In a new lease deal proposed by Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny Macklin in early May, Aboriginal people in Alice Springs town camps could lose control over their housing.
The proposal requires residents of the town camps to sign their land over to the Northern Territory government on 40-year leases in exchange for $125 million in much-needed infrastructure and housing improvements, and accommodation services.
Of that, $25 million will be granted regardless of the outcome of negotiations. However, Macklin has made it clear that the lease deal will need to be agreed upon before the rest is made available.
"Lease arrangements are required to secure the major public investment in the camps, reform tenancy management and improve housing standards for town camp residents", Macklin said on May 5. "The Australian and Northern Territory governments have been consistent about the requirements for leases to begin work on new houses and upgrades."
The Alice Springs town camps were established because Aboriginal people fought for their own housing and land within the township. There are huge transitory populations, as Aboriginal people often stay with family when visiting Alice Springs for health treatments or legal matters.
Chronic under-funding of town camp infrastructure has led to overcrowding and poor services in most town camps.
The town camps are represented by Tangentyere Council, which also provides locally organised services such as night patrols. Tangentyere Council has been given until May 21 to accept or reject the lease deal, but CEO William Tilmouth has been deeply critical of the government's offer and the negotiation process.
"Labor has closed the door on negotiations, it's their way or the highway and it's the same as under [former Coalition Aboriginal affairs minister] Mal Brough", Tilmouth told CAAMA Radio on March 19.
He said there was much ambiguity in the deal. Issues such as residents' control over who could enter their land, whether rents would change and the role of representative organisations were all unanswered by government information on the deal.
"The government's argument is that they want to secure their investment in relation to the infrastructure and the housing", Tilmouth said. "But there has always been easements [in town camp agreements] that have guaranteed access for infrastructure repairs ... Why should Aboriginal people have to give up their whole block of land for infrastructure?"
There is also the threat that the federal government could use its legal authority to forcibly acquire the land, regardless of the decision of the land's owners.
Town camps are often last-resort accommodation for Aboriginal people the mainstream public housing system has failed. By "mainstreaming" the town camps, with all the harsher residency requirements that entails, the place of last resort would no longer exist.
"Aboriginal people will go back to the scrub, where they started", Tilmouth told CAAMA on March 24. "It's a push back to the old days, 30 years ago. That's how Tangentyere came about, as a need to accommodate these people."
Tangentyere Council's role would be downgraded from a representative organisation to an advisory committee, further reducing Aboriginal people's control of their own services.
Tilmouth cited previous difficulties with accessing funding for community-controlled services. For example, the night patrol service got irregular funding, even though it was successful in reducing violence and alcohol abuse in town camps.
He said: "Historically Aboriginal people have never received the funding at the level that they should have been funded at. Historically Aboriginal people have been set up to fail by being given a pittance of what's been necessary to do the job properly. If Tangentyere had been funded properly we'd be way ahead of the ball game in regards to municipal services and housing repairs, in regards to visitors and [transitory] populations and mobility."
As an alternative to the deal, Tilmouth said a community-based housing model would be more effective as it would meet the needs of the Aboriginal community.
"People asked why the government didn't just give the money to Tangentyere and let us get on with the job, but they got no answer to that", he said.
"People want the money, they do welcome the money, but they are reluctant to relinquish the control because once you do that you never get it back. Or if you do, you get it back in 40 years time, which is way beyond any of our lifetimes."