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Labor complacent as Indigenous gap widens

  • 18 May 2010

'But it doesn't really feel like a Labor budget,' complained one old-timer at what felt like one of the most boring Federal Budgets we have had for years.

There is, however, a complete riposte to that. It is to be found on page 27 of the separate budget paper, authored by Minister for Indigenous Affairs Jenny Macklin. It tells what she and her 4300-strong department are doing with taxpayers' money to 'close the gap' between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. 'In the Northern Territory,' it says, 'at the end of April 2010 the construction of over 80 new houses was underway, with seven completed.'

Seven houses — that's not bad for three and a half years work and expenditure in the hundreds of millions. At that rate the gap will be closed in about 7000 years. It's good to see Labor on the job. A paragraph later, Macklin remarks that a recent review of the program had shown that everything was on track. This is a measure of her complacency about the worsening disaster over which she presides.

Macklin and the department frequently redefine what they are pretending to be doing, or use weasel words and vagueness. The Minister adopts anecdotal reassurances to contradict evidence.

This time 10 months ago, for example, a number of newspapers, led by The Australian, were insisting that tens of millions had been squandered on planning to build houses, on talking about building houses, on consulting about building houses and liaising with each other about it. No actual houses, as such, had been built. This was hotly denied by the Minister and the department, who used houses completed under other programs, redefinitions, hopes, expectations, plans, targets, timetables, anecdotes and blah, to insist that all was well.

Delay occasioned by resistance to FOI requests, based on a failure to follow current instructions, made it even harder to find the facts, as did the ultimate production of documents which, if amounting to the department and Minister's sum of knowledge on the matter, might account for her confusion.

At that stage, one might have said that nothing had been finished, but much was on the way. A year later, we learn that 'much' is not much.

Macklin remarks that the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program will deliver 750 new houses by 2013. It is supposed to effectively demolish and rebuild another 230 and do extensive refurbishments to 2500 others. Two construction companies, known as