Building our own homes is future

Natasha Robinson | The Australian | August 08, 2009

Aboriginal leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu has questioned the federal and Northern Territory governments' ability to achieve their ambitious goals in Aboriginal housing and has urged indigenous people in northeast Arnhem Land to build their own houses instead.

Unveiling the Gumatj Foundation's first completed timber house yesterday, Mr Yunupingu said indigenous-led housing construction could hold the key to escaping chronic welfare dependency and the stranglehold of bureaucracy that kept Aboriginal people in a state of dependence.

"I want our people to be able to go to the building industry and say, 'Here is my hammer, I can build a house'," Mr Yunupingu said yesterday. "That is the future for all these young fellas."

The house was unveiled before the opening of the 11th Garma festival of traditional culture at Gulkula in northeast Arnhem Land yesterday. Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin opened the festival after a meeting with Aboriginal leaders from northeast Australia.

The Aboriginal organisation that manages mining royalties for the community of Ski Beach in northeast Arnhem Land, Gumatj, teamed up with Forestry Tasmania and Tasmanian company Fairbrother Builders to build the five-bedroom timber bunkhouse. They plan to build more houses soon. Forestry Tasmania provided the training and instruction for local workers. Managing director Bob Gordon said he saw no reason why Aboriginal communities in northern Australia could not build similar houses for their communities.

The house was built, with support from the Jack Thompson Foundation, by about 15 Yolngu men with local timber that they cut and milled themselves. Many of the men came from tragic family circumstances or had battled alcohol dependency.

"It's really changed my life, doing something like this," said Russell Gurruwiwi, 34, who left his Community Development Employment Project job collecting rubbish to learn the building trade.

Leaders including Aboriginal professor Marcia Langton, Labor stalwart Tracker Tilmouth and Territory Construction Association general manager Graham Kemp lined up to criticise the direction of the federal government's $672 million Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program this week, following the resignation of NT indigenous policy minister Alison Anderson over the issue.

Mr Yunupingu said he was deeply frustrated with the ability of governments of all persuasions to deliver outcomes for Aboriginal people. "Government is the worst enemy of Aboriginal people," he said. "It creates policies that go nowhere. These men's lives have been caught up in the government system.

"The idea (with this house) was simply to get them out of the red tape, government-controlled policies to independence."

Mr Yunupingu declined to buy into the furore surrounding SIHIP and the allegations of gross mismanagement of the program by the NT government, which has been brought to its knees over the issue.

A motion of no confidence in the Henderson government is likely be tabled in the Territory parliament on Monday, following Ms Anderson's resignation. The motion could decide the future of Paul Henderson's administration by the end of the week.

Mr Yunupingu indicated yesterday he agreed with criticisms that vast amounts of money intended for Aboriginal communities were being swallowed up by the NT bureaucracy amid a culture of Labor mates being handed lucrative consultancies.

"When the government gets a million dollars, they say, 'All my mates, come and help me build this house'," Mr Yunupingu said. "Governments are too busy justifying their own garbage. I want to prove to the government that we can do better than what the government can deliver."

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Treaty Republic