Schools and clinics in many Aboriginal homelands and outstations are likely to close under proposed changes announced by the Northern Territory government on May 20.
The NT government's Working Futures — Remote service delivery discussion paper outlines its vision for outstations and homelands. Under the policy, 20 of the current 600 remote Aboriginal communities would receive $160 million to become "growth" towns. These towns would receive priority funding for infrastructure such as schools and health services.
People living on other communities will be forced to move or commute for access to education or health services. Those communities will only receive $36 million a year between them.
Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin justified the policy to AAP on May 22: "All Australians have the right to choose to live in extremely isolated regions but this inevitably involves a trade-off in access to both market and government-provided services … Choosing to live in very remote areas must not be allowed to compromise the health, wellbeing and education of children."
The outstations were developed in the 1970s as part of the "homelands movement", when Aboriginal people, who had mostly been itinerant workers on cattle stations or fringe dwellers in bigger cities, fought for the right to return to traditional tribal lands and establish communities there.
The homelands and communities have helped to preserve traditional languages and cultures that might otherwise have died out.
The homelands developed alongside advances, albeit limited, in native title and self-governance legislation. It was here that the "permit" system first came into practice. This allowed Aboriginal people some control over who could and could not enter their lands.
Funding for infrastructure was dramatically cut by the Coalition government of former PM John Howard, leaving communities under-serviced and struggling without basic infrastructure.
This new policy could mark the beginning of the end for many communities, already under attack. The fact that Macklin has blamed Aboriginal people's choice to live on their own lands and speak their own languages — rather than conscious decisions to reduce funding in these communities by successive governments — has angered many Aboriginal people in the NT.
"There are still a lot of unanswered questions", Northern Land Council chief executive Kim Hill said on May 20. "We need to know exactly what the NT government means by 'growing' our biggest towns into 'proper towns' because there are real issues surrounding access to towns via Aboriginal land.
"Will the towns be open to all and sundry, and how will this impact on the permit system and Aboriginal peoples' private property rights."
"What you're doing is going back to the old ways of dealing with Aboriginal people, and that is to herd them into towns", he said.
Waturr Gumana of the Laynhapuy Homelands Association, which represents 26 outstations near Yirralka, told ABC Online on May 19: "The Stolen Generation, this is happening again. People are going to be taken out of their homes.
"Our people are going to be taken back to the main communities. History is going to repeat itself. This is not good. This does not give us the right to live on our property, on our land."
Joe Morrison from the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance told the Indigenous Community News Network on May 19 there would be health problems caused by forcing more people into larger towns.
"There's been a one-sided dialogue going on where it's been largely around the cost of providing services but it dismisses the other benefits. We know that cost of services in overcrowded communities is going to go up as well because people are getting forced into these large communities from outstations", he said.
He also cited a report released earlier in the week that argued that people on outstations were generally healthier than those in larger communities.
Meanwhile, Tangentyere Council in Alice Springs has rejected on offer of $125 million from the federal government to upgrade housing and services in the Aboriginal town camps it represents. The funding was conditional on Tangentyere signing its housing stock onto 40-year leases, a condition it has consistently opposed.
The offer would have meant Tangentyere Council became an advisory body for residents, rather than the representative and service-delivery agency it currently is.
Tangentyere Council had also expressed concerns that placing residents on standard public housing tenancy agreements would not accommodate the large numbers of transitory residents, estimated at 500 going in and coming out at any one time, who frequent town camps.
This would dramatically increase the numbers of homeless Aboriginal people in Alice Springs, where emergency accommodation is at crisis levels.
In response to the council's refusal to sign the deal, the NT government forcibly acquire the town camp lands on May 4. The opposition has called on the government to use those powers.
On May 22 ABC Online reported that Macklin said "town camps are in an 'appalling' condition and the government is reviewing its options".
But ABC Online reported Tangentyere Council president Walter Shaw said town camp residents were given an "ultimatum" rather than a real say in their future. He hopes the government will continue negotiating rather than simply taking the land off the people.
"The $100 million is there — the government has clearly identified that this is a need. At the end of the day, we need to move into true partnership: the town campers, the housing association and also the government", he said.