Between the rolling hills, vineyards and mountain bike tracks on the capital’s outskirts, a mob of indigenous Canberrans have built gardens, classrooms, a workshop and training facility to elevate the employment opportunities and well being of their kin.
Holding horticultural, mechanical, landscaping and construction classes, taking on those sentenced to community service and providing housing to the needy, Billabong Aboriginal Development Corporation is an independent non-profit, operating on a mix of ACT Government funds and corporate sponsorship.
But now chairman Jim Best says the ACT Government is holding a gun to its head, pushing Billabong to sign on to a new community housing register that would mean surrendering their autonomy and permanently tying it to the whim of bureaucracy.
“We try not to get involved in the politics,” Best insists.
“But we’re between a rock and a hard place.
“In order to provide housing, you have to sign up to the framework and the [amended Housing Assistance] Act. Section 25S says if they don’t like what you’re doing, or they perceive a risk, they can appoint 10 or 12 bureaucrats to your board and take over your whole organisation. Not just your housing, all your buildings, all your plants, and they can decide what happens to them.”
Billabong’s only paid full time employee Linda Vincent says she doesn’t understand why the Government isn’t more supportive of the Territory’s only indigenous housing provider; the corporation currently manages 24 properties, 17 Government public housing properties, and seven of their own.
“You see in the media all these things about Aboriginal housing and how bad it is. But I’ve worked in residential property management before, these houses are well kept, we have no evictions, we can actually do it better than the Government can do it.”
Billabong has recently been offered a credit union loan to build more houses, but Department of Housing and Community Services director Maureen Sheehan says its Holt property lease will not be renewed until the corporation signs the register.
ACT Greens leader Meredith Hunter says she has urged Chief Minister Jon Stanhope to assist Billabong in a restructure that would allow it to sign up for housing activities as a separate entity.
“Billabong is a unique and successful community group,” Hunter said.
“It would be heavy-handed, and completely unacceptable if the lease for Billabong’s land has been tied to them signing up to the community housing register.”
Housing Minister Joy Burch says Housing ACT and the Registrar of Social Housing have met with Billabong Aboriginal Corporation on numerous occasions to work through their “unique concerns”.
“The primary intent of the provision 25S is to protect the ACT community’s assets should the provider fail, in that the assets would be transferred to another ACT community housing provider,” she says.
“Every other community housing provider in the ACT has signed on to the registration, and all have since become registered.”
Best points out Billabong, the 2010 ACT indigenous finalist in the Landcare Australia awards, is not like any other housing providers and does not have the resources to set up a subsidiary organisation to manage its property arm.
“Our contract is $636 a year per house for 17 houses,” Best says.
“If we can do the job, if we can keep people in tenancies, if we can create the process where they come from an environment where they’re on a benefit into part-time employment, affordable housing into the private market, wouldn’t that be the object of the exercise?”
The Chief Minister has given Billabong eight weeks to sign or they will lose their lease and not be included in the 2010-11 ACT Budget.