Finishing what Howard started: major attack on land rights

May 31, 2009

New policies announced by the federal ALP Aboriginal affairs minister, Jenny Macklin, turn back the clock on Aboriginal land rights more than 30 years.

Ironically, her announcements were made just prior to Reconciliation Week.

Macklin announced the federal government would use its powers to take over the Alice Springs town camps that, until now, were under Indigenous control.

The government also plans to cut services to most of the 600 Aboriginal homelands and communities in the NT. This will force people to move to 20 communities the government has selected as "growth towns".

Both of these announcements are major attacks on Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory. They seek to reverse the historic gains of the homelands movement in the 1970s — a movement that led the way for land rights across Australia.

As white colonisation of Australia spread through the NT in the 20th century Australian capital discovered a need to exploit what it called "native labour" more systematically. Thousands of Aboriginal people became cattle drovers and housekeepers — mostly without pay. Some also worked in infrastructure projects such as roadbuilding.

After WWII, thousands were drafted into big cattle stations like Yuendemu and Papunya, working for rations in conditions of extreme poverty and neglect.

In 1960, for the first time, Aboriginal people became eligible for the age pension. This, in combination with the experience of those who had worked for wages on army projects during WWII, created a social base among Aboriginal workers for a new wage justice and land rights movement. The most famous action in support of this movement was the Gurindji strike of 1966.

In 1966 the Gurindji people went on strike for equal pay and conditions on a cattle station in the NT owned by the British-based Vestey corporation. However, it quickly became a struggle for land rights.

The striking Gurindji people soon moved to live on their traditional lands at Daguragu (Wattie Creek). They demanded 500 square miles of their country be returned.

The strike lasted for nine years, and their demand was ultimately met (although the area handed back was smaller than the original claim). In 1975, then-Prime Minister Gough Whitlam finally granted the Gurindji people leasehold rights. In 1986 it was converted to a freehold lease.

During the '70s, many other Aboriginal people in the NT won the right to go back to the lands of their people, places many of them had left years before.

The communities were established with government funding, limited as it was. Successful bilingual education programs and community projects to tackle problems such as substance abuse were set up in many communities.

Following an equal pay decision in 1966, many station owners chose to sack Indigenous workers rather than pay them a wage. In Alice Springs, the town camps first grew to accommodate people moving off cattle stations.

Eventually, this public land was converted into a special lease, meaning it could only be used by Aboriginal people. Some of the camps are traditional camping and ceremonial areas dating from before European settlement.

Tangentyere Council was set up in 1974 to represent and organise town camp residents. It's an Aboriginal-owned and controlled organisation that provides municipal services and other community projects. Tangentyere is a local Arrernte word for "working together".

Beginning in the '80s, federal governments started cutting funding to remote communities.

Coalition PM John Howard's government extended the attacks. More people were forced to leave the homelands to access health and education services. This led to greater overcrowding in the town camps.

This cynical government strategy of neglect came to define Indigenous policy in the Howard-era. The government would cut funding to an Aboriginal organisation and then blame it for not meeting its commitments.

This, in turn, would justify more cutbacks and the cycle would begin again until the organisation could be safely closed down. This did away with many Aboriginal legal centres, land councils and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC).

Hopes were high that the new government of PM Kevin Rudd would break from this tradition. But Macklin's statements show that the same racist policies are simply hidden behind a new rhetoric.

After blaming Tangentyere Council and the remote communities for the "appalling conditions" that has resulted from chronic underfunding, Macklin and Rudd have once again shut Aboriginal people out of the negotiating process.

Tangentyere Council executive director William Tilmouth defends the community-based nature of housing in town camps. He said on May 25: "Town Camp people have no faith in the Northern Territory government or their public housing system."

Homelands people are also angry at the government's plans. On May 21, Gawirrin Gumana of the Yolngu people said: "If you are looking for people to move out, if you want to move us around like cattle, like others who have already gone to the cities and towns, I tell you, I don't want to play these games.

"Government, if you don't help our Homelands, and try to starve me from my land, I tell you, you can kill me first. You will have to shoot me."

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