Mirrors, Beads and Mortgages


Federal Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough is barnstorming Indigenous Australia, preaching the gospel of home ownership with all the zeal of a convert. It appears that salvation for Aboriginal Australia is only a housing mortgage away. Wadeye, Galiwinku and the Tiwi Islands in the north of the country have all had the home-ownership hard-sell from the Minister, but responses have been less than enthusiastic.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, has made clear his misgivings about the indecent haste with which this Government is attempting to seduce remote Indigenous communities into 99-year lease arrangements.

Last year, Calma told a Senate inquiry examining proposed changes to the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act that these 99-year leases will see traditional owners lose the ability to speak for country. Calma said that ‘while a lease is not alienation in fact, there is no doubt that it will have the effect of alienation in practice.’

Professor Jon Altman is the Director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) at the Australian National University. He, too, is distinctly suspicious about the nostrum that home ownership is the silver bullet that will deliver Indigenous Australia’s prosperity. The August 2005 report entitled ‘Land Rights and Development Reform in Remote Australia,‘ co-written by Altman for Oxfam Australia, found that there was ‘no evidence to suggest that individual land ownership is either necessary or sufficient to increase economic development or housing construction.’

But Brough’s ideological fervour is unshakable, so it was no surprise to find him chanting the mortgage mantra to the Aboriginal town camps of Alice Springs. Recently the Minister announced a $50 million funding package to bring the camps up to the standards of other Alice Springs suburbs. ‘I want these people to have the opportunity to buy their houses if they choose, like most Australians can,’ was his heart-warming prescription.

Closer inspection revealed this warm, fuzzy sentiment to be, in fact, a demand that the town camps housing associations relinquish their leases before the promised funding would be forthcoming. Brough did not see fit to consult Tangentyere Council the town camps peak organisation before making his bounty manifest. Had he done so, it’s likely that the Council would have told him that his dangled dollars came attached not merely to strings, but to chains of iron.

Tangentyere Council was formed in 1970 with the principal aim of assisting Aboriginal people to secure land tenure over camping sites as a precursor to the establishment of basic housing infrastructure and services. The history of European settlement of this country is also one of systemic marginalisation of Aboriginal people, who were often condemned to live in squalor on fringe camps without legal rights.

Indigenous Australians have long memories. The Minister may well find that town camp residents are not overly enamoured with the idea of handing back their hard-won leases and accepting the Northern Territory Government as their landlord.

William Tilmouth, Executive Director of Tangentyere Council, is a quietly spoken Arrernte man with a steely resolve. He told me that the symbolic importance of the 18 independent housing associations holding the leases to their land should not be underestimated:

These are peoples’ homes, going back for four or five generations. They’ve seen their kids grow up in these camps. This is something that cannot be taken lightly. In the old days there would be one tap for 150 people. They were living in humpies, tin sheds and car bodies. Once the leases were granted we were able to lobby for infrastructure: housing, sewerage, water and electrical.

The 2006 Alice Springs Town Camps Review Task Force  found that there was a total of 191 houses in the 21 camps. The same document suggested that at any one time the camps may house a total population in the order of 3000 people. Only 22 houses have been built in the camps during the last eight years, with almost half of the existing housing stock being around 30 years old. The report noted that ‘for many Aboriginal people access to public housing is difficult and private sector housing unaffordable.’

The camps are overcrowded and their infrastructure is stretched to breaking point. Consequently, they are all too often the scene of alcohol-fuelled violence. This is not to say that all town campers are violent drunks. It’s much more likely that in this tyranny of the minority, most campers particularly women and children are victims rather than participants. If an Alice Springs Town Council proposal to ban public drinking in the town is successful, Tilmouth is fearful that this will drive problem drinkers back into the camps.

But violence in the town camps makes for ‘good’ news footage. Fly-in/fly-out television crews regularly descend on the town for a few days then return to the cities of the eastern seaboard, laden with graphic footage and hasty judgements. News reports of this ilk, consumed with defrosted dinners in front of suburban televisions, often imply that Indigenous people take no responsibility for this sad situation, and make no effort to improve matters. This simply isn’t true.

There are less salacious stories from the camps, which demonstrate that residents are doing what they can in straitened circumstances. Abbott’s Camp, located not far from three liquor outlets, fought government agencies and the NT Liquor Commission for a number of years to win the right to become a ‘dry’ camp. Larapinta Valley Town Camp, once infamous for violence and petrol sniffing, is now best known for the Larapinta Learning Centre, a school established by residents with the support of Tangentyere Council. But these achievements simply do not pique the interest of the 6:30 news and current affairs programs.

Of course, there’s a lot more to this story than the superficially pleasing notion of people owning their own houses. If the town camps aren’t bursting at the seams with candidates for $300,000 bank mortgages, they are certainly full of parents who want their children to have a decent education. Perhaps Minister Brough could humbug Treasurer Costello for a few shekels from his massive budget surplus to provide a basic early childhood education for the children of the town camps? These kids aren’t lacking in intelligence just opportunity.

‘This is not about leases, this is about human rights,’ William Tilmouth told me succinctly. ‘We welcome the new funding, but it shouldn’t be provided on the condition that the leases have to be relinquished.’

Tilmouth would appear to have a point. How does a Minister justify making the provision of desperately needed assistance to disadvantaged Australian citizens contingent upon them embracing his romantic attachme
nt to home ownership?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.