"We've had the gun at our head." This is what William Tilmouth, Tangentyere Council CEO, said in response to Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny Macklin's triumphant July 29 announcement that the council had agreed to lease Alice Springs town camps to the federal government for 40 years in exchange for $135 million in housing upgrades
Aboriginal people established the town camps to cater for people traveling to Alice Springs from out bush. In the 1970s, they managed to secure title over the town camps, and have been represented by Tangentyere Council ever since.
The public housing on the town camps has long been in a state of disrepair. The very large temporary transient numbers often double the number of people who officially "live" in the camps, but funding for town camp housing has never reflected Aboriginal mobility.
For decades, Tangentyere Council has worked on a shoestring to represent tenants and provide services that should be the domain of town council or state government. The federal government had $135 million ready to be spent on improving the town camps.
But in a brazen display of blackmail, Macklin made the funding dependent on the council surrendering the land to federal and territory governments for 40 years.
Macklin had threatened to use coercive powers to compulsorily acquire the camps forever if the deal didn't go through — an attack on property rights that no one else in Australia would suffer.
Macklin has described conditions in the overcrowded camps as "appalling". But it is not clear that NT Housing would do a better job than Tangentyere Council. Paddy Gibson from the Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney (STICS) told a protest in Sydney on July 30: "We've seen NT Housing kick Aboriginal people out of public housing at a rate of knots.
"[Racist neighbours] will get people to sign petitions to get Aboriginal people out of their neighbourhoods in Alice Springs. Then people have to go to the town camps. Where will they go now that NT Housing is taking them over? They'll go to the creek bed."
Macklin probably hoped the announcement would deflect the huge criticism that her department has copped for its failure to make any progress in closing the disadvantage gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
A report released on July 2 revealed that, in 80% of social indicators, Aboriginal people had either remained static or gone backwards since 2000.
Government lack of action on Aboriginal housing has particularly come under fire. On July 30, Aboriginal Medical Alliance chair Stephanie Bell told CAAMA Radio: "I think it's become quite obvious, both with review into Aboriginal disadvantage that very little has changed on the ground … the level of housing that's been built over a two-year period is basically not there."
On July 15, elders from the Ampilatwatja community marched out of town, disgusted at the lack of housing and basic services. Despite having been "acquired" by the federal government, under the coercive powers of the NT intervention, Ampilatwatja has not had even basic public housing maintenance. Twenty-five-year-old sewerage pipes had burst, flooding houses and leaking into the street. Emergency repairs were made only after the walk-out. The government has said the community is not one of those earmarked to receive new houses.
Tennant Creek signed a lease in August 2007 with the expectation that it would get 20 new houses. Residents have recently been told the deal was for improvements to existing houses, not new houses.
On July 31, former NT Labor housing minister Elliot McAdam told ABC radio's AM: "The expectation was that 20 houses would be built, then it went down to nine houses and then of course, now it's down to zero houses. So in Tennant Creek, despite a further injection of $6 million, totalling $36 million, there will still be no houses built in Tennant Creek and I just find that intolerable."
On July 24, Macklin told ABC Online: "We're concentrating the new housing in the 15 communities where we have large numbers of people and severe overcrowding and very high population growth. It is a hard decision to take to concentrate the housing in this way but it's really to address the very, very large need in those big communities."
This is part of the government's "growth towns" proposal, which will provide funding for new public housing and services in just 15 targeted remote NT communities.
Olympic medallist Ian Thorpe attacked these policies at the Beyond Sport conference in London on July 9. "Once more an Australian government has claimed it is doing its best for Aboriginal Australians by taking over their communities, appointing white managers, more government bureaucrats, promising all kinds of things, if Aboriginal people will just sign over their communities under 40-year leases to the federal government. And politicians wonder why Aboriginal people do not trust them.
"The intervention is unlikely to provide any lasting benefit to Aboriginal people because it tries to push and punish them, to take over their lives, rather than work with them. One of Australia's oldest and wisest Aboriginal leaders, Galawuy Yunupingu [sic] says the only way forward is for Aboriginal communities in these remote areas to be led and organised by their own organisations. Assimilation will not work."
Thorpe was a signatory to an open letter published in the July 30 Australian, calling on Macklin to end her blackmail of Aboriginal communities and provide housing on a needs basis. The letter was signed by more than 160 groups and individuals, including the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union and Aboriginal leader Pat Dodson. The full text and signatories can be seen at www.stoptheintervention.org.
Tangentyere Council has apparently agreed in-principle to the lease deal, but no contracts have been signed and many details are still unclear. However, documents sent from Tangentyere Council's lawyers to Macklin raise questions about the legality of the entire process, suggesting the agreement was reached "under duress", according to the July 21 National Indigenous Times.
Meanwhile, the Federal Court has stayed the deal until August 4, after a legal challenge launched by town camp resident Barbara Shaw.
Whether the deal goes ahead, and in what form, remains to be seen. Either way, Aboriginal people have been put in a position of having to choose between rights and services.
As Australian novelist Xavier Herbert wrote in 1970: "Until we give back to the black man just a bit of land that was his and give it back without provisos, without strings to snatch it back, without anything but complete generosity of spirit in concession for the evil we have done him — until we do that, we shall remain what we have always been so far: a community of thieves."