Labor to force Aborigines off their land

Issue 

On June 21, Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin announced that her government would begin to end funding for infrastructure to remote Northern Territory (NT) Aboriginal communities that she deemed were "economically unviable". This is the Rudd Labor government's first major attack on Aboriginal land rights since taking power.

On June 21, Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin announced that her government would begin to end funding for infrastructure to remote Northern Territory (NT) Aboriginal communities that she deemed were "economically unviable". This is the Rudd Labor government's first major attack on Aboriginal land rights since taking power.

Macklin's comments were made on the first anniversary of the NT intervention. The following day there were nation-wide protests against the racist Howard-era policy which has allowed for a massive police and military invasion into remote Aboriginal communities. The policy also promotes new forms of social control, such as the quarantining of welfare, in a supposed bid to end child abuse.

A year ago, many Aboriginal activists condemned the policy as a "racist land grab", and argued that the sudden concern about child abuse was a smokescreen for policies that would allow Aboriginal people to be pushed off their land. The legislation passed didn't even mention the words "child" or "children".

Following the Rudd government's apology to the Stolen Generation in January, many had high hopes that Canberra would break with past policies concerning Aboriginal Australia. But Macklin's comments reveal that this is not the case.

Macklin said that communities that failed to attract private capital should no longer receive federal funding for infrastructure, and that people from such "unviable" communities would be "encouraged" to move to larger communities.

Already communities are struggling to meet peoples' basic needs: the Ngaanyatjarra Council, which manages 11 of Western Australia's Aboriginal communities, says it will struggle to deliver water, power and sewerage services to residents after a federal government decision to cut its funding.

According to the Northern Lands Council, there are approximately 600 communities across the NT: nearly half the territory is owned by Aboriginal people compared to just 14% nationally. Some 60,000 Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander people live in the NT, about 29% of the territory's population, compared to 2.4% nationally.

In the 19th century, Aboriginal people across remote Australia congregated around European missions because missionaries would provide food, water and other provisions. By the 20th century huge reserves, such as Yuendumu and Papunya, were built to contain the settlements and became convenient sites for the missions' assimilationist policies, which were pursued intensely through the 1930s and '40s.

Governments used the large reserves to train Aboriginal people in menial labour, discouraging their nomadic, subsistence-based way of life that existed before the European invasion and settlement. The reserves continued to grow, maintained by Commonwealth and territory rule, and virtually became Aboriginal townships.

From 1960 to 1975, Aboriginal people started to receive welfare payments separate to what they were given through the reserves.

It was around this time that Aboriginal people's entitlement to land was, at last, recognised. In 1975, acquiescing to the pressure from the land rights movement, the Whitlam Labor government proposed a bill based on the recommendations of the Woodward Commission.

The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act, 1976, recognised the rights of Aboriginal people to claim land and manage the resources of that land through land councils.

By 1977, 20% of the NT was Aboriginal-owned and the people sought to move away from the reserves and stations back to the land. This is referred to as the "outstation" or "homeland" movement. This was in part a way of appeasing the European legal system by proving their continued ownership and use of land.

Individual land councils were built, and self-determination became the predominant force. Small communities spread across the NT, setting themselves up from anywhere between 16 to 80.5 kilometres out from the original stations.

At first, funding flowed to these communities from the Commonwealth government, with the NT government funding the remote townships they gathered around. These settlements were seen as a way for Aboriginal people to develop their local economies, and maintain their traditions and culture as their role in the workforce increased. It was never seen, by those who advocated it, as the creation of Aboriginal "ghettos", but as a way for Aborigines to become economic equals with the rest of Australia.

However, as communities' land rights began to be frustrated by political pressure from pastoral lobbyists and, later, conservative politicians, the communities lost support for their land claims.

The remote communities have struggled for years, with little funding — territory or federal — and barely any infrastructure.

Macklin's directive that communities only receive funding if they are judged to be "economically viable" ignores the dire poverty that these communities have been forced to endure, the result, largely, of a lack of government support over many decades.

By declaring communities "economically unviable", the Rudd government is destroying some of the most vital vestiges of native title in the country — the continuous connection to land for a start — and shattering the hopes of those who believed that Labor would work to improve Aboriginal rights and living standards.