Housing for Health in Indigenous Australia: Driving Change When Research and Policy Are Part of the Problem

Article excerpt

The failures of social policy in Indigenous Australia are legion, to the current point where the former national government declared a national state of emergency in its own borders. In calmer times, recommendations for solutions almost inevitably include a call for more practice-oriented research to increase the evidence base informing social interventions. Just as inevitably, researchers bemoan the difficulties of influencing policy and the culpabilities involved; while policy practitioners have equally standardized frustrations concerning the irrelevance of much research. Many understand this familiar division, almost affectionately, as a function of the different organizational cultures separating the academy from the bureaucracy. This paper complicates this longstanding binary by drawing on an example of an evidence-based program to improve housing functionality in Indigenous Australia, known as Housing for Health. Stereotypical claims about the cultural differences separating policy and research are replaced with lessons about the specific characteristics of those who would wield effective strategic-administrative interventions and are able to enjoin evidence to action.

Key words: research and policy, public housing, Indigenous environmental health, Australia


In Australia today, an extraordinary number of interventions were mobilized around the spectre of Aboriginal child sexual abuse in the Northern Territory, which has the largest Indigenous population as a proportion of the overall population. On 21 June 2007 the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, and the Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, announced a suite of "national emergency measures" targeting Indigenous families in the Northern Territory. The fast-moving and multi-pronged emergency response is difficult to describe precisely but includes alcohol bans, health checks for children under sixteen, deploying extra police and military personnel to stabilize communities, linking continued family welfare payments to school attendance, and dismantling most community-based elected organizations. The measures ostensibly follow the release of a report from the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse (see Wild and Anderson 2007).

This is one way that a research artifact-a report that collates published and verbal testimonials and data-can be used to rationalize potent pre-election declarations. In less heated times, the more standard concern among policy makers and researchers is with developing the right kinds of development logic and program interventions to frame Indigenous social reform. To borrow the words of anthropologist David Mosse (2004:639) the preoccupation is "with getting policy right; with exerting influence over policy, linking research to policy and of course with implementing policy." Just as commonly, analyses of the many failures, shortcomings, and disappointments of policy and program interventions will identify the cultural gulf separating policy and research communities as part of the problem that must be overcome if a better evidence base is to be generated. Australian political scientist Meredith Edwards (2005:63) describes the "uneasy relationship between researchers and policy practitioners" in classical terms: "each has different perspectives on what the problem is, and unrealistic expectations of each other."

The intention of this article is to tackle these normative depictions of the separations between policy and research and the best means of influencing practice, drawing on the case of Housing for Health, a licensed methodology for improving housing amenity in Australian Aboriginal communities. It explores the irony that the intervention that has proved most successful at contesting and amending normative policy discourses on Aboriginal living conditions, using applied research techniques to do so, did not originate from either policy or the academy. …