Ideas@TheCentre – The Centre for Independent Studies


Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table.  3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.

Home, sweet home

13 July 2012

Something unusual is happening in Baniyala in East Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. Footings are being poured this week for two new houses. Unlike other houses on Australia’s Indigenous lands, these two-bedroom houses are being built privately for Baniyala families.

Although Australian governments are building public houses in Indigenous townships, no new public houses are being built in homelands / outstations. On average, it costs more than $600,000 to build a three-bedroom public house.

Rents in these Indigenous NT townships are based on the occupants’ ability to pay. For example, if there are 13 people (say 8 adults and 5 children) living in a three-bedroom house, the government assesses each adult’s capacity to pay based on welfare, pensions and other benefits the occupants receive. Some may pay $20 per fortnight while others $60. This way, an average rent of $400–$450 per fortnight is collected from the (overcrowded) house.

No new houses have been built in Baniyala for almost 20 years, and the existing ‘dwellings’ don’t have kitchens or bathrooms. Darwin houses have to meet cyclone standards, but no standards at all apply for houses built on Indigenous lands in the Northern Territory.

Indigenous land is private property, and the Baniyala community is courageously grappling with the knowledge that it is their responsibility to organise and pay for new houses. But governments have not supported private housing on Indigenous lands. Unable to get title (99-year leases) on their traditional land, Baniyala families are denied benefits such as the $7,000 First Home Owners Grant and the $10,000 NT Build Bonus grant other Australians receive.

In March 2012, the Baniyala community lodged a petition in the Senate asking the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, to help them get leases for their houses and that ‘benefits enjoyed by non-Indigenous Australians should not be denied to us because we live on Indigenous land.’ They have not yet received a reply.

In contrast to expensive public housing, the privately built two-bedroom houses in Baniyala will cost only about $100,000 each. Indigenous families living in remote areas – even those on welfare – have enough income to pay rent or mortgage repayments on these houses. The houses will have a fixed rent or mortgage to recover costs, regardless of who lives there.

After generations of decrepit public housing, Baniyala families will finally have the option of building and living in new houses built to capital city standards.

Emeritus Professor Helen Hughes is a Senior Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and Mark Hughes is an independent researcher. With Sara Hudson, they wrote the report Private Housing on Indigenous Lands in 2010.

Since 2005, CIS has been supporting the Baniyala community – initially to build a real school for their children and now with housing and jobs.

Invoking Jesus

13 July 2012

English essayist and novelist, George Orwell, famously remarked, ‘We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.’

Those depths deepened earlier this week when critics reacted to Tony Abbott’s claim that boatpeople were acting in an un-Christian manner by ‘coming through the back door.’

It was an unwise answer to a foolish question.

Abbott was replying to a radio caller in Perth who asked him why his attitude to asylum-seekers was un-Christian.

The question was foolish because it made a fallacious appeal to Christian authority in a bid to attack Abbott.

It neither made an attempt to offer a Christian analysis of a policy position, nor did it test the extent to which Abbott’s own Christian faith may have informed his political decisions.

Abbott’s answer was unwise because he allowed himself to be drawn into the questioner’s fallacious cycle of reasoning.

The emotive slogan ‘un-Christian’ was hurled at Abbott like a shoe. He picked it up and hurled it back.

When critics such as recently retired bishop Pat Power then attacked Abbott on Radio National Breakfast, a smug but indefinite ‘progressive’ consensus about what being Christian actually means wafted across the airwaves.

Something to do with being kind? Going the extra mile? Doing unto others? Despite the vibe, the critics never got specific.

It’s time to re-state the obvious: No policy can be run through any single religious filter in a bid to infuse it with the characteristic of being a specifically Christian policy.

Politicians who are Christians may believe sincerely they are discharging their duties in accordance with their religious beliefs.

They are likely to have different views about the role of markets, the price of carbon, and the freedom of the press. But all of them are likely to have a sincere, personal faith – meaning that they are Christians.

Christianity is generally acceptable in the Australian public square only when it is used to defend fashionable policies. Being Christian means being a force for ‘compassion,’ ‘reasonableness,’ and even ‘sustainability.’

But the moment someone who happens to be a Christian promotes an unfashionable point of view, the rules change.

Christianity then becomes an indicator of bigotry, and being a Christian is reduced to being a warped and hateful ideologue.

The Christian scriptures are not a political manifesto. And despite repeated attempts to enlist Jesus for the cause of socialism or capitalism, he is not a card-carrying member of either team.

The Reverend Peter Kurti is a Research Fellow with the Religion and the Free Society Program at The Centre for Independent Studies.

‘Helth’ under Whitlam

13 July 2012

I know what you are thinking. You’re thinking the word ‘health’ is spelled wrong.

If we were talking about ‘helth’ under Fraser, Hawke, Menzies, Keating, Howard or any other Australian government you would be right, and ‘health.’

But ‘helth’ in some informal contexts during the Whitlam government is correct.

Gough Whitlam’s ‘Minister for Helth,’ Doug Everingham, was a supporter of Anglo-Australian engineer Harry Lindgren's campaign to spell words the way they are spoken.

So ‘friend’ became ‘frend,’ ‘ready’ became ‘redy,’ ‘bury’ became ‘bery,’ and ‘health’ became ‘helth.’

Fortunately, the ‘helth’ portfolio was replaced by the ‘health’ portfolio following the election of the Fraser government and we haven’t seen it since.

Australia’s ‘helth’ tale is not just a story about some of the absurdities of the Whitlam government; it is also a story about the detachment of elites and sometimes bizarre opinions they try to inflict on the masses from a position of power.

Lindgren should be congratulated for his valuable contribution to civil society. Time will tell, but with the rapid pace of globalisation, and the growing number of people speaking English in Asia and elsewhere, he may just get his way.

And Everingham is more than welcome to his views on spelling reform, but the mistake he made was in abusing his power as a minister of the Crown.

Fundamental changes about how human beings communicate with each other are not the sort to be enforced from the top by those in a position of authority.

The Gillard government’s proposed public interest test for media ownership is a much more egregious example of this abuse of authority.

Civil society is constantly growing, changing, adapting and evolving. The death throes of the newspaper business are just one example of the human capacity for creative destruction.

But these changes should be natural, organic and bottom up. That is why our capacity to communicate freely with one another is imperative.

Changes to what we can and cannot say, and how we say it, should not be imposed by self-appointed guardians of public interest.

The brief tenure of the ‘Australian Ministry of Helth’ is not much cause for concern. What is of concern is the continuing belief that people in power know what is best for the rest of us.

Andrew Baker is a Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies.