Focus: Sydney – Aboriginal housing: abandon hope all ye who enter

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: (Published 08 February 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:393
  1. Simon Chapman

    Any town or city dwellers can expect that the house they move into will be adequately supplied with sewers, water, power, and garbage disposal. The West Australian Supreme Court decision establishes that local Aborigines can have no such expectation. Contrast this with the perception, fanned by populist politicians, that Aborigines are “privileged” by being provided with such housing as government handouts.

    A further dent in the image of Australia as being in the forefront of civilised nations came from last week's US State Department report on international human rights. This stated, “Indigenous Australians continue to experience significantly higher rates of imprisonment, inferior access to medical and educational infrastructures, greatly reduced life expectancy rates, elevated levels of unemployment and general discrimination which contribute to an overwhelming feeling of disenfranchisement.” Over 45% of Aboriginal men aged 20-30 have been in prison. Currently life expectancies at birth are 57-60 years for Aboriginal men and 61-64 years for Aborginal women, compared with 75 (men) and 78.8 (women) years for Australians at large.

    Two weeks ago Australia's foreign minister, Alexander Downer, emerged ashen faced from a meeting with the European Union's vice president, Sir Leon Brittan. An economic agreement had soured after Australia refused to sign it because of the European Union's inclusion of a mandatory human rights clause. This was the same Downer who on Human Rights Day in December said: “Human rights are an integral element in Australia's foreign policy because they express values which are central to Australian society.”

    Aboriginal activist Noel Pearson interpreted the refusal as a sign of the Australian government's imminent intention to legislate away native title to land. Ownership and obligations about land were also at the centre of a case in December. The remote Halls Creek council took the Western Australian state government's Aboriginal Lands Trust to the Supreme Court. The council sought a judgment on whether, as landowner of Aboriginal lands, the trust was obliged under the state's health act to provide standard sewage facilities and sanitary and refuse disposal for houses it erected for Aborigines. Unimaginably squalid Aboriginal settlements through many parts of the outback produce chronically high levels of hookworm, dysentery, and eye, ear, and skin infections.

    Remarkably, the court ruled that because it was a government body, the trust had no obligations under the act. The case revolved around the doctrine of crown immunity, which the court upheld.

    Legal speculation suggests that local government health inspectors could even be in breach of the law for entering lands owned by the trust. Historically both state and federal governments have been long on Aboriginal health rhetoric but negligent in allocating enough funds for ensuring environmental health standards in housing. While colourful Aboriginal cultural motifs feature prominently in tourism promotions, the probability is that the 2000 Olympics in Sydney will be disrupted by a bitterly alienated Aboriginal community.

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