Living on-country is a significant reason why many residents choose to live in remote Aboriginal communities across the State. However, it isn’t without its challenges: 91 per cent of communities raised issues they faced living remotely, including essential and municipal service delivery (80 per cent) and housing maintenance, management and supply issues (78 per cent). A high cost of living was raised specifically by 25 per cent of communities as a key impediment to better outcomes in remote Aboriginal communities.
Essential and municipal services
As described in the roadmap (p. 14), essential service arrangements vary widely across the 274 remote Aboriginal communities, from the 14 communities that receive electricity supply and distribution services from Horizon Power (e.g. are similar in regional towns in the North-West in terms of electricity) to the 110 or so remote communities that do not receive, and have never received, any essential services.
Remote Aboriginal communities across the State told us of the importance of access to essential services. This includes water that meets Australian Drinking Water Guidelines and a reliable power supply. Although the condition and type of infrastructure varies across the State, community concerns were similar.
Some communities reported they were satisfied with their essential services, while others forecast challenges due to climate change and expected population growth.
Various communities raised concerns about the quality of their drinking water and were worried it may be causing health issues for their families. The majority of communities access ground water via a bore system, which is often located within their community and to which some have customary rights. As such, concerns and questions were raised about the proposed charges for water services under the Essential and Municipal Services Upgrade Program. While communities were supportive of receiving water that meets Australian Drinking Water Guidelines and an improved level of service, they told us that they were concerned about how residents would pay the additional bills with, what they perceive, is an already high cost of living.
Many residents in remote Aboriginal communities live in impoverished conditions and so community leaders are concerned about cost of living pressures felt by their residents. Many communities across the State told us they would like to use renewable energy sources such as solar or wind energy as a way of reducing costs. However, of the communities that have renewable energy infrastructure, a large proportion believe their system has never worked properly or been disconnected, leaving them reliant on diesel generators.
Many communities raised concerns about the poor condition of community access and internal roads as well as public roads in their region. They believe poor road access and conditions have directly contributed to poor overall health and wellbeing amongst residents. Residents raised concerns about chronic health conditions in the young and elderly related to dust, vehicle accidents due to hazardous conditions, roads being impassable in the wet season thereby limiting access to key services such as education and health, and poor road conditions resulting in delayed emergency response times.
Community leaders told us generally that their communities are under-funded to deliver the type of municipal services that are usually provided by local governments, explaining that current funding does not meet the unique circumstances of each individual community. For example, often communities will seek the support of neighbouring businesses or local organisations to assist with bulk rubbish collection and fire management. Most communities told us they receive little to no support from their local government.
Housing, maintenance, management and supply
As a condition of the Commonwealth Government’s funding to the State Government under the National Partnership Agreement for Remote Indigenous Housing,1 the State Government agreed that for newly constructed and refurbished housing, property and tenancy management arrangements consistent with the Residential Tenancies Act 1987 would apply.2 These arrangements are contained in a Housing Management Agreement (HMA), which sees tenancy management services delivered by the State Government or a government-contracted provider, and maintenance services delivered under a head contractor model.
Currently, 76 remote Aboriginal communities have negotiated a HMA with the State Government. Typically, these communities have medium to large populations.
Many Aboriginal communities under a HMA reported a general dissatisfaction with the service. They raised concerns about what they believe to be an irregularity of visits by service providers, a lack of accountability for those services, and a general lack of communication by the provider with the community. Some residents expressed disappointment that after signing a HMA and paying higher rents, there was no improvement to housing and/or additional provision of housing. As a whole, residents felt the property and tenancy management service had declined. Others told us since the introduction of the head maintenance contractor model, residents experienced long wait times of up to three months to fix simple maintenance issues, such as leaking pipes and taps (resulting in water wastage).
Community members said that governments (State and Commonwealth) had gradually taken jobs away from community residents in favour of aggregating work and contracting with larger organisations based in regional towns. Community leaders believe if more local people were employed in community-based roles, government costs would fall, and more local people would have real jobs. For example, residents told us that the head maintenance contractor model had limited local employment opportunities and removed the ability for community organisations to coordinate and deliver these services themselves.
Community members across the State highlighted overcrowding issues, saying that overcrowding and housing supply were key inhibitors to family wellbeing and a major barrier for families wishing to live on-country.
Residents who have seen community population changes raised concerns about unused infrastructure, which is often in poor condition. They questioned why, with the demand for more housing on community, the government was not looking at repairing this infrastructure or why, if the houses are never likely to be repaired, the infrastructure has not been removed.
Cost of living
The price of goods and services in remote communities is high compared with capital cities, particularly for perishable goods such as fresh fruit and vegetables. High prices make life particularly difficult for the many remote Aboriginal community residents who have limited financial capacity.3
A message we heard throughout our consultations is that the primary issue in remote communities is not one of Aboriginality; it is one of poverty. Community leaders explained the cost of remote living was far higher than in regional centres. Community leaders raised concerns for the health and wellbeing of their people, saying that the cost of fresh produce is three to four times higher than in Perth and fresh produce is not affordable for many residents. They explained that these prices compromise the promotion of healthy diets and nutrition from a young age, and ultimately results in chronic health issues such as diabetes.
Remoteness results in many residents travelling large distances to access services. Even basic services such as telecommunications or power can require a trip to town to purchase pre-paid cards. Consequently, community members told us that a large proportion of the weekly income is spent on fuel and car maintenance, and many families will often share resources to live week-to-week.
Community members across the State raised concerns about already financially stretched families having to meet new costs associated with utility bills and rent, and suggested that given total cost pressures, either the State Government should increase bill subsidies or the Commonwealth Government should pay an additional allowance under Centrelink payments for remote residents.
¹ Under this Agreement, the State Government has to date constructed around 700 houses and refurbished around 1,600 houses in towns and remote Aboriginal communities.
² The Act does not apply to housing in remote communities as the State Government does not own the housing asset (it is usually owned by the community) and so does not have a landlord-tenancy relationship with the residents.
³ House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Affairs, Everybody’s Business: Remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Community Stores (2009), Chapter 5.
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