A report this morning in The Australian says: “Australia has ‘turned a corner’ on indigenous housing following the construction of more than 600 homes in communities throughout the Northern Territory, with plans to have 1000 built by June next year.
“I am optimistic that we have turned the corner in Australia. We are building homes to last.”
So said Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, at the World Indigenous Housing Conference in Canada overnight. I’m not sure what corner Macklin thinks she’s turned, but if she’s talking about the intersection of “Fantasy Avenue” and “Spin Boulevard”, then she might have a point …
[Macklin] said the Gillard government had voluntary 40-year leases in place in 15 of the 16 communities in the Northern Territory where more than 930 new houses will be constructed by June next year.
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“About half of the 9000 families targeted for assistance — families who were not living in suitable accommodation before this work began — are already benefiting from new or improved housing. More than 2700 families in the Northern Territory are now living in safer, healthier houses as a result of our unprecedented investment.
“As of April 30, 631 new houses were complete in the Northern Territory with 2140 refurbishments and rebuilds.
“We have negotiated voluntary long-term leases with communities. Our approach has always been to acknowledge and support the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over their traditional lands,” she said.
There’s a few rather large holes in her story. First, the leases were not “voluntary”. Communities were told unless they signed over their land, they would get no new housing. While it’s not surprising Macklin was less than keen to explain this at an indigenous housing conference, the truth is something else altogether.
Secondly, we’re almost at the end of the Northern Territory intervention. Aboriginal land in and around townships was compulsorily acquired in order to ensure no delays in the provision of housing under the “national emergency plan”.
Five years on, there’s 631 new homes — a few hundred short of the government’s own target. Contrast that with the speed at which public housing was provided to white Australians under the Rudd government’s stimulus package — within three months, construction had begun on the 1000th home … and it just happened to be built in Rudd’s own electorate of Griffith. Go figure.
Thirdly, the homes have not been built to last. Most of the 80 or so homes constructed under the Alice Springs transformation plan (in town camps) are having to be redone, thanks to cracking in the walls. The homes were rushed through to meet government-imposed deadlines.
Fourthly, renovations — which have been the focus of the NT intervention housing strategy — do precisely nothing to overcome the single biggest problem confronting remote Aboriginal housing. Overcrowding.
Despite Macklin’s “unprecedented investment’ in Aboriginal housing in the NT, before the intervention the average number of people in an Aboriginal dwelling was 9.4. After the NT intervention, governments are aiming for a reduction to 9.3. I’ve heard of “under-promise, over-deliver”, but that’s ridiculous.
In Tennant Creek, for example, the federal government somehow managed to spend about $36 million without constructing a single new home. I guarantee you, within a few years the homes in the Tennant Creek town camps will be falling apart again.
Why? Because you can rip out old kitchens and put as much paint on a wall as you like, but if you keep cramming 10 or 20 people into a single dwelling, the life expectancy of the house will be vastly reduced.
And finally, there’s one other major problem with Macklin’s spin — it assumes that all Aboriginal people live in the NT. In fact, almost half the total Aboriginal population lives in NSW and Queensland. Yes, housing in the NT is poor. But have you been to Cape York recently? Or Toomelah? Or Bourke? Or Walgett? Or Palm Island? Or … the list is endless.
In 1999, the now defunct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission released a study that revealed that unmet need in Aboriginal housing in the NT alone was more than $2 billion. Across the nation, it was estimated to be about $5 billion.
We’re more than a decade down the track, and things are irrefutably worse. Provision of housing — as poor quality as it has been — has not kept pace with population growth.
On that front, I should acknowledge a couple of points. Macklin’s speech to the housing conference conceded that there was a massive job ahead. She also acknowledged decades of under-investment.
It is absolutely correct to say that Macklin inherited an almighty mess, and not just from her immediate predecessors. Aboriginal housing, from Redfern to Ramingining, has been grossly neglected by all levels of government for generations. Macklin is now suffering from the sins of her colleagues’ past. No one in her position would ever find tackling the problem of remote housing simple.
It’s also worth noting that construction of Aboriginal housing is fraught with problems. And again, it’s due in no small part to the fact that for generations governments have ignored all the other needs of Aboriginal communities as well.
Try building a home in a remote community, and see what it costs. Factor in rubbish road infrastructure, challenging climates and access to almost no local workforce (courtesy of generational underspending in education and employment) and you find that building a basic house in a remote community is well over $500,000. My point being, vast sums of public money don’t go very far, because in boosting Aboriginal housing spending, governments have to plug a lot of other gaps as well, such as basic infrastructure such as water and sewerage and road sealing.
But Macklin is living in fantasy land if she thinks 631 new homes in the NT represents “turning a corner” in the provision of a basic service that all other Australians expect as a right of citizenry.
Getting housing right is probably the single most important aspect of “closing the gap” on Aboriginal disadvantage.
It’s hard to get kids to school in the morning if they live in a house with 20 other people. It’s tough to crack down on s-xual abuse when an abuser living in an Aboriginal home has access to more than a dozen children, as opposed to an abuser who lives in a white home, with access to less than three. Rheumatic heart disease — eradicated in all but the world’s poorest countries — is rife in remote Aboriginal communities. It is a direct result of overcrowding. And it’s just one of a host of health problems caused by cramming dozens of people into a single dwelling. And that list goes on as well.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of housing in the overall fight against Aboriginal disadvantage, and the government’s progress on this front is, in truth, a drop in the ocean against the real needs of the nation’s most disadvantaged.
Macklin needs to put as much effort into building homes as she does into spin.