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Lessons from Palm Island

By Steffen Lehmann - posted Wednesday, 23 November 2005

Indigenous people living in towns and cities have access to the same infrastructure available to other residents in these urban conditions. However, around 35 per cent (almost 100,000 people) of the total Indigenous population live in remote, discrete communities - most without a good standard of housing and infrastructure.

One outcome of the Indigenous Environment Forum held earlier this year at Queensland University of Technology’s School of Design was a recent visit by five architects and researchers to the isolated community of Palm Island. Their intention was to help develop a long-term town planning concept for the community, apply a reality check on environmental health and living conditions on the island, and assess the community's planning needs.

Palm Island is one of Australia's largest Indigenous communities only a short flight from the Townsville coast. People on the island live in public dwellings rented from the community organisation and supplied by state government. Most of the existing housing stock on the island is old, dysfunctional and in need of renewal. Windows are broken, roofs are leaking and plumbing is inadequate. But even more striking is that the community averages ten persons per house.


There are no reliable figures on the exact population of Palm Island as many residents are forced to move to Townsville to find employment. However, the estimated population of around 2,500 is squeezed into 280 houses - most with three or four overcrowded bedrooms. The level of dissatisfaction about such inadequate housing is high - occupants feel the dwellings do not satisfy the needs of the household. Around a third of the population is younger than 12 years and strong population growth is forecast over the next five years. The unemployment rate on the island is said to be above 90 per cent - double the unemployment rate for all Indigenous Australians. Thousands have left the island because of its appalling living conditions, unemployment and high rate of violence, and now live in the Townsville area.

Historically, Palm Island was a place where Indigenous people were sent as a form of punishment. The government relocated people from more than 60 Queensland different tribes, each with its own language, to the island from 1918 onwards. Victor Hart, director of QUT's Oodgeroo Unit, recalls that many of his elders were sent to Palm Island from Cape York during World War II. They never returned home because they had established families on the island and access to their traditional Cape York lands was no longer possible. Palm Island is a mixture of people, languages, traditions and customs. Island culture still strongly identifies with traditional homelands but also considers Palm Island to be home. A moral obligation exists for governments to supply decent housing to these people, yet, despite decades of housing funding, there is still a waiting list of around 300.

Andrew Boe, the Brisbane-based lawyer, who represented the community council in the investigation into the death in police custody of one islander last November, has visited the island many times. He points to some facts to give a sense of the institutional and systemic disregard endured by this community. This includes that alcohol-fuelled violence is a common occurrence, and that people have lost hope and feel a sense of powerlessness for their future.

Boe points out, “If one looks at the history of the island, one can see that this settlement was set up, managed and left to flounder whilst adjoining islands and surrounding areas have prospered.” He continues, “Palm Island's council is responsible for administering public housing, roads and education which in other communities are usually a state government responsibility. The council doesn't have the necessary resources and support to meet this responsibility and has, in that sense, been set up to fail.”

Canberra has recently proposed to “privatise” Aboriginal land. Converting native title claims into property rights is a complex issue in Queensland where most communities are still on old Bjelke-Petersen style titles.

The three pillars of every healthy community are the health of the people, education and land ownership. Terry Boyd, professor of property law at QUT, was involved in similar issues in New Zealand, where work on both housing and non-housing needs of Indigenous families and communities have been carried out for years. He points out, “for much too long, land rights legislation has been a cause of Aboriginal exclusion from the mainstream economy.”


Indigenous people living in remote areas on community title land share the same aspiration to home ownership as all other Australians. It is commonly acknowledged that home ownership is the key to personal satisfaction. At present, Palm Island is covered by a Deed of Grant in Trust (DOGIT) title and no individual can own land or borrow from banks using land assets to establish homes or businesses. Further, the island's community is split on the subject of changes to federal law and land tenure. New federal policies could allow the community to sell land to individuals and businesses on 99-year leases - subject to the approval of traditional owners. For many this policy may appear to be the solution that will create an enterprise culture within the community, based on the assumption that people would invest in their own homes and businesses with the security of long-term leases. But caution is required.

Home ownership is an important part of reducing welfare dependency and giving Indigenous people a financial stake in the wider community. What is often forgotten is that housing markets in mainstream Australia are as old as the nation itself. Aboriginal housing markets in remote communities will be guided by a sense of community and not by capitalist values alone. That, historically, Australian states have never entered into treaties with Indigenous peoples to resolve issues of land ownership once and for all, appears to be forgotten in current debates about land privatisation. One only needs to look to Maleny and local protests against the building of a supermarket to understand that communities are more than just market forces and profits. They are human landscapes built to maintain peaceful human cohabitation. As such, a market approach to housing will not necessarily be the solution many believe it to be. In a community where people have no money, things are complicated.

Palm Island Council leader, Erykah Kyle, is understandably suspicious and worried about the contentious plans for private land ownership on the island. “Given the current structure,” she asks, “can it be dealt with in a transparent and fair way, to the benefit of the island community, and not to the advantage of only a few?” Economic development is needed, no doubt, and decisions have to be made soon, but this does not mean they should be rushed simply to soothe the moral panic of non-Indigenous governments and people. This, after all, has often been the central failing of Indigenous policies in Australia for more than 200 years. It is certainly time to move, but also to move thoughtfully, if the benefits are to be sustainable.

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First published in the Brisbane Line on November 17, 2005.

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About the Author

Professor Steffen Lehmann holds the Chair of Architecture at Queensland University of Technology and has worked on complex urban developments such as the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin and the urban renewal of Hamburg in Germany.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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