Good news stories from the desert country

March 13, 2010

Politicians from the Coalition and Labor Party are proposing nearly identical housing polices for remote Aboriginal communities — and both ignore the experiences of Aboriginal people themselves.

People could be forgiven for thinking that the only thing that the Man Who Would Be Prime Minister (a.k.a Tony Abbott) did during his sojourn to the Northern Territory was get lost for a couple of hours in the desert without adequate supplies. And it was amusing to see the man who, in the February 23 Sydney Morning Herald, was calling for a ban on takeaway alcohol to Aboriginal communities, now wailing that he was lost in the desert and needed "beer, water, food and rugs. Especially beer."

Abbott did visit some Aboriginal town camps in Alice Springs and he condemned the conditions he saw there, even admitting that his government had done little in the 11 years it was responsible for providing federal resources to the camps.

He also flagged possible changes to native title. "Yes [I support native title], but I think it is important that it be useful title", he told the March 3 SMH. "If Aboriginal people want to be able to use their land as an economic asset, they must be able to do so."

The proposal put forward is not new and, in fact, is very close to policies proposed by ALP Aboriginal affairs minister Jenny Macklin.

On February 1, Macklin announced a deal with the Ilpeye Ilpeye town camp in Alice Springs in which the residents signed away their native title rights in exchange for basic public housing improvements. Macklin said she hoped that this would lead to individual home ownership by Aboriginal people and move them "from a rights agenda to one of individual economic empowerment".

There is bipartisan support for this process of chipping away at communal native title rights. But native title can be used successfully by Aboriginal people to forge their own path.

Green Left Weekly readers will know about the "protest house" built by Aboriginal people, trade unionists and other supporters at Ampilatwatja and launched on February 14. This showed that grassroots cooperative community action is more efficient than government bureaucracy, but it's not the first time this has happened on these lands.

Edith Hanlon lives on her outstation called Immperrenth, a 5km square incision on Elkedra station, which is on the lands of the Alyawarr people, near Ampilatwatja. Hanlon and her husband Joe built their house themselves and made an organic vegetable garden to supplement their diet. It took more than 15 years and they had little support from any government agency.

Hanlon told GLW on February 14: "When we got our homeland back, we thought we were entitled to funding because we were incorporated. We knocked on so many government doors for help, like the land councils … We'd get no answer at all, we were led up the garden path so many times. That made us more determined.

"We decided we weren't going to fall, … we were just going to keep battling because there's people out there that'll help us. We were working to put money together but then, it's just like oil — when it dries up, it's gone…

"My husband and I said, 'No, we're not going to let this slip through our fingers'. With all of our savings, we just put it back into our home. We only got water through the charity of people at Ippenarra station. We were paying up to $10,000 and we were still hitting the bottom of the bucket for funding."

Hanlon and her husband used second-hand materials from the dump to build the walls of the five shacks that make up her home.

"Our main shopping centres were the [local] tips. They've got this all set up so that we can fail — but we didn't, we've still got our beautiful home that we built."

Hanlon's 15-year struggle to live on her family's lands needed communal native title to succeed. Average incomes for Aboriginal people — which have only gotten worse despite promises to "close the gap" — are simply too low to buy back land from mining or agricultural interests. Aboriginal tenure needs the protection of native title if it's to resist these powerful interests.

Richard Downs, Alyawarr leader who helped make the "protest house" happen, said Hanlon's struggle was part of the inspiration for the project. "Contractors take money rather than keep it in the community and there's no training for Aboriginal people", he told GLW. "Once it's built they don't see it as being theirs, it was built by contractors. What Edie's put in, what we're putting in there."

"The land is always going to belong to the people. The house, it's only a surface thing. What Aboriginal people see is that the land is more important. People are going to lose their language, their culture their traditions, their customs unless they stand up."

Hanlon said at the launch of the "protest house" that she was proud of what her people had accomplished. She said: "If we get together like we did today, there'll be no walking back. This is a big step — a big, big step. It's a different direction that we've taken today.

"You see other communities, other people, coming from other places all getting together to support each other, that makes you so proud, that makes you more determined."

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