Thursday, January 26, 2012

Field trip to a former reserve

It's hot, and it's been a long day. We arrive a little after four, but we've been driving since lunch-time. We'd arranged to meet Auntie and the mob down in the village at three, but we got held up talking to some fellas back in Dubbo. They don't seem to mind.

"We're here to help," we tell them. "We just need to figure a few things out about the situation. Can you tell us what's been going on…?"

Over the course of two hours a steady trickle of cars roll in to our meeting place, with three or four people piling out of each one. Everyone has something to say - these houses are all falling down … nobody wants to talk to us all the way out here … they keep blaming us for all the problems of the Lands Council … someone told somebody not to worry about the rent until the company sorts out the headlease … we don't even know who the company is anymore …

Thirty years ago these houses were poorly built. Since then there's been a bit of money here, a bit of money there… but not much has been done. Much of it has been given to out-of-town tradies, who tend to breeze in and do half the job before disappearing with the cash. Nobody can be accused of nepotism that way. The houses aren't in such good shape, either.

"Up in town, they're building new houses for Aboriginal people," says Auntie. "They want us all to move up there… but we want to stay here. Down here, we're safe. We know where our kids are. We look after each other."

"Well," we tell them… "There are a couple of things we might be able to do. We'll have to come back tomorrow and talk to a few people one-on-one… go through some of the options and get a feel for what everyone wants to do…"

There's a big bloke - arrived later than the rest and waited quietly in his car for about half an hour. He's finally opened the door and stepped over towards us… "Listen," he says quietly, "we're sick of people coming in here and telling us they're gonna fix things. What are you blokes gonna do that no-one else has been able to up until now?"

It's a good question…

The next afternoon we run into someone from the Lands Council. They've decided not to try for PARS registration, opting instead to headlease all their properties to the AHO. They've got plenty of houses up in town, plus the dozen or so down on the former reserve. But for one reason or another, the houses on the reserve aren't going to be headleased. Everyone down there is going to have to move up to town. The houses down on the reserve are going to be bulldozed. There's simply no money to fix them.

"But," we point out, "Auntie says you're building new houses in town. Can't you spend some of that money on the houses on the reserve?"

Well, no, because the money comes with some pretty heavy strings attached. The only way to get money to fix up the former reserve is to become registered through PARS, and that decision has already been made. It's just not something the Lands Council believes they'll be able to do.

The Lands Council is responsible for everything on the former reserve, too, not just the houses. The roads, the lighting, the water and the sewerage works… everything.

They also have to pay rates to the Local Government, and the rent barely covers it. Even if these houses and all the village infrastructure could be fixed tomorrow, the debt to Local Government would still be crippling.

The Build and Grow Aboriginal Housing Strategy promises better housing outcomes for Aboriginal people in NSW. For the mob on the former reserve, it means being moved off the land…

"I've lived her for fifty years," says Auntie. "I grew up here in an old tin shed and I remember when these houses were built. We thought they were pretty amazing back then, but I'd rather have the old shed back now…"

For earlier Brown Couch commentary on the Build and Grow Aboriginal Housing Strategy, visit this old post.


On this the anniversary of the original displacement of Australia's Indigenous people, we acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which the Brown Couch sits: the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. We pay our respects to elders past and present.

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