Front Door or Firewood? Reflecting on the Past in order to Change Assumptions on Indigenous Housing Policies in Australia


by Emily Voogt

Executive summary

  • Why is it assumed that Indigenous Australians wish to live as white Australians do?
  • Historically, the style and function of Indigenous dwellings vary greatly from western-style dwellings.
  • History has seen government policies seek to sedentise, institutionalise, assimilate, and integrate Indigenous Australians.
  • One of the main ‘tools of civilisation’ has been the house.
  • Over-crowding and misuse is recognised, yet suggested solutions often are not adopted.
  • Tangentyere Design, working in conjunction with Indigenous Australians, has developed a housing portfolio that responds to individuals and the need to change houses in the future.

I do come from the system that helped bring about this state of affairs, the system that, to this day, derives huge economic wealth and power as a result of that dispossession. Thereby, I have the responsibility to examine the past and its mistakes in the hope that reparation may ensue and friendship prevail.

Ted Egan (2008)

The Australian public has a habit of going into shock mode concerning Indigenous Australians whenever embarrassing reports of squalor in remote places are disseminated through the media. The same stories (re-)appear: they burn the doors for firewood; they allow kids to break windows and graffiti the walls; and they abandon the places when somebody dies. It is not long before someone says: ‘What we must do as a matter of national urgency is build x thousand houses’. Money is thrown at the problem and western-style houses are built in rapid succession. It is no coincidence that these stories appear during years coinciding with federal elections. But why is it widely assumed that Indigenous Australians wish to live as white Australians do?

Prior to European invasion, Indigenous Australians lived mostly in temporary housing and moving around to wherever food was available or for religious and ceremonial purposes. They built basic and practical shelter that protected them from the elements and enabled them to observe cultural values of mobility, immediacy and intimacy. Following invasion, Indigenous Australians were displaced, while their lands were poisoned by the introduction of cattle that displaced natural fauna, ate native plants and fouled their drinking water. Sacred sites were destroyed or suddenly located on the other side of a new fence. Indigenous Australians became dependent on European settlers for food and shelter. Any sense of self-determination was lost as they were at the mercy of their invaders.

Subsequent government projects of sedentisation, of institutionalising in settlements people who previously roamed freely through their country, aimed to negate and overcome an inherent clash of values, using housing as a ‘civilising tool’. Following the Second World War, ‘transitional housing’ was introduced in Central Australian Aboriginal settlements. This entailed a vision of western-style houses as a ‘medium of uplift’, and the idea was to move Indigenous families through a series of domestic structures with increasing complexity to ‘teach’ them how to ‘behave’ like Anglo-Australians. These dwellings were not at all suited to the local climate and they were under-equipped and, invariably, vacated before long. Notions of private property were being forced on a people who held a communal view of space and place. Although assimilation was termed ‘voluntary’ in 1961, the possibility that Indigenous Australians would choose otherwise did not occur to many white people until the 1970s.

Perceived enthusiasm for western-style housing often masked a reluctance to conform to assimilationists’ demands. Most Indigenous Australians continued to practise their traditional familial and kinship customs whilst accommodating western-style houses. Theoretically, assimilation doctrine demanded they reject their traditional lifestyle. In order to dwell, as Yasmine Musharbash points out, one has to build; and the way one builds mirrors the way one thinks, which in turn is inspired by the way one dwells. There is no logical reason why provision of one element (building) of the series of building-dwelling-thinking should automatically produce the other two. The built home may be a dream for many in this country, but it has little or no cultural value for traditional Indigenous Australians.

During the 1960s, Canberra stated that fringe-dwelling was perceived by Anglo-Australians to be an affront to ‘decent standards’ and a possible threat to law and order. Accordingly, reports in the media commonly demonised Aboriginal fringe camps. In March 1947, for instance, the Sun newspaper reported that residents in Shepparton were perturbed at the slum conditions in which the local Indigenous population lived. It stated that the white community and the police considered the local natives to be a ‘menace to the town’s good name’.

Five years after the 1967 Referendum, the newly elected Whitlam Government made clear its intention to overturn assimilationist policies and institute a new era of self-determination and self-management for Indigenous Australians. In an effort to eliminate any perception of racially motivated policy, Aboriginal training allowances were abolished and welfare benefits extended. It had the opposite effect of promoting self-determination, however, instead leading to further dependency on welfare. Integration became the flavour of the month. There was a greater emphasis on self-management and equal participation, but the terms still were dictated by a western majority.

History has seen a recurring pattern in governmental responses to Indigenous housing; so-called ‘new ideas’ are introduced to reduce the capital cost and delivery time, steps that consequently reduce housing standards, increase medium-term running and maintenance costs for residents and lead to premature housing failure. In the last decade, the Australian Government has managed to continue this phenomenon.

The National Indigenous Housing Guide (NIHG), linked to the national reform agenda agreed to by Australian and State and Territory Housing Ministers in 2006, sets out the standards for Indigenous housing. The guide is based on research by environmental health and design consultants Healthabitat, who conducted a project at Pipalyatjara in 1992–93 aimed at improving the function of health hardware. Health hardware—a term originally used by Dr Fred Hollows to describe the physical equipment necessary for healthy, hygienic living—refers to equipment that must have design and installation characteristics that allow it to function and to maintain or improve health status. In a water supply system, for example, health hardware includes both the bore and the basin plug, as well as the shower rose, taps and drain. A lack of health hardware can result in poor hygiene, which in turn increases the transmission of diseases including diarrhoeal disease, respiratory disease, hepatitis and infections. The rates of these diseases in some Indigenous communities are as high as in many developing or ‘third world’ countries.

The terms ‘ensure’ and ‘consider’ are employed in every Design and Specification section of the NIHG: ‘ensure’ is used to describe design features that are vital for safety and health and which must be adopted; ‘consider’ is used to describe features that could make the house function well, make it more comfortable for residents, and less expensive to run. These features are not seen as vital and are therefore often not adopted during construction, despite their existence in other forms of community housing.

In 1996, an appraisal by Healthabitat of housing conditions in a remote Cape York Indigenous community found major failings. Despite spending $4246 per existing house to improve them, none of the houses met all of the standards for gas safety, ability to store, prepare and cook food, ability to wash clothes, remove waste water safely from the house, or access to a working toilet among other problems. Surveys in communities around Australia over the past decade continue to confirm that health hardware failed in 67 percent of houses because of a lack of routine maintenance, in 25 percent because of poor initial construction, and, in what disproves a common misconception, in less than 8 percent because of misuse, abuse or vandalism.

According to the NIHG, of the 3,587 houses surveyed, only 45 percent had all power points safe and functional. Overcrowding is a huge problem yet the study showed that 83 percent of houses had only one toilet. Data also shows that functioning water meters were found in only 50 percent of surveyed houses. Water management requires basic tools such as isolation valves and water meters to be functioning to allow the housing manager to monitor water use and to assist in completing repairs to the water system of a house. Of all of the standards set in the NIHG, none were met 100 percent! Such problems would never be accepted by white Australians in their homes.

There are usually no provisions to ensure that future growth requirements are met. Government housing policies are nothing more than a band aid fix. In 1999, the NATSIS (National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey) reported that only 7 percent of Indigenous households in rural areas were rented from state housing authorities compared with 36 percent in urban areas. Very little housing was built in remote areas because of the need to replace clients once the houses were vacated. Uncertainty about future demand and a lack of healthcare and education facilities has seen Indigenous Australians move to the fringes of towns and cities. Stresses on housing structures will increase as Indigenous Australians move into town centres in response to changing government policies and for access to services not readily available in remote areas.

The issue of how to provide housing for a people whose location and spatial needs are likely to vary over time could be easily solved. The basic principles of housing design for future architectural change are well known. They include such strategies as ensuring ablution facilities are not poorly located in plan thereby preventing extensions, using a proportion of non-structural walls to facilitate changing room layouts. But, because there is neither clear evidence of engagement nor understanding of what the clients want, these issues are not considered. Preferences, objectives and values vary greatly amongst Indigenous Australians, particularly those who have become largely integrated and those who have not. It is also important, however, not to over-emphasise these differences. Even those living in remote areas are affected by the need to function in a market economy, and the most integrated may maintain beliefs about land and kinship obligations. Those who wish to take part in the market economy, as the workers on cattle stations did, are likely to move into urban areas. Housing should be provided where people want to live whether that is close to their kin or traditional land. One type of house is not suitable for all Europeans and nor is one type suitable for all Indigenous Australians. It shows cultural insensitivity to ignore the different environments in which they live.

Fires for cooking and social occasions are extremely important in Indigenous Australians’ social interactions. Wood that is readily available in the form of a front door—not considered to be a necessary item for many Indigenous families—is used to make communal fires instead. The use of housing also differs because many Indigenous Australians typically do not value privacy as white Australia does; for instance, they prefer to sleep in groups. But, just because the style of living is different, it does not mean the standard of living should be! Blaming residents does not address the primary causes of the problem. Among the most important defects are inflexibility and immobility, the inability of the occupants to control their environment as they did in the past by working with existing structures such as trees and caves to provide temporary shelter. European housing also isolates its occupants from information about the activities of other members of the community within which is located, further disrupting the social practices of Indigenous communities.

Nonetheless, there are some positives to come from the history of Indigenous housing. In 1977, Tungatjira (later Tangentyere) Council was formed. Controlled by Indigenous Australians but responsible for more than one tribal group and therefore not at risk of demand sharing and kinship pressures, it was established to represent the interests of Indigenous Australians in their quest for land tenure, housing, infrastructure and basic standards of living in the town camps of Alice Springs. Tangentyere Design, an Indigenous-owned architectural practice based in Central Australia began in the late 1970s as a division of Tangentyere Council. They have developed a large portfolio of different styles of housing that have been developed in conjunction with Indigenous Australians to suite their needs. They place strong emphasis on viewing their existing houses with clients so that they may assess how they can be changed to suite individual needs.

The Australian public often argues that Indigenous Australians should be treated no differently from other citizens. Yet, Ted Egan argues: ‘their history and culture and two centuries of blatant discrimination against them call for differences in treatment and services’. Policies that begin by trying to improve housing conditions treat a symptom rather than the underlying problem of poverty. Greater emphasis should be placed on the health and educational requirements of Indigenous Australians living in both remote and urban communities. There is a need for ongoing consultation that responds to the ever changing needs of Indigenous Australians. The ability of Indigenous culture to adapt with time often is ignored. There also is a need to ensure that Indigenous housing policy is resistant to the political cycle so that it may be developed with a focus of withstanding the passage of time to build housing that is responsive to changing needs whilst being robust enough to survive in decades to come. It is well known that Indigenous Australians are the unhealthiest, poorest, least gainfully employed, most illiterate, worst housed, least trained, and proportionately most imprisoned people in our country. Current policies are doing little to remedy the huge problems that exist. Is it not time to rethink how we, as a nation, should think about Indigenous issues?

Selected further reading:

Altman, Jon, A Genealogy of ‘Demand Sharing’: From pure anthropology to public policy, Chpt. 13, in Ethnography and the Production and Anthropological Knowledge, The Australian National University, http://epress.anu.edu.au/ethnography/pdf/ch13.pdf

Bailie, Ross, S. & Wayte, Kaylie, J, “Housing and health in Indigenous communities: Key issues for housing and health improvement in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities”, in Australian Journal of Rural Health, Issue 14, 2206, p. 178-183

Broffman, Andrew, “Tangentyere Design’s thirty years of working with Indigenous housing and communities”, Architecture Australia; Sep/Oct2008, Vol. 97 Issue 5, p90-96, 6p

Commonwealth of Australia, ‘The National Indigenous Housing Guide’, http://www.fahcsia.gov.au/sa/indigenous/progserv/housing/Documents/intro.htm, last modified on 6th February 2009

Egan, Ted, “Due Inheritance: Reviving the Cultural and Economic wellbeing of First Australians”, Niblock Publishing, Nightcliff, NT, 2008

Manning, Corinne, ‘A Helping White Hand’: Assimilation, Welfare and Victoria’s Transitional Aboriginal Housing Policy. Labour History 87 (2004): 43 pars. 29 Sep. 2011

Memmot, Paul, outlines the accumulated knowledge and suggests that it can form the basis for an improved national procurement strategy, in Architecture Australia; Sep/Oct2008, Vol. 97 Issue 5, p61-64, 4p

Musharbash, Yasmine, “Yuendumu Everyday: Contemporary life in remote Aboriginal Australia”, Aboriginal Studies Press, ACT, 2008

Neutze, Max, “Housing for Indigenous Australians” in Housing Studies, Vol. 15, No. 4, 485-504, 2000.

Prentis, Malcolm, ‘A study in Black and White: The Aborigines in Australian History”, Third Revised Edition, Rosenberg Publishing, NSW, 2009

© APH Network and contributors 2011. All rights reserved.

Citation: Emily Voogt, Front Door or Firewood? Reflecting on the Past in order to Change Assumptions on Indigenous Housing Policies in Australia.
Australian Policy and History. October 2011.

Permanent link to this article: http://aph.org.au/front-door-or-firewood-reflecting-on-the-past-in-order-to-change-assumptions-on-indigenous-housing-policies-in-australia