Friday, August 26, 2011

Want to improve indigenous lives? Build more houses

Productivity Commission chief Gary Banks has backed a finance department finding that the $3.5 billion the Commonwealth spends on indigenous programs each year yields "dismally poor" returns.

The finance department strategic review, released this month under freedom of information laws after a one-year battle found strong commitments and large investments of government funds had “too often produced outcomes which have been disappointing at best and appalling at worst”.

Launching a biennial report that found outcomes had gone backwards in seven of 45 measures monitored by the commission Mr Banks said “plenty” of polices were not working.

“A recent finance department strategic review of indigenous expenditure has made that clear.”

“I don’t think we should be too critical - it is a very hard area to get right. But the key is to be open about failure and to learn from it,” he said.

The report found a widening of the gap in the rates of child abuse between indigenous and other Australians.

The number of substantiated cases of abuse and neglect climbed from 15 to 37 per 1000 Aboriginal children in the most recent decade, compared to an increase of 4 to 5 per 1000 among other Australians....

Rates of hospitalisation for assault were seven times higher for indigenous men and 31 times higher for indigenous women than for non-indigenous Australians.

The imprisonment rate for Aboriginal men soared 35 per cent over the decade; the rate for women 59 per cent.

“At least now we know more than we did. As recently as two years ago we could only find trend data for about one half of the measures we wanted to examine. Now it’s two-thirds. There’s more to go, but its an improvement.”

Les Malezer, co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples questioned the point of collecting the data when the authorities didn’t seem to notice.

“We have to face the fact that results are not coming,” he told Mr Banks at the launch. “One side of government produces the information and the other side doesn’t get called to account.”

Productivity Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald said one of most important things the government could would be to ease overcrowding in indigenous homes.

The proportion of indigenous houses with more than twice as many people as bedrooms has remained unchanged at 27 per cent for five years. In the Northern Territory the proportion exceeds 60 per cent.

“We have invested heavily in indigenous reading programs at schools with no discernible impact. But what is absolutely unquestionable is that easing overcrowding helps educational outcomes, health outcomes, the home environment and makes communities safe.”

“That one change it would have multiple outcomes.”

Families and community minister Jenny Macklin said since prime minister Rudd committed to closing the gap in 2009 “more than 800 new houses have been completed”.

Australian National University professor Mick Dodson said the houses often weren’t being built where indigenous people wanted to live and weren’t the kind of houses they would want had they been consulted.

Published in today's SMH and Age

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