Articles – The Centre for Independent Studies

A tale of two houses

24 May 2013

hughes-helen mark-hughes Almost 10 years ago, the leader of an East Arnhem Aboriginal community arrived unannounced at CIS asking for help. His community’s children were not receiving any education so he feared that they would be condemned to a life on welfare. This plea led to the CIS finding practical assistance for the community and the development of our Indigenous program.

Since then, with volunteer helpers, the community has moved forward in parallel with CIS’ Indigenous policy development. Our research exposed the failure of ‘culturally appropriate’ Indigenous education while the Baniyala community now has an excellent school with the highest Indigenous school attendance in the Northern Territory.

From education, the focus has moved to housing. The community wants decent homes instead of the sub-standard dwellings into which they have been crowded. In keeping with the CIS’ liberal philosophy, we support home ownership as an alternative to public housing.

Over the last 50 years, 20% of Australia has been returned to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ownership. Few know that this land was returned without the provision for individual land title. Australia’s Indigenous lands are the largest area on earth where you are not allowed to own your home. All prosperous societies combine good governance of communal assets such as roads, parks and hospitals, with private ownership of homes and business. On Australia’s vast Indigenous lands, communal governance is poor and private ownership is non-existent. The misery of remote communities on Indigenous lands is the result.

This East Arnhem community commenced negotiations with governments and their statutory organisations to introduce 99 year leases for private housing. Progress has been slow.

To move private housing along, two modest houses have been built in Baniyala for private rental. These houses have kitchens and bathrooms – unlike the public housing provided in remote outstations. Two families now rent these houses. One family – parents plus children – was previously ‘housed’ in an 18 feet ‘donga’ container. The other family shared bedrooms in a dwelling that would be condemned as ‘unfit for human habitation’ outside Aboriginal Australia. In their new houses, these families are planting gardens and taking advantage of ‘quiet enjoyment’ – the right of a tenant or landowner to undisturbed use and enjoyment of property. When leases over the housing blocks are issued, the tenants have the option of getting a mortgage and buying these houses.

These first two houses built for private rental and ownership have easily disproved the mantras about housing on Indigenous land. For years it has been claimed that construction costs are too high and Indigenous incomes too low, and that unlike other Australians, Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders do not want to own their homes. These are excuses used to hide the discriminatory state and federal policies that deny individual property rights on Indigenous land. The CIS and a handful of volunteers are helping a remote Northern Territory community to drive changes in these policies.

Helen Hughes is a Senior Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and Mark Hughes is an independent researcher.

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