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Public housing building
(Image: Unsplash/Andrea Ang)

Last week, one of the top bureaucrats in the WA Department of Communities, Paul Whyte, was arrested and charged with two counts of corruption. Initially, it was alleged that he had embezzled $2.5 million since 2016 via fake invoices to shell companies. As of today, the figure has grown to $40 million, over more than a decade. That would make it the biggest public rort since WA Inc and one of the largest Australia has ever known.

The Department of Communities is a mega-bureaucracy whose portfolio encompasses child protection, housing, disabilities, local government, youth justice, and Aboriginal affairs. Whyte, who is in hospital after an apparent suicide attempt over the weekend, is assistant director-general. He used to run the Department of Housing when it was a standalone portfolio.

He lives in a $3 million mansion in one of Perth’s leafiest streets.

Meanwhile, I’ve lost count of the number of vulnerable Indigenous families whose public housing tenancies have been terminated for a few hundred dollars of debt. I was in court on Monday with a young mother of two with unpaid repair bills worth $1109. This paltry sum is for repairs that Housing demands be carried out through third-party, for-profit contractors.

The next day I saw someone who was evicted in 2017 for an unpaid bill of $549 to repair a Hills hoist. On further inquiry, Housing informed me there was also an unpaid water bill and issues with property standards. Nonetheless, the breach notice and court order only mention the repair bill — she and her four kids have spent three years on the street over a washing line.

And the man controlling the strings has just been done for dipping in to the public purse to the tune of $40 million. Apparently much of it went on racehorses.

My clients are outraged but unsurprised. Some Housing officers I’ve spoken to are furious, too. “How can we pretend we serve public housing tenants when this is our boss?” asked one who’s been there more than twenty years.

“Why would they ever trust us again?”

 

Peter Fray

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