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Three Billboards on the Road Back to Where We Came From

15 February 2018 at 3:29 pm
Michael Dillon
Michael Dillon from the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research offers three “billboards” with updates on the remote housing “fiasco”.

Michael Dillon | 15 February 2018 at 3:29 pm


Three Billboards on the Road Back to Where We Came From
15 February 2018 at 3:29 pm

Michael Dillon from the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research offers three “billboards” with updates on the remote housing “fiasco”.

The recent film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri describes a mother’s frustration at the lack of progress of the local authorities in solving the murder of her daughter, and her actions in bringing attention to the inexplicable dereliction by authorities through posting giant signs on a local road. I can’t afford to rent three billboards, but can post three more modest brief “billboard signs” here.

There have been three developments in the last few weeks in relation to the future of the remote housing program worth signposting.

Billboard One: Closing the Gap

The prime minister’s Closing the Gap Statement, released Monday, includes two salient sets of information.

First, throughout the report, it is made clear in relation to virtually every target that the results in remote areas significantly lag the rest of the country.

In relation to child mortality, the Northern Territory rate is around double the national Indigenous rate.

In relation to early childhood education: “The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children attending early childhood education programs was largest in remote (6 percentage points) and very remote (11 percentage points) areas.”

In relation to education: “Indigenous attendance is lower in remote areas than non-remote areas, and the attendance gap remains larger in remote areas.” Moreover, “there has been no meaningful improvement in any of the states and territories. In the Northern Territory the Indigenous attendance rate fell from 2014 (70.2 per cent) to 2017 (66.2 per cent).”

In relation to literacy and numeracy: “Outcomes also vary significantly across regions, with outcomes for Indigenous students substantially worse in remote areas.”

In relation to employment, the Indigenous employment rate fell over the past decade, from 48.0 per cent in 2006 to 46.6 per cent in 2016, with “the employment rate falling in Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory but stable or rising in the other states.”

In relation to life expectancy, the report notes: “Over the period 2012 to 2016, Indigenous mortality rates varied across the jurisdictions. The Northern Territory had the highest Indigenous mortality rate (1,478 per 100,000 population) as well as the largest gap with non-Indigenous Australians, followed by Western Australia (1,225 per 100,000).”

These statistics speak for themselves, yet nowhere does the report attempt to comprehensively lay out a holistic strategy for dealing with remote issues. This is a major gap in the government’s approach to closing the gap.

It amounts to an admission of failure by the present government that remote policy issues are too hard, too difficult and ultimately insoluble.

Second, on page 112, the only reference to Indigenous housing totals just two paragraphs, reproduced in full below:

“Good quality housing underpins all of the Closing the Gap targets in health, education and employment, as well as community safety.

“The Australian government has invested $5.5 billion over the past 10 years to improve the quality of housing in remote communities. This has seen percentage of houses that are overcrowded drop from 52 per cent to 37 per cent. Tenants now have rights and responsibilities they didn’t previously have and the system of housing operates as a genuine public housing system.”

This is an extraordinarily paltry level of analysis and attention for an area of government investment which is crucial to the quality of life in remote communities.

I can’t help but note that the actual figure is $5.4 billion after the government’s 2015 budget cuts, but what’s $95 million between friends? Prime ministerial accuracy is clearly a second order priority. Despite the progress made, and the fact that the Closing the Gap report demonstrates that the most intense disadvantage amongst Indigenous citizens occurs in remote areas, the government appears to be laying the groundwork for its comprehensive disestablishment.  

The Closing the Gap report does lay down two key metrics for the future of the remote housing program: first, will the government commit to a 10 year investment, and secondly, will it invest $550 million per annum in the program.

Billboard Two: recent parliamentary questions on remote housing

In response to a number of questions in the Senate on 12 February, Minister Scullion clarified a number of points which have so far been unclear and not announced.

In response to a question from Senator Dodson: “Has your government taken a decision to end the decade-long Commonwealth investment in remote Indigenous housing agreed in the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing?” (link to the full answer here)

Senator Scullion said: “No, we’re not walking away from that at all, Senator Dodson. But one of the things you need to know, which I haven’t had the opportunity to personally come round and explain yet, is that since Christmas we’ve been doing some calculations about why it is that the clear calculations we did about 10 years, which are about numbers — how many houses we need to invest in and predictions of population — haven’t quite got there and we now need another little addition.”

He added: “A national partnership involves every state and territory. It is self-evident that New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria are no longer in it. So now we’re moving to a bipartisan approach. [I assume he means bilateral approach]. We’ve made the announcement with the Northern Territory and we’re still in discussions with the other states and territories. But fundamental to this is ensuring that the states and territories are held to account, and those opposite should ensure that they are holding them to account in each of their jurisdictions.”

Senator Dodson also questioned a comment made in the previous week in the House of Representatives: “Minister Wyatt, declared: ‘The funding has not been cut. It has not been reduced. Senator Scullion is in ongoing negotiations with the relevant ministers.’ Is the minister correct?”

Senator Scullion said: “Yes, he is. We have done an independent inquiry, which you would have a copy of, that shows what is required now, and our investment in the national partnership over a decade reduced the overcrowding significantly but we still have some work to do. So it’s about that actual number, and we are negotiating, continuing to negotiate, with the states and territories about that number. But we now need the states and territories to transition to take on their own responsibilities of public housing, and we need to ensure that when the states and territories are allocating public housing—because, whether you’re in Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia or the Northern Territory, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are still members of a state or territory. We’re not walking away at all, but we are ensuring, and those on the other side should encourage, that each of the state and territory governments stand ready to take on their responsibilities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in their jurisdiction.”

He said he would be “meeting shortly with the ministers for housing in South Australia and in Western Australia”.

In response to a question from Senator McCarthy, and an interjection from Senator Wong the following exchange took place:

“Senator Scullion: If I can just clarify again, I am not withdrawing from this process.

“Senator Wong: Well how much money are you putting in? The funding is ending. How much are you putting in?

“Senator Scullion: We have indicated that we’ve undertaken in the Northern Territory, because that’s the only bilateral that’s been finished, to put in $120 million a year and that the Northern Territory would be matching it. So, that is the way it’s going. We are looking to the states and territories, who I suspect actually withdrew. So in the places where we’re requiring NPRH to be built, there was a decision by those jurisdictions to act by not spending a cent of the funds that the Commonwealth invests and that they should invest in remote communities. We’ve yet to find out if that is the case. I hope I’m wrong, but I have seen absolutely no evidence to demonstrate that they have taken any other course. (Time expired)

“Well, we’re certainly not walking away from funding remote housing. And can I say that there is another issue about jurisdiction. They are now being required to put this in a fund that is managed between the state, the Commonwealth and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Now, I guess that hasn’t been accepted well. We’re just supposed to put it straight into the coffers.”

It seems to me that there are a number of issues here.

The first is that it is clear that the National Partnership approach (and thus the 10 year timeframe) is dead, and the Commonwealth is moving to shorter bilateral agreements. The rationale offered by Minister Scullion (that only four states are involved) does not withstand scrutiny. The NT has previously had a National Partnership agreement with the Commonwealth on its own; there has never been a requirement for all jurisdictions, or even most, to be involved in National Partnership agreements.

The second relates to the assertion of both Minister Wyatt and Scullion that the funding has not been cut. In the absence of an actual formal announcement, it is impossible to definitively determine the accuracy of these statements, but for the ministers’ statements to be accurate (and thus not to mislead the Parliament) the government will need to put $550 million per annum on the table (ideally for 10 years). Minister Scullion does admit that the level of remote housing need in the NT is around half the national need, and has allocated $120 million per annum for an unspecified period there. This suggests that the national allocation will be in the region of $240 million per annum, well below the $550 million required for both Ministers’ statements to be accurate.

The third is that the establishment of a “fund” which is managed by the Commonwealth, the states, and Indigenous representatives is a return to a proposal originally floated by the Giles government in the NT, and which looks very much like the pre-NPARIH model known as IHANT.

The problems faced by IHANT were that resources were extremely limited and did not match the needs, and the representative nature of its membership meant that funding was spread thinly across more than 60 locations, with little focus on asset management, poor economies of scale, and thus minimal continuity of work for the firms involved in construction. I provided a critique of this approach in this post from July 2016.

Finally, it is clear that the minister has adopted a bizarre (or even mischievous) approach of dealing with jurisdictions sequentially and without formally writing to state ministers to outline the Commonwealth’s proposed approach. It is unacceptable and deeply troubling that the Commonwealth has adopted an administrative and political process which means that states such as WA or SA have not been formally approached about the future funding arrangements for a major capital intensive investment program that ends in less than five months’ time.

Billboard Three: appalling process supporting retrograde policy

The recent review of remote housing for which the minister’s department provided the secretariat, stated in its final report that it had invited public submissions.

Following Senate Estimates in October 2017, Senator McCarthy placed a question on notice (Question no.253 link here) seeking details of the invitation notice requesting public submissions.

In a belated response on 2 February 2018, the department and minister provided an answer to the Senator’s question in the following terms:

“PM&C advertised for public submissions on its website between 9 December 2016 and 6 January 2017 (copy at Attachment A). Further, PM&C emailed approximately 100 stakeholders on 2 December 2016, and a further eight on 5 December 2016, inviting them to submissions.

“The expert panel is seeking submissions on how Indigenous housing investment could be improved and made more sustainable. We want to hear from Indigenous communities and businesses, housing service providers, peak bodies, land councils and state governments on what has worked well and what could be done better. We also want to hear about how to get better community involvement, including local Indigenous employment and business engagement in housing. We are looking for practical ideas based on your extensive experience with the legislative, regulatory, operational and policy frameworks that underpin Indigenous housing.

“If you would like to make a submission, please send it to the review secretariat at by 16 December 2016.

“Alternatively, for short submissions you are welcome to provide input through this web form or complete our survey questionnaire.”

The department’s answer is too cute by half. In other words, the notice requesting submissions (which appears merely to have been posted unannounced on the department’s website) mentions particular stakeholder groups, but nowhere mentions public submissions, and asks for submissions by 16 December, but was only posted on 9 December 2016, thus giving members of the public a scant seven days to make a submission.

As it turns out, and unsurprisingly, it appears from the appendices that only organisations and individuals invited to make submissions actually did so. I previously posted regarding the numerous deficiencies in the review report, which is relevant because it should provide the analytic and factual foundations for the Commonwealth’s policy going forward. The deliberate avoidance of public input merely exacerbates the previous critique, and undermines the reviews legitimacy as an independent policy document.

This is a further example of the government’s disrespectful approach to seeking community input into the policy, and appears designed to ensure that public input was not provided. The chaotic and disorganised administrative processes around both the review and the subsequent negotiations with the states at best reflect poorly on the department and the minister, and at worst, appear to amount to a deliberate attempt to avoid any opportunity for public input and potential criticism of the government’s retrograde policy in relation to remote housing.


The bottom line on this issue is that despite the ongoing failure to Close the Gap due to lack of an effective strategy tying resources to objectives, and the evidence of the Commonwealth’s own statistics that the most intensive disadvantage is in remote regions, the Commonwealth continues to dance around the crucial issue of funding social housing in remote communities.

The policy rationale for cutting funding does not exist, the administrative and political processes associated with deciding future arrangements are either neglected or deliberately short-circuited. The government and in particular Minister Scullion appears incapable or unwilling to provide funding certainty to state governments, Indigenous citizens, and the public at large, and it seems probable that both Ministers Wyatt and Scullion have misled the Parliament in asserting unequivocally that funding levels have not been cut. Time will tell.

We appear to be heading back to where we came from, with every prospect that housing conditions in remote Australia will worsen, overcrowding will worsen, and as a result so too will the associated consequences for health and economic participation. The already deep levels of disadvantage amongst our most disadvantaged citizens will only get worse. We don’t need public billboards to tell us that.

About the author: Michael Dillon is a visiting fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the ANU. He was most recently the CEO of the Indigenous Land Corporation, and veteran of Indigenous policy in government. Previously, Michael has been a deputy secretary for FaHCSIA as well as senior roles for Aboriginal organisations in East Kimberley and Central Australia, the Northern Territory Government, AusAID and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

This article was first published on Dillon’s blog A Walking Shadow: Observations on Indigenous public policy and institutional transparency. It has been edited here for length.

Michael Dillon  |  @ProBonoNews

Michael Dillon is a visiting fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the ANU.

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