Native title under attack from ALP

Under a scheme about to be rolled out by the Rudd government, Aboriginal communities living in remote parts of Australia will be forced to bargain for access to public housing by surrendering control of their land for at least 40 years.

But the plan is not just restricted to current Indigenous landholders.

In a move that will outrage Aboriginal groups around the nation, aspirant landholders in remote regions are also being targeted, with the government planning to refuse to release Commonwealth housing funds for construction of homes on land that is the subject of an unresolved native title claim or claims.

The plan is currently being restricted to remote regions, and will affect about one quarter of the Australian Indigenous population.

The details of the plan are contained in a startling letter from federal Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin to all state and territory housing ministers last month, a copy of which has been obtained by the National Indigenous Times.

In broad terms, it represents a national roll-out of one of the most controversial parts of the Northern Territory intervention — the compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal land for the reconstruction of townships.

It's also an extension of the Northern Territory Aboriginal land rights act amendments, which were introduced by the Howard government in 2007, and strongly opposed by Labor while in opposition.

Compulsory acquisition

In the letter, Macklin tells the state and territory housing ministers that Commonwealth funds must not be spent on public housing on Aboriginal-owned land in remote regions unless Aboriginal landholders first agree to lease their property.

"Ensuring sufficient tenure to support substantial government investment in housing and infrastructure on Indigenous held land must be the first priority in order to allow housing projects to proceed quickly", Macklin writes.

"The Australian government minimum requirements in this regard are... government must have access to and control of the land on which construction will proceed for a minimum period of 40 years."

The minister adds that "a longer period has additional advantages", although she doesn't detail what those advantages are, or who receives them.

Macklin also directs the states and territories to embark on a series of "tenancy management reforms" aimed at ensuring that landowners are not able to intervene in the relationship between the government, as the public housing provider, and the tenant.

She also instructs the ministers to ensure that if Aboriginal groups are acting as public housing providers, that no construction begins until they agree to be replaced at any time "if required".

In 2007, there were around 660 Indigenous community housing organisations fulfilling this role.

It's likely these organisations will be forced to either hand over their existing housing stock, or face being "starved out of business" by being refused access to Commonwealth and state funds for maintenance and other operational costs.

In affect, the plan represents a "compulsory acquisition" of, in many cases, substantial community assets built up over several decades by Aboriginal organisations.

There is no indication in the correspondence from Macklin whether or not those forced into a lease would be compensated for their loss of land, or paid a fee for the term of the lease.

In the Northern Territory, single leases (called head leases) over an entire township may qualify for a payment to traditional owners, but governments have refused to pay rent for leases on individual properties.

If the plan is enforced, the practice is almost certain to be challenged legally.

But the greatest outrage about the scheme is likely to be directed at the native title provisions, which will fuel growing suspicions Labor is planning to introduce a sunset clause, or deadline, on the native title claims process.

Labor indicated in opposition it would move to speed up the native title process, but preventing the construction of public housing on "undetermined" land is a major policy shift.

The government will also be accused of holding access to an essential service — namely public housing — over the heads of the nation's poorest citizens to try to leverage quicker native title outcomes through rushed negotiated settlements.

Currently, almost half the Australian land mass is subject to some sort of native title claim process, although not all of that land is situated in remote regions.

The land tenure reforms stand in stark contrast to Labor's position on this issue in opposition less than two years ago.


Then, Jenny Macklin — as shadow spokesperson for Indigenous affairs — argued passionately against an almost identical proposal pushed by the Howard government that would see traditional owners effectively forced to give up their land for 99 years in exchange for basic services.

After quoting from the iconic land rights song, "From little things big things grow", Macklin told parliament it was "hard to imagine that any other group of Australians would have their property rights treated in this way".

"What we do not want is decisions being made in a rushed or politically charged environment", she told parliament.

"We do not want land tenure reform being made a condition of funding for basic services.

"What we do want is an informed, open and transparent debate about the details of 99-year leases over townships."

Much appears to have changed with the realities of being in government.

In her letter, Macklin directs the housing ministers to move quickly on the reform issue, reminding them the Council of Australian Governments National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing must be finalised by no later than March 31 this year.

With less than a month to go, it's unclear when, exactly, Aboriginal stakeholders would be given their chance to have a say on the plan.

It's also unclear when Macklin was planning to open the issue for an "informed, open and transparent debate".

It's certainly never been aired publicly by the government, although last week while delivering his "Closing the Gap report card", Prime Minister Kevin Rudd did hint at a major shake-up.

While telling parliament that Aboriginal people who trashed houses would be held responsible, Rudd revealed that his government was "driving an aggressive land tenure reform agenda".

Ironically, he added that a key plank of his government's agenda was to work in partnership with Aboriginal people.

This plan will, undoubtedly, be met with outrage from Indigenous groups, and will be widely seen as a betrayal of Aboriginal land interests by Labor.

"They'll go down swinging"

One Aboriginal leader from the far west of NSW who requested he not be named for fear of retribution from the federal and state governments said it would be "World War III" if the Rudd government proceeded without properly consulting stakeholders.

"How are Aboriginal supposed to trust government to deliver housing for the next 40 years when they've [failed] for the past 40 years", he said. "And we're supposed to give up our land in the process?

"They might have got away with it in the Northern Territory but they'll go down swinging in NSW."

That Aboriginal man, and around 100 other leading figures in the NSW Aboriginal land rights movement, met in Cessnock (north of Sydney) on February 19 for the final day of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council state conference.

Macklin issued a written statement in reply to a series of questions from NIT.

"Since coming to office, we have driven an ambitious land tenure reform agenda", Macklin said.

"We have secured long-term tenure in Groote Island, Tennant Creek, APY Lands and Tiwi and are moving on upgrading and building houses for Indigenous communities.

"All Australian governments have agreed to secure tenure as part of the COAG National Partnership on Remote Indigenous Housing agreement.

"I have written to state and territory housing ministers regarding COAG's National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing.

"Security of tenure is necessary to improve housing in Indigenous communities. Secure tenure is essential to protect assets and to make sure ongoing repairs and maintenance are done.

"Houses built on land without secure long-term tenure frequently become run down and unliveable. Aboriginal people on community title land have minimal chance of safe and secure housing and available housing stock is overcrowded and run down.

"Securing long-term tenure requires detailed consultation and negotiations with land-owners and State and Territory Governments."

Macklin, however, remained silent on which — if any — Aboriginal groups had been consulted in this process.

[Slightly abridged from a March 5 article in the National Indigenous Times .]