On January 31, residents at Ilpeye Ilpeye town camp in Alice Springs became the only Aboriginal land owners in Australia’s history to hand their land back to the Federal Government.
The following day Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin used extraordinary powers under the Commonwealth’s Northern Territory Emergency Response legislation to take control of community land title, saying she hoped the deal would usher in a “revolution in land tenure”. It won’t. The Ilpeye Ilpeye residents have been duped.
The Australian called the deal a landmark agreement that will allow town camp residents to own their own homes.
In reality, the Commonwealth is ratchetting up its aggressive push for control of Aboriginal communities. The deal is a cynical and divisive move driven by the collaboration of the Lhere Artepe Aboriginal Corporation who have openly supported government attacks on Tangentyere Council, the representative body for the other 17 town camps.
Unlike most residents of other town camps, the estimated 60-100 residents of Ilpeye Ilpeyeare Arrente people and have Native Title rights over the camp land. Because of that, they are entitled to “just terms compensation”. In effect they are selling their Native Title in return for a small investment in basic infrastructure and ownership of the homes on the town camp site.
Even worse, the deal will leave other town camp residents short changed. The compensation money paid to Ilpeye Ilpeye residents will be taken out of the $150 million the government allocated for housing repairs and to connect water, power and sewerage to all the camps.
Macklin has portrayed the deal as a shift of emphasis in Indigenous policy “from a rights agenda to one of individual economic empowerment”.
But claims that individual home ownership benefits communities are a sham. With unemployment over 90 per cent, the stark economic reality is that there is no chance of most town camp residents ever owning their own homes.
Macklin says the government will work to establish “safeguards” to prevent non-Aboriginal people from buying the Ilpeye Ilpeye land in future. But there are no guarantees. Tellingly, Karl Hampton, Minister for Central Australia in the Northern Territory Government, says that the land could eventually be sold off to the “wider Alice Springs community”. The Ilpeye Ilpeye deal is no model for Aboriginal home ownership.
However, NT Labor Senator Trish Crossin has said the federal government will be investigating whether similar arrangements can be reached in Aboriginal town camps in Darwin.
The pressure will now be on other struggling Central Australian Aboriginal communities. But they are steadfastly refusing to sign 40-year leases, despite the threats from the Federal Government—“voluntarily” hand over control, or expect to be starved of basic services and infrastructure and threatened with compulsory acquisition.
The Federal Government claims the recent completion of two houses under its $672 million SIHIP program as a success story, despite it taking two and half years to build them. Both houses are in the Top End community of Wadeye where residents were forced to sign a 99-year lease before the houses would be built.
In contrast a “protest house” at Ampilatwatja was built in February in just two weeks by trade unionists and the Ampilatwatja community who set up the camp outside the “prescribed area” following the collapse of services and infrastructure under the Intervention.
Walk-off spokesperson Richard Downs scoffed at the government’s achievement, “They’ve built two houses in two and a half years. At this rate the 15,000 Aboriginal families living in overcrowded housing across the NT will be waiting 15,000 years for a new house!”
Unfortunately, Kim Hill of the Northern Land Council has backed the government’s housing “achievement” saying “this will go some way to silencing critics of the SIHIP program”.
But far from the critics being silenced, opposition to the Intervention is growing.
Several hundred people attended rallies in Sydney, Melbourne and Alice Springs on February 13, the anniversary of Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations, to say no to the leases blackmail, and to demand immediate funding for houses and services and that the government scrap the Intervention.
The SIHIP program, started in mid-2007, promised 750 new houses, 230 rebuilds and 2500 refurbishments over 10 years.
But $56 million has been swallowed by administration costs and the government has further reduced the amount for refurbishing houses from $150,000 each to $75,000.
Territory Alliance contractors told recent Territory Council of Co-operation hearings that the cutbacks will mean many houses get a new bathroom or kitchen sink and benches, but other urgently-needed repairs will not happen.
One contractor revealed at the hearings, “…some of the houses which are forming the base stock for the work will not meet the standards of the Residential Tenancies Act.”
By Lauren Mellor