A report released on February 18 in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health found massive deficiencies in Aboriginal housing in Australia, and located this as a key cause of Aboriginal disadvantage and poor health. The study was conducted over seven years and looked at over 4000 residences in 132 Aboriginal communities.
Dr Paul Torzillo from the Nganampa Health Council in Central Australia, one of the authors of the report, told ABC Radio's The World Today on February 18: "In only a third of these houses could you actually wash a child reliably each day. In only around 10 to 11 per cent of these houses did you have basic electrical safety, in less than 10 per cent of these houses could you actually store, prepare and cook a meal.
"So, what these findings [show] ... is that when you go and test the ability of these houses to provide the basic hardware that people need to live a healthy lifestyle, look after themselves, and their families, then the houses perform extraordinarily badly."
The report also noted that, in many cases, Aboriginal housing was located in areas with poor access to public utilities such as transport to shops and schools, or areas of employment, as well as having poor access to clean, reliable water supplies. The report found that overcrowding was a key issue, contributing to wear-and-tear at a much faster rate than for other housing and — as much Aboriginal housing was cheaply constructed — maintenance became a problem very quickly.
Aboriginal housing is a top priority for the government, with PM Kevin Rudd announcing a bipartisan committee on February 13 as part of his apology to the Stolen Generations. The committee is part of the federal government's policy of "Closing the Gap" — a policy which seeks to address the difference in standards of health, education and employment that exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. This policy has been consciously counter-posed to providing compensation to the Stolen Generations.
The new minister for Indigenous affairs Jenny Macklin motivated the policy to ABC News Online on February 18. "It's just impossible for children to be healthy if they can't be bathed regularly," she said. "Children need a safe place to sleep at night and a safe place to do their homework. These things are essential and that's why the Prime Minister has said that Aboriginal housing will be the top priority for the new joint policy commission."
According to AAP, on February 21 the Rudd government announced that $20 million will be spent upgrading housing in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory this year. This will be in addition to the $1.6 billion that the government has earmarked for the next four years.
While the National-Liberal Opposition has accepted the invitation to join the Indigenous housing committee, it has motivated that former Howard government minister for Indigenous affairs, Mal Brough, be appointed. Brough was the architect and spokesperson of the NT intervention policy launched last year, and lost his seat in the federal election.
Some Aboriginal groups have stated that Brough is unfit to be on the committee due to his arrogant style and key role in the intervention, which was seen as paternalistic and damaging. On February 12, the day before the apology to the Stolen Generations, over 2000 Aboriginal activists and supporters rallied in Canberra to call for an end to the intervention — in particular the welfare "quarantine", which sees 50% of individuals' welfare payments in Aboriginal communities replaced by gift cards.
Central Land Council director David Ross was quoted in the February 15 Melbourne Herald Sun as saying: "Asking for Mal Brough's inclusion is just provocative and puts the entire process in jeopardy. Brough's approach was punitive, autocratic and arrogant. He deliberately excluded the people who were most affected by his changes, and he completely ignored any evidence which didn't support his views. There is no place for him on any committee."
Brough has also come under fire for some of his business dealings when he was minister for Indigenous affairs. Another policy he oversaw enabled communities that possessed native title rights to "exchange" them for 99-year leases and investment in infrastructure for employment or public utilities. The Nguiu community in the Tiwi Islands was the only community to specifically take up this form of lease. AAP reveled on February 17 that Brough was one of the investors in the development on the Tiwi Islands and stands to benefit if the project becomes profitable.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner Tom Calma told AAP on February 17 that there should be more scrutiny of Brough's dealings.
"As minister, Mr Brough, to be able to get (Nguiu) to sign up to a 99-year lease, provided them with a very significant amount of funding", Calma told Network Ten. "And as Aboriginal people, they will feel there is a reciprocal obligation and engage him. I think the question that I am surprised has not been asked, is this a legitimate way to go forward?"
Asked if he was concerned by Brough's dealings, Calma replied: "I'm concerned with any minister who will try and take advantage of indigenous people."
The composition of the bipartisan committee has yet to be determined. Its first proposal is a tour of remote Indigenous communities to gage levels of disadvantage.