If Australia had carried out a quinquennial census in 1776 or a survey of Australian housing in 1777 it is almost certain that all of the dwellings would have been classified as ‘improvised’ (Ross, 1987, especially Chapter 3), and any inventory of physical infrastructure would have shown it to be absent. By 1994, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey (NATSIS), the most careful inventory of Indigenous households1 ever conducted, recorded only 2 per cent of their dwellings as improvised, though some of the 6 per cent ‘other’ and ‘not stated’ dwellings may have been of the same kind. But not many, because 95 per cent of dwellings had a bathroom or shower, 96 per cent running water, 96 per cent electricity or gas, 96 per cent at least one toilet and 82 per cent were on a sealed road (ABS, 1996). On the face of it this is a remarkable improvement in the housing of Indigenous Australians, but it has brought problems as well as benefits. Even after a more detailed investigation, it represents a remarkable transformation. Some of the change has occurred as a result of Indigenous people moving into conventional housing in towns and cities. This paper concentrates on the period since the 1960s and on the northern parts of Australia where many people lived traditional lifestyles until recent decades. Especially in the past twenty years there has been a transformation in the living conditions of Indigenous people in the north, including those in rural and remote areas. None of which is to deny that severe problems remain with Indigenous housing.
Urban Research Program, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University 1998