Why is no-one talking about Aboriginal community housing in this election?

Overcrowding in remote Aboriginal communities is as bad as its ever been, but neither of the major parties has a nationwide strategy to solve it.

A woman standing in a room

Dulcie Nanala at her home. Source: SBS / Kearyn Cox

At sixty-six years of age, Dulcie Nanala has lived virtually her entire life in the same house.

There are mattresses sprawled through every room. Four generations of her family live here too, including her mother, who sleeps in the dining room.

“My mother, my son and daughter and a partner, and two grandkids. Plus another son. Eight people,” she tells SBS News.

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Australia hasn’t had a national strategy to address overcrowding in remote Aboriginal communities since 2018, when the last one was discontinued by the Liberal government under Malcolm Turnbull.

The overcrowding and maintenance issues in Dulcie’s house are a major concern for her. When SBS News visited, most of the lights weren’t working and turning on the shower or flushing the toilet caused the house to flood.
Outside view of a house
Four generations of family live in Dulcie's house. Source: SBS / Kearyn Cox
“When we have showers, it's all filling up and then it comes out (through the hallway). I’ve got an old house from the seventies, nothing is done,” she says.

It’s a similar situation across Wirrimanu, also known as Balgo, a remote Aboriginal community on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia’s East Kimberley Region.

The Wirrimanu Aboriginal Corporation estimates the majority of houses are overcrowded and in urgent need of repairs.

Making the situation worse, the community is going through an outbreak of COVID-19, with most of the 450 residents needing to isolate at home in recent weeks.

“There was nowhere that they could isolate other than in those houses,” Aboriginal Health Council of Western Australia chairperson Vicki O’Donnell says.

“You end up with spikes of strep A, rheumatic heart fever. You end up with spikes of skin infections, ear infections, because you've got overcrowded housing and the limited space that people can move around in.”

Commonwealth withdrawal

Reducing overcrowding in remote Aboriginal communities used to be jointly funded by the federal and state governments, under a 10-year, $5.5bn program called the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing agreed to by the Council of Australian Governments in 2008.

Two mattresses, clothes strewn in a room
Overcrowding is endemic in remote Aboriginal communities Source: SBS / Aaron Fernandes
An independent review of NPARIH in 2017 showed the investment was working, with 11,500 homes built or refurbished. That led to a significant decrease in the proportion of overcrowded households in remote and very remote areas, falling from 52.1 per cent in 2008 to 41.3 per cent in 2014-15.

When the partnership expired in 2018, the Commonwealth agreed to continue providing funds to the Northern Territory.
But against the wishes of the state governments of WA, South Australia and Queensland, the Turnbull and then Morrison government refused to renew the agreement, with full responsibility for remote housing instead handed to those states.

“The inevitable and foreseeable consequence of discontinuing NPARIH has been, and will continue to be, a worsening of remote Indigenous housing outcomes, which itself plays into more general disadvantage amongst remote residents,” Australian National University Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research Michael Dillon says.

“A further outcome has been to reduce the overall levels of effective transparency in housing outcomes for remote Indigenous people as any national assessment now requires (data to be aggregated) from eight jurisdictions.”
Map of Wirrimanu.
Source: SBS

No promises

While both Liberal and Labor have pledged to continue funding to the Northern Territory, neither of the major parties has a policy to re-establish a nationwide strategy to tackle overcrowding in remote Aboriginal communities.

In a statement provided to SBS News, a spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt defended the decision to withdraw Commonwealth support for the previous arrangement, and said state and territory governments are responsible for meeting the housing needs of remote residents.

“All states and territory governments have agreed to the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, which includes a clear target to address overcrowded housing and commitments relating to the housing sector,” the spokesperson said.

In the Northern Territory, the federal government has committed $550 million in funding, matched by the NT to equal $1.1 billion over 5 years for 1,950 new bedrooms in remote communities through a combination of new houses and extensions to existing houses.

Road signs
Wirrimanu, also known as Balgo, is a remote community on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert. Source: SBS / Aaron Fernandes
“Following the ending of the agreement, significant one-off payments were made to the jurisdictions to help support the development of housing programs.”

Under Bill Shorten, Labor went to the 2019 Federal Election promising additional funding to Queensland, WA and SA and committed to renegotiate a new national partnership.

But the ALP isn’t making a similar commitment this time around, instead only pledging to negotiate a new remote housing agreement with the Northern Territory Government when the current agreement expires in mid-2023.

A Labor spokesperson said:

"Labor's Housing Australia Future fund will deliver 30,000 social and affordable homes across the country. In its first five years, it will also deliver $200 million for the repair, maintenance and improvements of housing in remote First Nations communities.

"Labor will deliver an immediate boost of $100 million for housing and essential services on Northern Territory homelands.

"This will help people return to country with a better standard of living and improve health, education and safety."

Forgotten voters

Residents in Wirrimanu will vote this week, when a team from the Australian Electoral Commission visits for early voting.

But residents say their most pressing issues have been forgotten in this election campaign.

Geraldine Mudgedell moved out of the room she occupied, so her two nephews had somewhere safe to sleep.

A woman standing in a room
Geraldine Mudgedell moved out of the room she occupied, so her two nephews had somewhere safe to sleep. Source: SBS / Aaron Fernandes
“I used to live in this room here. I moved out because they were sleeping outside. I didn’t want them to sleep outside, so I gave them this room”.

She says whoever wins, Australia’s next prime minister should travel to remote communities and see the living conditions for themselves.

“Its not just Balgo. Communities around NT, WA, South Australia. Come and see how we’re living. We’re struggling here”.

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6 min read
Published 11 May 2022 at 7:20pm, updated 12 May 2022 at 1:06pm
By Aaron Fernandes, Kearyn Cox
Source: SBS