Housing in the remote and regions for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples is a national disgrace. The majority of it is an act of racism. It’s horrific shanty living in both the remote and regions of Western Australia and an even worse abomination throughout the majority of the Northern Territory. A Northern Territory housing program has been titled “Room to Breathe” – what a disgusting patronising humiliation and racist slap in the face.
Tin sheds for homes. Concrete hotboxes for homes.
Last month the Northern Territory’s housing minister Gerry McCarthy lamented the state of housing in the impoverished Tennant Creek of Ali Curung. Under the $200 million “Room to Breathe” program extra living spaces were promised in 22 communities. What’s been delivered are corrugated iron extensions.
The extensions won’t be pulled down and rebuilt with human dignity and essential needs in mind but left to the passing of time to fall apart. The degradation of Australia’s homeland communities – hundreds of communities – is the work of one government after another; disgusting acts of racism.
Housing ministers should live several weeks in these shanty experiences, in corrugated iron, in the concrete hotboxes. The concrete hotboxes recently built in the Arnhem’s Maningrida are more shame the Territory government heaps on itself.
The politicians come and go, the shanties remain and the residents suffer. Their communities degenerate to corrals of human misery and suffering, to cesspools of deprivations and for some to aberrant behaviours.
Aboriginal Affairs have been polluted by ministers who don’t visit communities, who don’t invest in what’s needed, who perpetuate inequality, who refuse to champion what’s right, who blame the victims and blame those who speak up. Federally there have been 20 Aboriginal/Indigenous Affairs ministers, the majority of them terrible. Among the worst were the Gorton and McMahon era’s Bill Wentworth and Peter Howson, Howard’s John Herron, Philip Ruddock and Mal Brough, and Rudd/Gillard’s Jenny Macklin.
Jenny Macklin had six years as the nation’s “Indigenous Affairs” minister till 2013. Her housing efforts were worse than the Territory’s McCarthy but soon after finishing up as the minister she wrote a much published piece where she claimed much had changed under her watch as the “Indigenous Affairs” minister.
But report after report demonstrated otherwise, that much did not change, in fact much deteriorated, going to my premise that the degradation of remote communities is the work of one government after another.
Ms Macklin claimed much had positively changed for Aboriginal peoples especially with housing and also with Aboriginal education outcomes. The 2013 Council of Australian Governments (COAG) report found little had changed. In her six year tenure less than 2,000 third-world-akin homes were built or refurbished.
Ms Macklin should apologise.
More than eight of 10 children living remote do not complete secondary school.
In October 2013, Ms Macklin wrote, “In 2008, when I first visited Alice Springs as the new minister for Indigenous Affairs, I saw Aboriginal communities ravaged by violence and alcohol abuse.”
“Children weren’t going to school and adults weren’t going to work. Homes were falling down faster than they were being built. Those still standing were overcrowded and in disrepair. Old women slept outside on dirty mattresses. Children grew up without proper bedding, heating or sanitation.”
She had the agency as a minister to fix this but didn’t. But she claims she made progress. Many disagree.
Ms Macklin wrote, “At the same, the relationship between Indigenous Australians and Government was at a historic low – following the heavy-handed approach taken in the early days of the Northern Territory Intervention, and a refusal to acknowledge the long history of hurt experienced by Aboriginal people.”
“I am proud of the progress we have made over the past six years.”
Rose-coloured glasses and lies.
Macklin continued, “Today, communities are tackling alcohol abuse, more adults have jobs and children are getting a better start in life. Aboriginal people are taking control of their lives and examining new ways of working with governments to build stronger communities.”
The suicide crisis has got worse, and the grim reality is that extreme poverty continues in one of the world’s biggest economies, and the jailing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is now at world record levels. One in four of the nation’s Aboriginal males has been to prison.
But Macklin wrote, “Make no mistake… there has been progress… in housing, education and community.”
“We set very ambitious targets to close the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, and we started making the unprecedented investments that were needed to reverse years of underinvestment. For the first time in our nation’s history, we have a comprehensive plan to tackle Indigenous disadvantage.”
Ms Macklin failed. Mr McCarthy is failing. He too should apologise.
Ms Macklin’s six year record was 2,000 shacks but publicly pitched as dwellings, and 6,000 patchwork refurbishments of remote community ‘dwellings’. So poor has been the investment that human dignity was never a consideration. With the refurbishments let us not even go there – many of them were just quick fix repairs and minor ‘upgrades’ that terminologically were fancied up as “refurbishments”.
But when Australia wants to it can build a suburb in any metropolis, say 10,000 new houses within a year. It doesn’t matter that the site was once a swamp, sandpit or bush, the magic is quickly weaved. When Australia wants it can build a big town with the full suite of quality infrastructure and services for nearby mining. It can craft an oasis in the desert but not for Aboriginal communities.
Ms Macklin claimed the building of the shanties created jobs for Aboriginal people. “We insisted on a minimum 20 per cent Indigenous labour in the construction of houses.”
“Aboriginal people got a new home, a new trade and good job.”
Macklin continued, “We did what we said we would do – reduced overcrowding, increased housing supply, improved living conditions and introduced proper tenancy management.”
But when her time was up as minister the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) recorded that the number of people living in crowded housing skyrocketed by 31 per cent. The ABS data revealed that 21,000 of the 41,000 people living in severely crowded homes were Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples, and the majority – 57 per cent – lived in the remote regions of the Northern Territory.
The average number of Aboriginal people living in crowded shanties is 12.
This is in addition to the one in 8 Aboriginal people homeless in the Northern Territory. Outside of natural disasters and civil strife this is one of the world’s highest homeless rates.
One in three Aboriginal people will be dead by 45 years of age.
One in seven of the nation’s Aboriginal people have been to prison.
It’s nearly one in five having been to prison in the Northern Territory and Western Australia.
The despair is so great that three children, six years old, eight years old, ten years old, hung themselves from a tree last year in a remote community, only to be rescued by older children who ran to them and held them up. The nation should scream mad, not just weep, at the child suicide crisis.
“Today, the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians is closing,” wrote Macklin. I say hang your head in shame and face up to the fact that eight in ten Aboriginal children living remote do not complete secondary school.
If there is to be any hope of equality through parity, Aboriginal or Indigenous Affairs, should be disaggregated. There should be a minister for First Nations Housing. There should be a minister for Remote Communities. There should be a minister for First Nations Health, and for First Nations Education, and these ministerial portfolios should be standalone, the only portfolio that the ministers are allowed to undertake, all that they work on and if they’ve got some integrity maybe then there will be some real change and dignity.