Canberra bureaucrats commissioning NT houses unfit for purpose

Jun 4, 2024
Housing Jenga

Labor’s $4 billion for Indigenous housing in the Northern Territory is set for failure unless it incorporates Aboriginal expertise.

Bob Hawke famously was told the jig was up when Gareth Evans told him to “pull out, digger. The dogs are pissing on your swag.” I got the message when I was told by a Department of Aboriginal Affairs official that most officers in the department could spot a submission from me, or the organisation for which I worked, at 500 metres. It was said in a context of forecasting increased resistance to our requests.

The organisation for which I worked was a pioneering Aboriginal medical service operation in Central Australia. It also had a specific advocacy role on behalf of Indigenous Australians from Tennant Creek south, also embracing Pitjantjatjara communities in Western and South Australia. It was rapidly expanding its functions, its services and its staff; during the period I worked for it its annual budget increased by three.

It was in the process of establishing separate medical services at Utopia, in the northeast, Papunya, to the west, and the Pitjantjatjarra homelands medical service based at Pipilatjarra, just into South Australia where the borders of SA, WA, and the NT meet. It was putting up proposals to establish dental services, first in mobile teams, in remote community-based health services. (We didn’t get funding for that, or, at that stage, childcare or aged care programs.) It had town-based programs to help provide advocacy and assistance services for people seeking welfare services. It was establishing a farm with alcohol rehabilitation services, and a night bus to bring people from the streets of Alice Springs to accommodation in fringe camps.

It was closely involved in the initial programs to develop fringe camps, to massively improve their housing and access to services such as water, sewerage, and waste collection. It also cooperated with and provided services alongside bodies such as the National Trachoma Program, an organisation, under Fred Hollows, with which I had worked on leave from journalism in Canberra.

These were times of optimism, and there were no limits to the ambitions of the Aboriginal leaders of the congress. There were limits to the organisation’s capacity to manage the programs and resources it was asking for, but if these capacities were being stretched, the most serious problem involved the size of the department’s budget. Central Australia was getting better assistance than most areas, if only on needs grounds. If the Malcolm Fraser government was less gung-ho on ideas of self-determination than the Whitlam predecessor, relevant ministers, and Fraser himself, recognised the size of what we now call the gap, and were determined to address it.

There was no departmental template by which one asked for grants, or funding for continuing programs. One of the early congress staff, the remarkable Dr Trevor Cutter, was always brimming with fresh ideas and sketching out draft budgets and organisational systems, and what I put forward tended to follow his style. At least until it came to be seen as my style.

Housing: the key to good health. Bad overcrowded housing: the incubator of bad health

We insisted that any submission we put forward had to be seen first in the context of the overall situation and need of the 15,000 or so Aboriginal Australians in our region. By any standard – and we could point to specific local evidence of this – most of these people lived in dire poverty, with poor housing, access to housing, and overcrowding. As someone once said, there was a whole wardful of illness and disease in the average body, particularly among children who were faced with a barrage of infectious disease, including trachoma, respiratory and gastrointestinal disease and skin infections. Settlements were dysfunctional and inadequate service centres, and there were in place no plans or programs in motion that could be said to be promising any material or spiritual change if they were carried to fruition. It was clear, we said, that only integrated plans could work, and that piecemeal projects addressing only facets of the problems were doomed to failure.

We also pointed out – this was 50 years ago – that there was already ample practical evidence, in Central Australia as much as elsewhere, that plans and programs that did not involve extensive consultation with local communities would fail. No bright ideas – whether from Canberra or even Alice Springs would work in local communities if they had not been enthusiastically adopted by the community and structured according to its circumstances. We quoted United Nations guidance on development programs stressing that it was critical that recipient communities be involved in conceiving and designing programs, be intimately involved in their implementation and in any reviews of their workings, and improvement. While accountability to funding organisations was an accepted part of the deal, it was also stressed that the real accountability, for success, failure, efficiency and effectiveness had to be to the community itself.

This week I attended, in Canberra, a meeting at which Warramunga people from Tennant Creek were trying to advance a discussion about improved housing in their community. It was one which not only stressed this need for consultation, but did so with evidence that local, mostly Indigenous expertise in what best served families at economic cost worked far better than the current system by which Canberra style guvvies are being plonked willy nilly, without regard to aspect to the sun, about communities, and with little regard for cultural and social norms or family size and relationships.

Some figures they quoted, which struck me because they demonstrate that there has been almost no material improvement from when I was quoting similar findings 50 years ago:

“Poorest 1 pc of communities: NT communities are 367 times more likely to be in the poorest 1 pc of the population. Every single remote NT community is in the bottom 1 pc.

Lowest incomes in Australia: Average income in remote communities is $243 a week, which is only 20 pc of the average Australian income.

Cost of living: Essential items are three times more expensive than in urban centres. Two litres of milk in Sydney costs $3.10 and $9.20 in Kaltukarta.

Overcrowding: Remote NT residents are three times more likely to be living in overcrowded houses and 50 times more likely to be homeless than the national average.

Housing quality: energy efficiency standards of remote NT housing (which faces extremes of low and high temperatures) is six times lower than the national standard. These houses, even the new ones, would not be allowed to be built in mainstream Australia.

Energy insecurity: Most residents cannot have an electricity account, but must purchase an electricity card, with power shut off (including of refrigeration) when the card expires. Disconnection is frequent when residents run out of funds. “

Commonwealth and NT bureaucrats are commissioning houses entirely unfit for purpose and a waste of public money

Some of the existing housing – including some still being built – is simply unsuitable for the harsh Barkly tablelands environment. Simple incompetence, such as westward facing households, adds to the failure to use breezeways, to efficiently integrate air conditioning, or to use shade and verandas. Thermal performance is poor, and the style of houses, including water and toilet provision ignores social and cultural considerations.

“Poor housing is at the core of every aspect of the gap,” Dr Simon Quilty, a 20-year veteran of Indigenous medical services says. “Until families can live in homes that are safe, culturally and thermally appropriate, investments to address this gap will continue to fail.”

In the harsh local environments, housing authorities should factor in about 25 per cent of costs for annual maintenance. Hardly any such provision is made, and deterioration, except at the more sumptuous quarters of white officials, police and teachers, is blamed on the inhabitants.

The houses that are being provided by non-Indigenous contractors used to cost about $800,000 in construction costs to provide an inadequate building that might sell on the open market in, say, Coonamble NSW, or Cunnamulla Queensland for $100,000. The latest big announcement of an extra $4 billion for Indigenous housing in the NT by Anthony Albanese projects that houses will cost $1.5 million each. That’s a miserable 270 houses, which will not absorb the extra demand between now and completion.

The latest $4 billion is set for failure unless it incorporates Aboriginal expertise

The government has made the usual lip service pronouncements about building houses for the physical, cultural and social environment, and making ample provision for maintenance. Such promises have been made before, by Labor governments as much as coalition ones, but not honoured. The failure usually comes when ministers are impatient with progress and process, and demand short cuts. Inevitably, this has led to colossal waste.

Fred Hollows used to call housing “health hardware.” How its services were arranged is a matter of how people live. But at a minimum it had to provide shelter from the weather, access to water at multiple points for cooking, hygiene and laundry, electricity for services, because it is impossible in arid Australia to wash clothes or bedding without washing machines, and impossible to store food and medicines without refrigeration. Integral, rather than add-on air conditioning pays for itself in better health alone. Good housing allows for separation of bedding from the ground, and physical separation of people in well-ventilated areas. The proposals I saw in the past week can be built more cheaply than the one-size-fits-all ovens devised by NT Housing.

I found myself excited that a community is talking with enthusiasm of ways of designed good healthy houses around their own needs. The energy and the ownership of ideas was obvious, as was the willingness that houses constructed could serve, in effect, as display houses showing other communities what could be done.

But I was less than thrilled that NT housing bureaucrats have yet to engage in any way, even about systems of allocating houses around local clan structures. The electricity card system is so diabolical and so much out of the Robodebt mindset that I expect it will endure — at least until white citizens in the Darwin suburbs are put on the same scheme. If only the same energy went into the development of solar systems.

But I cannot help thinking that the dreams of this community have not advanced in any significant way in 50 years. All the criticisms of the status quo are the same I made in submissions to government half a century ago. Housing designs involving breezeways, sophisticated use of shade and aspect, and good thermal performance and climate resilience were also being devised then, in close consultation with affected communities. That very little has actually happened, and that the system has reverted to providing houses that are ovens is not a result of Aboriginal waste, but bad management by outsiders.

It goes without saying that when housing programs fail – as they do so frequently – Indigenous people get the blame. Yet most of the money has gone into white hands, and with little accountability for poor results. I expect that less than $400 million of Albanese’s $4 billion will even end up in an Aboriginal hand. If it is judged that the transfer of value to the Indigenous communities is as much as 10 per cent of the money involved, there will be bureaucrats in Canberra who will count the program a success. It won’t have been, other than as a make-work program for white contractors many of whom are not famous for their sympathies with Indigenous aspirations.

No politician with even a passing interest in Indigenous affairs can fail to be aware of a long history of failed programs in cases where decisions have been made from above without close discussion with the intended recipients. Sometimes programs have failed at local level because there has been too little experience and too little invested in assisting the communities to manage programs successfully.

But with the experience of only 55 years of observing failed programs in most mainland states, I cannot think of an imposed project that has worked. That includes not only policies and plans established in Canberra, or in regional centres long distances from the communities. It also includes plans which have started as the ideas of local departmental officers on site pushed on to, sometimes passively accepted by, a local community.

Plans work only when they have enthusiastic local champions, and where communities feel they have ownership. They work best when they are part of an extensively workshopped total plan for community development, rather than a mishmash of sometimes conflicting projects being pushed forward primarily because there is spare money in this functional area, if none in other priority areas.

Despite the promises and encouraging words spoken this week to the Wilya Janta organisation about its local designs, as well as to its planning partners at the Desert Knowledge Centre in Alice Springs, experience suggests that outside contractors, Labor politicians in Darwin and housing bureaucrats will have more power and influence over the quality and efficiency of the housing.

In this game there are no points for good intentions.

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