Over the past 10 months or so, I’ve made it clear that housing, in my opinion, is one of the most important factors of indigenous affairs right now. The state of the vast majority of dwellings in most aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and probably elsewhere is quite honestly despicable.

Despite this raw fact, and despite all relevant research pointing to poverty and poor housing as key risk factors for the neglect and abuse of children as well as a direct cause of most juvenile medical problems in indigenous children, the Howard/Brough intervention plan failed to address housing, and seemingly didn’t even consider it as an important issue. There was talk during the earlier days of the intervention that the military presence, under the banner of ‘Norforce’, would quickly build 500 or so dwellings in a blitz to address the problem of chronic overcrowding, which, by the way, sees up to 10 people sharing a single room in the worst cases, but this never seemed to eventuate.

Just yesterday, however, the federal and the Northern Territory governments jointly committed $647 million specifically for housing in 73 communities1 that will fund around 750 new dwellings.

Clearly then, I welcome this investment, but wonder why each dwelling would cost $862,600 to build. I’m no structural engineer or master builder, but I’m sure that sticking a few cinder blocks together and plonking a corrugated iron roof on the top wouldn’t cost much more than 100 large, if that. Moreover, such is the economy of scale that building ten dwellings on average per community would make things like plumbing, wiring and so on, a bit cheaper. This is probably another example of money going missing somewhere between the governmental announcement and its arrival on the ground2.

Furthermore, after the announcement of the $647 million for housing, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, announced that the funding would double as training and employment for indigenous people in the communities, as whoever wins the contract to build the new dwellings will be compelled to hire and train local workers.

I this this idea has several benefits. Firstly and most obviously, it provides jobs, temporary as they are, but training also in very useful trades for aboriginal people in their own communities, which is consistent with the previous Minister “for” Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough’s, plan of modernising the labour market and providing employment opportunities, and it allows people to stay in their communities and get ‘real’ jobs, rather than having to travel hundreds of kilometres to work in a mine.

Secondly, it’s likely to prevent some of the property damage that regularly occurs to dwellings in impoverished communities. If one of the residents of a house played a significant role in its contruction, they’d probably be less likely to punch holes in the walls for ventilation in summer, for instance, or switch on every stove element to full-blast for heating in winter3, and would try to discourage others from doing so too.

Closing the gap in life expectancy is shaping up to be a huge challenge for Australia over the next few decades, but I think without adequate housing for remote communities, any health spending, in the long term, would merely be pissing in the wind.

  1. Presumably, these 73 communities are the same 73 communities that formed the focus of the intervention. []
  2. For more examples of misappropriated funding allocation, see here and here. []
  3. Clearly though, the ideal solution would be to build dwellings that take into account the climate, instead of tin sheds that get up to 45 degrees centrigrade inside during the build-up season heat. []