In a surprise move, former Northern Land Council chairperson Galarrwuy Yunupingu has reversed his opposition to the Howard government's intervention into NT Aboriginal communities and, on September 20, announced that he had made a deal with federal Indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough to enter into 99-year leases to Canberra of parts of his traditional land in north-east Arnhem Land.
In exchange for the leases, the federal government has promised to upgrade services and to help future economic development at the Arnhem Land town of Ski Beach, which is on Yunupingu's traditional land.
Yunupingu was previously a harsh critic of the NT intervention. But he now says that after a six-hour secret meeting with Brough on August 21, which was brokered by Cape York Institute director Noel Pearson, his fears of the NT intervention being an attack on Native Title rights have been allayed.
The 99-year lease system, which the Howard government is offering to all Aboriginal townships in the NT, converts freehold native title into government land in exchange for funding for the infrastructure necessary for services such as health care and education.
These 99-year leases are an extended version of the five-year leases that the Howard government is imposing on more than 70 Aboriginal towns in the NT under its "emergency" intervention plan that places the lives of their inhabitants under the management of federal government bureaucrats.
The deal Yunupingu has managed to make with Brough places Ski Beach under a proposed "Mala Elders' Group", which will therefore mean that there will remain some Indigenous control over the township. This is similar to the pilot program run on the Cape York Peninsula by Pearson, under which an "elders' group", rather than government bureaucrats, oversees management of the assets of the local Aboriginal community.
By contrast, a 99-year lease signed with the government by the Tiwi Islanders on September 6, lacks any such provisions for Indigenous input into decision-making and was signed in exchange for $5 million in funding and 25 new houses. Such public housing would exist already in any white community of a similar size.
The Ski Beach deal also only leases certain parts of the land to the government, rather than the whole area, as is the case with all other Indigenous freehold land now that the NT intervention legislation has passed both houses of the federal parliament.
The disparity has led some to question whether the public support that Pearson and Yunupingu have given to the NT intervention — as well as their reputations as Indigenous leaders — has enabled to them to secure better deals from the government than they otherwise would have gotten.
Olga Havnen, of the newly formed National Aboriginal Alliance (NAA), told the September 20 Sydney Morning Herald that the Ski Beach deal placed Yunupingu's previous statements of opposition to the policy in question.
"You might go so far as to suggest it's rather opportunistic", she said. "You'd have to ask how genuine is that support, or is it about self-interest?"
The SMH also reported that some Ski Beach residents were also deeply worried about what Yunupingu had done on their behalf.
ABC News reported on September 21 that an "Arnhem Land elder says other clan groups do not support" the deal, and on September 25 that leaders from Yirrkala and Laynhapuy, in east Arnhem Land "say it is unacceptable for the Commonwealth to strike deals with individuals. Yananymul Mununggurr from the Djapu Clan at Yirrkala says under the Land Rights Act other affected traditional owners in the region must be consulted before any agreement is approved."
Mununggurr said: "The government is not consulting with all of the leaders. Each clan has our own leader and what the government is doing is they are cherry picking the leaders and they think they know who our leaders are but they don't."
The NAA has maintained its opposition to the NT intervention, earning it the ire of Brough, who told the September 20 SMH: "I have no willingness to work with a group that actually puts out a flier that says 'come and talk about the invasion of the NT'."
NAA leaders Havnen and Pat Turner defended their position at a October 5 public forum in Redfern. "Of 700 pages of legislation that we received to review in one day before the legislation was set to pass the Senate", said Turner, "the word 'child', or 'children' or 'child protection' did not appear once in those 700 pages.
"This [child protection] is the Trojan Horse used to attack Native Title… there have been rooms full of reports to do with the poor conditions of Indigenous people in this country, and it's only this one — in an election year — that the government has decided to act upon."
Havnen said that there was some hope when the intervention was first talked about that there would be more money for services. Half the money has been slated however to fund the bureaucracy needed to implement the intervention and $88 million is being used to administer the "quarantining" of welfare payments, where all Indigenous people in the NT who were on welfare payments on June 22 now have 50% of their payments converted into "essentials only" expenses. They cannot spend this on alcohol, pornography or cigarettes and must line up each fortnight with photo ID to receive store vouchers instead.
Havnen also attacked the ending of the Community Development Employment Program, which she said was closed down because, as CDEP payments are actually wages, the government had no power to quarantine them like welfare payments.
The forum endorsed nationwide actions on October 15 to oppose the NT intervention.