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HomeVolume 29Bush buildings boom: Where does the balance go?

Bush buildings boom: Where does the balance go?

ByERWIN CHLANDA

Araluen’s Independent Member has pressed the NT government to disclose the construction costs of dwellings in the bush after media statements last year indicated there may be a flood of $1.5m mansions across remote regions.

Robyn Lambley (at right) was told this week the average cost to build a three-bedroom home in a remote community is $554,499, over the home’s life and under the Remote Housing Investment Package.

The questions arose from a tender of $30m to Alice Springs based Pedersen NT for 20 new houses and “upgrade and refurbishment” for 18 more, as reported by the Alice Springs News on October 30 last year.

At the time Ministers Selena Uibo and Chansey Paech left the public in the dark about actual figures. They claimed in a waffly media handout a “massive achievement” (Uibo) and finding it “exciting to see how happy families are to receive the keys to their new homes” (Paech).

It took till this week for the Government to provide the facts enquired about: And it wasn’t because they had a change of heart about their policies of secrecy: It is required by Parliamentary procedure.

Ms Lambley, following a request by the News, submitted what’s called “written questions” to the Minister for Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics, which happens to be Chief Minister Eva Lawler.

“Written Questions” must be answered with 30 days, but Ms Lambley had to rattle the CM’s cage to get the replies, about two weeks late.

Here are further questions asked by Mrs Lambley and the answers given to her about “remote housing construction”:

Q: Remote housing land doesn’t need to be bought. It is owned by the Aboriginal people who live there, land they gained under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 or on town leases in Alice Springs. Is this correct?

A: The Northern Territory Government cannot own or buy the land on which remote community houses are situated. The land is either: Aboriginal land held by a Land Trust under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 and is not transferable under the statute; or held in freehold or under a perpetual lease by a corporation or association comprised of Aboriginal people who live there.

Q: Is there a minimum requirement in the remote housing contracts for a number of apprentices and trainees? How many? For what periods? What trades? Is the progression of those apprenticeships monitored, and if so, how?

A: Under the Conditions of Tendering that is mandated for all NT Government agencies, the minimum number of apprentices and trainees required in standard construction vary depending on the value of the contract.

For example, a contract of $500,000 requires one apprentice and no trainees. A contract for $3m requires five apprentices and one trainee within the period of the contract. For contracts less than $1m a trainee may replace one apprentice.

Any stipulation of trades will be specific to the tender and will be monitored as part of the audits undertaken by the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics through the Contractor Compliance Unit.

The level of compliance is reported at the end of the contract in the Contractor Performance Report and is taken into consideration on future quotations and tenders.

Q: Contractors need to submit an Indigenous Development Plan which is monitored throughout the life of the contract, including employment. Are copies of this plan available to the public? If so, where can they be found?

A: All remote housing contracts require an Indigenous Development Plan to be submitted within 14 days of contract award. The plan is Commercial in Confidence and is included in the audit undertaken by the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics through the Contractor Compliance Unit.

Q: What are the consequences if apprenticeships are terminated ahead of their terms (by the employer and/or the apprentice)?

A: The level of compliance regarding apprentices, trainees and the Indigenous Development Plan is reported at the end of the contract in the Contractor Performance Report and is taken into consideration on future quotations and tenders.

Mr Paech, describing a similar project as “job-creating [and] building sustainable communities and better lives for our Aboriginal Territorians” did not provide details supporting that claim.

Q: Please provide details of a typical new remote house – square metres, materials, numbers of bedrooms, toilets, bathrooms and provide a plan drawing of a typical dwelling.

A: The average enclosed area for a three or more bedroom home is 144 square metres. The number of bedrooms are determined in consultation with the community, as is the built form and materials.

One toilet and bathroom is provided for two bedrooms and under, while two are included in homes with four bedrooms or more. Three bedroom homes have two toilets and one bathroom.

What remains unclear is where the balance of the money will go: The Pedersen budget is $30m for 20 houses. At $554,499 each that amounts to $11m. Where will the remaining $19m go? 

The Albanese / Lawler $4 billion project is for 2700 houses at $817,000 each (according to a Federal Government spokesman). That works out at $2.2 billion. Where will the remaining $1.8 billion go?

Some communications from the News research:

• Mid to late October 2023: Uibo, Paech and the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics (DIPL) dodge questions about aspects of the Pedersen tender.

• The reply about apprenticeships given to Mrs Lambley isn’t doing much better: What does it mean that the Contractor Performance Report “is taken into consideration on future quotations and tenders”?

• November 3, 2023: Mr Paech is asked for an interview as the only front bencher in Central Australia. He declines.

• Murray River North, which is building homes in Alice Springs mostly for Aboriginal areas in The Centre, says it is bound by commercial confidentiality to not disclose the value of contracts signed with the government “to the level of detail you are chasing”.

• March 14, 2024: A Federal Government spokesperson says: “The average cost of delivering a 3 bed house in remote NT communities is $817,000. This includes not just the build, but infrastructure such as connections to services.” The spokesperson does not give on-the-record answers to several other questions from the News.

• March 12, 2024: Lawler and Uibo refer to “a landmark joint $4 billion dollar investment for housing in remote communities across the Northern Territory to help close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. [This will] see up to 270 homes built each year.” $4 billion for 2700 homes works out at $1.5m per house.

PHOTO at top: Bush home under construction at the Murray Valley site at the Alice Springs airport, for road transport to its destination.

6 COMMENTS

  1. The house pictured as supplied by Murray North is a prefabricated house with a much shorter life span than a solid concrete block house that forms the basis of the current community housing stock.
    Prefabricated homes are about half the cost of solid houses constructed on site at a remote location.
    The $1.5m price tag is outrageous.
    One additional cost is to the Land Councils.
    As with everything built on Aboriginal communities payment must be made to the Land Councils on behalf of traditional owners.
    This includes schools, health clinics and other services that improve Aboriginal lives as well as houses.
    Even Aboriginal ranger activities aimed at protecting the land and sacred sites is paid for.
    With housing, my understanding is that the payment is levied as a percentage of the cost.
    This would contribute to the extraordinary cost of these houses.
    The actual payment to land councils for housing on communities has long been “commercial in confidence”, ie secret.
    It is absolutely in the public interest to know where our tax dollars go.

  2. Oops! 30-11= 19 not 9.
    What does an extra $10m matter? It is only a handful of nuts and bolts on a nuclear submarine, anyway!
    [ED – Many thanks Frank! I changed it. Makes an answer even more important, doesn’t it.]

  3. Owners of the land need to build the houses and issue valid tenancy leases.
    Why do the various “Land Trusts” as the owners of the land refuse to take on their responsibilities?
    The Commonwealth consistently exempts them from accepting their responsibilities as the owners.

  4. While we are on the subject of Land Trusts. It used to be that no Land Council was listed with the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC) which meant that no one ever knew what was happening with their money or whether there was compliance with relevant reporting rules.
    Has this changed or is that still a secret?
    I understand ORIC now has a new name but presumably still does the same thing except it doesn’t seem to publish a list of registered organisations anymore, or their current compliance status.

  5. @ Michael: I just went to the ORIC website. They don’t have a new name. I also checked on Yuendumu’s highly successful Warlukurlangu Artists Aboriginal Association. Everything is kosher and above board. Ample reports and financial data. Greater transparency than much of corporate Australia.
    According to the ORIC website:
    The registrar is an independent statutory office holder who administers the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act 2006.
    The registrar’s office supports and regulates corporations by:
    • Advising on how to incorporate.
    • Training directors, members and key staff in good governance.
    * Ensuring compliance with the law.
    * Intervening when needed.
    The Land Councils are not listed with ORIC because they come under different legislation.
    ORIC are a corporate police, this is not what Aboriginal Australia needs.

  6. @ Michael: A very uninformed comment.
    NT Land Councils are Commonwealth Statutory Authorities, coming under the Federal Land Rights Act.
    As such they are required to report to the Federal Minister, and subject to analysis and oversight by the Federal Parliament.
    Former CLP Senator Grant Tambling spent most of his Parliamentary career scrutinising the Land Councils and their reports.
    He never found anything amiss in the CLC annual reports.
    Understandably CLC does not bother wasting time responding to silly comments.
    Disclosure: I worked for CLC for three years 34 years ago.

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