Greens Senator Rachel Siewert has labelled the NT intervention safe house initiative a “massive stuff-up.” 15 months after Former Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough’s promise to provide safe houses as part of the NT intervention, not one of the 16 shipping-container based safe houses has opened its door for clients and no staff have been appointed to run them.

Senator Siewert asked the assembled FAHCSIA bureaucrats in Senate Estimates in late October what the Australian public had got for their $11.8 million spent on the safe houses to date. She asked questions about what the safe houses consisted of, where they were situated, how they were staffed and when they might be opened. But she didn’t get many answers.

Safe Houses are undoubtedly a good idea. They have long provided necessary sanctuary in times of emergency for women and children retreating from the unfortunate violence inherent in too many Australian domestic arrangements. So, when in August 2007 former Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough announced that a series of “safe houses” would be built as part of the NT Intervention, the news was greeted with almost universal approval.

In Yuendumu, we would get a men’s “cooling-off” place to supplement the five year old Women’s Refuge centre. $11.8 million would be spent on the construction and operation of the safe houses in the 2007-2008 financial year and a further $9.5 million was allocated for 2008-2009 in the most recent budget.

Today, Yuendumu’s safe/cooling off house has been finished for some months but no one knows when it will be opened.

The safe house project was lost for a while in the mad rush that was the early months of the NT Intervention and the Federal election in late November 2007. But the new Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin kept the safe houses as part of Labor’s modifications to Brough’s NT Intervention and the public servants in Darwin and Canberra set to work knocking the project into shape.

The safe houses had to be up-and-running by the end of the 2007-2008 financial year — the funding was on a use-it or lose-it basis. Most of the safe houses would be built using the same recycled shipping containers used for the accommodation of Government Business Managers (GBM’s) and the interstate Police Officers rushed into the NT to implement the NT Intervention. The shipping containers used for the GBM’s accommodation were supplied by Royal Wolf Trading Australia and installed by the local company NT Link.

But it soon became obvious that there were serious problems with the Royal Wolf shipping containers. Several GBMs made complaints to FAHCSIA between November 2007 and January 2008 about serious “fume-based smells” in many of the containers, some which would also be used as safe houses. FAHCSIA apparently ignored the concerns raised by the GBMs until, in late April 2008; it engaged Tony Blunn AO to conduct a review into FAHCSIA’s response to the concerns raised by the GBMs.

Tony Blunn’s Preliminary Report to FAHCSIA, noted concerns held by remote community members about the appropriateness of the safe houses:

“…there remain significant issues around managing community acceptance of the containers, particularly in light of recent media coverage of this issue.”

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert has been asking questions about the safe house program in Senate Estimates Committee hearings since February this year.

In Estimates on 21 February 2008 she asked about staffing for the safe houses, particularly in relation to alcohol and drug rehabilitation support services, staffing and training of those staff. She was told that each large centre would be allocated a manager and three staff. No details about the training or skills of staff were provided.

In June 2008 Indigenous Affairs Minister Macklin commissioned a Review of the NT Intervention. The “Report of the NTER Review Board – October 2008” — the Yu Review —  was delivered to Macklin on September 30 2008. TheYu Reviewhad this to say about the safe houses program:

Feedback from communities indicated that few people were consulted on either the design or location of the facility. Many women told the Board that they would not use the safe houses as they were “more like detention centres”.

Crikey has obtained a copy of the draft Yu Review that includes material that didn’t make the final edit. One submission, at page 71, notes that there was:

…a lack of community and sector consultation and expresses concern that the safe houses were set up without any regard to extensive Northern Territory experience in this crucial area…the new safe houses have not been integrated within local inter-agency networks dealing with domestic violence.

And this from a submission by a central Australian alcohol treatment centre:

We are employing people to work in Safe Houses … but no one has employed [them] or can inform us who is employing this group…we are training over 100 people … across the Territory but there is still no coordination on the ground.

Crikey asked FAHCSIA and the NT Government when the safe houses might be opened to receive clients and what training would be provided to staff running the safe houses. FAHCSIA advised that while the NTER operations Centre (now part of FAHCSIA) is a member of the committee with oversight of the implementation of the safe houses project “…the delivery of the safe house program…is managed by the NT government.”

FAHCSIA further advised that no safe houses had been opened yet and that the final decision rested with the NT government Chief Medical Officer, who would not agree to open them until they are safe. Training for staff to operate the safe houses would be provided by the NT government.

The NT Department of Health and Families told Crikey that:

The Northern Territory Department of Health and Families is focused on training staff involved with the safe houses and also with supporting the implementation and capacity of safe houses to function. The DHF is working with communities to identify possible staff and training for them however none of the Safe Houses have opened yet. All of the containerised Safe House facilities have been tested for formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds and the results…show that none of them have to be rectified only ventilated before use.

And, as Senator Rachel Siewert told Crikey last week, the Yuendumu men’s safe/cooling off house was “…in the wrong location. There was no consultation, at least not with the appropriate people. It has been built quite close to where someone committed suicide and, as you might imagine, it is not considered an appropriate location.”