“Perth land costs surge to highest in nation” was the front page of headlines of the West Australian newspaper earlier this week. A square metre of land in Perth now costs $563 according to the latest Housing Industry Association survey, more expensive per square metre than buying land in Sydney. In order to build homes for themselves families have to move to the fringes of the Perth metropolitan area and put themselves under extreme financial and physical pressure to remain part of the Great Australian dream of home ownership. The further remote from the metropolitan area we build, the greater cost in terms of increasing number of vehicles on the road, longer commute times, increasing demand for extending public transport, demand for public facilities, schools, shops, hospitals. The list goes on and on. These are costs borne not only by those who live on the expanding fringes but by all of us as a society.
Why then is it that we place so much value on finding a piece of land that we can call home? Why would a young couple, like those in the article, want to put themselves under such physical, emotional and financial pressure to stake their part of such a dream? Is it just a cultural norm or perhaps the answer lies in the creation of our very identity?
Indigenous peoples of the world and in particular Indigenous Australians can perhaps answer that question. It is that connection to place that truly defines who we are. For Indigenous Australians the connection to country, the place they and their ancestors were born and lived define who they are. The recently screened ABC documentary ‘Kakadu’ highlights this. The Bininj/Mungguy peoples who have lived on and cared for the land in Kakadu for more than 40,000 years are closely enmeshed with their environment and its seasons. They can walk through a land and feel the presence of the ancestors in the track ways and art they left behind them. Threats to that environment through invasive species, mining or climate change threaten the very identity of the peoples who live there.
Social Psychology teaches us that we constantly construct our identities through the places within which we interact with others. ‘Places’ are not just the physical ones we inhabit as homes, they are the positions and roles we hold and the status that grants us. Our personal and collective identities are linked to our experiences of place. I identify myself as a £10 pom that grew up in country Western Australia at a particular time in our nation’s history. When I visit the place of my birth, which I left as a young child, my identity connects with the place my parents grew up it. For most of us, our home is more than the physical place in which we reside; it is woven into our very sense of self. Home provides a place of refuge from the world and at the same time provides that sense of connection to family and community.
Are you able to imagine the effect on those who cannot afford the Great Australian dream? Those from low income households, from struggling migrant families, those with physical or mental disabilities or those marginalised by society, like Indigenous Australians. These are the people who cannot afford to buy a home or secure appropriate accommodation. How do they define their sense of identity? How do they find that secure, affordable and appropriate housing that is essential for both mental and physical wellbeing? How are they able to take ownership of the places they occupy to suit their preferences and needs when the political and legal systems support short term leases and the rights of property owners over tenants.
The latest report “Renovating housing policy’ from the Grattan Institute says that Government policies that favour home ownership by high-income households are worsening the divide between those who can afford the Great Australian dream and those who cannot. Policies such as negative gearing, short term rental contracts, tax incentives, may push up prices and make it far harder for people to buy their first homes. Government expenditure on home owners is about $36 billion a year at the moment yet rental assistance is about 1/10th of this figure. Effectively those who can afford the least are being given the least through current Government policies. Those who have the least wealth in Australia are being prevented are being prevented from improving their situation. The report suggest that it is time to change such policies that disadvantage some members of our society by benefiting others.
When the Australian Catholic Bishops speak of fighting world poverty in their 2013-2014 Social Justice statement, they are not just talking of tackling extreme forms of poverty we witness in the developing world but also addressing those systemic causes of poverty in our communities.
“This face of inequality and poverty, so prevalent around the world and here at home, is often related to a history of dispossession and the loss of self-determination in the life of families and communities. And while this history demands a reconciliation that will heal the wounds suffered over generations, there remains an urgency to address the needs of our brothers and sisters. As Pope John Paul II said during his historic visit to Alice Springs in 1986: … what has been done cannot be undone. But what can now be done to remedy the deeds of yesterday must not be put off till tomorrow “
(LAZARUS AT OUR GATE: A CRITICAL MOMENT IN THE FIGHT AGAINST WORLD POVERTY Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, pg 9)