“Why don’t they buy their own houses?”

Parity Vol. 19 Issue 1 February 2006 pp.77-79

Back in the early 1960s, an Aboriginal singer from New South Wales, Dougie Young, wrote a song called “In the land where the crows fly backwards”. He explained that crows did so in order to keep the dust out of their eyes. The song contained the lines:

“The whitefella took this country from me
He’s been fighting for it ever since.”

In a very direct way Dougie Young captured the intrinsic dimensions of Indigenous homelessness: white invasion and continuing Aboriginal resistance to the occupation.

In the early 1970s, I worked with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community in South Brisbane as they struggled with endemic homelessness and police harassment. Often, the police were drunker than the Indigenous people they arrested for “being intoxicated”. The community established the Born Free Club that provided shelter, entertainment and a meeting place. The Born Free Club currently runs hostels in the area and many of the children of the founders of Club are still struggling to ensure that people have a safe place to stay.

At Palm Island off the Queensland coast, on 19th November 2004, Mulrunji Doomadgee, and Aboriginal resident was walking along the road singing when he was picked up by the police and taken to the Police station. An hour later, he was dead as a result of severe internal injuries. Other residents of the island surrounded the Police station that was subsequently burnt to the ground. The Police responded by flying in their paramilitary wing. Old women and children were forced to lie face down in the dust whilst being stood over by heavily armed police who wore no identifying insignia.

On Palm Island, Indigenous residents live in overcrowded conditions. Ten to 17 people to a house is the general rule. When I was there a couple of years ago, I was told that 29 people lived in one house. The occupancy rate on Palm is in line with that found on many Indigenous communities in Northern Australia. As a result of the ongoing housing crisis, many Indigenous people in northern regions shift to cities in search of work and less crowded housing. Some make a successful transition but many, in the short term, don’t succeed in solving either their employment or housing difficulties. Those unable to access adequate shelter congregate in parks, along river banks or on foreshores –the places where native title might one day be found to exist but which, at the moment, are usually controlled by the local councils and the police.

From 1973-85, I lived in the Top End of the Northern Territory and was involved with both the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities in relation to welfare and housing issues. In late 2005, I returned to Darwin to see what was happening to Indigenous people sleeping in public places. Little has changed since the mid 1970s –they continue to be harassed by city council and police officers (Tomlinson 2005[a]).

In 1971, Frances Lovejoy estimated that it would take $3 billion to fix the backlog in Indigenous housing in Australia. In 2006, there would need to be at least $3 billion spent to ensure that all Indigenous Australians were provided with basic housing.

Historian Dr Ros Kidd and others revealed that, in 2006 values, the equivalent of $500 million of Indigenous peoples wages and social security had been misappropriated by Queensland governments and their agents during the period 1904 to 1970 (Stolen Wages Campaign 2006). After taking into account interest on the “stolen wages”, the real amount owing to Indigenous Queenslanders is in the order of $3 billion (McMahon 2005). The Beattie Government offered $55.4 million as total compensation for the stolen wages and had paid out only $20 million by the end of 2005, when it closed the fund.

Given the history of unpaid Indigenous wages throughout most of Australia, basic decency should oblige the various state governments to ensure that no Indigenous person was left without adequate shelter as a simple act of reparation. The withholding of wages in the past contributes in a very direct way to the deplorable housing situation facing Aborigines today.

Indigenous people have not been in a position to purchase their own homes at anything like an equivalent rate to non-Indigenous people. They have been forced to rely on public and private rental accommodation and, as a consequence of rental regulations, have not been as able to offer shelter to relatives and friends as they would have had they been able to purchase their own homes.

It is irrefutable that existing white privilege has been built on Indigenous dispossession. Yet, there is a general lack of knowledge about the reasons for Indigenous homelessness. Professor Henry Reynolds, in his book This Whispering in our Hearts, provides many interesting insights into this phenomenon. The “lack of knowledge” is not so much a failure to comprehend as it is a refusal to acknowledge the role of non-Indigenous people in causing Indigenous homelessness. If white Australians were to accept that their current affluent position is in no small part due to the way they and their forbears treated the original owners of this land, then they would have some stark choices facing them. Either they could accept the unfairness of the status quo or they could work to ameliorate the ongoing impoverishment of Indigenous Australians.

John Howard, Noel Pearson and Warren Mundine explain the failure of Indigenous people to overcome the insurmountable obstacles the State places in their path as being due to “welfare dependency and addiction”. I have dissected such nonsense in a paper entitled “Must be the Grog: Can’t be the Government” (Tomlinson (2005[b]). It would matter little if such fanciful notions about poor people generally and poor Indigenous people in particular were just the foibles of these men – but they are not. The constant press coverage of their pronouncements of the dangers explicit in generous welfare provision means that the population up and down the country imbibe such heady ideas.

It is not much of a step from there to arrive at the point where the non-Indigenous citizens believe that homeless people cause their own homelessness but that if governments were to provide assistance this would not only increase their “welfare dependence” but cause them to sink even further into a slothful existence. In 1971, William Ryan in his book Blaming the Victim pointed out the attractiveness of such a mechanism because it justifies refusing to assist poor people whilst legitimising the continuing privilege of the affluent.

The pressure on Indigenous people who live in rural and remote regions of Australia is increasing. The Howard Government is stepping up the requirements on Indigenous Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) workers to move off communities and seek employment in the towns (Karvelas 2004). The Commonwealth Government has entered into 100 Shared Responsibility Agreements with Indigenous communities which are designed to force more “mutual obligations” upon community members. It has made it harder for young people on remote communities to obtain CDEP work after leaving school and is attempting to coerce them into obtaining trade training in larger cities (Karvelas 2005[a]). All these requirements will make it likely that increasing numbers of Indigenous people will shift into towns even though they may not have had the occupational training to equip them for employment in urban regions.

On top of this pressure to conform to the obligatory compact, which nowadays passes for the social welfare system, smaller Indigenous communities were told by Senator Vanstone in December that they live in non-viable “cultural museums” that cost too much to maintain (Karvelas 2005[b]). Vanstone was speaking specifically about 1,000 communities of fewer than one hundred people – such homeland or outstation communities have frequently been established by their members to get away from the problems of larger settlements and townships.

The dog whistling worked a treat and, by early January 2006, prominent Federal backbencher, Peter Lindsay, was calling for the closure of Palm Island and the removal of its 3,000 residents to the mainland where they could be integrated into mainstream Australia. Mike Reynolds, a Queensland Government Minister, suggested that “Peter Lindsay wants to sell off their land to his rich developer mates” (Andersen 2006). Palm Island, with its idyllic beaches is certainly very well located to become an integral part of Great Barrier Reef playground for the rich and powerful.

There are, of course, alternatives to ignoring the ongoing homelessness experienced by many Indigenous citizens. Non-Indigenous Australians could come to a just treaty with the original owners of this land, make adequate reparation for the invasion, rape, genocide, stolen generations and ongoing occupation and, on the way, we might recover from our collective amnesia and begin to listen to “this whispering in our hearts”. Were we capable of doing this, we would be better positioned to address the social justice needs of other poor Australians.


Andersen, J. (2006) “Lindsay wants Palm closed.” Townsville Bulletin 5th January
Karvelas, P. (2004) “Bid to lift black role in work program.” The http://theaustralian.news.com.au/printpage/0,5942,11794847,00.html
Karvelas, P. (2005[a]) “Blacks face leaving land for training.” The Weekend Australian.
23-24th April, p.6.
Karvelas, P (2005[b]) “Push to shut Black outposts.” The Australian 9th Dec http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/printpage/0,5942,17509606,00.html
Lovejoy, F. (1971) “Costing the Aboriginal Housing Problem”, The Australian Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 1, March.
McMahon, B. (2005) “Aboriginal wage offer ‘insulting.’” The Courier Mail 10th Dec.
Reynolds, H. (1998) This Whispering in our Hearts. Allen & Unwin, St Leonards
Ryan, W. (1971) Blaming the Victim. Vintage, New York.
Stolen Wages Campaign (2006) http://www.antar.org.au/stolen_wages.html
Tomlinson, J. (2005[a]) “Homeless and in Darwin – No peace in the long grass”. Online Opinion. http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=3885
Tomlinson, J. (2005[b]) “Must be the Grog: Can’t be the Government.” Paper given at the International Conference on Engaging Communities, Brisbane, August. http://www.engagingcommunities2005.org/abstracts/Tomlinson-John-final.pdf