I presented this paper at the Australasian Housing Researchers’ Conference, Auckland,
New Zealand, November 17-19, 2010. It is submitted in response to the Indigenous
Economic Development Strategy Draft for Consultation and Action Plan 2010-2012. It
covers many of the issues of concern raised with the Draft at the consultation workshop
I attended in Adelaide on Monday 29 November 2010.
Nothing Changes: the positioning of Indigenous Australians in
remote areas as commodities within the “Aboriginal Industry”
Built Environment & Engineering, Queensland University of Technology
Australian Housing & Urban Research Institute Scholar
[personal contact details removed]
John Lawler holds a Master of Architecture by research, and is currently completing his PhD which
involves working with the local Aboriginal community of Palm Island in northern
John has a strong interest in providing affordable and sustainable housing to remote indigenous
communities. While undertaking his Masters degree, he worked for the Anangu people in the APY
Lands of South Australia as the Housing/Building Coordinator.
He has also worked for the Aboriginal Advisory Service with the Commonwealth Department of
Housing and Construction in Darwin, and as a Research Fellow in Indigenous housing and health
with the Aboriginal Research Institute, University of South Australia. He has more than forty
years experience in commercial and domestic architecture.
Keywords: Aboriginal; Indigenous; Housing; Architecture; Palm Island; Queensland; Australia.
[Image removed from RTF version: landscape photograph of Palm Island, Queensland, 2007]
The debilitating effects of inadequate housing on the physical, mental and cultural well being of
Indigenous Australians have been extensively documented over the last forty years. However, despite
the efforts of researchers, politicians, public servants, Indigenous leaders and communities, there has
been no significant decrease in the housing disadvantage faced by Indigenous Australians overall.
Indigenous Australians ask to be included in decisions affecting them and to be given opportunities to
find their own solutions. But nothing really changes. In this article, I draw on my PhD research on
Palm Island, Queensland (2007-2009) to canvass some possible reasons for this situation.
My research has led me to three key areas of understanding in relation to the housing disadvantage
faced by Australia’s indigenous people.
• Firstly, discourses claim indigenous cultures are at odds with the beneficial occupation of a fixed
sited dwelling and these discourses need to be challenged.
• Secondly, a significant devolution of power from government to community is required to allow the
establishment of a process whereby Aboriginal people can develop their own responses to their
• Thirdly, services specifically targeted to Indigenous Australians are now a major industry, which
keeps Indigenous Australians in a position of dependency, where they provide a reason for the
“Aboriginal Industry” to continue.
To start, I will provide an overview in relation to the first and second areas mentioned above. Thirdly,
I will discuss my research on Palm Island and present some conclusions about the final outcome of
the project involved.
My research was an empirical study engaging a number of qualitative methodologies. In particular, it
was located in the paradigm of “housing-as-process” which locates the design and delivery of housing
‘within the broader framework of an Aboriginal community’s planning goals and cultural practices, as
well as its socio-economic structure and development (Memmott & Go- Sam, 2003 p. 14). I employed
multiple methods for gathering research material (data) (Yin, 2003 pp. 91-101), which included
participant observation, document and artefact analysis, interviews, and reflective practice. Participant
observation, which involved living and working with the community, was the primary means of
collecting research material.
Challenging the discourses
[image removed from RTF version: photograph of a small house with wide verandah, in a desert
landscape. The caption reads “Nomad House, APY Lands, South Australia – a generic design
The first point I want to discuss, very briefly, is that the research findings, and the knowledge
generated, regarding Indigenous Australians and their living environments are not neutral statements
of fact. They are ideological discourses which have arisen within specific historical and social
contexts and have been shaped by a range of political and cultural viewpoints . Raising questions as to
where and why these discourses have arisen reveals the power relations involved and provides better
understanding of the assumptions which may underpin the claims being made (Foucault 166/70 in
Denzin, 1992 p. 33).
Many researchers have written extensively about the impact of European style housing on Indigenous
Australians and the need to provide culturally appropriate housing to Indigenous communities,
particularly those in remote areas (Reser, 1976,;Heppell, 1979a; Ross, 1987; Memmott, 1988;
RCIADIC, 1991; Jones, 1994; HREOC, 1996; Lawler, 1998; Long Memmott & Selig, 2007). The
discourses produced claim that understanding how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
organise their living arrangements within their cultural orders is the key to successfully meeting the
housing need of Indigenous Australians. Further, they claim that policies which attempt to meet the
housing needs of Indigenous Australians using generic designs are destined to fail because
communities and individuals vary greatly in their needs and aspirations.
Finally, it is claimed that excluding Indigenous Australians from determining their own housing
outcomes, causes them to suffer a loss of control which produces adverse physical, mental and
social effects. These points of view were put forward by Heppell almost thirty years ago (1979 and
remain a major part of the ongoing debate (for recent examples see Long et al, 2007; Broffman, 2008;
Go-Sam, 2008; Memmott, 2008).
The Aboriginal housing “problem”
The issues considered to be of importance can be very broadly grouped within discourses of black
fella concerns and white fella priorities. The main assertion underpinning much of the literature is that
Indigenous Australians, particularly those living in remote areas have lifestyles distinctively different
to European-Australians and require specific houses to accommodate these differences. Therefore, it
is not feasible to assume housing which may suit for European-Australians is suitable for Indigenous
Australians, or even that housing appropriate for one Indigenous group (whether a whole community
or a single family) will suit another, because all communities are different. Broadly. the aspects of
Indigenous cultures which are believed to be of concern are socio-spatial relationships,
communication behaviours, domestic practices, family obligations, and spiritual beliefs. The issues
which have assumed priority for Australia’s Federal and State governments relate to funding, social
welfare policy, governance, and land tenure (Long et. al., 2007; Memmott, 2008).
Overall, with these black fella concerns and white fella priorities in mind, the literature suggests the
solution to the Aboriginal housing “problem” can be found in systems of housing delivery that will
provide living facilities flexible enough to meet the cultural aspirations and the physical needs of
Indigenous Australians in remote communities, while remaining economically and environmentally
sustainable. Consultation between housing providers and communities or individuals is considered to
be an important factor in achieving this solution. However, for the most part, the transfer of European
housing to Indigenous communities has engaged a “top down” approach (Walker, 1994; pp. 17-18;
Miles, et. al., 1986, section 1.6 pp. 1-2).
The need for consultation on a equal relationship between housing providers and communities (as
advocated by the “bottom up” approach) was called for as early as 1975 by the Aboriginal Housing
Panel (AHP), a collaboration between the Council for Aboriginal Affairs and the Royal Institute of
Architects, (Heppell, 1979b p. 233), and has been reiterated ever since. The need for consultation is
incorporated in many policy documents and program directives but there is often little, if any,
qualification of what is meant, the processes involved, or the methods to be engaged (Lawler 1998). It
is often little more than a secondary consideration in the delivery process and frequently involved
merely obtaining assent to a previously decided outcome (Ross, 1987 p. 153).
[Image removed from RTF version: newspaper cutting photograph of an Aboriginal woman in a
desert setting, standing in front of two tents with her hands on her hips. The newspaper headline reads
“HOMELESS”. The caption reads “Inadequate housing continues (The Weekend Australian 2009d p.
So, despite strong support for the position that effective consultation holds the key to rectifying the
“problem”, many Indigenous Australians are still confronted by the disadvantage, discomfort and
detrimental outcomes posed by inadequate housing (Memmott, 2008; Shelter NSW, 2010). This
suggests the need to look elsewhere for reasons as to why this state of affairs continued.
The “Aboriginal Housing” problem
Jacobs, Kemeny and Manzi argue, it is important to scrutinise the processes by which particular
housing issues become constructed as problems and in turn subject to the application of specific
policy interventions (Jacobs et. al, 2003 p. 429) and they identify three conditions which need to be
met for a housing “problem” to be taken as such and acted upon. These three conditions can be
observed in the dominant discourses in relation to housing for Aboriginal people. Firstly, the
convincing narrative: Aboriginal housing is a “problem”, that is, Indigenous cultures are at odds with
western housing, but the architect/academic can provide answers. Secondly, the coalition of support is
a plethora of policy makers, researchers, academics, practitioners. Thirdly, policy responses are
guaranteed because these people have the ear of government policy makers (Jacobs et. al., 2003 p.
430). The governments make the decisions and use the work of researchers, academics and
practitioners to justify those decisions.
Therefore, there is a need to think about the problem of what is meant by the term “Aboriginal
housing”, rather than what may constitute the “problem” of Aboriginal housing. Also, consideration
needs to be given to how particular forms of knowledge become culturally privileged and who stands
to benefit from a specific world view being held up as correct (Denzin, 1992 pp. 164-165). For
example, the aesthetic values of western (white) architecture dominate the built environment, and
operate as a hegemony wherein its ideologies present as the interests and views of the society as a
whole (Gramsci 1971 in Hall, 1980 p. 35). This is especially so in the intersection between western
(white) architecture and indigenous (black) cultures because the presence of “whiteness”, that is, the
culture of white people (Dyer, 1997) remains unacknowledged.
Thus, it becomes questionable to speak of “Aboriginal housing” or “Indigenous housing” when what
is actually under consideration is white fella housing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
So, instead of focussing on Indigenous Australians, who are limited in their capacity to influence
public debate and government policy, researchers need to turn their attention to the governments and
their agents, whose social and political power is paramount in delivering social policy and programs.
Therefore, when considering the discourses of housing for Indigenous Australians provided by
architects and academics there is a need to challenge these discourses which reiterate the ideologies
that indigenous cultures are at odds with the beneficial occupation of a fixed sited dwelling. There is
also a need to question discourses which position architects or academics as experts who will find
solutions to the “problem” and to consider that Indigenous Australians need to be in a position to do
this for themselves. More importantly, there is a need to challenge the selective take up of these
discourses by those who ultimately make the decisions, the government policy makers. Therefore,
instead of focussing on those who are marginalised (Indigenous Australians), researchers may
produce more useful and beneficial analyses by turning their attention to those who are doing the
marginalising (governments and their agents).
Bottom Up not Top Down
The second area I want to discuss is the argument that improving the delivery of housing to
Indigenous communities requires a devolution of power from government to community via the
engagement of a “bottom up” approach. This involves much more than “end user” consultation. It is a
process whereby Indigenous Australians are empowered to develop their own responses to their
housing requirements, thus generating a vernacular architectural response to their specific geographic,
climatic and cultural needs (Lawler, 1998).
Engaging the “bottom up” approach of involving a community in all aspects of delivery is held to
result in greater self-reliance and self-respect and as such is considered by researchers and
practitioners to increase the success of housing programs. It is also believed to be essential to the
development and implementation of culturally appropriate housing, and considerable work has been
undertaken in this regard. (Homeswest, 1996a; Meney, 1994; Heppell, 1979; Ross, 1987; Memmott,
1988 & 1989; Walker, 1994; Memmott, 2003a). A “bottom up” approach would transfer control to
Indigenous Australians and give them ‘the time, space, and knowledge to develop their own housing
solutions’ which would be appropriate to their own cultural contexts (Lawler, 2000 p.25; see also
Smith, 2008 pp. 81-82; kalkadoon.org, 2006 pp. 5-6). But the shift required to achieve this transfer of
control needs widespread change within the relevant service agencies that deliver the housing,
requiring new procedures, new skills, new frameworks of delivery and assessment, and new attitudes,
fundamentally different to those currently in place (Lawler, 2000 p. 25; see also Agarwal, 1986 pp.
[Image removed from RTF version: Google map of north Queensland coastline from Townsville to
Hinchinbrook Island, with Palm Island in the centre. The caption reads “Location of Palm Island”]
My desire to conduct a project that might engender a situation where a “bottom-up” approach could
be initiated took me to the community of Palm Island, where I lived and worked while undertaking
my research from 2007 to 2009.
When I arrived on Palm Island there were 350 houses for an estimated population of 3500 people, a
ratio of 10 people per house (Moyle, 2007). However 15-20 people may have been living in any one
house at some time. Building costs of $400,000 per house and available State Government funding
allowed the Council to build approximately 1 to 2 houses per year. But with 500 people on the waiting
list for housing (Moyle, 2007) and the basis of say 5 occupants per house, this translates to a need for
at least 100 extra houses. To meet this need, funding of $40m is required, and would take 50 years to
meet without allowing for population growth and escalation of costs.
[image removed from RTF version: a plain demountable house with enclosed verandah on stilts. The
caption reads “This new transportable house cost approximately $400,000 (2007)”.
The community on Palm Island is highly urbanised, and many people told me they were quite happy
living in the houses provided, although those provided thus far may not be the individual’s ideal.
There appeared to be minimal levels of damage to buildings resulting from anything other than lack of
maintenance and common vandalism. Also, for the most part, it seemed the people on Palm Island
wanted “normal”, that is, white fella houses.
[image removed from RTF version: a close-up of a basic demountable building. The doors to the
building are open and show graffiti on the inside of each door. A couch and material or clothing and a
bed head sit outside the building. The caption reads “Substandard living conditions on Palm Island (2007)”
Many of the people I spoke with simply wanted somewhere to live and they told me the greatest
problem with housing on Palm Island was the shortage of available accommodation. The lack of
accommodation had resulted in overcrowding and the continued use of dwellings which needed repair
or, quite simply, were substandard. For example, some people paid rent to live in dilapidated caravans
or ATCO units with no kitchen or bathroom facilities. The shortage of accommodation has lead to a
substantial number of self-built houses being erected.
Overcrowded and substandard dwellings exacerbate health problems in children and adults through
poor hygiene, increased infection risks and so on. Common ailments arising include skin diseases,
scabies, nephritis, TB, influenza, gastro, worms etc. Overcrowding also impacts on mental health,
education, employment and family relationships.
The Research Project
The aim of my research was to explore the following questions:
• Is it beneficial for Aboriginal people to be the primary agents in the design and delivery of their
• What benefits might this have for Aboriginal people in the social, cultural, economic areas of their
• Will flexible modularised designs for housing deliver better outcomes than one off individual
designs, or standardised mass produced designs?
During the course of the research a further question arose, which significantly impacted the three
original research questions, and my findings. That is: What effects do Government policies have on
the capacity of Indigenous Australians to become the primary agents in the design and delivery of
[Image removed from RTF version: a floor plan of a two bedroom building, with a combined living
and eating area, separate kitchen and bathroom, and two verandah areas. The caption reads “Plan of
proposed 2 bedroom house”]
[Image removed from RTF version: sketches of the same house design as pictured from the front and
side, labelled “FRONT ELEVATION” and “SIDE ELEVATION”. A labelled “EXTERNAL
CLADDING DETAIL” shows how a modular wall might include ridging to insulate beneath the
structural ply wood outer layer. The caption reads “Elevation of proposed 2 bedroom house”].
The plan was to construct a building that was low-cost and easy to build, and one that offered flexible
layouts and relocation if necessary. I also wanted to use high levels of local community input in its
implementation and final configuration. The final design, building, delivery processes and costs could
then be assessed for effectiveness, appropriateness, and responsiveness to the community needs and
aspirations. In addition to providing additional accommodation for the community, there was the
potential to establish an enterprise producing the buildings for sale to external markets. This would
bring employment, skills and money into the community and provide an economic and skills base
from which the community could develop and provide its own housing.
The building was to be based on a modular system I had developed, and further adapted in response to
the community’s needs. Using an existing design may appear contra to my desire to engage a “bottom
up” approach. However, the intention was not to suggest my design was the final solution, but to
explore the possibility it may be beneficial in addressing short term needs while increasing the
community’s capacity to design, project manage and build their own housing.
Thus they would be empowered to generate their own vernacular response to their housing need, and
to become their own ethno-architects (Memmott & Go-Sam, n.d. p. 8). Consequently, the costs of
providing housing could be reduced through more direct service delivery and, more importantly, any
cultural “issues” would be addressed by Indigenous people themselves. Empowering this local
response would constitute the bottom up approach.
However, as well as a shortage of houses, Palm Island had a lack of serviced building blocks on
which a building could be erected. Also, the major area of need seemed to be for additional bedrooms,
not necessarily more houses. Therefore, the design for the project was further developed to include
“plug-in” modules, consisting of self-contained units which could be located adjacent to existing
houses, thereby increasing available accommodation without requiring additional infrastructure
[image removed from RTF version: floor plan of a one bedroom building including large verandah
area, combined bedroom and kitchen, and separate bathroom. The caption reads “Plan of proposed self
contained “plug-in” unit”]
[Image removed from RTF version: sketches of the same house design as pictured from the front. The
caption reads “Elevation of proposed self contained “plug-in” unit”]
Considering the small amount of resources available to the Council, it was suggested to me it would
be within the Council’s means, and more beneficial to them, to build three self contained units at the
motel. The Council would be able to rent these units to government employees and other workers
coming to the Island. This would provide additional accommodation overall and generate extra
Council revenue. It was estimated the Council would have been able to recoup their capital
investment within 18 months.
The building program began late 2008 and continued until March 2009. I prepared documentation,
obtained approvals, ordered materials and arranged for the structural steelwork to be produced, for
shipment by barge to Palm Island. During this time the design was further developed to include
disabled access. The final plan for the motel development was to build one disabled unit and two
[Image removed from RTF version: photograph of white steel frames lying on wooden pallets. The
caption reads “Some of the steel work delivered to Palm Island after the project stalled (2009)”]
In March 2009 the project was left without funds when monies allocated to the building program were
used elsewhere. I was caught in an untenable situation of needing to order materials but with no funds
available to pay suppliers. I attempted to keep the project on track and negotiate with the Council to
find a way through this situation, which was described to me as a “cashflow” crisis, but to no avail.
My experiences on Palm Island forced my research to change direction. I needed to consider why the
project was not able to proceed and what were the impediments to its completion? I also needed to
consider what enabled it to proceed as far as it did. It was the stalling of the motel project, which gave
rise to the additional research question: What effects do Government policies have on the capacity of
Indigenous Australians to become the primary agents in the design and delivery of their housing?
Despite the lengthy process involved in obtaining a hearing for my proposals, and then the delays in
procuring an undertaking from the Council to proceed, the project was able to proceed as far as it did
because it was supported to varying degrees by key players within the Council. There was tentative
support for the proposal from the CEO and some Councillors but it was the strongsupport from the
Council’s Financial Manager that enabled to project to commence. He believed my proposal offered
the community benefits and he agreed with the philosophy of the communitydoing something for
itself, that is, taking a bottom up approach.
However, I have concluded that the project was eventually stalled by the “Aboriginal Industry”, a now
infamous phrase used by former Prime Minister John Howard in 1996, to refer to the institutional
structures, departmental systems and bureaucratic attitudes that govern, and benefit financially from,
the provision of services provided specifically for Indigenous Australians and their communities
(Kuhn 2007, p. 56).
I observed the situation to which Howard was referring while undertaking my Master’s research on
the APY Lands in South Australia in 1995 and the diagram below illustrates the “industry” as it was
[Image removed from RTF version: a complex diagram shows the many parties involved in the
provision of housing and essential services to the APY Lands. Fourteen separate parties are listed with
connections to housing coordination and/or essesntial services coordination, and from there, to
houses. The caption reads “Services involved in providing housing to APY Lands, South Australia in 1996
(Lawler 1998, p. 124)”
The “Aboriginal Industry”
In light of these experiences from Palm Island, the third and most important area I want to discuss is
the existence of the “Aboriginal Industry”, as mentioned above, and its lack of success in redressing
the housing disadvantage suffered by many Indigenous Australians. I suggest this situation exists
because the “Aboriginal industry” engages a “top down” approach of doing things “for” Indigenous
people, and in doing so engenders a culture of dependency, keeping Indigenous Australians in a
position where they provide a reason for the industry to continue.
The provision of services specifically targeted to Indigenous Australians has expanded exponentially
over the last 40 years and is now a major industry directly employing many workers and indirectly
supporting large numbers of smaller enterprises. A significant sector of this industry is the provision
of housing for Indigenous Australians with State, Territory and Federal governments, regularly
making announcements about the levels of funding being directed toward Indigenous housing
programs. However, it can be argued, much of the money allocated to Indigenous housing programs
remains in the hands of governments, and private (white) interests. There are few if any Indigenous
people involved in earning a living from the provision of housing to Indigenous communities and
minimal amounts of the funds allocated result in houses on the ground. It could be argued that if the
“services” the Aboriginal Industry provides were no longer needed (that is, Indigenous Australian’s
disadvantage was eliminated) a whole section of the bureaucracy would collapse. The situation could
be compared to that which exists in the US where poor, underpaid, exploited Latino workers underpin
significant sections of the US economy.
The “Industry” in the NT
[image removed from RTF version: a newspaper cutting of a political cartoon. The cartoon is
set in an outdoors or jungle-like landscape. On the left are four Aboriginal people who appear
dissatisfied, with cross faces and crossed arms and legs. Behind them is a sign which reads
“This housing development brought to you by SIHIP”. On the right of the picture, the then
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stands behind a lecturn. He has a pointed hand raised, and is
saying “This time we really are sorry...” Next to him stands the Minister for Indigenous
Affairs, Jenny Macklin. The cartoon is labelled “The apologists”. The caption reads “Federal
Government’s SIHIP Program fails to deliver (The Weekend Australian, August 15-16, 2009, p. 16”).
An exemplar case of the Aboriginal Industry at work is the Federal Government’s Strategic
Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) for the Northern Territory.
In 2008 the Federal government allocated $672 million to provide 750 new houses, together with
major upgrades and refurbishments to existing houses, in Indigenous communities across the Northern
Territory. However, in July 2009, some 15 months after the program had started, no construction
work had begun. Also, the program consultant in charge of SIHIP was reported to have said as few as
300 houses would be delivered and 70 percent of the fund would be spent on indirect costs (The
Weekend Australian, 2009a p. 8). Critics claimed the program was foundering because ‘white
consultants … [were] … filling their own pockets’ and ‘skimming’ 15-25 percent of the funding
(Elliot McAdam in The Weekend Australian, 2009b p. 9) and that ‘consultants and bureaucrats [were]
still busy with the fly-in, fly-out visits to the bush that have been occurring for more than two years’
(Galarrwuy Yunupingu in The Weekend Australian, 2009b p. 9). In response, the Minister, Jenny
Macklin, claimed administration costs were budgeted for 15 percent of overall funding and they had
only reached 11 percent (The Weekend Australian, 2009b p. 9). A review commissioned by the
Minister later found ‘that the $672m program was three months behind schedule, too costly and
hampered by multiple levels of bureaucratic management’(The Australian, 2009 p. 6).
In August 2009, The Weekend Australian reported that $127million of the $672million SIHIP budget
had already been spent but minimal construction work had been started and no individual projects had
been completed (The Weekend Australian, 2009c p. 17).
The program is fraught with misunderstandings and disappointments. For example: claims the SIHIP
plan was to build new houses in Tenant Creek are met with statements that there was never any
intention to provide new houses, only upgrades (The Weekend Australian, 2009c p. 17); and the work
offered to local businesses on Bathurst Island has not been forthcoming (The Weekend Australian,
2009d p. 9). There is also evidence of funds being wasted. For example, the company originally
responsible for Groote Eylandt was sacked because of cost overruns and poor quality control and the
project workers there stayed at the luxury Dugong Beach Resort and ran up a $10,000 tab at the local
bakery (The Weekend Australian, 2010a p. 5). The Northern Territory Government was also put on
notice by the Federal Government who advised they would assume control of the program if the
Territory’s delivery process did not improve (The Australian, 2009 p. 6).
By November 2009, the scope of the proposed upgrade work had been scaled back by 80 percent. An
average of more than 50 refurbishments per house had been identified but only 10 were to be
undertaken. It was claimed this was because the program managers had identified there were
insufficient funds to carry out all the necessary works, and the lack of funds was a result of cost blow-
outs and management costs. The reduced scope of works then raised questions as to whether the
“upgraded” houses would actually meet the Northern Territory’s standards for government rental
properties (The Australian, 2009 p. 1).
As recently as May 2010, only 11 houses had been built during the program’s 2 ½ year existence.
This is no more than would have been delivered under existing arrangements, without the input of
SIHIP. However, the minister still maintained SIHIP was on track to deliver its overall targets of 750
new houses, 230 rebuilds and 2500 refurbishments by 2013 (The Weekend Australian, 2010b p. 1).
Delivering the remaining 739 houses in less than four years means building 184 houses per year, and
then there is still the upgrades and refurbishments to complete.
In addition to the concerns regarding excessive overhead costs and failure to deliver, a further four
key issues arise. Firstly, how far will 750 houses go toward reducing overcrowding and homelessness
for the Territory’s Indigenous communities? Secondly, the costs of living in the new homes is 23% of
income toward rental, capped at $120 per week, according to Territory Housing co-ordinator John
Maher (The Weekend Australian, 2010c p. 13) which creates greater stress for a family. Thirdly, what
strategies have been put in place to provide ongoing maintenance to the buildings, a recurring issue
which is rarely mentioned and often never addressed in schemes such as SIHIP? Finally, many
community leaders have been saying they simply want houses, and asking why lengthy consultation
processes are engaged, even though there are designs already available which people in the
communities are happy with?
These concerns about lengthy delays and statements that people simply want somewhere to live go
against the now widely accepted belief, which I have already referred to, that extensive consultation is
required. Indeed, it speaks to a shift in my own position, which is that the need is not so much about
“consulting” with the end user about the end product, but about also involving them in the delivery
process in some way, either as individuals or as a community, with a priority of increasing the
accommodation as quickly as possible.
The “Industry” on Palm Island
[image removed from RTF version: photograph of a man (former Minister, Mal Brough) and
a woman (former Mayor Delena Foster), seated at a table, each signing a document. The
caption reads “Former Minister Mal Brough and former Mayor Delena Foster sign the Palm Island
On Palm Island, I observed considerable amounts of government rhetoric in developing housing
policies, but people in the community told me that nothing was really changing for them. They asked
for their voices to be heard, to be included in decisions that affected them, to be given opportunities to
work out their own solutions. But it seemed no-one was really listening. In fact, I was told that the
Council had a policy of not consulting with the community, and the governments dealt only with the
Council (Webster, 2007). The frustration experienced by the community is evident in comments made
by some of the Elders of Palm Island regarding their housing needs:
…. “inadequate and inappropriate housing is a major factor in all the social problems here. Fixing
housing is central to solving our problems,”
“too many in the house - you’ve got to get away sometimes” and
“The government wont listen to us . They just do what they do “.
“meetings, meetings, meetings! And nothing happens”
“the govt workers don’t socialise with us, they don’t mix in the community.
They fly in and they fly out and they haven’t got a clue what is important here,
(kalkadoon.org, 2006 pp.3 & 5).
There is evidence the “Aboriginal Industry” is present on Palm Island, but covertly so. The
community has facilities similar to other small country towns and it has retail, government, health,
educational, legal, and recreational services. However, many of the jobs available with these
enterprises are held by non-indigenous, or non-local workers. In addition, up to 200 people (mainly
government employees) from the mainland travel to Palm Island for business during any one week.
These people mainly use the scheduled daily flights to and from Townsville, or the additional services
offered by charter operators, all of which can total up to 15 flights per day.
[image removed from RTF version: a photograph of a propeller plane on a landing strip. The caption
reads “Plane arriving at the airport, up to 15 flights a day (2007)”]
So, although there is significant investment in services on Palm Island there is little opportunity for
members of the community to participate in the economic benefits. For example, the cleaner for the
Centrelink office flies in from Townsville once a week to do the vacuuming even though there is 96%
unemployment in the community .
The presence of the “Aboriginal Industry” on Palm Island is most clearly evident in the systems
involved in the provision of housing. The Council receives funding from Queensland Department of
Housing, but this is contingent on certain delivery mechanisms being undertaken by other government
agencies. Also, the Council does not have the capacity to carry out new constructions or major
refurbishments. The funds are handed over to Project Services, an arm of the Queensland State
Government. Project Services engages an external project manager, QBuild, another arm of the
Queensland State Government, which then engages private sub-contractors to undertake the necessary
The Council building team, of four workers, undertakes some minor repair work on houses, as a sub-
contractor to QBuild, but the majority of repair work is currently undertaken by QBuild and other off-
This practice of the Council engaging the services of other QLD government agencies to build the
housing funded by the Department of Housing is simply the government giving funding to the
community with one hand, and then taking it back with the other. The flow of money, from the
Queensland Government to the Palm Island Council, then back to the Queensland Government is
illustrated in the diagram below.
[Image removed from RTF version: a flowchart depicting how funds are distributed from the
Queensland Government, via the Department of housing. One branch of funding then goes on to
project services and Q Build (both State government organisations) and thence to private
subcontractors and suppliers before 40% remains for building a house, some of the funds for which
then go on to Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council. The second branch of funding goes directly to
Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council. The caption reads “The flow of money 60% of allocated
funding absorbed by consultants, and government departments”]
Another example of this flow of money was the project to deliver “innovative” housing to the
Community. Although the brief allowed for engagement of a consultant to work with the community
to design and develop a targeted response, this project eventually resulted in Project Services
procuring, on behalf of the Council, three 2 bedroom transportable houses (of an existing design, steel
framed and FRC clad), delivered from Brisbane at a cost of approximately $1.2m. These buildings
were erected on a site in the main township but required the demolition of an existing building,
considered by some people to be of considerable significance to the community, being one of, if not
the oldest remaining house on the island. This building was repairable by local labour.
The exploitation engendered by the “Aboriginal Industry” serving Palm Island most grossly manifests
in a phenomenon I have come to call the Palm Island Discount. This is the practice engaged by private
suppliers and contractors to charge exorbitant costs for the provision of materials or services to the
community. One of my own experiences of this was when I was obtaining quotes for the supply of
windows to the motel project. I was given costings at $21,611 and $18,680 from two different
suppliers before obtaining one from a third supplier of $8,859.
As discussed, I wanted to explore the means by which Aboriginal people could be empowered to
determine their own housing outcomes and to build a “true” Aboriginal industry. I was aiming to
establish a context in which a transfer of control from government to community could occur. This
would shift the current flow of money to a scenario where the Council could engage their own Project
Manager to contract or employ local workers to build houses. Thus the Council would be using the
funds allocated to deliver housing via a more direct and locally driven process.
The flow of money in this process is illustrated in the diagram below.
[removed from RTF version: flowchart depicting how funds could be distributed from the Queensland
Government, via the Department of Housing and Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council in full to the
Council’s Project Manager and then in part to a local building team (for employment and community
capacity building) and private suppliers (of materials only) for many houses, funds from which would
then flow back to the Council. The caption reads “The proposed flow of money used to provide
employment and housing for community”]
In government policies and inter-departmental arrangements, such as those between Queensland
Housing, Project Services, QBuild, and the Palm Island Council, there is evidence of an industry,
based around the provision of services to Indigenous people. The activities of this industry perpetuate
a culture of dependency and helplessness. Specifically in relation to Palm Island, some people I spoke
to articulated high levels of dependency when they made comments along the lines of waiting for
Council to give them a house, while others frequently expressed feelings of helplessness arising from
Council “not allowing” them to do things such as buy or build their own houses. Many of the people
of Palm Island reiterated the belief that their ability to access adequate housing was subject to the
Council acting on and meeting its responsibilities.
The Council, too, was trapped in relationship of dependency with the industry. As well as relying on
Queensland Department of Housing for funding, the Council’s business in relation to housing was
highly regulated in other areas also. For example, the Department of Housing’s ATSI Housing Guide
requires that dwellings constructed on Palm Island adhere to quite specific design and specification
guidelines. This has the potential to increase the costs of building, through over designing and.
therefore, over engineering, and to limit the number of contractors who can meet these requirements.
In addition, in relation to my original Pilot House proposal I was told it would be unlikely the Council
could build a house for an Indigenous person or family if the design did not meet the ATSI Housing
Guidelines. Therefore, through its ATSI Housing Guide the Queensland Government precludes the
possibility of any different forms of design or construction being undertaken on Palm Island.
These are examples from Palm Island show the government using a “top down” approach, whereby
the government does things “for” Indigenous people. The government and its agents, the “Aboriginal
industry” is there to “take care of things”, and it is better if Indigenous people do not try to do
anything for themselves. Thus, the people are cast as not “capable” and not “able” to do things for
By maintaining this “top down” control and disempowering Indigenous people, Australia’s
governments and their agencies, position Indigenous people as dependent, and engender a belief
system that they “should not have to” do things for themselves. Taken to its extreme, this position
manifests in the politics of victim hood which sees Indigenous Australians denying any responsibility
for their personal actions and claiming that , that it is solely the governments’ responsibility to
improve their standing in life. The politics of victim hood is what Noel Pearson is referring to when
he tells his people to stop waiting around for a “hand out” and to seek out a “hand up” instead (Cape
York Institute, 2007)
Dismantling the Industry
[image removed from RTF version: newspaper clipping of an article written by Noel Pearson.
The headline reads “Fattest hand is first in the till” the subheading reads “What Aboriginal
communities need most is bureaucracy to get out of the way” the main text is illegible due to
size. A photograph shows an Indigenous woman and two young children in an outdoor
setting. The caption reads “The “dragons” have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo (The
Weekend Australian, January 23-24, 2010, p. 12)”]
The Aboriginal industry is governed by the ‘dragon-principal’ a phenomena in European institutional
life, which sees the emergence a class of people, who ‘preside over the secrets of knowledge and
power’ and who are motivated by self-interest to not divulge those secrets (Willmot in Bonner, 1988
p. 22). Everyone involved in providing services, researching, commenting on, or raising concerns
about Indigenous people not only participates in and perpetuates the Aboriginal industry, they also
benefit\ in some way from the disadvantage Indigenous Australians face throughout their lives. As
Bonner notes, those who depend on the resources of the system, in one form or another, are usually
the strongest defenders of it. More importantly, he writes:
The financial and psychological interests of this group are vested in the maintenance of the existing
system to a point where objective analysis of results is a virtual impossibility (1988, p. ii).
Positioned as victims, impacted negatively by living conditions, low education, poor economic
standing, and high levels of ill health, Indigenous Australians are subjected to a form of social
violence, which Erykah Kyle, former Mayor of Palm Island described as “horizontal”. “A form of
violence similar to a hand on your head, pushing you down and keeping you down”. This horizontal
violence further impacts on physical, mental and cultural well-being, ensuring they are pushed even
further down. Thus, the people are kept in a position where they continue to provide a reason for the
Aboriginal industry to exist.
By recognising the Aboriginal industry for what it is, it can be seen that Indigenous Australians have
become commodities within a bureaucratic market place. However, it is not their demands which are
being met but the demands of the bureaucratic machinery which serves only itself and these self-
serving interests are the reason why nothing changes. Within the Aboriginal Industry, the needs of
Indigenous Australians are important only in so far as they provide a reason for a service to exist.
Their needs function as the base element that is traded between the various service providers, thus
Indigenous Australians and their needs have become commodities in the market place of the
As I noted at the start of this article, the debilitating effects of inadequate and unsuitable housing on
the physical, mental and cultural well being of indigenous Australians have been researched
extensively and well documented over the last forty years. However, when the issues are scrutinised
and thought about carefully it becomes apparent the disadvantages many Indigenous Australians
struggle with are the result of poverty and a lack of education. Their disadvantage does not arise from
their culture. The problems they face have everything to do with being poor and uneducated. So, by
thinking about the issues in these terms there is much Governments can do to eliminate poverty and
improve education, if they have the will. But this is an enormously costly issue and this is why they
have run away from it.
The differences between the “top-down” approach of the Aboriginal industry and a “bottom-up”
approach which would empower Indigenous Australians to start taking control of their own lives is set
out in the diagram below.
[Image removed from RTF version: Two flowcharts are juxtaposed against each other with the
statement “vs” in between. On the left, a blue flow chart labelled “Top Down” shows an arrow
pointing downwards from “Federal Government/State Government”, to “Appointed Program Manager
for each State & Territory e.g. Ove Arup” to “Delivery Infrastructure” to “Appointed Project
Managers to different areas of need by program area” to “No people on the ground in the
communities” to “Project Managers send in sub-contractors who fly in and fly out”. On the right, a
pink flow chart labelled “Bottom Up” shows arrows pointing upwards from “Good people on the
ground in each community” to “Appointed Project Managers to different areas of need by
Aboriginal Housing Panel” to “Delivery Infrastructure” to “Aboriginal Housing Panel” to “Federal
In this approach I suggest the real work would be done by capable people on the ground, in the
communities, who feed information about what each community needs concerning housing back to a
single body that acts as a central point of coordination, a repository of knowledge and a source of
technical information to assist the communities to achieve their goals. I envisage this coordinating
body would be similar to the former Aboriginal Housing Panel (founded in 1972 but disbanded due to
lack of funding in 1978), which was formed to work with Indigenous communities in a research,
consulting, and advisory capacity, and to liaise with governments on their behalf. A single body such
as this could effectively oversee and guide the process in response to each community’s needs.
Contrast this suggestion with the existing arrangements that involve a plethora of government
departments who dictate how and where assistance is to be provided.
However, nothing will change until the Aboriginal industry is dismantled. But it seems the only
people who may have the will to do this are the Indigenous Australians who do not benefit from its
continuation. But to do this they need to be empowered, and empowerment for an economically,
socially and politically disadvantaged group requires a “bottom up” approach. But as I have noted, the
“dragons” will not voluntarily relinquish their power.
[Image removed from RTF version: a photograph of a basic demountable building which appears to
be in disrepair. Outside stands a worn couch and refrigerator. The doors of the building are either
open or missing. The building is has graffiti on it and the corrugated iron roof is tilted. The caption
reads “Substandard living conditions on Palm Island continue (2007)”]
More times than I can remember, the people I have spoken to who were in real need have said they
would simply like a house, and that any house would do. How many more times do they have to say it
before governments start to listen? Or do they really want to listen?
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