This is a guest article by Liam Grealy*

What does it take to build a house? In Borroloola, it takes an Army.

On 9 November 2018, the ABC reported that the Federal Government plans to transfer 12 ex-RAAF houses by road from Darwin to Borroloola, a town located approximately 970km southeast of Darwin in the Northern Territory NT.

Recently-appointed Indigenous envoy, Tony Abbott, was reported to have said a few days earlier that housing in Borroloola was “the worst I’ve seen anywhere in remote Australia”, foreshadowing a joint announcement with Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion.

But Abbott and Scullion’s apparently decisive action should be interpreted against the historical context of failed housing policy implementation in the remote town.

The last new houses in Borroloola’s town camps were also supplied by the Army, when in 2006 it managed ten new builds under the Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Program (AACAP).

The housing situation has become increasingly urgent since then. Residents in the four town camps – Mara, Yanyula, Garawa 1, and Garawa 2 – face overcrowding, insecure tenancy, water contamination, and failing health hardware. The recently released Town Camps Review classifies 34 per cent of Borroloola houses in “very poor” condition, and another 25 per cent in “poor” condition.

In her 2015 photographic series, “No Country, No Home”, Yanyuwa Garrawa artist Miriam Charlie juxtaposes portraits of community members and their homes against government inaction: “The government comes, has a look and goes back to their air-conditioned office”.

It is thus perplexing that $14.6m available since 2009 under the National Partnership Agreement for Remote Indigenous Housing (NPARIH) for housing projects in Borroloola has not been spent.

Official explanations for why no houses have been built emphasise “tenure”, or the Commonwealth government’s requirement to secure leases before it will fund housing and infrastructure assets.

In 2007, the compulsory acquisition by the Commonwealth government of five-year leases in NT Indigenous communities under the Intervention precipitated major reforms in tenure and housing policy on Indigenous-owned land. “Secure tenure”, in the form of 40-year leases, became a pre-requisite for the release of Commonwealth funds. In theory, the NT Department of Housing would obtain a lease and assume formal legal responsibility for housing assets.

In Borroloola, three town camps were located on special purpose leases held by local entities established in the late 1970s and early 1980s specifically for this lease-holding function. The initial delay was thus partly attributable to the need to re-establish the legal and governance capacities of those dormant entities to enter into housing lease negotiations.

However, this is not the full story. While the Northern Land Council, acting on behalf of the town camp entities, wrote to the NT Government in February 2012 to convey that Borroloola residents were ready to negotiate town camp leases, it had not received a reply by December 2015.

In the meantime, the NT Government advised residents of its preference to build new houses in a subdivision outside the existing town camps, since three town camps would be subject to complete or partial inundation in a 1-in-100 year flood event. However, residents rejected this proposal, as it would split up existing culturally-aligned communities. The NT Planning Scheme requires separate development consent to construct houses in areas of possible inundation, which was obtained for the three town camps in early 2018.

Across the same period, the Native Title application for Borroloola town was being actively pursued.  The then-CLP Government blamed the native title claim for delaying government housing construction. Even if true, this case was determined in August 2016.

With development consent obtained, and native title issues resolved, the focus in recent months has shifted back to tenure. In February 2018, Senator Nigel Scullion wrote to the NT Government to request it enter into 40 year housing leases in Borroloola town camps, which the NLC first requested six years prior.

NPARIH expired on June 30th this year, to be replaced by bilateral agreements. While former Treasurer Scott Morrison announced federal funding support for NT remote Indigenous housing in April, an agreement is yet to be published.

In the meantime, the NT Our Community Our Future Our Homes (OCOFOH) program is underway, with 1.1 billion dollars allocated over ten years, including for new public housing. The NT Government recently confirmed its intentions (using NT Government funds) to construct 38 new or replacement houses in the Borroloola town camps.

Nine years after it was allocated, the fate of the NPARIH funding for Borroloola is uncertain. Across this period, the claim by various parties that tenure is delaying house construction is convenient. It remains unclear whether the leases first required in 2009 to release the NPARIH funding have been secured, or whether the relocation and construction of houses will break from the “secure tenure” policy mantra so firmly embedded in government rhetoric.

But, despite instances in which tenure has been wielded in bad faith, securing it has a purpose. If Abbott’s incursion into Borroloola – or the construction of new houses using NPARIH or NT Government funds – is not accompanied by leases, houses may experience a predictable fate. Following relocation or construction, there remains a void of government responsibility, leading again to disrepair, neglect, and state abandonment.

*Dr Liam Grealy is Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Housing for Health Incubator at the University of Sydney (www.hfhincubator.org).

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Photo: Cobourg Collection, NT Library, Darwin

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