Navigating away from ‘terra nullius’

March 17, 2009

What is needed now is political leadership, and policies that acknowledge past failures and current successes.

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The recently held ‘Which Way? Directions in Indigenous Housing’ conference was an initiative of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, and was held in Alice Springs on 26-27 October 2007. The conference was proposed by the RAIA as a means of focusing debate on the issues and opportunities surrounding the delivery of indigenous housing. As it occurred in the middle of the federal election campaign, many of the issues raised at the conference have the potential to have an immediate and direct impact on government policy.

When a conference is completed, it is always difficult to measure its overall success. By any statistical measure, the ‘Which Way’ conference was a significant success; an extraordinary 450 delegates, more than 30 leading speakers from indigenous and non-indigenous backgrounds, great buy-in by the federal and state governments, strong attendance by key indigenous organisations, and engagement by architects as community leaders outside of the niceties of our ‘discipline’. Similarly the success of the content of the conference was marked by the intelligence, passion and emotion of both speakers and conference delegates.

The ultimate success, however, was described by Richard Ahmat from the Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation, who in the closing session encouraged delegates to take immediate action, and not to let the talk linger on until some future conference – to keep up the sense of urgency. He urged that the conference not be remembered as another successful ‘talk-fest’.

The structure of the conference was specifically designed to avoid this – with formal sessions leading to smaller facilitated participatory debates, leading in turn to a series of ‘grass-roots’ recommendations. Ultimately, these recommendations were subject to a ‘vote’ by delegates, to prioritise what was most significant in terms of follow-up actions.

From this process, there was a strong sense among stakeholders of the need to start with immediately achievable goals (like fixing the basic amenities of existing houses in remote communities) before rolling out the ‘hope of the new’. There was overwhelming support for the view that a significant part of the government’s announced $730 million for new housing needs to be diverted to fixing existing dwellings – immediately and urgently. Why deliver five new homes into a community, when a large percentage of existing houses are completely ‘broken’?

Similarly, on the issue of whether housing services delivery is ‘top down’ (by government) or ‘bottom up’ (by communities), there also seemed to be a supportable middle ground emerge. Clearly, there was an overwhelming concern regarding the capacity of the federal government to physically deliver the $730 million program, primarily because it lacks the in-house delivery expertise, and the track record to undertake this. Therefore the government is contemplating a form of ‘outsourcing’: engaging large construction contractors to deliver the housing – which also protects the government from the success or failure of the delivery.

The architectural delegates at the conference, familiar with what this scenario might mean in terms of quality outcomes, were concerned at the potential pitfalls of this approach. When this was combined with suggestions of significant ‘generic’ factory-built housing, the overwhelming sentiment was that not much has been learned from past failures. The alternative view, which came through the grassroots’ sessions, was to look to some form of middle ground, where efficient national delivery of the housing services can be undertaken within a regional context.

Another consistent chord struck was the issue of policy makers learning from past failures, not repeating the mistakes, and also supporting success stories. A key part of this will be to continue to build a storehouse of knowledge, for example by extending and expanding the existing Indigenous Housing Guide.

Finally, there was also significant concern at the prospect of the major contractor model of delivery leaving no local sustainable legacy within indigenous communities – no lasting community capacity, either by way of trades training, local construction knowledge, or a self-help building model. Again, the conference view was to seek some sort of middle ground for an efficient nationwide program, but with some lasting local effect.

The organisers of the conference, while being focused on immediate actions, also took the view that words do count, and a record of the two-day conversation and papers will appear on the RAIA website, and in a publication form. This conference record is critical, so that history will know that these speakers and delegates made clear recommendations – the act of writing them down makes them permanent words, not ephemeral; words which need to be acknowledged, agreed or disagreed with, but which will at least nag away within the historical record.

And finally, something about the mood of the conference. There seemed to be a feeling that its timing (serendipitously held during the Federal election), may have coincided with a shift, if not a paradigm shift, in the debate on the housing ‘crisis’; a shift caused by growing public interest, media attention, shifts in indigenous leadership, and bipartisan support from government, at least with respect to the scale of the issues to be worked through.

What is needed now is political leadership, and policies that acknowledge past failures and current successes. This record of achievement can then create a forward direction – and the record of achievement is dense, not a ‘terra nullius’ of knowledge and action.

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