ON lush islands off Australia's tropical northern coast and in the desert interior, three Aboriginal communities live in hope.
That is all they have, even though they are awash with money; a combined $127 million has been promised by the federal government to improve housing for the communities on the Tiwi Islands, Groote Eylandt and Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory.
In the 15 months that the $672m Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program has been on foot -- the biggest project in remote housing -- the three communities have been abuzz with talk. Endless conversations have taken place. Designs have been drafted and re-drafted in a mania of consultation that has even included discussions on prospective residents' desired bathroom tile colours. Yet not one house has been built and the pool of money available for building is shrinking day by day.
Housing was the big-ticket item of the federal intervention into remote Aboriginal communities in the Territory ordered by the Howard government in 2007. But the rollout of the big-budget SIHIP has exposed a bureaucratic rip-off of long standing in the Territory, where money for Aboriginal programs is systematically eaten up in bureaucratic expenses and consultants' fees or not spent on its allocated purpose at all. It is now clear the system, which for years has churned through billions in public money meant for combating disadvantage, has instead been responsible for entrenching it.
Former Territory indigenous policy minister Alison Anderson walked out on the Labor government last week in disgust at what has been labelled the NT's "bureaucratic gravy train", sparking a crisis that yesterday brought the Henderson Labor government almost to the brink of collapse.
The NT political crisis has brought into sharp focus the huge task that confronts federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin in overcoming bureaucratic inertia to deliver the promised housing. But there are ominous signs that Macklin's Aboriginal allies have already begun to desert her: Arnhem Land leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu's renunciation this week of his previous support for the federal intervention represents a heavy blow to the government.
Macklin has been steely in her determination to deliver the housing her government promised. She has put a rocket up the NT bureaucracy and building alliance managers have been working overtime this week in a frenetic attempt to increase the pace of their projects. "I'm absolutely determined to deliver on the upgrades and the houses and the rebuilds that we said we'd deliver," Macklin says. "It's the biggest housing package that has ever been put in place in remote parts of the Northern Territory and it's also part of a very significant reform agenda."
But confusion over the goals of the SIHIP has reigned. The NT government had publicly announced that the $53m allocated to Nguiu on Bathurst Island would deliver 29 houses, then sharply revised its figures upward to 90 this week in the wake of the SIHIP furore. The same occurred on Groote Eylandt: 26 planned houses suddenly became 80. Macklin's office insists the lower figures represented only the first stage of construction. That statement surprised everyone familiar with the rollout of the SIHIP in the Territory.
As the wheels of the machine for indigenous reform continue to grind and the urban consultancy class grows fatter, great risk lies ahead for the federal Labor government. The widespread doubt that exists among indigenous people at the Rudd and Henderson governments' joint ability to deliver on their housing promises threatens to derail the entire SIHIP.
The housing program hinges on the willingness of Aboriginal communities to sign over their traditional land to the federal government under long-term leases. It is a politically fraught issue that cuts to the heart of the battle over indigenous land ownership, and few communities have taken the step. Many will be looking at the progress of the SIHIP on the Tiwi Islands, Groote Eylandt and Tennant Creek and wondering why they would bother.
At Nguiu, a peg has been hammered in the ground. It marks the spot where Territory Alliance will put its construction camp, which has yet to arrive on the island despite 12 months of consultations over housing. Tiwi Islands Training and Employment Board chief executive Norm Buchan is deeply frustrated. "The only visible evidence that the people have got that something is happening here is this peg on the ground," he says. "The charter planes are coming in and out, the airlines are making a killing. There's lots of people making money out of this but there's nothing on the ground yet, and we're running out of time because when the wet season hits the work will stop, if it's even started."
A $600,000 construction camp that was recently used to house tradesmen working on the island sits empty, surrounded by tall weeds. Territory Alliance, which late this week ferried materials and flew workers to Nguiu, plans to use the camp initially to house its workers, but the camp, unsuitable for the wet season, will then beabandoned.
Down by the beachfront, the shell of two barbecues sit on the grass, minus their hotplates. They were built during a pre-vocational course for Aboriginal men due to be employed under the SIHIP. The course ran for five weeks with about 20 participants. The barbecues are built out of 22 bricks each. The men have nothing else to show for their training. "It's just training for the sake of training, and dollars being wasted," Buchan says.
In a shipping container that has been his home for 10 years, Walter Kerinauia is asleep on a bed in his lounge room in the midday heat. The floor of his home is bare concrete. Between the rooms, there are gaping holes in the floor where rats creep in at night and terrify his children. "All I want to see is a new house," Kerinauia says. "I would be happy and proud. People here want proper houses to live in. They don't want overcrowding. If the young people get a new house, they won't do anything like suicide any more. When they know they are getting a house, they're going to be really proud, and they'll look after it. I don't want to live in this old house any more." As the biggest project in Aboriginal housing falters, Kerinauia sits and waits. But around him he can see something else happening, and it has nothing to do with the government.
In a fenced lot a few doors down, a concrete slab has been laid that will form the basis of local school principal Leah Kerinauia's new home, which will be the first house in Nguiu to be privately owned.
Several other people in Nguiu have also obtained home loans since the community signed a 99-year lease with the federal government. For locals, the contrast between obtaining a new home through private ownership and waiting forever for a government-delivered dwelling is only too clear.
NT Chief Minister Paul Henderson has promised that 55 houses will be built under SIHIP by the end of this year. But as the wet season approaches across northern Australia, it is hard to see how this target will be met. When Inquirer visited Groote Eylandt this week, there was little sign of building activity. Three trainees were being supervised knocking down a wall in a house to berefurbished.
The concrete footings on just one house had been poured a week earlier apparently for a photo opportunity for an NT government minister's cameo visit, but there was not a strapped-on nailbag in site, and certainly no signs of new homes being erected.
Inquirer spoke to Simeon Lalara, who stands 190cm tall. His handshake would make a village blacksmith wince, and even at 46 years of age he has the classic physique of a middleweight boxer. It comes as no surprise that he has killed a man in a fight. His own father was stabbed to death by his eldest son in a family altercation. A century ago this man would have been a typical warrior leader of his tribe, revered by family and friends, feared by foe.
Yet Lalara, senior Groote Eylandt land and sea ranger and Warnindilyakwa clan elder, a traditional owner of thousands of hectares of the most beautiful island real estate off the entire Australian coastline, is homeless in his own country.
He and his wife, Eileen, have been forced to join the growing throng of Aboriginal people on the island off east Arnhem Land to move from the overcrowded housing on their community to tent communes on the nearby beach.
They are refugees on their own land that has been their home, traceable back for centuries. "In most of the homes here there are more than 20 people, with dying people in some, and there are newborn babies too," Lalara says. "All we want is a home of our own where we can live quietly and have a family life. But there are no homes available. We are told the government is going to build more, but we never see that happening."
Lalara has a full-time paid job as a ranger and could easily afford rental charges, or even instalments on a home purchase. But he and Eileen go back each night over the corrugated track to the tent by the water, cook over an open fire, fish with lines and a spear in the Gulf waters, and keep their perishables in two battered Eskys.
It's a hard life.
He says the 5 1/2 years he spent in Darwin's Berrimah jail in the early 1990s for a payback shooting of a man who had earlier shot him were more comfortable than the life he now leads as he gets older.
Richard Preece, chief executive officer of Groote Island's Anindilyakwa Land Council, says the three local Aboriginal communities have a floating population of about 2000 people, living in 212 dwellings.
The high percentage of disabled and infirm people, including principally those suffering from the tragic and incurable Machado Joseph Disease, has resulted in the demand that all new housing on Groote be constructed with bathrooms suitable for severely disabled people, and that they all have wheelchair ramps to the homes and across road gutters.
"The overcrowding is at a serious stage and the promised houses will be most welcome," Preece says. "This community has been the lead agent in a great many reforms, but they are being held back because of the housing crisis."
It is the clear view of concerned people such as Preece and others on Groote that overcrowding is the base problem from which all other problems flow. If people cannot get a good night's sleep, they don't want to go to work the next day. Children who have disturbed nights don't want to go to school. Another local issue is that all non-indigenous public servants -- police, nurses, health workers and teachers -- moved off the communities and live in Alyangula, the mining township on the island. The Aboriginal people have no everyday contact or interaction with non-indigenous families in what has become, although for reasons innocent enough, a situation akin to apartheid.
All the police are resident in the township, which is an hour's drive from one of the island communities, and there is no police station facility outside Alyangula.
Well-organised employment training programs operate on the island and, unlike the majority of remote Aboriginal communities, real employment is available at the local manganese mine which is owned by Gemco.
More than 1000km southwest in the red-desert Centre, Tennant Creek is the territory's forgotten town. Once a thriving mining centre, now there is no commercial airline service to the town, nor a permanent dentist.
On the edge of the gunbarrel Stuart Highway running through the middle of the town, which is 500km north of Alice Springs, a large federal and NT government-endorsed sign declares: "Site under construction". But in the town's seven town camps, there is no sign of any construction and very few "sites".
As in the rest of the NT, there is an Aboriginal population boom in Tennant Creek. And for more than two years it was planned that the town's growing indigenous population would be the recipients of "major housing works in the Northern Territory".
The reality is there are no new houses planned at all. And of the nine unoccupied homes that have been cleaned and earmarked for an upgrade in the past couple of months, there are just two that are still weeks away from having their refurbishments completed, despite the fact that works were supposed to begin in November lastyear.
Real work only started this June, shortly before federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin arrived in Tennant Creek to see for herself what was going on. She tells Inquirer there is "progress on housing" in the town.
Although the chairman of building consortium New Future Alliance, Brian Hughey, tells Inquirer there was never any intention to build new homes in Tennant Creek, this is disputed by his own project partner, Julalikari Council general manager Pat Brahim, and others such as former NT local government minister and Tennant Creek resident Elliot McAdam.
Brahim says new houses are part of the original plan, but everything changed once the cost estimates came in. She says the council's long-term strategy now is to train local indigenous people by upgrading existing homes, with a view to securing more government funding later to ultimately build new houses.
McAdam is angry about what he calls a "stuff up" in the Tennant Creek SIHIP package and has documents to prove his warnings about high costs for new housing construction were ignored by government. "I was being lobbied by local businesses who were saying 'this is bullshit, the costs are just inflated and too high'," McAdam says. "At a public meeting, attended by about 60 businesses, we were told by Territory Housing personnel there will be no management fees attached to the $30m, other than training. That's all appeared to have changed. I am now told new housing is not the priority."
Joe Carter, the workshop's manager for the refurbishment project and the Julalikari Council's Community Development Employment Projects co-ordinator, confirms that "initially, the plan was to build new houses here".
But the building consortium in charge of housing works, New Future Alliance, concedes that the issue of overcrowding will not be solved by building new houses. Supervisor Phil Bevan says: "It comes a lot down to the indigenous family structure. You could build a thousand homes out there and it doesn't mean each family is going to go and live in each one of them. Only a small number would be used because families will like to be together and love having their relations around them."
Carter concedes "the refurbishments will address the refurbishments but will not address the overcrowding, it never will".
"You can refurbish 100 houses and it will still not solve the overcrowding," he says.
"That's really one of the concerns with the communities, the overcrowding. We are trying to address the standards of housing, not overcrowding. In my opinion, the issue of overcrowding will never be resolved."
A small house that one of Carter's work crews was refurbishing this week in the Wuppa Camp will probably house up to 20 people once it is handed over to a town camp family, he says. "All these houses around us here will have 15 to 20 people in them; no house can hold 20 people unless it has got 20 rooms," Carter says.
Wheelchair-bound renal dialysis patient Alice Limbiari moved to Tennant Creek from Alice Springs about four years ago and lives in a rundown home in the Marla-Marla Camp. The aged pensioner is angry two crude concrete ramps and a set of iron rails she asked Julalikari Council to install in her home for better access ended up costing her $2000, which is being taken out of her bank account in instalments.
"We have no money to buy tucker. How am I supposed to pay for that? Why not build a proper new house? We were told that is what they were going to do," she says. "I need a new high fence to keep the drunks out. Most people want new houses because overcrowding is such a problem. Families come to visit from a long way away and they need somewhere to stay.
"Today we have two cars full of my friend's family and then family and my grandchildren coming too. We could have 20 people here in this tiny house for who knows how long.
"We want to have a good house."
Far to the north in Darwin, tradesmen put the finishing touches to the capital's new billion-dollar waterfront development, the proud legacy of the Labor government. As the sun sets on another perfect late dry season day, parents fish their children out of a huge wave pool, which sits behind the city's convention centre, a silver-steel symbol of modernity. The waterfront is an idyllic playground for Darwin locals, the kind of place where the town's public servants might go to relax on the weekend with their families. In the remote enclaves, such a life is something that Aborigines can still only dream of.