The new attack on native title

The federal Labor government, in coordination with state and territory governments, is forcing Aboriginal communities to give up communal land ownership in exchange for future housing and infrastructure improvements.

The move preceded, but is part of, the NT intervention policy that was introduced in August 2007 by the then-Coalition government of prime minister John Howard.

The intervention targets all residents of selected Aboriginal communities. There are widespread alcohol bans and 50% of welfare payments are replaced with debit cards that can only be spent on food, clothing or medical supplies: a system called "welfare quarantining".

Now, WA is trialing a similar system with 70% welfare quarantining.

By definition, this legislation discriminates against Aboriginal people, which is why the Racial Discrimination Act was suspended to allow the intervention to proceed.

The ALP promised that upon its election it would conduct a review into the intervention. The Northern Territory Emergency Response Review Board Report 2008 released its findings in September 2008 and proposed large-scale changes. But the report was largely ignored by the government and almost none of its proposals were adopted.

What has gone apace though, is the push for communal land held by Aboriginal people to be converted into individual leases in exchange for vital community repairs and improvements — improvements that would be a simple right in any major city suburb.

In a January 10 Australian article, Paul Toohey — an outspoken supporter of the intervention — outlined why he saw this as important: "Town leases will create free trade zones within the vast Aboriginal land holdings of the north. When a town is leased, a business will not need to enter negotiations with traditional owners and land councils. Towns will be permit-free, with unhindered access on roads and airstrips to the major communities."

Toohey blamed the poverty of most remote Aboriginal communties on a lack of responsibility by its residents. "If homes were trashed, or found to be in need of routine maintenance, the likely suspects ducked for cover", he wrote in an article in the January 13 Australian. "Aboriginal tenants never had to explain a wrecked house to anyone."

Toohey's "free trade zone" model has been endorsed by Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin as a way of promoting individual responsibilty and creating jobs growth.

But the approach favoured by Toohey and Macklin simply blames Aboriginal communities for their own problems.

What's missing from the equation is the fact that the government itself has destroyed many employment opportunities.

The CDEP program, which included projects that were successful and profitable, is being wound down all across the country. Successful community patrols were systematically defunded under the former Coalition government and are yet to have their funding restored.

These outcomes have been recorded in submissions around the NT intervention and by health and social workers for decades. But the stories about the "lazy blacks who destroy their homes" is both simpler and more popular with the government.

In December 2008, Green Left Weekly spoke to residents of town camp communities in Alice Springs who were in negotiations for infrastructure upgrades.

"We want to hold the head lease", Mervyn Rubuntja told GLW. "If we must do this, we must be sure we are not giving up our land".

Rubuntja lives in the town camp of Larapinta Valley in Alice Springs. The government has proposed improvements in housing and repairs to sewerage in exchange for the town camp going onto individual leases held by the state housing authority. Currently, town camp leases are held by Aboriginal housing associations represented by their umbrella service delivery agency, Tangentyere Council.

Rubuntja showed us the camp, first won through the Aboriginal struggle for land rights in the '70s. He said that buildings and infrastructure deteriorated quickly because relatives would travel into town to visit, bringing the average number of people per house up to 10 or 12 people.

He said that the problem had gotten worse since the NT intervention started, with more relatives coming to Alice Springs to escape the prohibitions on their remote communities. Many are stuck in Alice Springs for long periods because quarantined income cannot be spent on fuel for travel.

The degrading of Aboriginal housing is hardly due to a lack of individual responsibility. Rather it's a result of the chronic overcrowding in Aboriginal communities.

This overcrowding has also been proposed by health authorities as one of the key contributing factors in cases of neglect and abuse.

Not one extra house for Aboriginal people has been built as part of the intervention so far.

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