There are worrying signs from the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) that policy measures associated with the NT intervention will soon be imposed on Indigenous communities around the country.
Recently in the NT, on top of the intervention itself, many outstations (smaller remote communities) face the loss of ongoing government funding. Severe restrictions have also been placed on the ability of community schools to teach in local languages.
Plans for new housing, a key “promise” of the intervention, have been restricted to only 16 of the 73 “prescribed communities”. But no new housing will be built unless communities give up control over their land for between 40-90 years by signing over leases to the government.
In a massive asset grab, five-year leases acquired through the intervention have been used to forcibly transfer all existing community owned housing stock to the Australian government, to be managed by the NT department of housing.
All of these measures are aimed at “mainstreaming”—breaking up community control and ultimately, forcing migration into major towns and communities deemed “viable” by government.
”What are they going to take away from the people next? They’ve taken so much. Are they going to start taking away kids who don’t come to school?” asked Imelda Palmer, a teacher at the local school in Santa Teresa, 90 kilometres southeast of Alice Springs.
Her community will not be receiving any new housing.
”Some of our houses have got 20-30 people living them! And government is crying about school attendance. They’ve got to look at the housing. They could have built 20 houses here with that money they’ve spent on the intervention”.
Elaine Peckham, resident of an Iwupataka Land Trust outstation explained that the recent changes were making it much harder for her to live on her land, “As well as the hardship from the intervention, the NT government is also taking control of tenancy management away from the community. We are facing rent increases that I can’t afford as a pensioner”.
Despite threats that they will lose access to government funding, most targeted communities continue to reject the long-term leases proposed by government.
Harry Nelson from Yuendumu told a demonstration in Alice Springs to mark Human Rights Day in December, “I’ll tell you point blank. We will never sign… the elders who have fought so hard for land rights cannot sign”.
Spreading the measures
This strategy of dismantling land rights and building up a select number of communities deemed “viable” by the government, while denying basic services to others, seems set to go national.
Following the last COAG meeting on November 29, a media release from Kevin Rudd’s office announced a $1.94 billion, 10 year commitment to build remote Indigenous housing.
However, COAG documents stipulate that new housing will be contingent on states implementing major reforms to tenancy management, rent collection and “a requirement that new and existing housing assets be held under secure tenure, including long-term leases”.
COAG also ear-marked 26 remote areas across Australia, including the 16 already being targeted for leases in the NT, for a significant injection of new funds for services. This will take place to the exclusion of hundreds of other communities already suffering from chronic lack of services.
COAG’s “Indigenous Economic Participation Partnership” includes the looming national abolition of Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP), which employ up to 30,000 Aboriginal people across the country.
Cutting CDEP was a key component of the Howard government’s NT intervention. This put thousands of people out of work. Now communities around the country are facing similar disaster.
As Uncle Dootch Kennedy, chair of the Illawarra Land Council has said, “In our community 100 families will be unemployed. 21 years of CDEP and then bang—nothing. Where will these people go?”
The Rudd government has taken up with renewed vigour the Howard government’s agenda of assimiliation. We need to push back the racims of the intervention to head off the attacks on Aboriginal rights and self determination that are brewing across Australia.
By Paddy Gibson