Making black policy: The HOP, skip and dump


Former Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough.... his plan to transform home ownership on Indigenous lands has been a policy failure.

Former Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough… his plan to transform home ownership on Indigenous lands has been a policy failure.


EVERY now and then, a story comes along that sums up Aboriginal affairs perfectly. The floundering Home Ownership on Indigenous Lands program – and in particular the media’s coverage of it – is one such yarn, writes CHRIS GRAHAM.

PRIME Minister Julia Gillard’s ‘Close the Gap’ speech to parliament earlier this year wasn’t her finest hour. What was meant to be a report card to parliament on government progress in assisting black Australians out of more than 200 years of entrenched disadvantage, instead became a party political aimed at shifting the blame for Aboriginal misery to Aboriginal people themselves.

The Prime Minister told parliament she’d use the annual statement as a “call for changes in behaviour”. It was a blatant pitch to the white masses, and in particular to conservative journalists.

“A call to every person, to every family, to every community: to take care of your children; to take a job when you find one; to create a safe environment; to send your kids to school, pay your rent, save up for a home; to respect good social norms and to respect the law; and to reach out to other Australians,” Gillard said.

In fact, most Aboriginal people already do take good care of their children.

Most take a job if there is one to take.

Most send their kids to school, if there’s a school nearby.

Most pay their rent (in the NSW land council network, for example, rent collection sits at almost 90 percent).

Gillard may have been talking about Aboriginal people, but she was talking to white Australia. And she was telling them that Aboriginal people are the cause of their own poverty. At the same time, she was trying to distract Joe Citizen from the government’s inability to stop the widening gap, despite the never-ending outlay of billions of their tax dollars.

Government failure paraded as Aboriginal intransigence is a recurring theme in this country, but it couldn’t happen without an ignorant, sometimes willing, mainstream media.

And so it was that earlier this year, our Fourth Estate discovered the Home Ownership on Indigenous Lands (HOIL) program, an initiative launched by the Howard government back in 2006.

Its stated purpose was to assist Aboriginal people living in remote communities in the Northern Territory to achieve the ‘great Australian dream’ of home ownership.

HOIL was announced as a 2006-2007 budget measure, with more than $100 million set aside for four years.

Five years down the track it is still struggling for relevance. Earlier this year media reported:

Almost $10 million was spent on administration costs for an Indigenous home ownership scheme that resulted in just 15 loans worth $2.7 million, the Australian National Audit Office has found.

The audit office says the Federal Government’s Home Ownership on Indigenous Land [HOIL] program hoped to provide 460 loans for homes in eight communities.

But only 15 were ever taken out – all of which were on the Tiwi Islands, north of Darwin.

“While it is necessary that costs will be incurred for the establishment of a program of this nature, the administrative costs of $9.9 million for the HOIL program were very high compared to the low level of loan activity that ultimately resulted,” the audit office says.

The Australian newspaper in particular got stuck into the government over the failures of HOIL. Which is extraordinary given that The Oz backed the program – and the Minister – boots and all when this white elephant of a policy was announced.

So too did Cape Yorker Noel Pearson, in a column he wrote for The Weekend Australian.

“The Government is talking about 99-year leases, not freehold alienation of title,” argued Pearson. “Why is loss of land therefore being raised as the fear against home ownership?”

It’s startling logic from Pearson. He appears to be arguing that signing over your land for 99-years does not mean you lose it. You’ve got to wonder what the people of the ACT would make of that – home ownership there is based on 99-year leases.

Under Pearson’s theory, they’re mere renters.

Of course, the reality is that possession is nine-tenths of the law. Particularly for 99-years.

Pearson’s bizarre logic aside, four years down the track, HOIL has irrefutably gone to custard.

You might expect that recriminations would follow for those deemed to have caused the HOIL failure. Ironically, those least responsible are being blamed, and those who’ve suffered the most ignored. And those responsible? Well, they’re doing the finger pointing.

It’s a familiar theme, and it goes a little something like this: Minister comes up with a dog of a policy. Unelected Aboriginal leader, anointed by white media, weighs in and supports Minister and program. Australian lauds them all for all their foresight.

Program fails. Government is voted out of office. New government inherits failing program. New government keeps failing program because Australian – having already supported it – threatens to attack if government strays off course. Several years pass, government throws good money after bad at failing program. Australian newspaper breaks juicy story of failing program, but airbrushes former Minister, Aboriginal leader and its own support for the program out of the story.

That process doesn’t just describe the HOIL program, it describes Aboriginal affairs generally. The Northern Territory intervention – another Brough creation, backed by Noel Pearson, supported by The Oz – is a case in point.

Unfortunately, The Oz doesn’t always just stop at attacking the program. In the case of HOIL (and the NT intervention) it actually gave Brough – the architect of the whole mess – a free kick to attack Labor about the mess he created.

“The demand is there among Aboriginal people; it’s just inaction and a lack of leadership and drive on behalf of the government to realise the aspirations that truly exist,” he said.

“Again, Aboriginal people have been stymied by bureaucracy, inaction and land tenure issues that the government has not dealt with.”

Rubbish.

The story of how HOIL failed – and why – is surprisingly simple. It was also entirely predictable. When it was first announced by Brough, a host of critics lined up to warn the government HOIL would be yet another Aboriginal affairs policy disaster, along the lines of ‘Shared Responsibility Agreements’, ‘COAG trials’ and ‘practical reconciliation’.

West Australian Greens Senator Rachel Siewert perhaps best summed it up.

“The Australian Greens attempted to warn the Senate at the time the HOIL program was introduced and enabling changes to the Northern Territory Aboriginal Land Rights Act were forced through the Senate that the program was ill-conceived and likely to fail,” Siewert said in a written statement recently.

“Private home ownership in remote Indigenous communities was being presented as a panacea to disadvantage in Aboriginal communities, when clearly it isn’t.

“There are significant barriers to Indigenous Australians owning their homes in remote communities – such as very low levels of household income, the high cost of remote housing, low levels of family savings, capital and access to credit.”

There are indeed.

Many things must come before home ownership on Indigenous lands can become a reality, not least of all a functional, self-sustaining economy. Most remote Aboriginal communities – where HOIL is targeted – are entirely dependent on government subsidy and welfare.

It’s also vital to have a legal capacity to transfer land once it’s bought or sold. In most states and territories, that capacity does not currently exist. Inalienable land is inalienable for a reason – so it can’t be bought or sold. In Queensland, for example, you can’t just go out and buy yourself a piece of Palm Island. It’s a Deed of Grant In Trust (DOGIT) community, which means its land is vested in communal Aboriginal ownership.

There’s no LJ Hookers on Palm for a reason.

In order for that to change, land must be surveyed. Law must be developed. Leases have to be signed.

British land tenure is one of the most developed laws in the world, but it didn’t happen overnight. Indeed, it’s been evolving since the Magna Carta in the 1200s.

All of this assumes, of course, that Aboriginal people living on Aboriginal land actually want to buy their own home. Some do, of course. But they are very much in the minority. Most Aboriginal people in remote communities don’t. But that’s another story for another day.

For now, it’s the failure of the system – one built by whitefellas, not blackfellas – that should command out attention, because the reality of the failed HOIL experiment is that thousands of Aboriginal families are the ones who paid the price for government silliness and media ego.

Since 2007, while $100 million sat quarantined in a government account for the glacial-paced HOIL program in remote Australia, the waiting list for the highly successful Home Ownership Program (HOP) was expanding (comparatively) at the speed of light in urban and regional centres.

HOP enables black families to access home loans at interest rates one percent lower than the Commonwealth Bank rate. Most importantly, you also don’t require substantial savings to qualify. You just need a capacity to service the loan, and a good rental history.

That describes a substantial percentage of the Aboriginal population. Poor, but responsible. But with limited funding, the waiting list to access HOP continued to grow. Indeed, it grew so much that for some wanting to buy a home, they were left to wait several years.

Given the unavailability of money for loans, Indigenous Business Australia (IBA), which also happens to administer HOP (in addition to HOIL), had no choice but to stop advertising the program.

The rate of applications nose-dived.

IBA notes on its website: “Total general enquiries for the year were 4,394, which is a 34 percent reduction on 2008–09.

“This reflects a decision to limit the promotion of the Home Ownership Program, due to the growing waiting list of unmet demand.

“As a consequence, the number of eligible applicants on the waiting list (as at 30 June 2010) fell by 20 percent—from 1,323 in 2008–09 to 1,069 in 2009–10.”

A decade ago, the same audit office that recently slammed HOIL described HOP, an ATSIC creation, as one of the best run government programs in the Commonwealth (it actually generates its own funding).

So IBA is running a highly successful program servicing some of the nation’s most disadvantaged people, and demand is outstripping supply.

There’s a simple reason why IBA can’t get more loans to more Aboriginal people – a lack of available funds. It’s all tied up in the HOIL program.

So HOP is over-subscribed, and HOIL is floundering.

Even worse, while blowing $1.6 billion on the NT intervention, Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin repeatedly refused to top up the HOP program despite the massive demand, meaning that Aboriginal people who actually wanted to embrace the ‘great Australian dream’ – and had the capacity to do so – couldn’t.

Given the enthusiasm of papers like The Oz, and commentators like Brough and Pearson, for attacking Macklin, you can’t help but wonder why they’ve had nothing to say on the issue.

Except, of course, that they’re in it up to their eyeballs.

Just as Brough will never hold his share of accountability for the policy disaster that is the NT intervention, he will never be held accountable for the failure of HOIL and the prevention of thousands of Aboriginal families from getting into a home through HOP.

And that’s simply because media scrutiny of Aboriginal affairs policy is atrocious.

Macklin, to her credit, finally plucked up the courage last year to fix a bad Brough policy. In the 2010-11 budget, she allowed $56 million to be temporarily transferred out of HOIL, into HOP.

According to IBA statistics, the effect was immediate.

The HOP waiting list dropped from around 1,500 to just over 400. That’s more than 1,000 black families now into their own homes in just a few months.

By any standards, that is a remarkable result.

The stats are freely available on IBA’s website, to anyone who cares to look. Which makes Brough’s claim – and The Australian’s reporting of it – that IBA’s home ownership schemes are mired in bureaucracy all the more ridiculous.

Slashing the waiting list is a result the federal government should be shouting from the tree-tops. I’m surprised Macklin hasn’t, particularly given the mixed reviews she’s received since taking over the Indigenous affairs portfolio.

Success stories are hard to find on her watch – this one has gone begging. That said, her recognition of the importance of HOP, and the failures of HOIL, should be acknowledged. Macklin will be directly responsible for getting hundreds, perhaps, thousands more Aboriginal people into home ownership. That’s in stark contrast to her bleating predecessor, who sent them away in droves.

Home Ownership on Indigenous Land, as a program, should not be abandoned. But it should be realistic. At the same time, it should not come at the expense of Aboriginal families who are ready, willing and able to sign up for a mortgage.

Seventy five percent of the Aboriginal population do not live in remote areas. They live in our cities and towns, where housing markets and employment opportunities already exist.

And where Aboriginal people die young.

And that’s the point – you can’t ‘close the gap’ if you direct everything to the bush. Blackfellas in Blacktown know as much about ‘sorry business’ as blackfellas in Balgo.

Imagine if the federal government moved another $56 million into HOP. The remaining waiting list would surely be eliminated altogether.

Imagine doubling that figure to $100 million – that’s one-fifth of the figure the federal government will spend to clean up its disastrous home insulation scheme… which cost $2.5 billion.

Imagine providing enough funds to enable IBA to actually promote a successful government scheme to Aboriginal people. Unorthodox, I know. But exciting.

The fact is, topping up HOP to enable the nation’s most disadvantaged people to realize home ownership requires a very modest investment, in government terms. If Macklin chooses not to, there can be only one reason why.

Politics.

Thus, if Julia Gillard is serious about ‘Closing the Gap’, she need look no further than her own workplace to find the biggest killer of Aboriginal people.

* Chris Graham is a Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist, the former managing editor of Tracker magazine, and the former founder and editor of the National Indigenous Times. He’s now a freelance writer based in Sydney.

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