All the Budget handouts in the world will not help address one the key causes of growing inequality, poverty and disadvantage in Australia, which is the crisis in housing affordability. Indeed, initiatives relating directly to housing are not very common in recent Budgets. However, reports have suggested that this year may see some new housing specific spending in the area of Indigenous housing. This has been identified as an area which has been chronically underfunded for some time – at state as well as federal level – so one would normally welcome new spending in this area.
However, I am concerned that Indigenous housing is at risk of being used for ideologically driven experimentation. If large amounts of money are spent on ideological frolics which are not backed up by sound economic thinking, there is the risk of wasting an opportunity and failing to help those who need it. I also have this sinking feeling that it may lead to yet another example of governments wasting large amounts of money on a poorly thought through program for Indigenous Australians, and then blaming Indigenous people when it doesn’t work.
Saturday’s Australian newspaper had a front page story about an Aboriginal man from the outstation of Wudapuli, not far from Wadeye in the Northern Territory, gaining possession of a home said to be “the nation’s first purchase of a home on Aboriginal-owned land”. It was a positive, feelgood story, and I hope it turns out to be the forerunner of sustainable good news. But some of the facts, at least as they were presented in the story, puzzle me somewhat and make me wonder just how well this new government push towards individual home ownership in remote communities will work.
The man, who is married with five children, is said to earn “more than $300 a week” through the Community Development Employment Project. The federal government “paid to build the house and estimates its value at about $270 000.” The four bedroom house is being provided to the family on a lease-purchase arrangement, and the family previously “lived in an overcrowded house at the outstation with more than 10 people.”
Minister Mal Brough said “the scheme would replace overcrowded, poorly maintained public housing by encouraging private home owners to take care of their properties.”
All of this sounds nice, although it does have some echoes of former Liberal Leader John Hewson’s slur that tenants don’t look after their homes. However, I think it would be good for Indigenous Australians to be able to own their own houses when they live on Aboriginal land. What does concern me is that this might be encouraged in an economically inefficient or ineffective way.
I’m keen to find out more of the fine detail, but it does raise some questions. Such as how someone on $300 per week can afford to but a $270 000 house? And how did the government arrive at a valuation of $270 000 for a four bedroom house that’s on an outstation about 380 kilometres south-west of Darwin in an area that isn’t even accessible by road for parts of the year? And why do members of the federal government sometimes suggest outstations are not viable and Indigenous people need to move into townships, while also criticising the conditions in townships and spending money funding new houses at outstations?