Taking ownership

Opinion Article

2007 March, 3

Is inadequate housing and overcrowding the cause of the social chaos and abuse in my hometown that I described on these pages the other week (Inquirer 17-18 February)? I may placate my critics if I said yes, but there is no necessary causal connection between overcrowded housing and under-investment in infrastructure, and abuse. There are many places in the Third World where large extended families live cheek to jowl in cramped and miserably poor housing, and there is no violence, incest and chaos. Many of the world’s poorest people are strong in family life and socially rich, even if they are materially poor.


Poor and overcrowded housing does relate to many health problems and many social tensions. But it is to engage in denial to say that sexual and other violence against one’s own people is the consequence of governmental neglect of housing and infrastructure needs.


The honest answer as to the source of the abuse I described is grog and drugs. It is the epidemics of grog and drugs and the chaos and breakdown of social and cultural norms that they have occasioned, that have resulted in people abusing their own kith and kin.


Abuse is not a question of bricks, mortar and money. It is a question of broken moral codes within families and communities. Today there is too much tolerance of abuse. The great majority of people in dysfunctional communities are not engaged in pathological behaviour. The problem is that they are passive and there is a social paralysis in the face of horrific problems.


The majority of Hope Vale people hate the noise and they hate the abuse.


But they won’t stand up to the behaviour of the abusers. Many of them deny or are confused about the connection between the grog and drugs and the noise and abuse. Yes, they will admit the connection when pressed, but then they will say, “oh, but it’s the irresponsible drinkers who make it bad for the responsible ones”. Or they will say “it’s not the grog that’s the problem, it’s the boredom, or the lack of jobs, or government neglect, or the lack of recreational facilities, or the overcrowded housing”.


This is what is known as the symptom theory of substance abuse. This theory argues that addictions to grog and drugs are not the primary problems, their abuse is only a symptom of other problems.


The symptom theory is an ideology of social denial of addiction. The individual addict’s denial of the real cause of her misfortunes, and that of her kin, is furnished by the progressive ideology of the symptom theory. Therefore the editor of the National Indigenous Times, Chris Graham, argued that the main cause of violence in indigenous communities is government under-spending on Aboriginal programs and infrastructure.


Both the individual addicts engaged in abuse and the great majority of community members who would love nothing better than the abuse to stop at Hope Vale, are misled by people like Graham who put forward the so-called “bleeding obvious” explanation of the under-investment in bricks and mortar as the reasons for social problems.


I would say that most indigenous people and leaders across the country concur with Graham’s view. It is a measure of the extent to which we are unable as a people to face up squarely to the devil of substance abuse, and the perverse ideology it generates.


Does this mean that overcrowding and insufficient governmental investment in housing and infrastructure are not major problems? Of course not. There is massive need and government investment needs to be vastly increased.


But if we invested the $2.3 billion that has been estimated as the shortfall in indigenous housing provision tomorrow, we would make little progress with social problems. Without fundamental policy changes, this investment would be wasted and follow the previous decades of investment.


The reform agenda we propose for Cape York Peninsula proceeds from a different analysis of housing from that of people such as Graham and Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma, who see overcrowding and under-funding as the principal problems. Whilst we agree that these and other issues such as poor construction and inappropriate design are relevant factors, we believe that the poor state of housing is also attributable to the behaviour of the householders. Good houses are too rapidly turned into bad houses. Public housing on Aboriginal land last between 10 and 20 years, compared to 50 years for in the mainstream.


Government under-funding is not the only cause of overcrowding. The short lifespan of houses reduces the number of habitable dwellings. The causes of the destruction of indigenous homes include passivity (people don’t value what has been delivered as passive welfare) and the collapse of responsibility.


Indigenous families must have skin in the game if we are to move from passivity to responsibility. This means home ownership.


The welfare housing model introduced into Aboriginal communities thirty years ago was a poor and inappropriate model. It has been characterised by:


  • perpetual tenancy

  • a mixed record of tenancy management by Community Council landlords who lose nothing because there is always the next government grant

  • insufficient rental rates

  • poor rental collection, and

  • poor maintenance of stock.


This model has shaken down to the situation we see today. Houses that cost a bomb to repair. Houses that have a short life. Families that expect to be provided a replacement house after the present one disintegrates.


Before we turn to housing on Aboriginal lands, we should first acknowledge that home ownership off Aboriginal land – in the mainstream – is an outstanding success. The indigenous home loans program previously administered by ATSIC and now administered by Indigenous Business Australia has resulted in over 12,000 homes being owned by indigenous families across the country.


You compare these privately owned homes to the houses rented by families, black and white, from welfare housing organisations. The contrast is profound. Privately owned homes are well maintained, the owners do not allow large numbers of people to create over-crowding problems, there is pride and all of the benefits that flow from owning your own home.


Furthermore, you compare these privately owned homes to the housing rented on Aboriginal land, and the contrast is even more marked. Welfare housing on Aboriginal land is an irrational disaster.


Minister Mal Brough should work with indigenous housing organisations on programs to privatise their housing stock for the benefit of indigenous families, and to vastly increase the home loans program and push the revolution forwards. There should not be waiting lists of people seeking loans. By all means get away from welfare housing and move people into home ownership, but don’t be miserable about funding.


As for housing on Aboriginal land, let me make two issues clear about my views. Firstly, community members should obtain long-term leases, for example 99 years, from communal land trusts, on which they can own their own homes. There is no question of Swiss-cheese holes appearing on Aboriginal land as a result of foreclosure, because the land would remain inalienable outside of the community.


Secondly, this limitation on alienation outside of the community would mean that no real property market can be created in relation to housing on Aboriginal land. Houses will be largely unrealisable assets, more valuable as homes than real estate.


A home ownership program must therefore take into account the affordability of homes in a situation where construction costs are high and incomes are low. It must also not promote economically irrational decisions by families as to where they invest their capital (they may be better off investing their capital into realisable assets off Aboriginal land), whilst understanding that the decision to live on Aboriginal land is not a cost-less choice.


The Commonwealth Government is talking about 99 year leases, not freehold alienation of title. Why is loss of land therefore being raised as the fear against home ownership? The fact that the Commonwealth Government made Trojan Horse legislative amendments last year which have gone beyond the facilitation of private ownership of leases to community members, and eroded land rights, partially explains the paranoia. People in the federal Coalition cannot help adding illegitimate agendas on top of legitimate ones when it comes to indigenous policies. But the other source of objection to home ownership is the failure of people who own their own homes to imagine that the rest of our mob would like and benefit from the same thing too.

Taking ownership