Welcomed to Country

I finally made it out to the Northern Territory for the first time! More specifically, I made it out to Darwin City which is a good 4-hour flight from Sydney if the tail winds are in your favour. Not only was this my first trip up north, but it was also my first time attending the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI)biennial housing conference. A perfect location in my view for some open and honest conversations about Australian housing and homelessness policy, and challenges faced in the Indigenous policy space.

Even though it was my first time attending an AHURI conference, this was in fact the 11th National Housing Conference. The theme was Housing Future Communities and there were over 1100 delegates in attendance. Approximately 190 practitioners from the public, private and not-for-profit sectors presented on various topics that aligned with the conference theme. As expected, I had great difficulty selecting which sessions I’d attend as there were too many options. As well, my interests are numerous and they include evaluation, advocacy, design, implementation, cross sector collaboration, community engagement and innovation in policy to name a few. I eventually settled on attending the plenary sessions and concurrent sessions that were more closely aligned with my current peak body research.

In one of the plenary sessions, I was rather humoured by Patricia Karvelas, who is a prominent and highly respected Australian journalist. In sharing her thoughts about the state of politics and the impact this has had on gaining traction in housing and homelessness policy, she stated that many practitioners and the community were still coming to terms with the fact that  a Shorten Labor Government which had appeared to be a certainty had not materialised. Instead, there was Morrison government which was in fact a third term for a Liberal government. At this point she paused and asked the Assistant Minister for housing if he, the government and the Prime Minister had thought they would win the election.

To my amusement, the Assistant Minister shook his head to indicate that the outcome had been unexpected, and the entire room erupted in laughter. It was a somewhat therapeutic acknowledgement. All humour aside, Patricia drew attention to an interesting point I had not given much consideration. This being that in failing to anticipate a win, the current government had not adequately prepared themselves to hit the ground running with regard to housing and homelessness policy post-election. Naturally this has created additional challenges in an already stretched sector, and I suspect in other portfolios too.

Many of the statistics shared about the state of housing and homelessness in the NT were grim. I have known for a while that there are several major issues, however, I had not realised the NT homelessness rate is 12 times higher than the national rate. In addition, severe overcrowding and inappropriate housing options for the regional and remote communities continue to exacerbate the existing challenges of poverty, poor educational outcomes, illness and disease. For a jurisdiction with approximately 240,000 people and a significant proportion dwelling in remote and regional communities there is a lot to grapple with. The NT government and the sector have their work cut out for them and there is a lot to be said and done regarding the Commonwealth’s funding arrangements with the NT to address the massive shortfalls in funding.

I could not help but notice that there was a sense of “policy fatigue” from many of the presenters and conference attendees. I chose to tease out my observations in conversations with some of the conference delegate and quickly gathered that the solutions to many of the major issues are obvious and I daresay “accepted” as being the right solutions. However, the political appetite and will to invest a substantial amount in infrastructure and services leaves a lot to be desired. So we continually find ourselves in a place where what ultimately gains the attention of decision makers and gets funded remains largely inappropriate, inadequate and discriminatory in several respects.

On the more positive end of things, I found Darwin City to be a hidden gem with many charms.  During my stay, I chose to walk back to my place of residence each day. It was a good 15 to 20-minute walk from the International Convention Centre where the conference was being held. Walking enabled me to see more of the city, observe the people as they went about their business and reflect on what I had learnt throughout the day. Walking brought a sense of familiarity with the city and the “hey sister” moment I had with one Indigenous lady made me feel right at home, but thats a story for a different post!

During the course of my walks back to the apartment there were many things that replayed in my mind. These were moment that had caught my attention during the course of the day. The first was a performance by the Tiwi Strong Women’s Group and the second was the plenary session with Malarndirri McCarthy, Senator for NT.

The Tiwi Strong Women’s Group. Image source AHURI

The Tiwi Strong Women’s Group has been singing together from their youth. As mentors in the community, they share traditional songs they learnt from their mothers and grandmothers with young Tiwi people in the hopes of helping the young people connect with their language and cultural identity. When I did a bit more digging, I also learnt that the group of women are now in their 50s, 60s and 70s, and they have continued to teach and relay stories through song  to their communities and families. There was a familiarity with which they sang that reminded me of my visits to the rural areas of Zimbabwe when we went to see my grandparents. It reminded me of home and country and I truly felt welcomed to the NT!

As for the presentation by Malarndirri McCarthy, it resonated with the policy enthusiast in me. She said having good health in many communities begins with having a good home. However, a good home is not just bricks and mortar, but includes the surrounding environment. Therefore, the policy solutions that are brought forward need to be curated through inclusive co-design that ensures the final product delivered to an individual or community is culturally appropriate.  It left me with much to ponder on about the way policy is approached, designed and implemented.

Overall, the trip to the NT was an eye opening and enriching experience. I learnt a lot about the deep connection of the Larrakia People to the land and walked away with an even deeper appreciation of the unique history that has shaped many other Traditional Custodians from several lands that make up this Land of the Southern Cross – Australia.  One can never learn enough or know enough. Darwin City is a beaut, a place where the terrains can be sun drenched, and the sea, land, air and the Larrakia people seem to forever be in harmony. A place I suggest you add to your bucket list!

Until next time 🙂

Darwin International Convention Centre



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