Another dramatic revelation in the remote housing litigation has seen $69.7 million in alleged rental debts in remote Northern Territory communities quietly written off by the Treasurer.
During an NT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NTCAT) hearing which ended this week the Government was forced to provide detail about the effect of a determination made quietly by the Treasurer in the dying days of last financial year.
While in the witness box, solicitor for CEO Housing Ms Tattersall said; “I’m noting that privilege has been waived with my understanding of the effect of the determination is that remote rent debts prior to 30 June 2019 were written off under section 35 subsection 1 of the Financial Management Act. Remote rent debts after 1 July 2019 were waived pursuant to section 35, sub section 2 of the Financial Management Act.”
The Northern Territory Government had previously advised that it would not ‘pursue’ rental debts which would have left open the possibility of a reversal of that position in the future. This determination by the Treasurer provides confidence that alleged debts prior to 11 December 2021 will not be held over the heads of remote renters in the future.
“Wiping the alleged debt is a result of the Government imposing top down policy onto First Nations communities without the genuine and meaningful involvement of Aboriginal community controlled organisations, and ultimately failing,” said Belinda Lowe, Head of Strategic Communication at Grata Fund, the public interest litigation organisation that is backing the residents of Santa Teresa and Larama and their cases.
The determination is another enormous win for remote Aboriginal residents from Laramba and Santa Teresa who have been taking the Territory Government on for the abysmal quality of rental homes for the past 5 years.
“In addition to having no choice but to rent houses which are inhumane, Aboriginal people in remote communities have also had to contend with the accusations of rental debts,” said Dan Kelly, Solicitor for Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights representing both communities.
The issue was first raised by the CEO of Housing who made a counterclaim in 2019 for rents in Santa Teresa where the total debt against the community was alleged to be around $2 million. The Tribunal dismissed the counterclaim after the CEO Housing was unable to provide any credible evidence for how the alleged rental debts were calculated.
“It was extremely distressing for the people living in Santa Teresa, who were simply seeking to have their rental homes repaired to the legal standard, have a huge amount of debt, about $20,000 per household leveled at them by the Government out of nowhere,” said Dan Kelly.
“The problem arose due to the complexity of the rental system, and poor record keeping and administration by the Department. Our clients have always maintained that they have paid what they were asked, and had no knowledge of the debts until they took legal action to try and improve housing conditions. The tireless leadership of renters in Laramba and Santa Teresa has contributed to the lifting of these crushing rental debts from the shoulders of families living in remote communities across the Territory,” said Dan Kelly.
“Questions remain about the Department’s record keeping and the way in which the $70 million figure was calculated given it’s previous failure to provide credible evidence to NTCAT to support its allegations of rental debt against renters in Santa Teresa,” said Belinda Lowe.
The Northern Territory Government has conducted a review into public housing rent which will see rent increase for 68% of remote tenants. This review has been criticised for failing to involve Aborginal community controlled organisations meaningfully through the whole process.
The Laramba and Santa Teresa cases against the NT Government continue. Documents disclosed under freedom of information laws reveal that in only the past 2.5 years, the Government has spent over $800,000 fighting these cases.
Additional information and background / quotes on Santa Teresa matter
A transcription of the disclosure of the determination at revealed NTCAT, and full recordings of the hearing is available from Grata on request.
Media contact, Belinda Lowe 0428 805 696