Thursday, August 14, 2014

Mr Hockey’s myopia, Robin Williams & Mr Forrest’s failures

I accept that Treasurer Hockey is a North Sydney Liberal and therefore, by definition, out of contact with the rest of the country. But really, this is too much. To suggest, as he seems to be, that the “poorest people either don't have cars or actually don't drive very far in many cases” and that, consequently, the increases in the petrol excise won’t hit them beggars belief.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m inclined to support the increase in the petrol excise, but I do so knowing the costs. In simple terms, country people have on average lower incomes and have no choice but to drive if they can.

The death of Robin Williams has affected us all. He had a magnificent comic humour. Our daughters loved Aladdin, really enjoyed Jumanji. Mr Williams suffered from depression. Personally, he seems to have be introverted, prey to self doubt and uncertainty. Then, as though with a click of a switch, he would become an apparent extrovert, bigger than life. I have always thought of its as the performer syndrome, something that i too suffer from, if not with his talent.

The Forrest Report into indigenous jobs and training. You will find the report here. The Government is now seeking feedback. Despite Dick Smith’s enthusiastic support, I found it a deeply flawed document. For a number of years now, I have been writing of the need to recognise diversity in the Aboriginal condition, to avoid avoid universal prescriptions hat, by their nature, cannot work. Mr Forrest does recognise diversity to a degree, but then puts forward universal prescriptions based upon problems in particular communities in particular areas. Further, those prescriptions then generalise to the broader community. A specific problem then drives a generalised response.

I know NSW best. I lack the understanding of problems in North Queensland or the Northern Territory or parts of Western Australia required to make sensible comments about on-ground conditions there.

In NSW, there are communities that suffer from similar problems to those Mr Forrest identifies. However, NSW is also a state of great diversity, a state in which history and institutional responses  are simply very different from those holding elsewhere. It is also a state in which Governments of differing political persuasions have been trying new things that will assist Aboriginal communities to address the problems they face,

From time to time, I have been very critical of NSW policy. For example, the failure to distinguish properly between Aboriginal specific issues and broader issues affecting communities in which Aboriginal people happen to live. At the same time, I do recognise that NSW Governments have been searching for new policy approaches, although they still are a little too ghettoed for my taste. In that sense, they tend to reinforce difference.

I don’t have time this morning to point to differences between the NSW experience and Mr Forrest’s universalist prescriptions. However, just a few examples to illustrate.

NSW is the only state left with Aboriginal specific community housing organisations. With the progressive withdrawal of State services from many country areas, those organisations have become the biggest, in some cases the only, social housing providers left. How do we grow them so that they become viable community businesses capable of servicing not just the Aboriginal community?

The crazy patchwork of Aboriginal Welfare Board missions and reserves across NSW formed the base for the creation of Local Aboriginal Land Councils. The LALCS were created without proper thought or without adequate financial support  The NSW Aboriginal Land Council has been working to turn them into viable operations, imposing discipline, slowly cleaning past problems. How do we help this process?

The AWB houses on those missions and reserves were not especially well maintained. The new Land Councils inherited them without resources. Further, because of history there was an expectation among residents that those houses belonged to them but that responsibility for paying the costs of maintenance was not their problem.  You can imagine the results. Now with funding provided by the Federal Government under the National Partnership Agreement on remote Indigenous Housing, the properties are being upgraded. However,to get this funding, the Owning Organisation must headlease their properties to the Aboriginal Housing Office who then subleases them to an Aboriginal Community Housing Provider to provide professional tenancy and property management services.

It’s a huge, huge, social change with costs and risks. Some Managing Organisations have had to use guards to protect their staff during transition periods. And yet, and for the first time, houses are being maintained and services provided.

Change can be a slow and painful process. Progress can easily be destroyed by nostrums coming out of Canberra or indeed Macquarie Street. The Forrest Report point, correctly, to the importance of home ownership. Yet home ownership is not a simple thing.

To overcome problems flowing from social disadvantage, you need a continuum from social housing through affordable housing to home ownership. In NSW, Aboriginal people suffer from real problems in accessing the private rental marketplace. The choice can be social housing or the rive bank. If in social housing, the risks can be great.

A Local Aboriginal Land Council in a big NSW regional city explained their problem in this way. Lots of people are sent to our city. We don’t know that they are coming. They ring up wanting emergency housing. We generally can’t help them. If we get them into housing, then they struggle to move to to the private rental market. We run a broking service with agents to help, but the private market is very tight. If they want to buy their own place, we struggle to help them because we don’t have many of our own houses and lenders are reluctant.

What we would like to do, the LALC said, is to offer a total housing continuum all the way from emergency accommodation through to full rental and home ownership. We are too small to do this now. We own some properties, but we need help to grow.

You won’t find this type of challenge discussed in Mr Forrest’s report. There you have universalist welfare measures discussed without recognition of the variety and actual on-ground challenges across Australia. I find that a problem. Its actually a Hockey type problem.                 

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