When Tony Abbott visited Borroloola in his first tour of remote communities as special envoy on Indigenous affairs in Sept. 2018, he didn’t find a warm reception.
"We gave him an earful," one woman from the small town, 700km southeast of Darwin near the Gulf of Carpentaria, told BuzzFeed News.
"I didn’t like how he supported the Intervention," said Borroloola resident Gadrian Hoosan, who told the former prime minister he was not welcome. "I followed him right up to the airport and kept talking to him." Hoosan was also frustrated at comments Abbott made that Aboriginal kids should get good schooling in English.
But seven months later, with builders arriving in town, some Borroloola residents are crediting Abbott with breaking a years-long stalemate and delivering desperately needed new housing to Borroloola’s town camps.
Abbott, whose appointment as special envoy was widely criticised, pledged to focus on education in the role. Starting his trip at Borroloola School, he asked how school attendance rates could be improved. Staff and community members urged him to go and look at their housing.
"Some people were saying, 'Oh, why are you talking to him, he's racist, don't talk to him'," said one person present at the meeting. "But we took that opportunity to show him the houses."
Abbott toured the town’s four town camps, where residents showed him houses that are ageing, overcrowded and in a poor state of repair. Some people live without power and water in small tin sheds, constructed as temporary shelter after a cyclone hammered the town over 30 years ago.
Abbott would later tell the ABC that Borroloola’s housing was "appalling" and the worst he had seen anywhere in remote Australia.
"He said he’d do something about it," one Borroloola woman said. "We thought he was lying. Then all of a sudden we heard that he was sending some army houses down here."
Abbott’s initial plan – a $10 million scheme to transport 12 decommissioned defence houses from Darwin to Borroloola – was quickly nixed after the Northern Territory government and community representatives advised they were inappropriate.
But now a new plan is underway. In the last few weeks, construction has begun on three houses in the northernmost Mara camp, with work beginning at Garawa One. All up, the Commonwealth government says it is building 12 new houses this dry season.
The houses are to be prefabricated in Darwin and installed in Borroloola, and are being delivered with defence department’s help. Ten demountables have also arrived for families affected by construction.
Asked whether the new houses were a result of Abbott’s visit, a department of prime minister and cabinet spokesperson told BuzzFeed News Abbott "identified the impact of housing on school outcomes" during his visit. Scullion's spokesperson said that after his visit, Abbott "sought urgent options for the federal government to bypass the Territory Labor government to deliver a temporary housing solution as soon as possible".
The development has surprised Borroloola’s residents, who are disillusioned with government after years of promises and inaction. The town camps last had new builds in 2006.
In 2009, $14.6 million was set aside for new housing in Borroloola under the National Partnership Agreement for Remote Indigenous Housing. But the money was never spent, apparently because of tenure issues, with the Commonwealth government requiring 40-year leases of land before funding houses, and a Native Title application ongoing until 2016. The agreement expired last year.
Speaking with BuzzFeed News last week, a number of residents expressed anger that they never saw the benefits of that money. "Wherever we go, we mention housing, and it just falls on deaf ears," said one woman.
A spokesperson for Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion put the blame for the 10-year hold-up at the NT government’s feet, saying successive NT governments failed to deliver any of the federal funds, and that it was still unclear when they will "simply do the job they are paid to do and deliver the houses we have already funded".
However, a spokesperson for Gerry McCarthy, the NT minister for local government, housing and community development, told BuzzFeed News the promised investment was not released by previous Commonwealth ministers, who wanted 99-year leases on the land.
The federal and NT governments have now struck a new deal on remote housing, under which the Commonwealth will invest another $550 million over five years, including in Borroloola.
The NT government has also promised to build 10 new houses, replace 28 more, and upgrade 18 across the four camps. It has awarded a contract for the first 12 houses, which are expected to be completed in Aug. 2019.
"The Territory Labor government recognised the situation in Borroloola and deemed the need for improved housing more important than concerns over tenure," McCarthy’s spokesperson said. "After the Territory’s announcement the Commonwealth made a new announcement to deliver 12 new homes (even though tenure concerns remain unresolved)."
It is understood that negotiations for long-term housing leases are ongoing, and are expected to be resolved in the near future.
As they see houses pop up for the first time in over a decade, many locals are attributing the change to Abbott’s visit.
In Garawa One camp last week, Darilyn Anderson (who is Hoosan’s wife), showed BuzzFeed News a demountable across the road from her house. "That’s Tony Abbott, what he brought," she said.
"It just happened so quick," said a local woman called Lizzy, who asked that her surname be withheld, and emphasised that even when the 12 houses were built, Borroloola would need more. "We have politician after politician coming out. And they make promise, promise, promise. But Tony Abbott made that happen."
Hoosan agreed. "I told [Abbott]: 'Look, if you want to help our kids in our community, you need to get us good houses' – which he’s done. I thought he was lying at the time. A lot of government tell lies. But then in the end, sure enough, he did get the houses done."
Abbott did not respond to a request for comment.
Speaking to BuzzFeed News on Thursday, Gadrian Hoosan clarified that he still did not trust Tony Abbott and did not have faith the rest of the houses would get built. “It’s hard to believe the Northern Territory government and it’s hard to believe the federal government," said Hoosan. "You know why? They’ve lied so many times.”
“I definitely don’t support and give credit to Tony Abbott.”