Shaneen Fantin reviews the Indigenous Housing Conference, arguing that the profession must find ways to collectively contribute its skills and expertise.

This is an article from the Architecture Australia archives and may use outdated formatting


Which Way? – a conference that aimed to shape the future of housing for Indigenous communities – was a national event of historic significance. I knew this was no ordinary, insular architects’ event when I witnessed Fred Chaney, Tom Calma and Jenny Brockie openly competing for an opportunity during question time, and George Negus loitering in the foyer on his mobile phone.

Which Way? was an initiative of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects National Indigenous Housing Taskforce. The taskforce was established in 2006 with an aim to “… develop a policy for the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, consolidate current information on best practice with respect to housing design, practice and research, and to create a framework for delivering positive change in housing outcomes through appropriate partnerships with Government.”1 This conference was the first initiative of the RAIA related to Indigenous housing in almost thirty years. The previous initiative was The Aboriginal Housing Panel (AHP), established in 1971 and disbanded in 1979. The objectives of the AHP were to examine and advise on Aboriginal housing programmes, promote and support new and innovative design solutions, coordinate advice and assistance for remote communities, and evaluate proposed designs for remote and “traditional” areas.2 Thirty years on we are still trying to achieve the same thing – to initiate positive change in Indigenous housing through understanding what constitutes best practice and through attempting to influence government. In the first part we have made some headway. Of the 450 delegates attending the conference, many have made a long-term commitment to working in the field of Indigenous housing. In particular, Healthabitat, the Aboriginal Environments Research Centre, the Centre for Appropriate Technology, and Tangentyere Design have made significant contributions to consistently documenting and testing what constitutes “best practice”. However, our attempts as a profession to influence Commonwealth and state governments, which largely control the allocation of funds and the implementation of Indigenous housing on the ground, have been limited. As a national body, the RAIA now has an opportunity to readdress this issue. We must act now, using our expertise and the outcomes of Which Way? to work directly with government to redirect Indigenous housing policy and programmes. If we do not, we will be accepting and perpetuating the status quo.

Which Way? began with a session on Indigenous housing ideology entitled “Mainstreaming”, and over the following seven sessions delved into a broad range of issues, including health, community capacity building, home ownership, housing delivery and technology, and culturally appropriate design. Many of the speakers came from fields outside architecture, such as economics, anthropology, management, engineering and medicine. This created a very lively stage for discussion. Supplementing the main sessions were less formal, facilitated breakout debates on mainstreaming, community capacity building, home ownership and design consultation methods. The breakout debates were an excellent vehicle for collecting opinion and discussing difficult detail and implementation of proposed ideas. The key ideas in each debate were documented on butcher’s paper, and on the last day of the conference delegates were asked to prioritize issues raised in the debates during the conference generally. A snippet of these priorities follows: make community capacity building a serious outcome of housing programmes; stop building new housing and fix existing housing now!; support and encourage young Indigenous architects; RAIA to set up Indigenous Housing website; one (programme, house design, training need) size doesn’t fit all; educate architects in Indigenous ways of living and communicating.

For those who have been in the Indigenous housing industry for a while, the conference covered a lot of existing knowledge, but the sheer breadth of issues had not been discussed in a single forum before. In my opinion, the session on home ownership offered the most groundbreaking developments, with its insight into private home ownership options for Indigenous people living in remote communities. Home ownership is only an option for a small portion of the Indigenous population, but it begins to move housing out of government hands, and into the control of the householder. Another inspiring and noteworthy session was that on community capacity building. Two Indigenous presenters, Fred Pascoe and William Tilmouth, described their work in Normanton and Alice Springs respectively and celebrated the improvements and changes in their organizations over the past thirty years. Fred Pascoe’s response to a question relating to community capacity building struck a chord early in the conference, which resonated for me until the very end: “Give me a fish and I’ll eat for a day. Take me to the river and I’ll feed for a lifetime.” (Fred Pascoe, CEO Bynoe Community Advancement Co-operative Society, Normanton.) Pascoe’s statement highlights one of the many contradictions raised during the conference: the gap between the provision of public housing with little Indigenous control or involvement and the ongoing issue of welfare dependency in Indigenous communities.

I was absent for the last two sessions, because I chose to return to Cairns and spend Sunday at home with my two small children and partner, but I sought the opinion of a range of friends and conference attendees regarding these sessions. The general consensus was that the second last session, entitled “Design Practice – How to work together”, in which Indigenous architects Kevin O’Brien and Carroll Go-Sam spoke, was both moving and insightful. Each presented personal accounts of the cultural and social relevance of housing in the context of their family experiences. They did not talk about design specifics, but about the impact of housing on people’s lives. The final session discussed many of the priorities that had been drawn out of the sessions and debates. In particular, Healthabitat’s Fixing Houses for Better Health programme was raised and a proposal floated to fix 75 percent of all existing Indigenous housing by 2010. On community capacity building, Fred Chaney drove home the importance of respect, humility and working from the ground up in Indigenous communities. Important recognition was also given to existing successful Indigenous Housing Cooperatives, and ideas discussed as to how they may expand their services and partner with other organizations.

A successful conference should leave delegates passionate and motivated to action (personal or professional). Which Way? certainly generated some heated discussion and reignited dulling sparks for those who may have been suffering from burnout in the field. It should also not be another “talkfest”. At the time of writing this article, the federal election is less than two weeks away. In all the radio and television ranting I have encountered over the past weeks, Indigenous housing has not featured as an election issue. Given this crucial political and social time, it is critical for the taskforce to continue its purpose, to create a framework for change from the outcomes of Which Way, and to influence government. Some architects may argue that we should be architects and nothing more, and that the realm of Indigenous housing is too large, ugly and unwieldy for the likes of us. But, as was raised at the conference: who else has the skills to handle the problem? Not government departments, nor Indigenous people living in remote areas. Shall we leave the job to kit construction companies and the army?

Dr Shaneen Fantin is a senior architect and project manager at Edge Architecture, Cairns.

Which Way? was held in Alice Springs on 26 and 27 October. An edited transcript of the final panel session follows. Architecture Australia is also planning a special issue on the topic of Indigenous Housing, which will draw further on the conference content for next year.

2 Jeremy Long, “The Commonwealth Government and Aboriginal Housing, 1968–81” in Peter Read (Ed), Settlement: A History of Australian Indigenous Housing (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2000), pp 112.


The panel, from left to right. Tom Calma, Carroll Go-Sam, Paul Pholeros, Richard Ahmat, Olga Havnen, Fred Chaney. Image: Moving Pictures

The panel, from left to right. Tom Calma, Carroll Go-Sam, Paul Pholeros, Richard Ahmat, Olga Havnen, Fred Chaney. Image: Moving Pictures

Facilitator Jenny Brockie. Image: Moving Pictures

Facilitator Jenny Brockie. Image: Moving Pictures

What now? The final session of the National Indigenous Housing Conference, a panel discussion facilitated by Jenny Brockie, considered a future for Indigenous housing that is informed by the past. We present an edited transcript.

Jenny Brockie Welcome to the final session, a panel discussion on what to do now. The panel has been put together to represent the different views you’ve heard over the last two days. We have Fred Chaney, chairman of Desert Knowledge Australia and director of Reconciliation; Olga Havnen, who has a longstanding and active involvement in indigenous rights; Richard Ahmat, director of Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation; Paul Pholeros, a director of Healthabitat; Carroll Go-Sam from Paul Memmott & Associates and the Aboriginal Environments Research Centre; and Tom Calma, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner with the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. The panel will respond to the recommendations that have come up during the conference. I’ll start with the recommendation that has received the most support – to improve existing housing now and to make 75 percent of housing functioning by 2010. Paul, how can that target be achieved?
Paul Pholeros This is the first thing the conference should agree on. I’m happy to be specific about what needs to happen – 75 percent of houses should have a working shower, a working toilet, and a working kitchen. I’m not embarrassed about the so-called humbleness of this. It’s not humble at all – it is radical and dramatic and people can’t hide from the results.
How do we do it? We should follow a similar methodology to Housing for Health. That is, we need to involve local people – there is no way to do that volume of work without involving local people, even if they are not plumbers and electricians. We need them to target where the maintenance is done and to help with that maintenance. That is an absolute must.
JB Does that mean training people?
PP Yes, they have to be trained, particularly so they don’t injure themselves. It may be down-and-dirty training. People won’t have TAFE tickets or university degrees out of this, but they’ll be able to go in and do the job in their communities. That’s step 1. While that is happening, we can divert the money that’s still being spent surveying houses without spending one dollar to fix them (last year, some houses were surveyed nine times!). If we put that money into electricians and plumbers we can fix more showers and toilets. I would stop all surveys that have no fix-related component.
Olga Havnen I absolutely agree – it’s one of the easiest things to do immediately, and the improvement to people’s health and wellbeing cannot be underestimated.
Fred Chaney There is also a very good strategic reason for supporting this. The government says there will be more money to build houses, but there is going to be a real capacity problem. This will make a real difference and it will be easier than getting a whole lot of new houses built. This is a way to bring resources in to actually do something.
Tom Calma The proposal also fits within the human rights framework, particularly in terms of “progressive realization”. There is a very clear time frame – although I’m not sure that 2010 is going to be that achievable – but it’s a good start to address the resources necessary to fit into that time frame.
JB That’s about fixing existing problems. How do you address the lack of oversight that created the problems in the first place? These buildings have been built without any concerns for standards or any accountability. How has that happened? How do you deal with it?
PP Well, it’s no different from any other building project. You start at the level of the house. You ensure that no house is handed over to citizens of Australia unless it complies with existing standards – the electrical standards, the plumbing standards, the building code of Australia, just like you would for any other citizen. That’s where you start.

JB OK, let’s get onto some bigger-picture issues. Another recommendation is that existing successful community organizations should be enlisted to expand and increase capacity in other communities. How can that happen most effectively?
Richard Ahmat At Cape York we have a building company, Balkanu Development Corporation, we have a building team and we build houses for people. They pick the type of house – there are about half a dozen choices and they can be modified – but they also put in money. Half the money comes through the family banking system, and we find the other half through the private sector. The houses are built mainly from materials and resources that we find around the community, and family members get involved with building. This lifts the capacity of that family, the esteem of that family. And there’s a roll-on effect – at the present we have built five at Stewart in Cape York, now people all over the Cape are putting up their hands.
Capacity building in the community should be left to organizations with a proven track record. Accountability is of the utmost importance here. What about the big businesses that build all these homes with the two billion dollars from the federal government? Who do they account to for the shabby materials they’ve used? Indigenous housing is falling down around our ears. Nobody’s accountable for that. They say it’s the person in the house – the person in the house can’t damage the washer in the tap!
JB How do you best build that community capacity?
RA You’ve got to involve the people. The problem is that there has never been a choice about housing for Aboriginal people in any community. You have to allow them to make choices.
TC I’d like to go back to the previous question. A couple of fundamental things need to be addressed. One is the moratorium on out-station housing – as far as I know this hasn’t been lifted. The second is the uncertainty about what is going to happen to the Indigenous housing associations following the Price Waterhouse Cooper report. We can’t say we need to involve Indigenous housing and building organizations without knowing if they have any longevity. These fundamentals need to be addressed first.
In relation to capacity building, the challenges are multi-dimensional. First you’ve got to change the will of the policy makers to enable Indigenous people to be a part of the solution, to be actively involved in the house construction and/or the maintenance. Outsourcing to non-Indigenous organizations is far from conducive to building the capacity of Indigenous peoples. Then we need to work with the community, so they can see they have a place in the process.
The real challenge for architects, designers and project managers is to clearly identify what part of the house construction needs to be undertaken by a professional – a plumber or electrician – and what components can be outsourced to the local community. But there needs to be a fairly clear mind shift and policy shift to enable that to happen.

JB Fred, what should come out of this conference?
FC It is a very difficult time to have this conference because we are in a period of inevitable policy instability. There has been considerable policy change, but no government has the capacity to deliver on the new policy. I think it will fall apart and a lot of the approaches will have to be reconsidered.
JB Why do you think it’s going to fall apart?
FC The Commonwealth simply doesn’t have trained officials to do the sort of work that we’re talking about. It’s all very well to call up the army and demand reinforcing police from other states, but the officials going to these communities are not skilled community development people. They simply do not have the background and training. It’s probably thirty years since the Commonwealth trained people for this sort of work. There are some great opportunities, but the truth is that the Commonwealth is not administratively equipped – there is not government capacity to deliver what has been promised.
Quite apart from that, the whole thing is done in a manner that does not show respect for Aboriginal people. In my experience, which goes back nearly fifty years, anything that has worked is based on a profound respect, including cultural respect. Over my lifetime, Aboriginal people have been subjected to a bewildering range of policy changes rolling over the top of them. I want to thank Kevin O’Brien. In his talk he gave us, in parable form, the story of his grandmother’s life. She endured. She maintained her dignity through a serious of undignified activities by governments over the whole of her 90+ years. That’s the reality. Aboriginal people will endure whatever governments do, however stupid governments are. Unless we engage with Aboriginal people in a respectful way, unless we have people with the capacity for that engagement, it’s just another political flurry with a strong ideological dose which is not going to make a difference.

JB Let’s talk about the money that is on the table at the moment. How should it be spent? What should priorities be?
OH Fred’s point about the lack of government will to engage in meaningful community development practice is right – government doesn’t understand the language of capacity building or how you go about it. There is also an assumption that Indigenous people, communities and organizations are completely deficient in capacity. This is not true. I know many people who worked in housing teams and programmes going back to the 1980s, when we had housing grant programmes, when there were regional housing associations or housing associations in every community. That capacity is still there, but it’s not been tapped into. We have to build on what’s there rather than going back to scratch again and again.

JB How do you best identify what works and what needs to be done? Who does that identifying and how do you implement programmes that improve the quality of the housing?
OH I’ll give you a good example. Here in Alice Springs, Tangentyere Council has been condemned for the poor state of housing. But in reality, the condition of the town camps has much more to do with the lack of funding and levels of overcrowding. Tangentyere, as a housing organization, is exemplary in the way that it manages its tenancy and housing maintenance programmes with the limited resources that it has. These organizations need to be acknowledged and assisted to do this work and to expand what they can do.

As for the money on the table with the federal government intervention – a substantial sum has been committed but we need to look at where it is being spent. It’s creating a whole new layer of bureaucracy – 700 new jobs for bureaucrats. Reports I get back from communities say the only visible difference is an increase in numbers of bureaucrats, numbers of meetings and new housing for government business managers. The money is not hitting the ground in terms of services and programmes, where it is most desperately needed.
JB So where could the money be spent, and given the need for more than a one-size-fits-all model, how best can you deliver better housing to Indigenous people?
FC Can I put a point in favour of government? I think the larger police presence, and to some extent the army presence, is a positive thing in those communities where there has been a genuine problem. Some elements of the intervention were long overdue. Aboriginal people have been asking for a police presence, often in vain, over decades. This must be continued. If you want to improve housing you’ve got to have a peaceful community with civil order. The second thing, though, is do not knock off the good with the bad – if people are doing a good job use them more, don’t treat them as part of the failure. I think that that is a big part of the problem at the moment.
Carroll Go-Sam Those good community organizations, which have had a prolonged period of accountability and are producing good results, can be expanded to be a model for a region. To strip a good example away, to disempower it, to remove funding, is actually taking them way back to nothing.

JB What about “mainstreaming”? Would anyone like to talk to that? How can it fit in with the Indigenous context and not vice versa?
OH I’ll have a go. Senator Scullion this morning made it fairly clear what he meant by “mainstreaming” – I think he described it as “improving access to services”. If this is what they mean, why does it have to have this label? Why do we have to have this discussion about “normalization”? It’s quite sinister language. It is a covert way of suggesting other things, mainly the dismantling of the Indigenous organizations.

Mainstreaming will not and cannot work, particularly in remote areas. You have to recognize the diversity of people’s circumstances – not only geographical diversity, but also cultural and social diversity. It is impossible for mainstream government agencies or service providers to have the capacity to meet that diversity.
JB Richard, do you have a view on that?
RA Look, how can you mainstream Aboriginal communities when they don’t have public transport? How can you mainstream Aboriginal communities when they can’t take their families out to a nice restaurant for dinner on a Friday night – when what they are actually doing is hiding their young girls to protect them from being raped? How can you mainstream when you can’t even take your kids to the movies?

You can’t mainstream Aboriginal communities. Mainstream Australia has got to come and live with the Aboriginal to mainstream it. You can’t just say it will be mainstream.

JB We’ve talked about the need for different models of housing and housing delivery, and that different communities have very different needs. How do you ensure that the process in place for delivering housing is appropriate to the individual areas?
PP If I can tie the two together. You probably want some water from the mainstream but you need a whole lot of very, very delicate eye-droppers to distribute it carefully to each place around Australia to make sure that those drops actually hit the correct target. That’s not mainstreaming.

On the ground-up, top-down issue. As a young bloke in the paddock I used to think that it was all going to come from the ground up. I still firmly believe that that is an important place to start, but as I grew up a bit I realized we must have both. Some of the most committed, hard-working, extraordinary people I have ever worked with have worked within Canberra and state capitals – working their absolute backsides off to ensure that the top actually acknowledges what the bottom is doing. I give full credit to them. I think there are still good bits of government. We do need both to achieve a result.
JB How do you create those delicate eye-droppers? When you think about the relationship between any groups of people making decisions – architects and non-Indigenous clients, for example – there is the potential for conflict. How do you create those relationships, how do you foster them best?
FC You need two things, respect and humility. If you haven’t got a bit of humility when going into these circumstances, knowing how often they fail, then you’re crazy. If you haven’t got respect you can’t possibly get the top-down, bottom-up connection – I think the fish goes rotten from the head.

Quite frankly, there needs to be respect shown at the ministerial level, no matter how devoted the bureaucrats are. Unless there is respect and a becoming humility when you are engaging with communities, so that their voices are genuinely heard, the game is over.
JB Presumably respect has to work both ways to be effective, yes?
OH But one of the things that is missing, critically, is for the government to acknowledge that needs-based funding is required. It has got to be based on population growth projections. There has got to be a commitment to five-year plans as opposed to twelve-month funding cycles, which are completely ridiculous, particularly in the Top End where you have wet seasons in the middle of the building cycle. Some practical structural changes would make an enormous difference in terms of the efficiency of housing programmes.
TC Political leadership is one of the keys. I agree with Paul and Fred about the dedication of public servants. One of the recommendations of last year’s Social Justice Report was that the government engage the Australian Public Service Commissioner’s office to undertake a confidential survey of all staff in the ICCs to get their views on Indigenous affairs. The feedback I get is the frustration at the bureaucratic level – they are not being heard, no notice is taken of the advice they give to the higher echelons and the ministerial level. Until that middle section is given a voice we are going to continue to see things being ideologically and politically driven. We are still, in Indigenous affairs, being used as a political football – we need to take a deep breath and just get on with the job.
FC Is it time for a parable?
JB Go with the parable, Fred.
FC I don’t understand why success isn’t treasured and copied, so let me tell you a success story. I was lucky enough to facilitate the agreement between the Argyle diamond mine and the local traditional owners. It’s a deeply offensive mine because it mines a high-grade sacred site, an important working site, barramundi dreaming. It has been incredibly disruptive for the communities around the mine. The mine tried hard over twenty years and they achieved something like two, three or maybe four percent employment.
A new leader came in from South Africa and was aghast at the social circumstances in the East Kimberley. He started a process of change. That led to an agreement that now sees local Indigenous people forming over a quarter of the work force. It’s based on an elaborate showing of cultural respect, cleansing ceremonies for everyone who comes to the site – they all go through a muntha. “These people,” he said, “are our landlords. We will not mine without their consent.”
He changed the whole sense of what that mine was. It became a place where a lot of Aboriginal people came to work and start a new life. The change was led by the external influences that became culturally respectful. This pattern does work, whether you look at education or employment. It’s quite different from the assimilationist model that we’re having rammed down our throats at the moment.
The occasional examples of brilliant success are uniformly based on a deep showing of cultural respect. I believe we can make huge shifts, whether in housing or health, with an attitude of respect, collaboration and partnership. There is no evidence that centralized, bureaucratic-directed programmes achieve the intended outcomes, no matter how dedicated the public servants, or even the ministers. What works is local partnerships, real engagement on the ground and a commitment to clearly set out objectives. We’ve learned all that in the last thirty years, but we continually ignore it.

JB The community sees Indigenous housing as intractable – a problem that can’t be fixed. But we’ve heard so many examples here of things that can be done. What is happening to that store of knowledge? Is that being documented? Is anyone pulling together the mistakes of the past to ensure that they don’t happen again?
TC My Social Justice and Native Title Reports and those of previous commissioners look at these issues – we case-studied the Argyle story in last year’s Native Title Report; the year before I quoted Paul quite considerably about the pitfalls of constructing low-cost housing, or using inferior construction to cut costs. The irony is that my reports are tabled in parliament … but it’s about political will …
JB Paul, what do you think about learning from mistakes of the past? How do we carry that into the future with Indigenous housing?
PP We have a responsibility not just to do the work, but also to write the story down. We write both our successes and our failures, as exactly as we can. We are up to the third edition of the National Indigenous Housing Guide, which documents the Housing for Health projects. Most importantly, it says, “do not make these mistakes” – we know that if you put these taps in Alice Springs water they will last months, not years. We now know a huge amount about what not to do. We also know a fair bit about what we should be doing.
The results of the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and other things also need to be written down. Fred described it as succinctly as I’ve ever heard, “It needs to be written down so we don’t make the mistake again.” One of the scariest things at the moment is that there is simply no history. We’re back to the year zero. Nothing ever happened – good, bad or indifferent. There were no housing programmes, there was no community capacity. Well, there was – everyone here knows it!

JB What about the idea of national housing policies, national housing agencies, what are your views on those ideas?
RA It’s critically important. But it mightn’t happen because the money has all been committed and whoever gets into government will say no more spending, no more money.

How do we get a national Indigenous housing board together? I would urge the RAIA and the Indigenous people of Australia to form some sort of partnership and to bring in the government, bring in the mining sector and bring in the private sector. It doesn’t have to be massive, but it should be an Indigenous board, with advisors either side, along with people in the architectural profession and the tradespeople.
JB What would that board do?
RA It’s an issue of continuous funding – such a board wouldn’t have to apply to governments for funding. As Olga just said, the rainy season comes. You put in your application on 1 July to fund a housing project in the Northern Territory. You get an answer two months later, and don’t get the funding until about November. By that time you have lost five months of that financial year and the wet season hits and nothing happens. So you don’t start building until February, March, April next year and then you’ve got such a short time frame to spend that money, otherwise they take the money back.
JB So where does the funding come from, how is it delivered?
RA It could be a trust – you could name it anything – but the RAIA, I hope they are here …
JB I think they are here [laughter].
RA … they are the main people. Then there are the mining companies – the resources boom is huge. I don’t think Rio Tinto, or BHP, or Xstrata or any of the mining companies would hesitate to throw some money into a trust to address the appalling housing conditions of Aboriginal people.
JB What do the other members of the panel think of this?
OH Some sort of dedicated federal portfolio or national statutory authority with responsibility for Aboriginal housing is critical. Perhaps it should be broader than just Aboriginal housing, given the level of homelessness that others in the community face.
JB So a national housing policy generally …?
OH Some sort of national housing policy unit. Coming back to my point about the need for long-term funding commitments … The current estimates of need here in the Northern Territory are in the order of $2.3 billion over the next three to five years – five thousand new dwellings. $800 million is on the table. Clearly that’s nowhere near what is needed, despite the fact that it is a substantial sum. We need, as a nation, to get real about meeting the backlog of unmet need. We need long-term plans and some sort of measurable performance monitoring for all of this.
JB Let’s say we have the board, how do you get from the board to the delicate eye-droppers that we were talking about before?
FC Can I say, you’ve got to be really cautious about national bodies. There is a real need for a national goal of the sort we are expressing – repairing houses by a certain time. You’ll have a national board to assess the cost and a government that is prepared to commit to putting funds aside, so you don’t have to spend the money in one financial year. Then you have to make the most difficult of all decisions for bureaucratic organizations – you have to release control and activity to the localities where it is going to happen. If you try and do it with the central board directing things, my confident prediction will be you will have another failure.
If you have a national board that sets targets, has the money and is prepared to empower local activity, then we could get on top of this. But without local partnerships that have local control of resources and can engage the community and do those subtle and time consuming things, we’ll simply be repeating historic failure, which would be a shame.
OH We’ve got good examples of regional service delivery arrangements in the health sector. Regional health bodies were established through pooling Commonwealth monies to enable services to be delivered regionally, and have been really effective. So we’ve already got some examples of how this can be done. It takes a bit of confidence and a willingness to learn from other sectors and examples of things that work.
PP On the theme of things that have worked, for about eight years in South Australia there was a Housing Standards Forum. It was chaired by the Aboriginal Housing Board, and its chair and the board were Indigenous people. It met twice a year and said “what we can do better?” It tied its findings directly to the tender process for new housing in the state, so anyone tendering to design or construct new housing had to meet those conditions as well as the statutory obligations under the building code. Then they evaluated the buildings built – the Housing Standards Forum could call designers, tenants, residents, plumbers, electricians or builders into the meeting. All that learning was put back into the rules for the next tender. That continued for around eight years, and I believe it produced the best houses in the country for the money being spent. It was a slow, laborious process. The meetings were bloody, but they achieved a result and they tagged knowledge to money. Unless you link the two you are in great danger of having a great set of wisdom, but the money still being put in by the bucket, not the eye-dropper, at the other end.
JB Where does ownership fit into all of this?
FC Can I appear to change ideological sides? It is tragic that there are so few opportunities on Aboriginal land for entrepreneurial Aboriginal people who wish to join in with economic activity. I’ve met a businessman at Bidgidanga who said, “I’m a carpenter, I repair houses, I’ve got a business, but I can’t get a block of land.” I worked with that community to get an agreement to 26,000 square kilometres of exclusive possession of native title, but he couldn’t get a little block to run a little business. There is a need for reform to facilitate the creation of non-extinguishing titles which are marketable – perhaps only within the Indigenous community, to avoid the checkerboard problem. There are a lot of entrepreneurial Aboriginal people, but if they are on country where the only entrepreneurial activity is grog running, drug running or ripping off the local organization, that’s a tragedy. We really should be encouraging a greater variety of choice and market opportunities for Aboriginal people on the 20 percent of Australia that is now held under Aboriginal tenure.
JB Can I ask the other panel members their reaction to that?
OH I don’t think there is any philosophical opposition to the notion of choice, or to the opportunity to be a home owner or an entrepreneur. Aboriginal people have been talking about this for decades, but in the Northern Territory this is not going to be a reality for the vast majority of people. Home ownership is an aspirational thing. It should be available, but I think we have to be guided by the experiences of other Indigenous people elsewhere. If you don’t set up a tenure arrangement whereby Indigenous people don’t lose control over their land, then we won’t be learning from the mistakes of others. We need to be guided and informed about what might be best practice and what are the most appropriate models.
RA Ownership is choice. For example, in Hopevale, Millers Block has been purchased by the Hopevale Council. Traditional owners have put their hands up to own 35 of the 40 allocated subdivided blocks, because it gives them freehold title. There is no 99-year lease. Those people own that house and they pay for that house by deduction from their wages, whatever jobs they have. It’s like the family income management we have implemented in Cape York.
You have two people in a house – husband and wife – they can’t get a bank loan because they are only on $360 a week. But when you have seven or eight people, even ten in some communities, living in the same house, all working and all throwing in $50 each, well that comes to $500 a week, or $2000 a month. The bank can see that they can cover their payments. That’s the type of incentive we need. We need to look at other lease options, not just a 99-year lease. That’s what choice is about. Some people don’t want it, but some people do.

JB What about the political cycle? How can you make Indigenous housing resistant to the political cycle? Is it by long-term planning? Is it by establishing bipartisan policies? I’m sure some of the public servants here would like it to be a bit resistant to political cycles too.
RA I have a quick answer – grab ’em by the scruff of the neck!
FC You can’t insulate any aspect of Australian life from political and economic cycles. Richie and I share a view that money will be quite tight after the election. The most important thing will be to show that the money can be spent effectively. If there are signs that it can’t, the money will be taken off the table. That’s the political risk. Anything the RAIA can do to ensure that that excuse is not available is important.
So, for example, if Paul can say, “if $150 million of this money is preserved we can achieve these outcomes”, and if there is a clear plan, it would be hard to take the money away. Making it look possible is a really important part of maintaining the political support.
JB That gets back to the point about a need to train people. You need that capacity there in the communities. But that takes time, yes?
PP It depends. In the simple programmes that we run, it’s done on the day you start with the people in the field immediately. We start with the simplest skills and then some of those people do go on to become plumbers and electricians.
It is critical to get outside the political cycle, because it’s such a short active period – there are six months after they get in, they do two years, and then there are six months before an election. You need to remove yourself. That is where we need overall leadership – whether it’s from the RAIA, professional bodies or Indigenous groups – to say, “These are serious issues that will be around for a hundred years. We’re not going to stop because the political language changes.”
A key issue could be as simple as locking in the nine healthy living practices. They are the same simple issues, such as getting a shower once a day. They are still around and they haven’t changed in twenty-odd years. And why is that? Because it still makes sense to every mum, dad and kid. When you walk into their house you can describe them in simple language, anyone understands it.
These are not simple to do, they are complex, but the notion of what we are trying to achieve is simple. We are not going to change the principles because the government changes. These principles have to remain as pillars, and, critically, have to appeal to the citizens of the country.
JB So you see a role for professional bodies like the RAIA?
PP There should be some generic things that don’t move. As the RAIA changes, in five years or two years, they remain. As Indigenous leaders change, the principles remain.

JB So we’ve got best practice models, a suggestion of setting basic parameters, and what else? Tom …
TC I think we really need to engage at the Council of Australian Governments level – the Premiers and the Prime Minister. The ministers of Indigenous affairs all say “yes, we’re going to engage in capacity building”, but that’s rhetoric. We’ve got the rhetoric of the Commonwealth Government, having implementation guidelines and best practice policy for all of their programmes, but do they follow it? No, they don’t, and won’t until we can get all the government groups to work together, and they’ll only do that if they are led from the top.
We’ve worked with a number of ex-premiers and chief ministers and they’re firmly of the view that we need to get it up at COAG. Indigenous affairs is on the agenda for COAG but it’s way down the priority list, so it never gets discussed. We need to get it discussed and have a commitment for long-term funding, similar to the triennial funding of universities, so there is some stability to allow us to plan and to implement programmes.
JB Carroll, what are the key things people should be taking away? What can the profession do in a practical sense?
CG I too have an underlying concern about being too linked to government. There can be twenty shifts in direction in a three-year period in a community – something stripped away and a new thing introduced. There needs to be a body, but it has to be funded in a way that isn’t reliant on government, otherwise powers can be stripped away when things get too hot politically. For example, the AMA can comment whenever there is an issue of Indigenous health, because they are not too strongly reliant on government.
JB So what are you suggesting?
CG Look at the Cape York model. They engaged with business to help fund their institute. They are not wholly dependent on government. They can generate income, which in turn develops independence. We need to look at something like that, because if it is tied to government the frustration in Indigenous communities will continue. It has to be separate to have longevity.
JB Richard, what would you like to see as a result of the conference?
RA I’d like all the houses in Indigenous communities to start getting maintained tomorrow. But it’s an impossible ask.
JB Paul doesn’t think it’s impossible.
PP I think it’s more than possible.
RA Yes, everybody in the room agrees. The last two days have been so productive. The organizers have been wonderful, the audience has been wonderful. Everybody wants to see something done. But if there is another conference, we don’t want to come back and say, “Well, we’re just attending to the recommendations now from two years ago.”
We’re all committed. Let’s get together, bring in the private sector, bring in the philanthropic sector. People all over Australia ring the Cape York leadership and ask, “How can we help?” We need to say, “Right, let’s get a partnership going …” It should be a voluntary committee to look at all the recommendations from this forum and pick two or three, and try and get those going before the next meeting – if there is to be another meeting funded by the RAIA.
This is a crisis of a magnitude we can’t imagine. When Cyclone Tracy hit Australia, everybody kicked in, it’s the Australian way. When Cyclone Larry hit Innisfail, everybody kicked in. This is bigger than Larry. It’s getting eroded away every day because the decision makers can’t make the right decisions. We really have to get together and do something.
JB Olga, can I get a final comment from you?
OH If there is just one thing that members of the audience and the various organizations involved here could do, it is in public awareness and public education. There is quite a bit to be done in busting the myths. There is a whole lot of misinformation out there in the public domain about public monies, particularly in housing, having been wasted. I don’t believe that is the case. We need to produce some factual information on the current state of what’s actually needed, and why, and what practical things can be done immediately.
I think also it’s worth building a campaign around Paul’s proposal – there is something tangible and doable, it’s realistic and achievable. Most ordinary Australians would say, if this can be done efficiently, let’s give it a go!

This is an edited, abridged transcript of the panel discussion that took place in Alice Springs on 27 October. The RAIA is in the process of producing a post-event publication and looking at the recommendations. See www.architecture.com.au



Published online: 1 Jan 2008


Architecture Australia, January 2008

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