Following on from the piece I just posted about my visit to Woorabinda, I was surprised to hear news that the Queensland Housing Minister Robert Schwarten had frozen housing funding to the community, allegedly due to ongoing damage to houses. I understand that, after meeting with Council officers later in the day, the freeze has been lifted – at least temporarily. You can read my media release on the topic by clicking here.
It seems a strange approach for a Minister to freeze funding and then to have a meeting about it, rather than the other way around. My understanding was that the decision by the state government came totally out of the blue for the Council. It certainly wasn’t mentioned to me when I visited there on the Monday. I had a reasonable look around the community while I was there. I was also presented with information about significant improvements that had occurred in managing the housing on the community, including high levels of compliance with rent payments and improved enforcement with rent arrears and housing damage.
I don’t pretend to be an all-knowing expert on a place after a one day visit, but it seems improbable that they would single out housing as an area where they were proud of the gains they had made, particularly when they were also quite open about areas where they believed they still had significant problems.
I don’t know if the Queensland Housing Minister had visited the community to see the situation for himself before announcing he was withholding funds. His electorate is in Rockhampton, so it’s not that far away. I’d be very surprised if the federal Minister, Mal Brough, has been there lately, but that didn’t stop him coming out supporting Mr Schwarten.
It all reeks to me of a parent trying to punish a naughty child and cutting off their money until they ‘learn their lesson’. Regardless of how current and valid the state government’s concerns are, the simple result if you evict people in communities like this is they either (a) move in with another family, thus increasing overcrowding and the likelihood of more damage to housing, or (b) move to Rockhampton and live in the parks. Personally, I think taking the trouble to work in an ongoing way with the Council is preferable to either of those, even if does take more work and doesn’t go play so well in the media.
This situation also provides useful reminders that, despite being the equivalent of local government authorities in Queensland, Aboriginal community Councils like Woorabinda have to take responsibility for many services that average councils don’t have to worry about, like managing housing, without even having the rate base that most councils have to provide at least some independent source of funds.
In addition, they have had to try to build up their infrastructure from the abysmal position it was in when they were ‘given’ the land – as I wrote in the previous post, reports in 1984 described the conditions thus:
“3 bedroom houses holding up to 21 people, 81% of homes overcrowded, most in dire need of repair, serviced by cold water and wood stoves which blackened interiors and caused chest problems in tenants.” Building programs and maintenance had also stalled for the preceding 10 years.
Whilst I’m sure government funding for housing has improved significantly since then, it is doing so from a position of more than half a century of neglect, into a community that does not have an independent revenue stream and is still dealing with the enormous disadvantages that stem from systemic, long-standing mistreatment – not to mention the fact that many Woorabinda residents, as with Indigenous people throughout the state, were kept in grinding long-term poverty as a direct result of having their wages withheld and misappropriated by government bodies and agents over many years.
A personal testimony to this is described in this comment to my previous post
However much one might criticise the adequacy of municipal management by the current under-resourced Woorabinda Council, it actually compares rather well with the efforts of numerous very well resourced Queensland governments over many years. I thought it may be of benefit in the current context to provide a few more detailed examples. The information below is all drawn from Dr Ros Kidd’s 1997 book “The Way We Civilise”, which I’m currently reading:
Woorabinda’s early days – started by the Queensland government in 1927 to replace the Taroom settlement. Despite four years’ forewarning, when more than two hundred people arrived at the site there was no doctor available, no sanitation facilities, and no timber for the houses. It was superintendent Colledge’s opinion that people were “very comfortably housed for the winter” courtesy of some sheet iron and plenty of “free bark”. But within a month the waterholes had dried up, there had been a fatal epidemic of influenza, and he reported sanitation remained “in a deplorable state.”
Twelve months later the dormitory children were still sleeping on damp ground in a bark and iron shed without mattresses or stretchers. The Queensland government’s Chief Protector, John Bleakley, said there was no money for beds or buildings: perhaps the girls could make beds from saplings and flourbags, and perhaps a section of the kitchen verandah could be screened off as a dining room.
In May 1942, the government decided to send most of the 271 Aboriginal ‘residents’ of Cape Bedford (now Hopevale) on Cape York. (Cape Bedford camp was closed because of anti-German sentiment against the long-standing Lutheran pastor who ran the mission, as well as concerns the Aboriginal people may be sympathetic to Japanese). Under military and police guard, people were refused time to gather clothing and belongings.
Woorabinda was nowhere near ready to accept them, despite several months’ notice. When finished, the single layer bark walls and roofs let in wind and rain. Although in a known frost area, the arrivals (used to the climate of (Cape York) were issued one single blanket each and had to sleep on the ground. An epidemic of mumps was raging, the milk was contaminated and on the week of their arrival the water once again tested unfit for human consumption.
Within six months, seven women and thirteen young children were dead from gastroenteritis, influenza and pneumonia. Even in this crisis, according to the evidence, visiting medical officer Dr Blackburn attended the settlement for only one hour a week. This attrition continued as an epidemic of measles swept the settlement in January 1943. Diagnosed at Coomera (in south-east Queensland) where men were harvesting arrowroot under the wartime manpower scheme, the carriers were not quarantined (unlike the white workers) but were returned to Woorabinda. Within a month, 126 lay stricken. Records show that Dr Blackburn still visited only once weekly. The death-rate among evacuees from Cape Bedford reached 33 – five adults, fourteen babies and fourteen children.
The senior health officer who subsequently investigated, Dr D Johnson, found gross hookworm infestation. Most of the child deaths were directly attributable to hookworm debility, yet despite laboratory tests six months earlier which identified the disease, no action had been taken. Dr Johnson also described substandard shelter, milk so scare children only got 10 percent of minimum needs and people forced to use contaminated wells and creek water. The superintendent at Woorabinda attempted to deflect blame to the “deplorable condition” of the Cape Bedford people upon arrival, after a journey so traumatic that several women went into premature labour resulting in neo-natal deaths.
A health inspector investigating a fatal outbreak of gastroenteritis in 1960 found that the hospital effluent was discharging into the local creek 150 metres above the settlement’s water intake. There were fly swarms in dormitory and hospital kitchens breeding on uncovered food and 90 per cent of the homes were using rusty plates and pots.
In 1980, the chief Aboriginal Affairs bureaucrat, Paddy Killoran, gave confidential instructors to managers that workforces on government run aboriginal communities be cut by 25 per cent, despite his own assessment that such reductions “would seriously impair the operation of essential services on communities.” The existing work numbers showed that there were 43 people for each wage earner at Woorabinda (it was higher in many other communities – up to 99 at Palm Island. This cut back was in response to growing legal pressure to pay aboriginal workers the same wages as white people doing the same jobs. Despite clear knowledge that payment for labour below Award rates was in breach of State industrial law and the federal Racial Discrimination Act, the state government did not provide any extra resources to prevent further sackings. The Department Manager’s report stated that at Woorabinda, 81 per cent of homes were already listed as overcrowded, and 42 per cent grossly so, with four or more persons per bedroom. Dwellings of three bedrooms held up to 21 people, and two-bedrooms up to 10, and the manager reported that “no alternatives are available for those they are sheltering”. Building programs and maintenance had stalled over the previous ten years. Many of the weatherboard homes were nearly forty years old, and described as “in dire need of repair, requiring re-lining, laundries, toilets and bathrooms”, and serviced by wood stoves and cold water. (Woorabinda’s average occupancy of 7.4 persons was not the worst for the state, with 11.8 on Palm Island and 18.2 at Hopevale)
In 1985 when the land was handed to the Council to run under the DOGIT arrangements, the head of the Department, Paddy Killoran, sought to exclude several grazing properties attached to Woorabinda, which were the Council’s main source of income.