• MP Cynthia Lui, Cr Clara Tamu and Kabay Tamu inspect Warraber's old seawall. (Torres News)Source: Torres News
Federal government funding for an extensive seawall project in the Torres Straits is inadequate to address climate change in the region, says mayor of regional councils.
Aaron Smith

20 Apr 2019 - 7:56 AM  UPDATED 20 Apr 2019 - 7:56 AM

A federal election promise of $5m for seawalls in the Torres Strait has snubbed the local Indigenous council, with the funding to be channelled into the contentious 'work for the dole' Community Development Program (CDP).

The funding announcement, made on April 18, has also been criticised as not adequate to address climate change in the region.

Outgoing Indigenous Affairs Minister, Senator Nigel Scullion, said the Torres Strait Island Regional Council's (TSIRC) past record in building seawalls in the Torres Strait is why they won't get the money.

“We are working in partnership with local traditional owners because the previous arrangements of sea wall construction in the Torres Strait didn’t deliver the results it should have and some islands were left out despite significant Commonwealth investment,” Mr Scullion said.

TSIRC Mayor, Fred Gela, said the previous funding of $26m was nearly all spent on building an extensive seawall on the island of Saibai completed in 2017.

But that figure was never going to be enough to address the needed climate change mitigation works in all of the six most at risk island communities in the Torres Strait, said Cr Gela.

“The figure of $26m has been continually quoted as the total rectification estimate for six of our communities. Not once have I made a statement in support of this figure,” he said.

"This amount is nowhere near enough for ample rectification works.”

Cr Gela said the outgoing Indigenous Affairs Minister had previously commissioned the Torres Strait Seawalls Evaluation Report, which supported TSIRC ’s capability to deliver seawall rectification works significantly under market value.

“How much money has been wasted on these reports just so the Minister and the Federal Member (Warren Entsch) can save face over their clear misinterpretation of infrastructure costs,” he said.

While there are no details of how and where the money will be spent, the $5m price tag has been criticised as being well below the $20m already committed by the Queensland Government.

it was hoped would be matched dollar for dollar.

“TSIRC is shovel ready for these programs of work, with repeatedly evidenced capability, capacity and value for money. The State Government has recognised this by contributing $20m to the program, however the previously promised bipartisan support from the Commonwealth of $20m has never appeared," said Cr Gela.

Queensland Government member for Cook, Cynthia Lui, was also critical of the funding announcement.

“Like everything Warren [Entsch] does, the action never matches the big claims,” Ms Lui said.

“This leaves the project $15m short, when the Palaszczuk government has had its money on the table since the last budget.”

Queensland Government Ministerial Champion for the Torres Strait, Shannon Fentiman, said the shortfall would not keep the most vulnerable Torres Strait communities safe.

“This is what you get from a government that doesn’t believe in climate change and Warren Entsch has shown no leadership on this vital issue. This is just so disappointing. We need real action on climate change for the Torres Strait.”

But Mr Entsch said the funding had been allocated out of existing resources within the Indigenous Advancement Strategy and would be delivered via a partnership between the region's Prescribed Body Corporate, Gur A Baradharaw Kod Torres Strait Sea and Land Council (GBK), and work for the dole (CDP) provider My Pathway.

“I encourage the Queensland Government to follow the Commonwealth and invest with traditional owners in the Torres Strait through their peak body GBK,” said Mr Entsch.

The chair of GBK, Ned David, said the sea and land council was "over the moon" with the partnership, describing the arrangement as "an example of where Traditional Owners are given an opportunity to make some big decisions round protecting their place”.

“It think its the right call, but it doesn't in any way mean that we won't be looking to work with all the stakeholders in the region, but it is just cutting out the middle man, as it should be with any of the other major programs in the infrastructure related space, from seawall to housing,” he said.

“This creates  massive potential for businesses and employment – it's a shot in the arm for the plans and aspirations of Traditional Owners.”

Mr David said he hoped more funding commitments will come for seawalls after the election.

“I don't think we are any where near receiving the amount of attention in terms of resources and money that we should be, but this is a start,” he said.

Social welfare groups criticise CDP 

Mr Scullion warned the delivery of similar future partnerships between state, Commonwealth and Indigenous communities would not be possible if Bill Shorten's Labor government wins the 18 May election.

“Instead of listening to traditional owners, Bill Shorten and Pat Dodson are listening to their union masters and have committed to scrap CDP despite the positive local results it delivers," he said.

“The people of the Torres Strait deserve the opportunity to determine what arrangements they want and they have told me on many occasions that they want locally controlled CDP.”

Elsewhere, the CDP has been criticised by legal and social welfare groups as being discriminatory against Indigenous Australians, which make up 80 percent of the program's participants. 

A 2017 Senate inquiry heard the CDP was leaving people without money to survive due to harsh participation requirements and a high number of fines. As a result of that inquiry, Mr Scullion introduced reforms in March which  included flexible work hours and reducing requisite hours worked from 25 to 20 a week.

Prime Minister and Cabinet survey last year found of the almost 1,000 community members questioned across the eight remote communities, only 21 per cent felt the community was better off since CDP was introduced.

Thirty-two per cent said the community was the same. Thirty-six per cent said the community was worse.

An evaluation report on the CDP released in February found only marginal improvements in some measures compared to the CDP’s immediate predecessor, the Remote Jobs and Communities Program, with job creation minimal.

The scheme has also been criticised ACTU Indigenous Officer Lara Watson.

“This program forces people to work for no pay, with no protection if they are injured, and none of the basic employment entitlements like superannuation and leave,” Ms Watson said.

“This program has devastated communities, reduced employment opportunities and forced people into poverty and hunger.

“The Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison Government has an appalling record on Indigenous affairs but this program stands alone as an example of outright systemic racism.”

TSIRC Mayor Fred Gela said: “I would remind both the outgoing Indigenous Affairs Minister and the current Federal Member for Leichhardt that actions speak louder than words in this region.”

“Our Council is an active contributor to the Torres Strait economy through employment of a majority Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island workforce (at 82.5 percent), 83 percent of roles are located within local communities and our apprenticeship program ensures vital skills remain within the local community.”

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