Aboriginal affairs and the art of bureaucracy

Before the NT intervention, Alice Springs town campers, more or less, looked after their own housing affairs.

There are at least two truisms in Aboriginal affairs. The first is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I’ll come back to that one. The second is that the road through Aboriginal affairs, while often paved with good intentions, is sometimes paved with bad ones.

I’m going to assume that when Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin held a gun to the head of Alice Springs town campers and told them that unless they signed over their land for 40 years it would be compulsorily acquired, that her intentions were good.

Granted, she suffers from the same mindset which besets most ministers and bureaucrats — that white is right, and black is helpless and hopeless. But good intentions are good intentions, none-the-less.

As history now records, Macklin got her leases. Faced with the threat of forever losing the land for which they’d fought so hard to win back, town campers caved in and signed up to the 40-year leases.

In case you’re unaware of the background, Macklin’s play came shortly after the Rudd government was elected to power, and she began sorting through the mess inherited from her predecessor, Liberal minister Mal Brough.

I use the word “inherited” loosely, because, of course, the two major parties wouldn’t ordinarily inherit anything from each other — the whole point of winning office is to shred the other party’s policies and implement your own ideology.

But in Aboriginal affairs, both major parties subscribe to the “spirit of bi-partisanship”.
Of all the political philosophies that have harmed Aboriginal interests, bi-partisanship is probably the worst, because it virtually assures no political representation in the event that one of the parties gets their policy wrong.

The Northern Territory intervention is one such example. The Alice Springs town camp leases are another.

Prior to the NT intervention, Alice Springs town campers, more or less, looked after their own housing affairs. Eighteen separate town camp housing associations (representing each of the 18 town camps) got organized and formed a peak body, the Tangentyere Council.

Despite extremely poor housing stock courtesy of indifferent government attitudes to the slums that rudely interrupted the otherwise pristine Alice Springs, town campers at least had some control of their own affairs.

It was, as is well known, often against a backdrop of violence and dysfunction, but self-determination is the only cure for that.

Enter Macklin’s compulsory leases, and the perversely named “Alice Springs Transformation Plan” (another policy Macklin inherited from Brough, and another truism in Aboriginal affairs — if a policy is bad, give it a really inspiring name… like “Stronger Futures”).

Under the transformation plan, all of the town camps would receive major renovations, including civil works such as kerb and guttering, street lighting and roads. Sadly, at some point in the last few years, the money appears to have run out. The upgrades have not materialized. For as we sit today, most of the town camps look eerily similar to how they looked in 2006 when Brough began threatening compulsory acquisition.

But what the government lacked in the provision of promised basic services, it has more than made up for in the provision of mind-numbing, strangling bureaucracy.

Under the new leasing arrangements, town campers are still the landlords, but of course in name only. They hold a special purpose lease in perpetuity (which means forever) over the town camps. But under Macklin’s plan, they signed their land over via a sub-lease to the executive director of Township Leasing, a commonwealth bureaucrat.

That bureaucrat has then negotiated a sub-sub-lease with the Northern Territory government (Territory Housing).

And Territory Housing has then negotiated a “sub-sub-sub-lease” with individual town campers (which they call a tenancy agreement).

So while town campers are still their own landlords, they’re also tenants of their tenant’s tenant.

Only an Australian bureaucracy could achieve that.

And only an Australian bureaucracy could achieve this: one of those town camps is called Old Timers. It’s on the edge of Alice Springs, on the road to the airport. The camp president is Robert Hoosan. He’s lived at Old Timers for eight years, and hails from Finke River, hundreds of kilometres to the south-east.

Just over 12 months ago, an Aboriginal woman died in House 7 at Old Timers. Under Aboriginal law, the family must move out of the house, never to return.

Around the same time, an Aboriginal person also died in house 5. Same rule applied.
Under the old system — when Robert Hoosan and his community had control of their housing — the process was very simple.

“When someone passed away, we swapped houses straight away. Tangentyere would come in and clean the house up, paint it a bit, and then we’d move,” says Hoosan.

But the deaths occurred under the new system. Aboriginal law still applies, so the families had to move out. The family from house 5 moved into House 8, with relatives. The family from House 7 moved to House 2, also with relatives.

Obviously, that means that Houses 8 and 2 were now overcrowded, and in fact the original tenants were in breach of their “sub-sub-sub lease” with Territory Housing.

Houses 7 and 5 were left empty, and the only way they could be filled is if Old Timers residents applied to Territory Housing to shift around. And here’s where things get really wild.

Territory Housing’s “Transfer Application Form” is eight pages long. There are 135 potential boxes to tick, and 95 potential questions to answer.

They include such gems as “Do you or anyone living with you have any stock market bonds, shares or investments?”

My favourite question is this one: “Do you or anyone living with you own or part-own any real estate (e.g. land, house, unit, apartment, flat or commercial property) in Australia?

It’s my favourite question because in Hoosan’s case, the answer is “yes”. As a member of the Old Timers housing association, he part-owns the land over which he’s answering a myriad of stupid questions to perform what should otherwise be a very simple process — moving next door (he lives in house 6).

But that’s just the application form. Then there’s all the supporting documentation that’s required to back it all up, and that’s where things just descend into the realm of the ridiculous.

In order for Hoosan and his community to achieve with Territory Housing what they achieved with a simple meeting when they controlled the land, documents they may be required to supply include: Proof of custody for sole parents; proof of marriage or de facto relationship; birth certificates or suitable ID for dependant children for whom you do not receive Centrelink benefits; and proof of custody/guardianship for dependents other than your own children.

And my favourite: notification from household members confirming they have left the dwelling or intend to leave. Which is pretty tough in the case of Houses 7 and 5, because, of course, the tenants passed away.

And that’s just Part A. Then there’s Part B: proof of household income; current bank statements for all bank accounts; statement of assessable assets; proof of loans against assets.

And then Part C, which is required if it’s a transfer for medical reasons… so I’ll stop there.

The point being, this is clearly ridiculous.

Territory Housing will tell you that the process has been constructed to ensure equity in public housing and to protect community-owned assets.

Aboriginal people who are the victims of it will tell you that it’s been created to ensure that bureaucrats never actually have to do any work, because, of course, relatively few town campers are ever going to even attempt a “Transfer of Application” form with Territory Housing, let alone complete one.

So, in the case of Old Timers camp, the upshot is this: as we sit today, despite massive over-crowding in town camps, and despite a huge number of homeless Aboriginal people across Alice more broadly, almost one third of the housing stock at Old Timers remains empty, and has done so for more than a year.

Houses 5 and 7 are still empty, and so is House 10 (after someone moved out six months ago).

A for Hoosan, he’d hoped that all of this would have come to an end last week, when Territory Housing organised a Housing Reference Group meeting at Old Timers camp.

Unfortunately, Territory Housing scheduled the meeting for 10am. By the time the bureaucrats arrived, the town camp had pretty much emptied — blackfellas had got on with the business of the day, which in the case of at least one resident included having to go to court, a date that’s best kept to save you ending up sleeping at the local prison, rather than Old Timers.

Hoosan was furious: “They know it’s not a good time. If you have it at 10 o’clock, nobody is going to be here. It’s Alice Springs. Territory Housing know that.

“They come in and tell us what to do, push us around. But they should be working with us. They don’t.

“Our law is that when someone dies, the family moves out. That’s our law. One law. It never changes.

“Your law — whiteman’s law — changes every bloody day.”

Hoosan sent the bureaucrats packing: “You’re not listening to us. Get out. I told you 10am noone would be here. We live here, this is our land. Get in your cars and go.”

In fact, that’s not entirely true. Spiritually and morally, it’s obviously Aboriginal land, but Territory Housing now own it. They have a sub-sub-sub lease, and a mountain of paperwork to back that up.

Even so, the bureaucrats heeded Hoosan’s advice and left.

They’ve re-scheduled another meeting for a week or so. At 9am.

The more things change.

[Chris Graham is the former managing editor of Tracker magazine, now a freelancer and roving reporter for Tracker. He also occasionally contracts to Tangentyere Council. This article first published at Chris Graham at Large.]

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