Term of Reference (b)
The impact of state and territory government policies on the wellbeing of
regional and remote
The role of state and territory government policy
This term of reference covers a significant and wide ranging area of
policy impacting on the wellbeing of regional and remote Indigenous
communities. Of greatest impact and concern for the committee are policies
concerning housing, the delivery of essential services, infrastructure,
policing, health and education.
The agreements and frameworks governing the implementation of these
policies between the Commonwealth, and state and territory governments are complex,
and vary across states and territories. There is also a high level of
interdependency between state and territory and Commonwealth policies, however there
is no single government agency or department charged with coordinating and
implementing policies relating to regional and remote Indigenous communities.
The committee notes however that the Council of Australian Governments (COAG)
is the peak intergovernmental forum in Australia for coordinating Indigenous affairs.
During the committee's inspection visit to Western Australia the issue
of inadequate housing was continuously raised as the number one issue affecting
the community as it impacts on general health, emotional wellbeing, the hiring
and retention of essential staff, school attendance and performance, employment
capability, alcohol and substance abuse, instances of violence, sexual abuse
and child abuse and neglect. Rio Tinto, in their submission, state that:
Perhaps the biggest issue for regional and remote communities is
the lack of housing...Regional and remote Indigenous communities are
experiencing a housing crisis. Overcrowding is common and is having a severe
impact on child safety, general health, living conditions and employment
As Amnesty International Australia points out in their submission, on a
recent visit in 2006 the United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing,
Miloon Kothari, concluded that 'Australia has failed to implement its international
legal obligation to progressively realize the human right to adequate housing
to the maximum of its available resources, particularly in view of its
possibilities as a rich and prosperous country'.
The committee notes that the lack of adequate housing has resulted in
chronic overcrowding in Indigenous communities. For example, the committee
heard that in Balgo there are approximately 30 satisfactory houses for a
population of 400, which is an average of just over 13 people per house.
Similarly, in Alice Springs the Tangentyere Council manages 198 houses for
approximately 1 600 to 2 000 residents, an average of 8-10 people per house.
The situation was also comparable in Derby where 'open house' homes are common
with a varying occupancy of up to 18 people and groups of up to nine young
people sleeping in the one room. As John Oswald concluded:
Only the exceptionally strong of any culture could reasonably
overcome living in such dysfunctional circumstances to achieve in life.
Issues related to housing are not restricted to remote communities.
Several submissions are keen to point out the housing crisis in regional areas,
especially as it relates to mining activities in regional towns. As Rio Tinto
Government needs to be aware of just how crowded these regional
towns are, particularly those near mining operations. For existing and resident
Indigenous population, this compounds problems they are already facing and
locks them out of the housing market, particularly if they are not associated
with their region’s mining operation.
Organisations in Fitzroy Crossing expressed particular concern regarding
the impact of the lack of housing on their ability to attract and retain
quality staff for essential services and community development programs. For
example, the committee heard from two organisations in Fitzroy Crossing that
although there are funds allocated for essential positions there has been no
provision for housing the staff and so many of the positions go unfilled.
In addition the committee was advised that many approved and funded health
programs are on hold in the region as there are no housing options available
Concerns were also raised in regards to the poor maintenance of existing
housing. As the National Rural Health Alliance stated:
In remote and very remote areas the housing challenge is even
more complex, given the existence of few skilled workers locally for adequate
levels of maintenance.
Dr Lara Wieland and Dr Richard Heazlewood suggest that the cost of
providing housing should not be prohibitive and they point to low maintenance
practical housing that can be erected locally, similar to that currently used
in developing countries. To address the issue of maintenance, new housing
should coincide with 'training for local youth to become tradespeople in their
Issues with housing for homelands and outstations was also raised in
submissions and is an area currently receiving significant attention. Laynhapuy
Homelands Association, on behalf of the traditional Owners of the Laynhapuy,
Djalkarripyungu and Miyarkapuyngu regions of North East Arnhem Land, state that
between 2003 and 2010 they have been allocated a total of three new houses
which 'neither addresses backlog needs or meets emerging needs'.
The committee notes that many of the issues and concerns regarding housing on
homelands and outstations is affected by arrangements between the Commonwealth
and state and territory governments.
The committee appreciates the level of concern people have about housing
and recognises the impact it is having on other determinants of individual and
community wellbeing such as health and education. The committee agrees with the
National Rural Health Alliance that:
Adequate housing tailored to suit the climate and lifestyles of
Indigenous Australians remains an essential element of improved health and
wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in remote areas.
The committee will consider the issue of both adequate and culturally appropriate
housing throughout the course of its inquiry.
Adequate staffing and resourcing of police stations in regional and
remote Indigenous communities is a major area of concern for the committee in
relation to state and territory government policy and the wellbeing of these
communities. The inquiry so far has highlighted serious understaffing and
underfunding in many remote police stations which has a serious impact on the
security and safety of the community.
The committee observed firsthand the impact that understaffing of remote
police stations is having on communities during its visit to Balgo. Prior to
the release of the report from the Gordon inquiry in 2002, Balgo had no
permanent police presence. As part of the Western Australian government's
response to the Gordon report, Balgo was the first community provided with a
'multifunction' police station. The committee understands that it is now the
busiest remote facility in the Kimberley with an average of 350 arrests per
year with two police officers providing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
protection for three communities over an area of 200km.
The committee has been advised that Warburton in Western Australia has
four police officers who make a similar number of arrests on an annual basis.
Additional police officers in Balgo would reduce the substantial pressure
placed on the two officers currently stationed in the community.
There is little doubt that the shortage of police officers impacts
negatively on the community and it places both the community and police
officers at risk. The committee heard that if an assault occurs in one of the
other communities serviced by the police in Balgo, the police must then drive
several hours to apprehend the offender. During this time there is no police
presence in Balgo. Furthermore, if police then have to take an offender to
Halls Creek the time the community is without police is significantly extended.
In addition the committee also heard that if a person is kept in custody in
Balgo one officer must remain there at all times, leaving one police officer to
attend call-outs, and in more dangerous situations where two officers are
required they are subsequently unable to attend.
In addition to placing the community and officers at risk, the
inadequate staffing of police stations also reduces the ability of police to
undertake preventative measures and build positive relationships with the
community. For example police officers in Balgo advised the committee that they
are unable to perform regular patrols in order to prevent 'sly-grogging' in the
community. Instead the police are only able to respond following a report that
alcohol has entered the dry community.
Other submissions, such as that from Dr Lara Wieland and Dr Richard Heazlewood—writing
about Cape York communities in Queensland—supported this view stating that 'an
appropriate police presence both in numbers and in maturity' is essential to
Other initiatives to build better relationships with the community, such as
regular visits to schools and a police rangers group, are also constrained by
the lack of resourcing.
The overall effect of inadequate staffing of police stations is best
expressed by Dr Lara Wieland and Dr Richard Heazlewood in their submission:
The community needs to be provided with safety and justice as a
basic starting point. Nothing else can be tackled unless there is basic
protective security for all, in particular women and children. Police must be
there to listen, enforce and protect. This requires adequate police numbers for
workload. Police need to be the best for the job, experienced and supported and
rewarded for committing to service in communities.
Tangentyere Council's submission outlined the need for additional police
officers to appropriately and effectively police the town camps of Alice
Springs, especially following the designation of the camps as dry areas under
the NTER. The Council explained how the community patrols it runs work closely
with the police, and play an important role in reducing violent incidents.
While most submissions on this issue consider that more police are
required in regional and remote communities, the Laynhapuy Homelands
Association offers an alternative experience. They state that very few
incidents occur on the homelands where police involvement is required as '...traditional
law, and structure of responsibility/authority, are still heavily relied on to
resolve disputes before they escalate to a problematic level'.
There is a police presence in Nhulunbuy, and the communities will call for
assistance and cooperate with police when needed. This highlights the diversity
of community structures and needs in relation to policing and reinforces the
need for community resourcing to be allocated according to the individual
circumstances of communities.
State/territory and commonwealth
The bilateral and overarching agreements between the Commonwealth and
state and territory governments—under the COAG National Framework of Principles
for Government Service Delivery to Indigenous Australians—set out which level
of government has primary responsibility for service delivery, and where overlaps
remain the agreements set out an agreed approach. However, the committee notes
there is very little consistency between the separate agreements of each state
and territory. The committee intends to raise this issue with the respective
government departments as soon as the occasion arises.
In addition, the bilateral and overarching agreements are not the only frameworks
governing a state or territory's relationship with the Commonwealth insofar as
they relate to services and policies for Indigenous people in regional and
remote communities. In its submission the South Australian government outlined
the main structures and agreements between it and the Commonwealth:
- the Overarching Agreement on Indigenous Affairs between the
Commonwealth of Australia and the State of South Australia;
- the Aboriginal Task Force (exploring agreed priorities through
the drafting of an Aboriginal Strategic Plan);
- an Indigenous education agreement (Indigenous Education Strategic
Initiative Program agreement);
- the Agreement on South Australian Aboriginal Health and Wellbeing
between the State of South Australia, the Australian Government and the
Aboriginal Health Council of South Australia Inc.; and
- the Indigenous Housing and Community Infrastructure Agreement.
The above list serves to illustrate the complexity of arrangements
between the states and territories and the Commonwealth government.
Oxfam Australia notes:
Previously, governments have failed to clarify responsibilities
within and between levels of government to provide essential services to
citizens, and have established costly, burdensome and duplicative
There are overlapping and duplicative roles and responsibilities
between federal, state and local government officials, Federal Government
Business Managers, Indigenous Coordination Centres and the State and Territory
offices of Federal Government departments...
... The conditions in Indigenous communities across Australia
reflect, in part, the ongoing breakdown in federal/state responsibilities.
Existing financial arrangements and roles at federal and state
levels have failed to ensure that Indigenous communities have access to
essential services – safe water and sanitation, adequate housing, primary
health care, schooling and policing - let alone the full and diverse
opportunities for productive cultural and economic development that the
citizens of a developed nation should enjoy.
The committee also notes that from its initial visits to Indigenous
communities in Western Australia great frustration and confusion was expressed
regarding the roles and responsibilities of all levels of governments. The
Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre (KALACC) concluded that 'one of
major difficulties facing remote communities is engagement with government, at
both State and Commonwealth levels'.
KALACC also supplied the committee with a copy of the Law Reform
Commission of Western Australia's report on Aboriginal customary law which
Much of this disadvantage stems from a lack of infrastructure
and essential government services to Aboriginal communities and includes the
provision of suitable housing, education, law enforcement and healthcare, as
well as clean water, waste disposal and power. The Commission found that part
of the reason for problems of service provision to Aboriginal communities lay
in the complicated nature of relationships between the three levels of
government—local, state and federal—responsible for the delivery of services.
Primary health care
The National Rural Health Alliance state that Indigenous health services
in regional and remote communities have been severely underfunded by state and
territory governments in the order of $350–500 million per annum. In order to
provide adequate health services in these communities they recommend that a minimum
investment of $460 million a year is required on top of funds already allocated
through the NTER.
The committee notes and has observed the excellent work and professional
services provided by community health organisations and other health services
in regional and remote areas. For many Indigenous people in remote areas it is
not just the quality of services which is of concern but the access to
The committee understands that the South Australian government has
outlined the improvement of both physical access and cultural appropriateness
of health services for Indigenous people as a priority area for the government.
Oxfam Australia noted that some of the issues regarding primary health
care have arisen from a lack of support from both state and Commonwealth governments
of Indigenous initiated and supported programs and greater recognition should
be given to the Indigenous community controlled health sector, which in their
view, 'plays a critical role in the provision of essential health services
The committee will raise the issue of funding for community controlled health services
with the respective Commonwealth, state and territory government health
departments during its inquiry.
The South Australian government has recognised the need to enhance the
provision of comprehensive primary health through Aboriginal Community
Controlled Health Services but states in its submission that this is an area
that requires additional Commonwealth government investment and attention.
Dr Lara Wieland and Dr Richard Heazlewood suggest that state, territory
and commonwealth governments should create a statewide statutory Indigenous
health body that:
...pools Commonwealth and state funds for health and provides
expertise in indigenous health, with reduced bureaucracy and increased
efficiency. Evidence increasingly points to a move to more regionalised
community controlled health services, as per the Katherine West health board ...this
model...improves efficiency, reduces wastage and duplication and all evidence suggests
it leads to better outcomes.
Mental health services
Many of the submissions, as well as organisations the committee met with
in Western Australia, commented on the inadequacy of mental health services.
The National Rural Health Alliance, in their submission state:
The problems faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
people with mental illness are exacerbated in rural and remote areas by poor
access to appropriate primary health care and specialist mental health services.
This issue has been of particular concern in the Kimberley region of Western
Australia where many organisations raised their concerns regarding the lack
of mental health services.
Testimony given at the recent Western Australian coronial inquest into
22 deaths in the region confirmed that:
...there is no clinical mental health professional permanently
based in the Fitzroy Crossing area and the area is serviced by clinical staff
from the Mental Health Service based in Derby, supported by regional staff such
as psychiatrists, working out of Broome.
This issue was further highlighted during the inquest by the
circumstances of one of the deaths in question which related directly to
inadequate secure mental health facilities. Without such facilities severely
ill patients had to be transported to Perth for treatment which is distressing
and costly for both the patient and family. The only option available was for
the patient to be physically restrained. The coroner concluded that:
In the above context it is understandable why it was that a
severely mentally unwell person was not detained as an involuntary patient and
was permitted to return to the care of her family. Sadly, if there had been a
secure mental health facility in the Kimberley, it is very likely that the
deceased would have been detained at that facility and would not have hanged
herself on 4 January 2006.
The lack of mental health facilities is not confined to the Kimberley
region. As Legal Aid Western Australia notes in its submission, other offices
across Western Australia are reporting similar concerns about a lack of local
mental health services.
The committee has also heard of similar scenarios and issues arising where
mentally ill patients have had to be physically restrained and sedated at the
police station due to a lack of appropriate facilities and trained specialist
In addition to a lack of mental health services and facilities, both Legal
Aid Western Australia and the National Rural Health Alliance expressed concern regarding
the shortage of mental health professionals such as psychologists,
psychiatrists and other mental health workers as having a detrimental effect on
regional and remote communities. For example:
...even in a larger regional area such as Carnarvon, a
psychiatrist only visits once a month. Legal Aid is aware of cases where
offenders with mental health issues have been placed in custody in remote and
regional areas [when] in similar circumstances in a metropolitan area they
would have received a supervisory order or bail...if the appropriate support
services were available.
In order to address this issue, Legal Aid Western Australia recommends
the state government fund and support positive incentives to attract more
mental health workers, especially focussing on those with expertise working
with children and young people.
The National Rural Health Alliance also supported the need to further train
Indigenous health workers in the area of mental health, noting the important
role they play in providing culturally appropriate and effective mental health
The committee considers that there is a general inadequacy of mental
health services and staff in the Kimberley region as well as throughout other
regional and remote Indigenous communities and notes that this is impacting
upon the wellbeing of these communities. The committee will give this area
further attention in future reports.
Aged care services
In addition to specialist mental health services, it was also brought to
the committee's attention that sufficient aged care facilities were absent in
many communities. In Balgo the Kapululangu Aboriginal Womens Law and Culture
Centre has assumed the role of caring for and providing accommodation to women
elders in the community. According to Kapululangu this has been achieved
without any dedicated funding and purely as 'a response to the hiatus of
properly constituted aged and disabled care in Balgo'.
Kapululangu also notes that the male elders in the community remain without any
aged care services.
The committee notes that one of the solutions Kapululangu has
recommended for elderly members of the community is a comprehensive Home and
Community Care (HACC) program. HACC is a joint Commonwealth-state funded
program to provide community care services to frail aged people and younger
people with disabilities, and their carers.
In addition to the provision of aged care services, support is required
for carers to assist the elderly to remain at home. The National Rural Health
Alliance, in support of the position of Aged and Community Services Australia, recommends
the creation of a comprehensive Indigenous policy for carers:
...which would incorporate Home and Community Care (HACC) and
other community care programs, and for the Remote Indigenous Service Support
(RISS) initiative to provide flexible support for all Indigenous services...Families
and carers need to be supported with more funding and with simple, streamlined
Liz Penfold MP raised the issue of inadequate and ad hoc public
transport services between regional and remote communities, citing the demise
of the bus service between Yalata and Ceduna on the far west coast of South
Australia. The submission notes that the bus service was initiated with
Commonwealth government funding and then sustained for two years with funding
from the South Australian state government. As the submission outlined, without
this public bus service there has been an:
increasing number of incidents where...Aboriginal persons [were]
lying in the middle of the road or walking on the verge of the road in an intoxicated
state. These incidents had become virtually non existent when a reliable bus
service operated...this was just one example of many negative community
disturbances and community problems in the Ceduna township that a reliable bus
service alleviated or removed.
The Shoalcoast Community Legal Centre noted a similar lack of transport
options on the NSW south coast where public transport either does not exist or
the only option was the daily school bus. This greatly limits access to support
services, such as domestic violence services and Aboriginal Police Liaison
workers, normally located in the larger regional towns.
Legal Aid Western Australia also recommends the allocation of a community bus service
to each community accessible by road in order to provide people with a means to
comply with court orders.
The committee recognises that there is a general lack of public
transport in regional and remote areas which is a significant issue for
Indigenous communities and their wellbeing. As the 2006 Housing and
Infrastructure in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Communities survey
found, only 54 discrete Indigenous communities out of the total of 1 187
surveyed on this issue, indicated that public transport was available to travel
to and from the community into major service towns, with community run transport
available in only an additional 72 communities.
Outstations, homelands and small
The committee notes concern has been expressed regarding the future
viability of small discrete communities—usually less than 50 people—and
outstations and homelands, which were originally created in order to re-establish
cultural, religious and traditional links to ancestral lands.
The main concern outlined in submissions is the ambiguity and even
absence in some cases of state, territory and Commonwealth policy on the
viability of and service delivery arrangements to these communities. This is
having a large impact on the wellbeing of these communities, as Greg Marks
The major implication is no new housing for outstations. Some
satellite communities close to larger settlements might get under the radar and
get funded, but otherwise the huge investment in housing on Indigenous
outstations and homelands to date is basically to be left to depreciate to
worthlessness. There is no replacement program, let alone additional housing.
The significant unmet demand and backlog, and the rapidly growing population,
are all to be ignored. The only way to obtain housing in future will be to move
back to the large communities. The message to Aboriginal people is clear.
The Memorandum of Understanding between the Commonwealth and the
Northern Territory government on Indigenous Housing, Accommodation and Related
Services signed in September 2007 specified that the Commonwealth 'will have no
further responsibility for the delivery of Indigenous housing, municipal,
essential and infrastructure services in the Northern Territory from 1 July
The Laynhapuy Homelands Association concluded:
The Australian Government has wiped it’s hands of responsibility
for the backlog of need in homelands - need which have been clearly identified
in funding reports year after year and through the national CHINS survey,
NATSIS survey, etc.
The Tangentyere Council advised that under the local government reform
measures in the Northern Territory, homeland outstations and town camps have
been excluded from receiving the new allowance for house maintenance of $8 000
per house per year, almost four times the amount it currently receives.
The committee questions the reason for this discrepancy and will make further
inquiries about this situation, but recognises that the Commonwealth government
has recently announced an additional $5.3 million to Tangentyere Council for
upgrades to existing housing in the Alice Springs town camps.
The committee also notes the new Strategic Indigenous Housing and
Infrastructure Program (SIHIP), jointly funded by the Commonwealth and Northern
Territory governments. The committee will monitor the progress of this
initiative and report any improvements for outstations, homelands and small
KALACC also expressed frustration at determining the Western Australian
government's policy on the sustainability of remote Indigenous communities.'
The committee believes that state, territory and Commonwealth
governments should, at a minimum, establish clear policies in respect to these
communities and agree on responsibilities for basic service delivery such as
housing. As Greg Marks states:
Whilst the economic circumstances facing outstations and similar
small and decentralised communities are difficult, this situation will not be
solved by encouraging people to move from their traditional lands – this merely
displaces the problem and arguably exacerbates negative outcomes...
...the delivery of services, including essential services, will be
a critical component in regard to outstations being viable and healthy
communities. It is no good allowing outstations and similar communities to
become dilapidated with worn out infrastructure and over-crowded housing. 
The ability of state and territory governments to create and implement
policies effectively in remote communities was also raised as a concern. Desert
Knowledge Australia's 2008 report on developing initiatives to revitalise
remote Australia highlighted that governments at all levels have disengaged
with remote Australia:
Remote Australia is inevitably distant—and remote—from the everyday
attentions of government. Despite best intentions Remote Australia will not
consistently attract the attention of metropolitan-focussed governments.
Successive and sincere efforts to 'make a difference' have generally failed. It
is vital to have an effective and sustainable governance regime for Remote
Australia which is not dependent on the intermittent attention of distant
The issue of regional governance and locally controlled programs was
raised both by KALACC and the Shire of Derby/West Kimberley during the
committee's visit to the Kimberley. During the visit to KALACC, a desire was
expressed to the committee for the creation of an autonomous structure to be
created in the region similar to the Torres Strait Regional Authority to support
service delivery to small communities and larger centres.
The Shire of Derby/West Kimberley discussed with the committee the need for a
regional authority in order to best utilise local knowledge and achieve the
best outcomes. The committee heard examples of where state government agencies,
operating out of Perth, made decisions without local consultations on new
housing locations which were inappropriate for the climate and the region.
The Laynhapuy Homelands Association in their submission also expressed
...at the failure of government...to appropriately support their
aspirations for separate development through the provision of appropriate
infrastructure and services to develop local capacity, such as is proposed in
the LHAI [Laynhapuy Homelands Association Incorporated] ‘hub’ model of
development. Their aspirations and efforts over the past 30 years to build
their homelands as self-managing communities have been completely discounted
and disregarded by Government policy leading up to and since the intervention.
The committee notes the current FaHCSIA consultations for the
development of a National Indigenous Representative Body which would give
Indigenous people greater input into Indigenous affairs and policy development.
Concerns were raised by Legal Aid Western Australia regarding the
provision of legal services and access to justice in regional and remote
communities. Legal Aid Western Australia argued that the level of funding
provided by state, territory and Commonwealth governments was insufficient and
did not provide these communities with a comparable level of assistance to that
received in metropolitan areas.
Legal Aid Western Australia also notes that:
Improvements in the justice system will have reduced impact
unless they are part of a holistic approach drawing on the strengths of these
communities at the same time as well as addressing the problems in health,
education, and welfare.
The committee also notes the provision of additional funding by the
Western Australian government to appoint a magistrate and court staff as well
as create a new Legal Aid office in the east Kimberley, which Legal Aid Western
Australia states 'will assist in the redress of these issues in this area'.
Repatriation of human remains and
secret and sacred objects
While visiting KALACC in Fitzroy Crossing the committee was shown a
shipping container on their premises that contained hundreds of human remains
and sacred objects that were actively sought and repatriated mainly from Swedish
museums. The committee heard that KALACC's support was actively sought by the
Commonwealth government in order to repatriate these remains and items however
since the demise of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission the
Commonwealth government has provided insufficient funding or assistance to
return the remains to country, and that as a consequence, the remains and other
objects had been left in the container for several years.
Although this is an area the Commonwealth government is responsible for,
the committee was sufficiently shocked by this situation to raise this issue in
the report. The committee understands that since its visit to the Kimberley an
offer of funding has been made to KALACC by FaHCSIA to support repatriation
activities through to 30 June 2009. The committee will follow up on the
outcomes of this funding being made available in subsequent reports.
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