Even as Mal Brough was belatedly preparing to announce some long term measures that would go beyond the six months of the “National Emergency”, agents of his intervention were smashing the most rudimentary housing available to too many Aboriginal people: the tin humpy.

Non-Aboriginal contractors at the Territory’s largest Aboriginal town, Yuendumu, three weeks ago bulldozed a corrugated iron shelter, home to a couple and their seven month old daughter.

The object of the exercise?

To build a residence for one of the federally-funded outside employees being parachuted into some 70-odd Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.

A long-time resident of Yuendumu recounts the story:

A young Yuendumu couple and their seven month old baby, as well as the young lady’s parents, had set up camp. They installed a sheet-iron windbreak. They chose the site because it is near the only shade, provided by two mulga trees, near a house occupied by members of their extended family. There is no spare room in this house.

Without warning, an outside (Alice Springs?) contractor turned up with a map, a demountable building, and plant and equipment, and proceeded to clear the site.

The baby’s concerned grandfather’s objections were ignored. Part of the sheet-iron windbreak was destroyed and a big pile of dirt and debris pushed up right next to the former campsite.

The demountable was duly installed and another Alice Springs contractor then erected a two metre high cyclone fence, capped by three strands of barbed wire.

Without having thoroughly checked, I believe this to be the only barbed wire on any residential fences in Yuendumu. One of the two shady mulga trees was “captured” by the fence enclosure.

The only commercial/participatory involvement by locals, as far as I’m able to find out, was that a locally-owned firm supplied 1.5 cubic metres of concrete pre-mix for around $200 to the fencing contractor.

The Yuendumu local who witnessed the event goes on to say:

 Like many “military style” interventions by outsiders, this one is counter-productive and headed towards failure. It’s certainly not winning “hearts and minds”.

He goes on to say locals are asking:

“Why does the Government not like us any more?”

“What have we done to make kardiya (whitefellas) dislike us?”

“Nyiya jangka? (what’s going on?).”

The running sore of Aboriginal affairs in the Northern Territory for many years, and elsewhere in remote Australia, has been that of housing. And it has been demonstrably deteriorating over the past decade.

In 2001, the estimated backlog in Aboriginal housing in the Northern Territory was estimated to be $850 million. This so-called “unmet need” was made up of deteriorating houses, and houses unbuilt on communities where occupation rates of 15+ are not uncommon. More importantly, housing is not keeping up with houses beyond repair – let alone a population doubling every 25 years.

The current estimate of unmet need is $2.4 billion. Even taking into account general inflation, let alone exploding growth in building costs, it is obvious housing availability is going backwards, with all the obvious effects that will have on health.

Brough’s announcement this week of long term approaches to meeting this unmet need is welcome, and sure beats Howard’s initial throwaway line that the whole deal would cost barely “tens of millions”.

He should tell his fly-in bureaucrats that bulldozing existing accommodation – no matter how rudimentary and forlorn – will do nothing to win hearts and minds of people more humble than Galarrwuy Yunupingu.