Review: Eve Vincenton Tess Lea

The House That SIHIP Built

Holes in walls. Broken windows, stoves and sockets. Leaks. Houses in the Northern Territory town of Borroloola are the subject of series of arresting close-up Polaroids by Yanyuwa Garrwa artist Miriam Charlie. These shots, as well as portraits of Charlie’s resolute relatives and fellow community members, were carefully set out in a glass cabinet at the Art Gallery of South Australia as part of the 2019-20 Tarnanthi exhibition. ‘I wanted to take these photos to show the world how my children are living,’ Charlie explained in the accompanying text. ‘The project is not to shame them.’

The parlous state of housing in remote Indigenous communities is also a central concern of anthropologist Tess Lea’s Wild Policy. Lea takes the reader back to 2007, the last year of John Howard’s reign as Prime Minister. Howard announced and swiftly mounted an ‘Intervention’ into 73 designated remote Northern Territory Aboriginal communities, putatively to address the sexual abuse of children there. Overcrowded houses were identified as a key factor, heightening children’s vulnerability to the predations of co-residents affected by substance abuse. Indeed, housing, Lea summarises, was ‘positioned at the heart of the dysfunctions wracking Aboriginal communities, causing everything from moral debauchery to welfare lassitude, unemployment to illiteracy’. The vision of new houses, more houses, better houses acquired talismanic properties, promising improvements to everything from life expectancy, school attendance, training, employment and health outcomes, to deeper transformations of sexual moralities, self-discipline, habits of saving and sharing, and family life.

The most expensive measure announced as part of the Intervention was the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program or SIHIP. SIHIP, describes Lea, was a ‘labyrinthine infrastructure operation’. SIHIP involved building 750 new houses, 230 rebuilds and 2,500 renovations – not where people lived, necessarily. This was no straightforward investment in homes or homelands.

SIHIP’s original remit was to build new, refurbished or replacement houses in sixteen ‘growth towns’ deemed central to the Intervention’s pursuit of rationalised and marketised relations between the state and its alleged ‘dependents’, Indigenous Territorians. Representatives of these sixteen designated communities, later amended to eighteen communities (and three town camps) were originally required to sign 99-year leases with the federal government, so as to loosen the communal inalienable tenure secured under land rights legislation. These leases were later argued down to forty years in most cases. The government, then, was destined to own SIHIP properties and planned to lease them under harsh tenancy clauses. Dispossession was hardwired into this ambitious housing program, at both the household and community level.

Enter the anthropologist, Tess Lea. Darwin-born, Lea is an acute observer of the everyday practices that characterise the wild, disorderly, and strange cultural world of the interventionist settler-colonial state. This involves committed and forensic analysis of documentary hulk, reading and deciphering pages and pages of detailed policy paperwork that repel close attention. And it also involves fieldwork: immersion in the everyday ways under study.

In mid-2009, Lea was welcomed into SIHIP program headquarters, where she mastered a fusillade of acronyms and observed agenda-packed meetings. By this stage, three teams had been engaged to construct and refurbish houses in the anointed growth towns, and each of these teams had subcontracted a range of functions to other companies, including Indigenous community-controlled outfits. An atmosphere of urgency, improvisation, determined-if-waning optimism and purpose reigned:

This was a place not of curated wall art, or tasteful foyers with welcoming seating areas and freshly replaced nursery plants, but of long workdays filled with torrents of emails, meetings, urgent briefings, paperwork, data entries, and carb-rich lunches hungrily eaten from paper wrapping and plastic containers over keyboards.

Lea’s entré into this world lasted four weeks. When Labor minister Jenny Macklin inherited the SIHIP program in 2009, she summarily ejected the researcher. Other personnel were soon to meet a similar fate. By this stage the flagship program was deeply troubled.

The houses that SIHIP built. Or didn’t build. Or built badly. It is at once an incredibly convoluted story and a simple one. There wasn’t adequate funding to build 750 robust houses

able to withstand the harsh wear and tear of coastal communities in monsoonal belts or the calcifying impact of hard water on the pipes and fittings of arid areas; that respected the need for gender separation in the toilet and bathroom arrangements when groups of kinsmen and kinswomen share the same space; that involved Aboriginal trainees and accounted for clan affinities; that insulated against the wilting heat of tropical savannahs and the piercing cold of desert winters; that dealt with wider infrastructural backlogs; and that introduced new tenancy management responsibilities.

Lea details SIHIP’s unravelling. Wide verandahs and disabled access were suddenly declared discretionary; media scandals broke surrounding the tangle of consultancy fees and outsourced private interests; Aboriginal householders remained markedly absent from the meetings where harried and expedient decisions were made about their lives. Ultimately, SIHIP was haunted by past policy failures, and left behind its own ghostly residues.

Lea’s 2008 ethnography, Bureaucrats and Bleeding Hearts, opens with an absorbing scene in which whitefellas scan mudflats for crabs, as part of an induction tour for non-Indigenous bureaucrats and health workers in the Northern Territory. There are also many Aboriginal bureaucrats and Debbie Bargallie’s recent book about the racism Aboriginal public servants face will no doubt prove important. Lea’s focus, however, was on well-meaning white people. One of the mudcrab-tour’s participants uses simulated bush talk to establish her familiarity with Aboriginal people, and all present were ‘anxious to please,’ straining to learn how to see the difference between the creatures’ holes and other seemingly identical pockmarks in the soft silt.

Bureaucrats and Bleeding Hearts was innovative work, describing and analysing the cultural world of people striving to do good via state programs aimed at improving Indigenous health outcomes. Lea enjoyed unfettered access that time around, because of her many years of employment as a senior Territory bureaucrat. However, Lea has since reflected that her first book was itself a kind of ‘village ethnography’, which transposed some of the assumptions of classical anthropology into a new kind of setting. By that I mean, Lea strived to see how meanings and beliefs internal to this bureaucratic workplace were made, and ritualised, came to be shared, and were reproduced. Her gaze homed in on the micro-practices and underlying faiths of this very particular world within the whole world, but in so doing it presented that space as self-enclosed, missing crucial interconnections.

Wild Policy also opens with a peopled scene, and takes the time to sketch and bring to life human particularities. Lea begins with a portrait of John Singer at work and returns to his circumstances throughout the book. Singer was taken far from the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in northern South Australia as a child. When Lea introduces him to us, he is middle-aged and back there living and working on his ancestral country. Singer is sombre, reflective and impossibly busy managing a remote-area health centre. And yet Singer still has time to muse, share childhood memories, and more recent personal stories.

Throughout Wild Policy, Singer enters into a rich and deeply intellectual exchange with Lea about the making of policy and the moments it meets everyday lives: real people, real buildings, real pipes, real kidneys, real needs. The disconnects are legion, bleakly comical, enraging, exhausting. Under Singer’s leadership, the relevant health service resisted the introduction of a dialysis service on the Lands. Resisted? That’s right. Singer found himself in an invidious position of having to wearily explain that a dialysis machine is not simply the matter of the machine. Skilled labour, machine maintenance, access to purified water, a reliable power source, a well-tended airstrip in case of evacuation, and underpinning it all, the guarantee of permanent funding are the preconditions to the establishment of dialysis on country.

Through close and finely rendered attention to Singer’s frustrations and strategies, Lea shows that he is one of many Aboriginal people who find themselves constantly working their guts out to wrench some good from policy. ‘Administrators still assume managerial naïveté on the part of their Indigenous counterparts,’ observes Lea. But this assumption is at odds with the reality of savvy operators. It’s over half a century since the settler-colonial state’s version of ‘self-determination’ demanded Indigenous people form rule-bound corporate entities. Lea shows that many Aboriginal people have amassed years of experience at conducting themselves in ways that are more state-like than the state.

Consider the COVID-19 response. Remote Indigenous communities seemed to be suddenly reconceived. Previously regarded as troubled places in need of fixing – and best left behind by their residents, who should be encouraged to go in search of the mythical Real Economy – they became zones of sanctuary, to which mobile Aboriginal people should hastily return and then stay put. Specific biosecurity measures have been put in place to protect Australia’s most epidemiologically vulnerable citizens. And yet, as Amy McQuire reports, the chronically under-funded Aboriginal Community-Controlled Health Organisations’ preparedness for and handling of COVID-19 has been quiet, assured, and proactive from the beginning of the year. ‘There was no one waiting to be saved,’ Apunipima Cape York Health Council’s Mark Wenitong told McQuire.

In Wild Policy, Lea sets out a series of tenets. First, Lea proposes that policy is a realm best approached ‘ecologically’ – that is, as a series of interconnections and interdependencies. Lea is ultimately intent on concatenating and so crams her account of policy making and its effects. And the ecological approach is both metaphorical and material. Vivid sentences are crowded with detail: the written form supports the analytical point in discussion that ranges over neoliberal tender processes and the qualities of foam, but is also thinking about critters, climate and country. Termites, weather, and, importantly, extractive resource industry ventures are also in the mix.

Rio Tinto’s recent destruction of the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge cave complex was a dramatic act of wanton vandalism and has rightly attracted much attention. But the interests and activities of extractives are often less eventful: agreements conditioned by profound power inequities must be negotiated and on Groote Eylandt, where Lea originally travelled to follow the fate of SIHIP, all kinds of hopes and intense conflicts become bound up in the process.

Lea’s second point is related to that first effort to attend to interconnections. More specifically, Lea rejects the tendency in Australia to treat ‘Indigenous issues’ in isolation from the wider national and global forces in which they are entangled. An example from my own work: how best to understand the trajectory of the cashless debit card? The cashless debit card represents an intensification of welfare quarantining measures, begun as part of the Intervention. It was initially introduced into small, relatively remote Indigenous settings. But I am only partially persuaded by analysis of the cashless debit card as settler colonialism, full stop. Of course, the sequestering of social security monies is usefully understood with reference to a long colonial history of stealing and/or managing Indigenous wages and welfare payments.

The reorganisation of social security carries a heavy promissory load, as does housing. It has been suggested that controlling people’s meagre funds will transform rates of school attendance, health statistics, diets, the rhythms of family life, and so on. But the largest trial of the cashless debit card is now underway in Hervey Bay and Bundaberg, Queensland, and affects mostly non-Aboriginal young people. Because of the reification of Indigenous issues, the homologous situation of marginal Aboriginal peoples and other people who have been consigned to an underclass is under-analysed. There’s a need to tread carefully lest the comparison is overdrawn and the impact of invasion seems minimised. However, IndigenousX founder Luke Pearson perceptively sums up the political costs of failing to attend to these interconnections, writing:

White Australia has long believed that the mistreatment of Indigenous Australians could never be perpetrated against them, but we are already seeing this happen with cashless welfare cards being rolled out to non-Indigenous people, work for the dole, and other punitive measures that were first trialled on Indigenous people. The denial of rights that Indigenous people never even got the chance to enjoy is now plaguing the rest of the country as well.

Lea’s third endeavour builds on past work to reject a maddening circularity within policy discourses, whereby failed state policy interventions seem somehow to support the case for more state policy interventions: a form of magical thinking that renders life outside of government-led policy unimaginable. And so she rejects an approach to policy that tells a contained story about a policy’s origins and duration. She also rejects an evaluative approach, which tells us where a policy went wrong and where it can be fixed, on the grounds that this is to think and write from the inside. It is to think and write in terms germane to the pre-existing logic of policy making. Lea is determined to scramble outside in order to think and write about those very terms with curiosity. ‘Evaluations reinforce myths of original policy coherency that this book is attempting to dislodge,’ she writes.

Method is Lea’s fourth and final concern. I found myself reading another work alongside Wild Policy, which might help explain Lea’s departure from anthropological conventions. Renegade Dreams (2014) is elegant account of the Chicago neighbourhood of Eastwood, where anthropologist Laurence Ralph sought to understand the myriad injuries, bodily and psychic, that life in gangland Chicago inflicted, as well as the dreams that sustained Eastwood’s citizens. Like Lea, Ralph is intent on tracing interconnections, writing against a popular and scholarly image of the socially isolated inner-city ghetto. Long home to a reserve pool of low-wage labour to be soaked up by larger economic cycles, neighbourhoods like Eastwood are now enmeshed in the global infrastructure of illegal drug circulation. But in order to know Eastwood, to really know this place and to understand it differently, Ralph immersed himself in day-to-day community life for four years. Approaches like the one taken by Ralph have been of critical importance to the anthropological method for around a century now. The joy of forging and living out relations, and the complex and long-lasting ethical entailments that arise from them, is to my mind something worth preserving (I say, somewhat nervously, while rushing to add that decolonising a plethora of other disciplinary assumptions is urgently needed).

What Lea provocatively proposes is that to study policy anthropologically demands a different method. Even if she had not been evicted from that policy ‘citadel’ – SIHIP’s makeshift headquarters – Lea states that would still have been spurred to move around restlessly from site to site into order to trace social policy’s leakiness, porosity, and its everywhere-ness. Never letting herself settle in, or get too comfortable, Lea works across scales and settings, visiting John Singer in the APY Lands and catching up with him in a shiny café in Adelaide; watching SIHIP houses go up on Groote Eylandt; working with the residents of Belyuen on the Cox Peninsula as they craft films about policy’s effect on community life. ‘Vertiginous and incoherent’ is how she describes the research process, in positive terms. The resulting book is vertiginous but the component parts ultimately cohere in presenting a portrait of the chaotic life of policy making and implementation.

Crucial to this portrait is an inversion of the state-dependents formula. This is why earlier I carefully referred to relations between the state and its alleged dependents, Indigenous Territorians. Lea’s point is partly technical, and wholly theoretical. She explains a system whereby a body known as the Commonwealth Grants Commission allocates budgetary distributions: ‘In theory, the CGC redistribution process gives each state and territory the same fiscal capacity to deliver a nationally standardized suite of services that, on paper, all citizens are entitled to’. In practical terms, because Territory citizens are sicker, the rationalisation process delivers funds necessary to the running of the Territory in toto. The image of a burdened state suckling its needy welfare dependents thus obscures a relationship of fundamental interdependency: Indigenous poverty sustains life in the north.

The bombing of Darwin begun in 1942, when approximately 240 people were killed in Japanese air raids. Darwin survived these attacks, just as it survived being razed on Christmas Eve, 1974. Like many fellow Cyclone Tracey survivors, Lea remembers an ‘uncanny howl of shredding worlds’ after the roof of her childhood bedroom was ripped away into the night. It was in writing Darwin that Lea first came to grasp at the ‘military underpinnings of continuing settler occupation’, a theme considerably expanded upon in Wild Policy.

Lea uses a concept developed in the US to get at the interconnections between everyday life, consumption, policy, and the military: ‘everyday militarisms’. Militarism is commonly conceived as something that occurs in a distant and extraordinary war zone. But militarism is there when rich red manganese outcrops and sacred site, Two Women Sitting Down, was deliberately damaged by a reckless explosion set off by OM (Manganese) at its Bootu Creek mine. The mineral is listed as a strategic mineral for US military operations, a fact that affects its global price. It is also there when the Belyuen mob design a creative project to document and share their intimate knowledge of Country with tourists via GPS technology, which was developed by the US military. It is there in the decision to rebuild the flattened city of Darwin after Cyclone Tracey: this mosquito-infested northern site has strategic import.

‘The embedded infrastructures of militarily enabled extractive relations that saturate our surroundings and make us possible are so omnipresent, they have become imperceptible,’ writes Lea. You are reading this essay now via technology that morphed from a military communication network into the beast we can’t live without. ‘We all live within a militarised existence,’ states Lea’s collaborator Astrida Neimanis. Everyday militarism allows us to see connections between things usually seen as separate. Neimanis gives the example of the Sydney factory where Agent Orange was manufactured for use in the Vietnam War, and where the plastic film that became essential to suburban kitchens, gladwrap, was also developed.

If the domestic, military and creative realms are not as discrete as we are accustomed to think, then, Lea and Neimanis insist, there is no place of denunciation. We must learn how best to dwell within the ‘space of complicity’. Reflecting on global inequalities, philosopher Bruce Robbins puts this more starkly. Robbins says of the people he teaches and addresses in his writing: ‘We are beneficiaries of the global capitalist system. We are not merely inside it; that is easy enough to do. We are beneficiaries of it. That is harder. But it ought to be something we can admit to ourselves and factor into what we say and do.’

I think Lea would agree with Robbins. But how one is to live with this everyday-ness, this everywhere-ness, is far from clear. It’s unfair to expect Lea to know and advise on this point, I guess, but I’m left wondering where this directive to grapple with the ever-present-ness of both militarism and policy leaves us, analytically and practically? Lea’s clearest answer to the practical question comes when she talks of the power of focussed coalition building. For example, Lea partners with architects, health professionals and others to insist upon and enact the importance of repair and maintenance practices. And she is persuasive in stating that ethical attentiveness, diligence, and kindness on the ground matter, as much as individual possession of such attributes is radically insufficient to effect deep structural change.

So, ultimately, is it convincing, or does Lea overcook the chook? This book is sometimes hard to read. That’s for different reasons. First, Lea works in a cultural studies department and has brought out this book with an American university press. The prose will excite avid readers of cultural studies, the environmental humanities and a particular sub-genre of American anthropology. Others will find the ethnography enthralling but certain discussions tenebrous.  The density of connections, images, abstractions and gestured-towards ideas overwhelmed me at various points. Once again, that’s because the empirical and its exposition are such intertwined questions—the style makes a critical point about how knotted together seemingly separate phenomena are. 

But the second reason this work is hard to read is that this is courageous scholarship. Wild Policy’s blast of originality compelled me. I was forced throughout to face things that are really hard to face: I’m thankful for that. And I share what I understand is Lea’s hope: that this tough, really-bloody-hard-to-do research will stimulate readers to think in new ways about policy making, and the determined resilience of those Indigenous people, like Miriam Charlie’s kin, whose ambient life conditions are shaped by it.

Works Cited

Tess Lea, Bureaucrats and Bleeding Hearts. Indigenous Health in Northern Australia (UNSW Press, 2008).

Tess Lea, Darwin (NewSouth, 2014).

Laurence Ralph, Renegade Dreams: Living Through Injury in Gangland Chicago (University of Chicago Press, 2014).

Bruce Robbins, The Beneficiary (Duke University Press, 2017).