in remote Indigenous communities.

The reality is the government has blown the same amount of taxpayers’ money on administration costs and inflated salaries for consultants under SIHIP as the disastrous schools halls project, in relative terms.

And when questioned about these costs, the response from Acting Indigenous Affairs Minister, Senator Mark Arbib was instructive. He said the building alliances are competing with the mining industry and “other major construction projects” to attract the right people to these jobs.

It would be fair to say the $16.2 billion BER could be counted amongst those “other major construction projects”. So the government is competing against itself for workers, bidding up the price of skilled labour during an acute skills shortage which will only be exacerbated by the Queensland flood reconstruction effort.

Just another example of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.

The SIHIP began as a well-intentioned initiative from Rudd-Gillard Labor aimed at providing housing for indigenous Australians in remote areas.

Although ambitious in scope, the program was warmly received by all sides of politics and indigenous Australians, eager to see dramatic improvement in the often appalling conditions endured by their fellow Aborigines in remote locations. 

However, like most initiatives from this government, it was apparent early on that the program was likely to generate more reports and reams of paper than actual houses.

Announced in April 2008, the $647 million project – later increased to $672 million – was to provide 750 new houses, including 230 that would replace older houses earmarked for demolition, 2,500 renovations and essential infrastructure to support new houses.

Work was scheduled to commence in October 2008; however, the successful construction partners had only been announced in October that year and naturally needed time to become established.

In the meantime, consultations about design and housing requirements began with communities - but the alarm bells were sounding in February 2009, when not a single house was built.

The amount of time and money allocated to these consultations was unprecedented. Later it was revealed more than $45 million had been spent on consultations before a single slab was poured, a nail driven or a brick laid.

Some people had even selected colour schemes for their house before they had actually been granted a house under the program.

Worse was to follow. Northern Territory Labor Government Minister Alison Anderson alleged that less than 30 per cent of the $672 million budget would actually be used to build and refurbish houses. Ms Anderson later resigned from the Labor party over the issue.

After that, the program timeline blew out from four years to five and SIHIP director Jim Davidson was removed from his position, later saying publicly that the SIHIP budget is only enough to build 300 houses, not the promised 750.

A review of the project in August 2009 found that the program was overly bureaucratic and that large components of program design and consultations were being outsourced to expensive consultants instead of being managed by the NT Government.

A revised program was put in place in which the 230 houses that were to be demolished and rebuilt would now only be renovated.

Later that year a post-review assessment was released by Minister Macklin, who assured everyone that the project was back on track to achieve its targets.

Yet the very next day, the Minister issued a media release announcing that the Government was terminating the contract of one of the three alliance partners chosen to complete the project.

How can Minister Macklin, who sacked one of the alliances entrusted to deliver the project just a day after assuring the public it was on track, expect us to take seriously her claim on 3 January this year that the program had “exceeded 2010 targets”? That is, of course, unless the target was for waste and poor administration.

The Government would have been more believable had they trotted out the NSW Government’s thoroughly forgettable 2007 campaign slogan “More to do but heading in the right direction”.

Instead of constantly setting the bar lower in order to give the impression it is meeting its promises, the Gillard Government should be giving Australians an honest account of the progress of this project, like how 50 per cent of new houses will have two bedrooms or less.

That piece of information only surfaced in a briefing from the NT Government to the NT Opposition in November last year, along with the news that the SIHIP will not meet 2013 renovation targets due to funding constraints.

Indigenous Australians are fed up with living in cramped, overcrowded and sub-standard accommodation. However they will continue to have to endure these conditions until the government forgets about manufacturing good news stories and starts manufacturing houses.