After four years of struggle, the federal government has finally secured 40-year leases over the Aboriginal town camps in Alice Springs, represented by the Tangentyere Council.
The takeover push started before the Intervention, when Liberal Minister Mal Brough announced that no new houses would be built in the camps until 99-year leases were signed by Tangentyere.
Despite a desperate need for resources, town campers consistently refused to sign away their land. Maintaining Aboriginal control in the camps is crucial for ensuring Aboriginal people have somewhere to stay in a hostile town. Aboriginal public housing tenants are routinely evicted by the racist NT housing agency—that now also has control of the camps.
Tangentyere has provided basic services to the camps, historically neglected by the town council. They still cart water to a handful of places. They have also been one of the biggest employers of local Aboriginal people, with 300 people working at the height of the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) and scores employed in a wide variety of jobs like research, youth work and horticulture.
The primary aim of the Intervention has been to push forward a fierce agenda of assimilation. While large, strong Aboriginal organisations based in the community are needed to push back oppression and improve living conditions, the government sees them as a threat. Aboriginal-controlled organisations, whatever weaknesses they have, exist to further the interests of Aboriginal people and so have often come into conflict with government.
Labor Minister Jenny Macklin’s attacks on the council have been even more vicious than those of Mal Brough. In mid 2009, she threatened to compulsorily acquire the town camps, using powers granted by the Intervention, unless 40-year leases were signed.
Faced with this threat, Tangentyere decided to sign the leases. But a legal challenge to the threat of compulsory acquisition by a number of town camp residents held up the process until December last year. Labor had promised to re-instate the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) last October. The court action was designed to tie up the acquisition process until this time—opening the door for a fully-fledged challenge using the RDA.
But Macklin broke her promise and is now refusing to reinstate the RDA until December 31, 2010. When the federal court ruled compulsory acquisition would be legal, Tangentyere handed over the leases.
The government has wasted no time gutting Tangentyere. Housing services are being taken over by NT Housing, municipal services by the Alice Springs Council and all the planned construction work is being done by a consortium of massive construction firms called Territory Alliance. Prison labour has been used to clean up the areas around the camps.
When Macklin first proposed the 40-year leases, she was only promising upgrades of the existing housing stock. The stand taken by town campers forced a promise of 80 new houses on top of this.
These houses are badly needed. But without any Aboriginal control of the process, the houses will be used to build in much stricter tenancy rules, impose market rent and push back the political clout of the council.
Town camp residents have a proud history of resistance to assimilation—a dogged fight for survival. Losing tenure over the camps is a massive set-back. But evictions, rent increases and job losses can be fought every step of the way.
This will be crucial for giving confidence to the remote communities Macklin also has in her sights. Despite years of pressure, the government still has no 40-year lease signed over any of the places earmarked as “hub towns” in Central Australia.
By Paddy Gibson