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Housing chief drafted for WA remote communities reform

Western Australia’s Department of Housing director-general Grahame Searle has a new cross-portfolio role solving how the state government will support remote Aboriginal communities in the absence of federal funds.

He has given up his role to take on the two-year appointment as state reform leader, running a new cross-departmental regional services reform unit managed out of the WA Department of Regional Development.

The well-respected mandarin has hit the ground running, moving to calm fears that indigenous people are being forced off their ancestral lands and explaining why something has to change in regional and remote communities in an appearance on ABC Radio National this week. It’s the kind of reassurance federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion told the state government to provide just a few months ago.

Grahame Searle
Grahame Searle

According to the new regional services reform leader, “rationalisation” is required and having the Commonwealth exit the space could help simplify service delivery. Echoing premier Colin Barnett, he said WA public servants recently counted 200 separate services delivered by 63 organisations — federal agencies and not-for-profits — in the Pilbara town of Roebourne, population: 1400.

“That can’t be effective; that can’t be efficient,” said Searle, who maintained he had no orders to “shut down” any remote communities at this stage. If it came to that, he said, it would be by consultation with community members.

“If we go and talk to a community and there’s only three or four people there, and they think the government can provide their services, or help them achieve their goals in another location, we’ll work with them to do that, but we will not close the community as a conscious decision on our part.”

There are 274 remote Aboriginal communities in WA. The government believes 130 of them have less than 10 members, or are only occupied seasonally, while 16 have more than 200. Searle well understands the importance of connection to country for Aboriginal people and said in the radio interview there was “nothing in this proposal that’s about disconnecting people from their land or their kin”.

“There is no plan to close communities. None at all. There’s no target list of communities to be closed. That doesn’t exist. This is a process of going through and working with communities to determine the best way to help people meet their goals and objectives.”

“I mean if you’re in a community with less than ten people, it is pretty hard to provide secondary education services, for example. It’s pretty hard to provide dialysis services, for example, to a community of ten people, or fewer than ten people.”

Advisory councils for the Pilbara and Kimberley regions are being assembled as part of the reforms, each with four Aboriginal leaders and four WA departmental heads alongside “senior representatives” from the community sector and the federal government.

WA Child Protection Minister Helen Morton and WA Regional Development Minister Terry Redman said he was chosen due to his experience working with Aboriginal communities, and the results he has achieved.

Under Searle’s leadership, Morton proudly pointed out, WA’s Housing department “led the nation” in efforts to fulfil the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing, exceeding indigenous employment targets five years in a row:

“Under Mr Searle’s leadership his department has achieved double the public sector average of Aboriginal employment. It has also run a very successful Aboriginal trainee program and this year recruited its first indigenous graduates.”

Redman added:

“He has been a public service leader and innovator for many years, with a particular focus on non-traditional accommodation and housing models.

Mr Searle has collaborated with key Aboriginal organisations in the Kimberley and Pilbara to develop innovative housing solutions that support Aboriginal families to successfully take up education and employment opportunities.”

The Regional Development Minister said Searle’s “capacity to drive collaboration and achieve results” had earned him respect both in government circles and among Aboriginal leaders.

Searle is also a previous winner of the IPAA WA’s Patrons Award.

Paul Whyte will now be acting director-general of the WA Department of Housing.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.