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Grand designs: investment in Wadeye

Posted: Wed, June 02, 2010

The Northern Territory's largest Aboriginal community is being transformed under the Federal Government's Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Project. New "suburbs" are being built and existing houses re-furbished in an attempt to address critical overcrowding.

A cloud of red dust hangs over the town of Wadeye in the latter stages of a hot and sticky October. 

In the build-up, prior to the welcome onset of cleansing monsoonal rains, the dust’s pervasive persistence sees particles settle over everything and everyone in the community. 

Ferried to and fro along the main road by a regular procession of trucks, vehicles and machinery, the swirling ochre haze is indicative of the activity occurring within the town.

Wadeye is undergoing a multi-million dollar makeover. 

The redevelopment represents a substantial investment by the Australian government in the Northern Territory’s largest Aboriginal community. 

Often representative of many issues being faced in remote Aboriginal communities, Wadeye can be seen as a significant test for the government’s major Indigenous affairs policies – the Intervention and the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP).

Attempt at change

Overcrowding in Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander houses is often cited as a major impediment to improving outcomes in health, education, domestic violence, and living conditions within remote communities.

Through SIHIP, administered by both the Commonwealth and NT governments, $672 million was initially allocated to build 750 new houses and rebuild or refurbish 2,730 more.  Budget blow-outs have increased the expected cost of the undertaking to $1.7 billion.  Highlighting the costs and difficulties arising from service provision in remote Australia, the oft-maligned programme has been criticised for a range of problems surrounding its implementation.  Among them, the percentage of allocated money absorbed by administration costs, failures to adhere to budgets, delays in construction, and modifications to original commitments on housing designs, are consistently raised.

In Wadeye the investment is seen as more than just a clutch of new houses, but an opportunity for small-scale social engineering and a chance to ease some of the tensions between clan groups living within the community. 

Using SIHIP funds, 105 new houses will be built and up to 50 refurbished or rebuilt. 

The government is aiming to have work completed by June 2011.

Construction is heavily concentrated on the satellite suburbs of Milhn and Manthape. 

By moving portions of the town’s population to areas outside its centre, it is hoped to prevent some of the violence that terrorises residents. 

Milhn, adjacent to the community’s airstrip, will be increased to 50 houses from five.  Manthape, about one kilometre to the west of Wadeye, will grow from 12 houses to 50.

Amidst the dusty heat, the community’s population of over 3,000 has swollen with the arrival of over one hundred construction workers.

New Futures Alliance has been contracted to deliver the government’s construction commitments.

As if not visible enough, workers move about town clad in the yellow and blue of today’s mandatory safety clothing.

Their presence is that of a temporary army housed in a temporary barracks.

Their fully catered living quarters consist of a series of portable buildings positioned within a compound of paved roads, lined with pavements and rock gardens. 

Troublesome legacies

Isolated and only accessible by plane or barge during the monsoonal months, Wadeye was established as a Catholic mission in the 1930s.

It is still often referred to by residents by its original name, Port Keats. 

The settlement brought together seven clan groups, each with their own language and a long history of inter-tribal conflict predating European settlement.

Today, the turbulent legacy of forced cohabitation is most superficially visible in the graffiti daubed throughout the community on buildings and signs.

Youth disengagement – wherever it occurs – is a social problem requiring long-term, holistic approaches.

Clan-affiliated gangs of youths fight regular night battles that on occasion turn into full scale riots.

In a bizarre twist, groups adopt heavy metal rock bands to provide identity through clothing and music.

Their names are scrawled on the walls of buildings and signs across Wadeye – Evil Warriors and the Evil-Licas (named after rock band Metallica) are two.  Swastikas are the favoured calling card of the German Boys.

The desired effect of increasing the concentration of people at Milhn and Manthaphe is to separate conflicting parties.

Dave Heron, shire services manager for Wadeye at Victoria Daly Shire Council, is hopeful the SIHIP investment will improve living conditions for residents and see a decrease in violence.

“Any movement of population away from the centre of town will help the social situation resulting from overcrowding,” he said.

“Improved housing will allow kids to concentrate on homework and parents to raise families.”

Mr Heron believes the promised quota of houses will be adequate to meet the needs of residents but qualifies his optimism with reference to Wadeye’s growing population.

“Wadeye has population growth about 100 people annually,” he said.  “This will require at least 12 houses to be built each year to accommodate new arrivals.

Also, the majority of residents are under the age of 25.  Many of these young people are still living with their parents and will require houses of their own.”

Mark Ninnal works with the local rangers and offers another perspective.

He welcomes the much needed investment in Wadeye’s housing but is sceptical about whether it will serve to improve relations between the town’s clan groups.

“The new housing is good but it won’t help,” he said.  “The fighting won’t stop.”

Camp dogs skulk about looking for a shady tree to sit under and scratch themselves.  Heavy metal music floats across the air from distant stereos.

A walk around Wadeye shows the extent of the work being undertaken.

Mushrooming in gay contrast to the dilapidation of much of the existing housing stock, the new buildings stand inviting with distinctive pastel colours.

In front of his house after a morning shower stood Roger Mullambuk. He towelled his hair in the early sunlight whilst surveying the evidence of another violent night. He pointed to an iron bar lying on the ground.

“They were fighting again last night,” he said.

“This time the Grey Evils and the Germans.  One fella got hurt pretty bad in the leg outside my house.”

His home is free of the graffiti that is present on many of the other houses in Wadeye.

A portrait of the Blessed Mary adorns Mr Mullambuk’s front door but offers little protection.

“Sometimes the gangs come to bust up my power box,” he said.  “I put padlocks on it but they smash them and we have no electric.”

Mr Mullambuk is awaiting the delivery of his new house within the new developments at Manthape.  He hopes this will allow him to avoid some of the trouble associated with living in town. 

New opportunities

The expansion of Wadeye has presented unanticipated economic opportunities for local entrepreneurs.

In Manthape a new store has opened to service local residents.

Previously Wadeye was home to just one store with a monopoly on residents’ food and grocery purchases.

As in most remote NT communities a lack of competition sees greatly inflated prices on everyday goods.

Whilst only selling a basic range of products, many Wadeye residents are now choosing to travel to the store at Manthape rather than shop in town.

On a much larger scale, Thamarrur Development Corporation (TDC) has benefited from the money flowing from government coffers. 

Following the dissolution of local councils across remote parts of the Northern Territory, in the wake of 2007’s federal Intervention, and the creation of larger regional bodies, TDC positioned itself to receive funding for service provision.

Today, amongst other things, the non-profit organisation controls Wadeye’s post office, garbage collection, a mechanical workshop, a nursery, and the local Thamarrur Rangers.

Of the 120 people employed by TDC, half are locals.

Additionally, TDC is being sub-contracted by New Futures Alliance for the delivery of a portion of the SIHIP housing through its civil construction arm.

TDC workers are completing four houses each month.

CEO John Berto boasts that contracts through SIHIP have boosted TDC’s turnover from $11 million per annum to $24 million.

Despite this Mr Berto claims a lack of government assistance is hindering the work of TDC.

“It’s been a real struggle to secure the support of government,” lamented the former Northern Land Council deputy CEO.

In 2009, TDC received $1.4 million for the purchase of a mobile concrete batching plant.

Located close to the main street of Wadeye, this plant produces prefabricated concrete panels of the type used in the construction of houses under SIHIP.

Theoretically, if funding were available to continue the construction of houses in the Wadeye area following SIHIP’s conclusion, TDC would be well placed to provide much of the labour and materials required. 

Self sufficiency on this level is much needed in remote Aboriginal communities.

Further Progress

It is estimated government spending in Wadeye reached $980 million during 2010.  This money has been directed to a variety of initiatives besides housing.

Building work has begun on a boarding school that will service children from surrounding communities and homelands.

Children and family centres, a new police station, school and homeland centre upgrades, a new bus service, and work on the town’s airstrip are also planned.

A $7.6 million clinic recently opened to provide urgently needed specialist x-ray equipment, a pharmacy, and an emergency room.

The commonwealth funded facility is the largest in a remote community.

October saw the signing of stage one of the Thamarrur Indigenous Protected Area.

Agreements between clan groups in this area are notoriously difficult to achieve and the creation of an IPA on the Daly River/Port Keats Land Trust – after two years of negotiations – represents a significant achievement.

In addition to facilitating the use of local knowledge in land management, the IPA presents some commercial opportunities such as the harvesting of crocodile eggs for lucrative overseas markets.

Speaking at the signing ceremony at Perrderr outstation, local teacher Alanga Nganbe was overjoyed.

“We’ve been waiting for this for a very long time and it really means a lot to us,” she said.

Her optimism seems well placed.

Story: Nigel O'Connor