What has water got to do with it? Indigenous public housing and Australian settler-colonial relations

Tess Lea

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Recent scholarly efforts to recognize water rights and water fights have been driven into being through various territorial disputes. In such work, water is usefully treated as a form of imagined soil that can be mapped, as a liquid habitat with nutrients to haul or as a mining site with resources to be extracted. This paper instead draws from the physics of water to reconceptualize policy's corrosions in everyday worlds, as an intervention into the human-centrism of conventional policy analyses, as part of an approach I am calling a policy ecology. Using case studies drawn from the largest Indigenous public housing and infrastructure program conducted in Australia to date, here I trace the path of water into the cracks of human-made forms. The scale of the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program was unprecedented and its history has already been written as one of unintended consequences amid mostly welcome material benefits. In treating water as a body that acts, rather than a body that can be (re)territorialized through contest, this paper tries to erode analyses which approach Indigenous social policy as an equation of bureaucracy plus good and/or misdirected will, which soon routes the traffic of critical analysis toward case study evaluations of where and how implementation goes wrong and how it might be corrected. I call this policy teleology, in contrast with policy ecology, by which I mean both the ecology of the policy environments themselves and the variegated connections that stem from and flow through the alive, inhabited worlds that policy is entering into – the coalescences between humans and multiple other forces which help shape the policy category known as ‘Indigenous living conditions’. The tale of water as itself transformative and animate is an attempt to recover more porous images of self and nature that might feed into understandings of policy unfurling, without denying the naturalized images of improvable human processes through settler-colonial intervention that underlies such an ambition.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)375-386
Number of pages12
JournalSettler Colonial Studies
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2 Oct 2015


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