Misplaced fear of old problems — fringe dwellers

A reason for wicked policy is that Aboriginal adjustment almost inevitably involves changing locations. There are few jobs in remote locations (DEWR 2006) and if Aborigines are to engage in the workforce they will have to move to those places where jobs exist for their level of skill, which by and large means a shift to town. Encouraging people to stay on their land and outside of the labour market incurs a real penalty. Indeed, having people come to town incurs a real penalty, but the difference is that the former is permanent and the latter may be temporary, provided people change their behaviour along with their location. So long as provision is made to assist people to adapt, the long-held fear that Aborigines are ‘coming to town’ (see Etherington 2007) is misplaced.

Aboriginal settlement policy is rarely explicitly stated, but the emergency intervention and other housing-policy initiatives of the Howard government provided some indications. There seemed to be a covert policy of physical consolidation of Aboriginal communities because the 73 ‘intervention’ communities were quite simply chosen on the basis of size (any community over 100); the inference being that the Australian government would no longer service any smaller community. Wadeye in the NT, for example, would be funded not because it deserved the same infrastructure as any town the same size (the public rationale), but because of the fear that if the largest Aboriginal community could not survive then no others would. The entire edifice of discrete Aboriginal communities would collapse.

The settlement side of the intervention (or the assumptions behind it) have not been thought through. It could be concluded that the aim is the consolidation of larger Aboriginal settlements, presumably based on the assumption that these are easier to service. Indeed, outstations are not easy to service but the cost of servicing is a minor matter. The real policy must be to work out how to best place Aborigines in a position to enter the labour market. No matter how inventive public servants are in relabelling employment programs as Aboriginal investment programs, the market will not come to remote communities. If people are to locate near a labour market they will come to town and lest they end up in town camps and recreate the appalling behaviour of outstations then they will have to be managed. The short-term adjustment is akin to a refugee problem. It will be expensive and difficult but it has a realistic outcome. The present policy is to hope or pretend, a la Folds (2001) that there is something innovative going on ‘out there’. There is not: the reason for the Emergency Response and the Wild/Anderson Report is that mayhem is going on out there.

Supporters of Aboriginal land rights worry about securing a future for Aboriginal people in a culturally identifiable way, but they share with the white society the worry about fringe dwellers. Such concerns have a long history. A. O. Neville’s (the Aboriginal Protector) advice to Rod Schenk (missionary) of Laverton Western Australia is as fresh today as it was in 1920s: ‘Don’t collect the natives near a town, or they’ll become a nuisance, and then we shall have to shift both you and the natives’ (Morgan 1986: 1).


It is hard to conceive of anything more unlovely or degraded than the dirty native who hangs around the Australian bush towns, clad in the filthy cast-off garments of bush civilisation, but the same native in his natural state is a very different being.

Right Reverend G. White, Eastern Cape York, 1927 (quoted by Chase 1988: 122).

The observation persists that an Aborigine on his land will be fine, while an Aborigine attempting to integrate to white society living on the fringes is damned. But an Aborigine behaving badly by sitting around playing cards and drinking can occur in remote localities ‘on country’ and in town camps and in urban ghettoes. Wherever it occurs, such behaviour is unacceptable and there are laws in place to penalise and or assist people stuck in such a funk. But there seems to be an assumption that such behaviour is more acceptable for Aborigines on their own land. The probable reason is that they are out of the way. Excusing bad behaviour on Aboriginal land prevents intervention and prevents adjustment. It also provides a ready-made escape from the need to change behaviour.

Some clues to the growth of recent inappropriate policy and the fear of fringe dwellers may be gleaned from the 1982 report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs ‘Strategies to Help Overcome the Problems of Town Camps’. The report contained a letter from the infamous Robert Bropho, latterly gaoled for indecently dealing with young girls at the Swan Valley Nyungah community (now closed). He stated: ‘All Aboriginal people became fringe dwellers the day the white man set foot upon this continent. All Aboriginal people are fringe dwellers until the land is given back’ (Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs 1982: 3).

The Committee indulged the Bropho view but failed to realise its implications for Aboriginal people. It noted that making town camps more attractive would attract people from outstations. While supporting three strategies — improving town camps, relocating people into conventional housing, and making outstations and properties more attractive — the real emphasis of the recommendations was to increase support for outstations and buttress CDEP (work-for-the-dole) in home communities so as to attract people away from town camps, thus making integration more difficult.

Perhaps as damaging was the acceptance of advice that fringe dwellings should be legitimised by calling them ‘town camps’. Fringe dwellings convey a sense of transition; ‘town camps’ implies permanence. In its settlement manifestation the essence of the apparently wicked problem is that policy-makers have been, and are, prepared to play ping-pong with Aborigines. They hope that the ‘culture’, which policy-makers know is bad behaviour, can be kept out of sight by keeping Aborigines out of town. But in keeping Aborigines out of town they deny them the chance to gain a foothold in the economy. Treating a very difficult problem as wicked is to duck the responsibility in the hope of avoiding the downside of the only sustainable option: integration including relocation.

The implications for such policy indulgence are profound. For example, a key issue for government is to decide where to build new houses for Aborigines. A view from one Aboriginal leader suggests that houses cannot be built in many existing communities: ‘No Government can justify keeping on building houses in the middle of nowhere where there is no school, no healthcare, no law and order, unreliable power and water, no jobs … and no hope for another generation of our young people’ (FaCSIA 2007: xx).

The fact is that the Australian government has invested around $2 billion in Aboriginal housing over the last 10 years without an appreciable increase in the number of houses (Brough 2006). In the last five years, the Aboriginal housing stock has only increased by 471, or 2 per cent, to 21,758; and in the Northern Territory there are 271 fewer houses than there were five years ago. In 2005–06 the Federal and State governments spent $2.4 billion (Productivity Commission 2007b: 228; Australian Government Secretaries’ Group) in dedicated housing-and-accommodation support programs for Aborigines. In addition, Aborigines have access on a needs basis to a range of other accommodation support services on the same basis as other Australian citizens (FaCSIA 2006: 101). Shortages are not the result of any underspend. A major cause of the shortage is a lack of care for houses. It stems from a cultural problem — many Aboriginal people do not understand that an asset needs to be maintained. Cooper and Morris (2005: 30) highlight a further aspect of a ‘cultural’ problem aligned with the abuse problem:

[When] men who perpetrate domestic violence or sexual abuse stay in the houses … the women and children [are forced] to leave to seek somewhere safe to live: there are men around here living in five bedroom homes by themselves. The women move and the blokes stay in the house.

While ‘culture’ prevails, it is very difficult for governments to provide adequate housing. Consequently, the existing housing stock has been appallingly maintained. In the last five years, the proportion of the housing stock needing major repairs increased from 19 per cent to 23 per cent (ABS 2007). Aboriginal-controlled/inhabited housing, for example, lasts about seven years while other government housing lasts about 40 years. The problems are exacerbated because very low rents are charged on Aboriginal housing in remote communities and land-tenure limitations prevent people from exercising any option other than to wait for government to build them a house. In some communities the dominant families have houses in their homelands and in the main community. Most homeland people spend much of their time living with relatives in the larger communities where services such as health, education, retail and recreation are livelier. Housing allocation is a constant source of grief for people who continually miss out, particularly those families with many young children who have witnessed for many years the differences in housing renovations, size, siting and number being provided to dominant families.

Typically, policy response to these problems has been to mollify the needs of what has become a recreational lifestyle among remote-area Aborigines. For example, to facilitate visits by kin, the design of new houses in remote centres would ‘benefit from well-sized, positioned and perhaps screened verandah spaces, adequately sized living spaces that can be used to accommodate temporary campers, detached shade structures that can accommodate visitors, well designed wet areas, additional showers and toilets’ (Memmott 2006: 4). And further, ‘to provide a base for relatives from outlying communities, new house designs and renovations in the regional centres should be created to accommodate such semi-permanent migration of relatives’ (Memmott 2006: 5). The policy suggestions arising from these observations are that Aborigines should have built for them houses sufficient for all of their guests at both ends of their journey, in remote areas and in the regional centres as they circulate between the two. As Folds (2001: 79) makes abundantly clear:

When symbols of social justice, such as houses, are provided there is an anticipation of equal outcomes … and of grateful Pintupi repaying the government by living in the houses … what bureaucracy see as a small price to pay for government ‘generosity’ is actually an extremely difficult and complex expectation to fulfil.

The town camps may be compared with the dark satanic mills of industrial England, but the mill towns were places of transition. People who lived in tenement houses at the turn of the 20th century, for example, did not stay long. They got a foot in the door of the emerging economy through the garment industry and then moved on both geographically, to the suburbs, and economically, to establish new businesses. In short, people adapted. Aborigines may be culturally more removed than Europeans from the ‘needs of industry’ but the journey is just as vital. Preventing people from adapting is dangerous and harmful. It leads to abuse of alcohol, of wives and children.