2 May 2024

Letter from the Editor: Political deaf ears don't help remote housing fix

| Lyndon Keane
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Minister for Housing, Local Government and Planning Meaghan Scanlon (left) says she will work with Indigenous Cape York and Torres Strait councils on a workable remote housing solution, but is her government really listening to what communities want? Photo: Facebook.

It’s time to book some of our political leaders in for an urgent hearing test, because they seem to be struggling to comprehend the sustained on-the-ground opposition to the ridiculous remote housing options being imposed on Cape York and Torres Strait communities.

Those in Canberra and Brisbane say they are listening, and their policies, plans and sound bites all suggest that’s the case at a cursory glance, however, their words are at complete odds with those being roared by remote leaders about what’s needed and wanted.

Lockhart River Mayor Wayne Butcher has been the most publicly vocal opponent to the current state of play in recent times, but he’s not alone. I spoke to several Cape York mayors and chief executives to get a read of the room, and they are all echoing the sentiment the existing approach is akin to trying to use a splash of paint to rectify a load-bearing wall collapse.

READ ALSO Wayne Butcher story

Mayor Butcher flagged his concerns during meetings with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Minister Meaghan Scanlon recently, but his genuine and detailed criticisms of funding, policy and program delivery look to have fallen on deaf ears, with the State Government unable to acknowledge it’s left its hardhat and nail gun at home when it comes to driving tangible improvement in the embarrassment that is Queensland’s remote social housing situation.

It’s hard to envy Minister Scanlon’s position, having been saddled with arguably four of the most politically toxic portfolios in the state – housing, local government and planning, and public works. She’s described as a savvy operator by those who observed her at close quarters, but the reality is she is at risk of becoming the sacrificial lamb for a government clearly bereft of ideas on how to deliver a workable solution. It’s not an ideal position to be in six months out from an election.

The major antipathy to what is on the table revolves around the suitability of the modular housing being rolled out, from both environmental and overcrowding perspectives, the impact these buildings will have on future Indigenous business and apprenticeship pathways, and the fact communities aren’t getting a real say in what’s most appropriate for their part of the world.

READ ALSO Letter from the Editor: It’s time to put up or hand back for remote service providers

The Prime Minister told journalists at the Queensland Media Club the Federal Government already had “substantial deals for Queensland that are going right now” in response to a question about whether he would match the $4 billion remote social housing commitment made to the Northern Territory, but he failed to flesh out what the apparent deals involved. His nebulous comment came about two seconds after he was given an overcrowding example of 11 people living in a two-bedroom Lockhart River house.

Minister Scanlon told this publication her government had an action plan that “will deliver homes built by community for community”. That revelation will certainly come as news to Mayor Butcher and other Cape York and Torres Strait leaders asking to have their knowledge and lived remote housing experiences listened to.

It’s not good enough. Mayor Butcher described the current plan as a “short-term fix to a long-term problem” and, while it’s an accurate assessment, it’s one that goes way beyond describing a brick-and-mortar situation in some of the remotest communities in the county. It can also be used to sum up the lack of interest and understanding being shown by those responsible for bettering the situation. Our remote leaders are screaming out that things aren’t working, but the message is either getting lost in translation or intentionally ignored by metropolitan politicians and departmental staff in favour of clueless policy that reeks of existing only to score cheap points ahead of upcoming state and federal elections.

Lockhart River Mayor Wayne Butcher shares a brief laugh with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Brisbane, but the eastern Cape York leader has been scathing of both the Federal and State Government approach to a remote social housing solution. Photo: Supplied.

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