Woorabinda II- housing funding threatened

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.

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9 Comments

  1. Andrew Bartlett:
    I wish I had known you were going to Woori …..

    So houses have been damaged at Woorabinda. Good one them!! That really was the appropriate Market Response to having dud products dumped on them. Now that you’ve seen the housing there, did you wonder how much input the residents actually had into the sort of housing they got?

    Schwarten probably tried to be a Minister for Housing but he’s not really on top of the issues ….. after all, in his own electorate, loan sharks manage to ensnare young people in no-deposit, high-interest-rate, short-term, dodgy-condition “home loans” so you can’t expect him to comprehend was happening out at Woori either.

    As for the behavior of the Federal Minister for Telling Aborigines What To Do: it’s Saturday and he really should spend the day searching through the Career pages of the Weekend Australian, The Age, SMH, etc. (or the cruising ads in the Travel pages) and I do wish the incoming Minister the best of luck in this challenging portfolio ….. Problems are solved by examining them and tackling them (that’s what the public pays for), not by running off at the mouth for the amusement and titillation of a bunch of likeminded dills.

  2. There is a conspiracy of incompetence. At the risk of burning bridges with the one person who could fix so maany problems with a simple stroke of a pen, the apex of the incompetence is Schwarten. I dont believe it is Beaattie, he does not have time i suspect to do anything except front the media on schwartens behalf. I could be wrong the apex could be at Beattie.

    I believe Schwarten is central to Aboriginal dysfunction is because housing is central to this dysfunction and Scwarten is sitting on millions of dollars and either sitting on it or paying millions on experts and public servants to advise him that there is not much that can be done.

    Here and elsewhere I have ranted and raved about Palm Island, in particular about housing. This is because I have relevent connections there and have been following issues there. Not because it is the only place. Schwarten reigns over dysfunctional non-housing programs in Aboriginal communities around Qld. Senators and the media may be surprised when they see the Palm Island phenomenon happening in other places but this is because Palm Island has been sensationalised recently and a light shone on it. This punative moralistic pprotectionist dogma of Schwarten, – or Beattie and his $800,000 bribe to the Palm Island council to justify the illegally built police empire on the Island including the contraversial PCYC. (Schwartens non-responsibility) – is just the same state attitude and policy for the last 100 years. This colonial arrogance however is just a defensive smokescreen to hide the fact that they haven’t got a clue what they are doing. How many times in the last 3 years has the Queensland government 10 year plan for indigenous affairs changed? At least 2 significant and major redirections that I am aware of.
    the death in custody stuff will no doubt cause another rewrite of meaningless policy.

    A new plan is released as soon as the the old one starts fading from the headlines.

  3. Andrew Bartlett:
    Thank you very much for your time and effort in visiting Woorabinda and listening to what the people there had to say …. that’s a hell of a lot better than what hit-and-run experts do to them.

    There are a lot of good news stories there – such as all the blokes who have given the grog away – or – the wonderful work that was done by the residents themselves under the very SUCCESSFUL C.D.E.P. – but everyone is so used to hearing bad news stories about Aborigines in the region that they find good news stories hard to believe. That’s why everyone I spoke to yesterday was understandably angry about the damage that had been done to the houses in Woori but none had heard about why it happened. Much as the activists and the academics wish it to be so, a major aspect of the problem is not racism but image (and there’s money in combatting racism but diddly-squat in improving public image). Maybe the Woorabinda Council could hold an Open Day and invite everyone in Central Queensland to come and see just how much they really have achieved despite everything.

    I certainly do not condone vandalism nor do I believe it should go unpunished. However, I don’t blame anyone for vandalising anything that they see as being irrelevant to them, that they do not relate to, about which they cannot feel any pride or sense of ownership at all. After all, the kids have had bad role models on TV shoved down their throats; they have been encouraged, by woolly-headed do-gooders, to ignore and even despise older people and to have no respect for the property of others. Why not give the residents, especially the kids, some real positive challenges – it would be far more beneficial that just taking revenge on the ones who committed vandalism.

    ((Any desk-bound economists who freaked out at my describing the C.D.E.P. as successful should consult again their Week 1 Semester I First Year Undergraduate course notes!!!))

  4. In the current context, I thought it may instructive to add some more details about the Qld governents own record at managing services at Woorabinda, so I have added some excerpts from a book by historian Ros Kidd to the end of the main post above.

  5. Hi Graham,
    Woorabinda and many other communities do have open days (though they are not called that). The bigger communities have a couple a year to celebrate big events such as the founding date of the mission etc. NAIDOC week (Aboriginal week) is big in all the communities Aboriginal people from everywhere come to these celebrations which often focus on the schools. The trouble is that, like everything else, it goes under the radar of the mainstream.
    I agree with what you said about public image, but the problem is, I suggest, not a lack of photo opportunities but a lack of photographers when the opportunities happen. Combined with this, when ever shit happens, the media swarm like flies.

    It is the flyblown shit that drives Qld indigenous policy.

  6. John Tracey:
    NAIDOC week and local events are good and are lots of fun but they are seen by the wider community as being for Aborigines and Islanders only even though it is really not exclusive at all (gee, if I can go alomg then anyone can!)so there is a need for Councils to have really open Open Days and invite everyone – regardless of colour or creed – to come and see for themselves..

    You are right about the news media. Although Rockhampton’s “Morning Bulletin” does publish positive stories about Woorabinda and Aborigines in general, this is only a drop in the bucket compared with what the capital city either ignores completely or distorts out of all recognition.

    For any lurking Economists or Policy Makers:
    Here’s a vignette from Woorabinda only a few years ago.
    “Are you on the dole”?
    “No, I’ve got a real good job”. (big smile).
    “Where are you working”?
    “C.D.E.P.” (full of pride).
    “What’s it like”? .
    “We work f***n hard; it’s real good”. (still smiling)
    I do hope that those who believed in their heart-of-hearts that C.D.E.P. was “inefficient” have not now found careers handling our Iraq policies or Free Trade Agreement negotiations!!!!!

  7. Hi graham, please do not interpret this as an argument, we are obviously on the same page here. I am just continuing the theme.

    The festivals on communities are open to everyone and non-Ab people attend, but not many and they come from networks of the locals.

    I suspect it is more a case of non-Ab people are frightened to visit an Aboriginal community. There is not much mainstream advertising for these events either, but I think it is fear that is the main reason.

    I find Aboriginal communites fascinating when I visit and at the same time a bit uncomfortable because they are predominantly Aboriginal societies and the cultural minority/majority dynamic is reversed.

    I feel that everyone is looking at me because I am white. Mainly no-one will talk to me unless I am introduced . I do not think of myself as white in my day to day existence in Brisbane but walking the street on Palm Island or Woorabinda, I am always aware of my cultural difference but more significantly, the colour of every one elses skin colour. I stand out in the crowd.

    The first mission that I ever visited was Cherbourg about 10 years ago. This is where the culture clash hit me the most. It was a real insight into how a mission resident might feel arriving in Brisbane, surrounded by white and asian faces with very few black people and even fewer Aborigines.

    I have been to Palm Island a few times and have friends family and business associates on the Island and i have become less anxious about the culture clash there but it is an everpresent reality, as I suspect it is for Aborigines who have lived in mainstream communities for a long time.

    back to the topic. I believe this dynamic of “otherness” is a major contributing factor to the paternalistic and authoritarrian crap of Schwarten, Beattie etc. because they know most of their constituants will not take acton or even be concerned to support Aboriginal communities no matter what the government does or does not do.

  8. John Tracey [post 7]:
    G’day. You’re right about misusing and manupulating “otherness”. The hypocrisy of it is that can be conveniently switched on for special treatment or switched off for “mainstreaming” and other rip-offs. A variation on the standpoint – popular on both sides of politics here – was that Apartheid in South Africa was evil whereas Apartheid in Australia was just fine.

    b.t.w., I had an interesting experience in Brisbane many centuries ago when I was a teenager. I went around with a group of men from Cherburg who were visiting Brisbane. The visit with them to the old Queensland Museum (near the Ekka) was particularly enlightening, even for a kid from the bush like me ….

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