Photo above: Jeffrey Pepperill Kemarr and family at Camel Camp on the Utopia homelands, about 30 kms from Arlparra. Source: Amnesty International, Lucas Jordan. Below: Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, with daughter Ngarla and granddaughter Ruby, in 2006. From the Alice News archive.
By KIERAN FINNANE
Human rights organisation Amnesty International has released what it calls a research report, focussed on the changes in government policy, particularly since the NT Intervention, that have affected the Utopia homelands. These are 16 small Aboriginal settlements dispersed across 3500 square kilometres either side of the mostly dry Sandover River, to the north-weast of Alice Springs.
The central thrust of the report, titled The Lands Hold Us, is that government policy with respect to housing is denying the people of the homelands – around 1400 of them in the Utopia area – the right to their traditional lands. In the report this argument has two arms: one, that through leasing government is actually taking away land; and two, that through inadequate funding of new and refurbished housing government is taking away the possibility of people to live on the land.
Nowhere in the report is there an acknowledgement that leasing only applies to a tiny fraction of Aboriginal lands, that is the land on which government is building and/or maintaining infrastructure. The fraction, in relation to the combined prescribed communities under the Intervention, was said to be 0.1% by architect of the Intervention, then Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough. The Alice Springs News is not aware of a factual challenge to this figure, but as the leases only apply to townships or specific land portions within townships, whatever the figure, it is certainly tiny in proportion to the mass of Aboriginal-owned land.
Nowhere in the report is there an acknowledgement that leasing does not change underlying title; the land remains Aborginal-owned, even if control over a tiny portion of it has been ceded for the duration of the leases to governments, as it is anywhere when governments invest public funds in the provision of infrastructure and services.
On the contrary, sweeping statements about Aboriginal land being taken away from traditional owners are reported without qualification by Amnesty’s so-called team of professional researchers. Interestingly, they are not named and their qualifications for the research task are not stated. Photographers are given individual credit but authors not, apart from Rosalie-Kunoth Monks as author of the Foreword.
As an activist Mrs Monks is entitled to rhetoric in her Foreword, and her depth of feeling and commitment to her people are not under question. However, when the report’s anonymous authors in the body of the report quote her and others on their perceived loss of control over their land without any attempt at balance, explanation or qualification they do mischief.
Mrs Kunoth-Monks is quoted as saying: “Break any one of those arms [language, family, law, lore] and sever it from the land, you are committing the death of a race of people. It is so vitally important for our identity and the continuation of that, one of the oldest races in the world, that government are mindful not to sever, not to kill.”
Further into the report a “group of Aboriginal elders” is quoted as saying in part: “Through harsh changes we have had removed from us all control over our communities and our lives. Our lands have been compulsorily taken from us. We have been left with nothing.”
And later an Arlparra resident is quoted as saying: “Aboriginal land. ‘Im [government] can’t take it away! You know we can’t go. It is Aboriginal land! That’s right. ‘Im can’t take ‘im away! We stay here. Arlparra; Aboriginal land.”
These memorable, emotional declarations are used in the report as either overarching or concluding statements to its various sections that want to be seen as factually and rationally argued. It may be good rhetorical strategy but it does not make for useful, sober analysis, which is what the report wants its readers to think it provides.
The report’s recommendations are so broad as to be meaningless. While elsewhere the report uses the term “available resources” (with the addition of the word “maximum”) and urges “budgetary prioritisation”, it does not consider any of its recommendations in relation to these factors. How much would it cost governments “fulfill”, as proposed in Recommendation 1, the rights of Aboriginal Peoples to their traditional lands? Is spreading around the resources available, as is implied by Recommendations 2 and 3, the answer? If not, how would priorities be established in relation to this?
One of governments’ answers to prioritising policy implementation and spending has been the Growth Town policy, identifying towns and some town camps for a concerted effort with housing and infrastructure improvements. If these improvements are brought about, by not only government action and expenditure but also by changes that Aboriginal people themselves can initiate, then benefits may arise for people choosing to live on homelands and outstations. One of the ways that this could happen is through regional transport networks, linking homelands to growth towns and regional centres where services are or will be located. The NT Government has committed to this and has made some progress. The Amnesty report does not give it the least consideration.
The absence of a Growth Town east of the Stuart Highway in Central Australia was recognised when the Working Future policy was announced. At that time the then NT Minister for Indigenous Policy, Alison Anderson, said that Arlparra would be funded to support the Utopia homelands. She also said that outstations that had effectively become small communities would be taken out of the outstation funding environment (which no longer provided for any new housing to be built). The Amnesty report misses the opportunity to scrutinise government action or inaction on this front by its outright rejection of the Growth Town hub and spoke model. It calls instead, in Recommendation 4, for the Commonwealth to ensure that all housing on homelands meets the standards for adequate housing under international law, without any consideration of budget implications, in particular in relation to one of the factors it identifies as defining “adequate housing”: “Adequate housing must be in a location that allows access to employment options, health‐care services, schools, childcare centres and other social facilities.”
The report does present some evidence of the benefits for people of living on the Utopia homelands. For instance, it refers to medical research pointing to their relative good health, such as their impressive 40% lower adult mortality rates compared to other Aboriginal peoples in the NT. But when it comes to economic participation the case is fudged. The report says “some people on homelands remain dependent on welfare payments”. It does not attempt to quantify how many people on the dole. It says there are “opportunities for people to participate in the mainstream economy, while remaining on their homelands” and it names some: “Indigenous art, eco‐tourism, natural resource management or ‘caring for country’ programs”. Again, it does not attempt to quantify – how many people are involved in taking up these opportunities? Then it produces this extraordinary statement: “Homelands also form a central component of the Northern Territory tourism industry, contributing $775.78 million per year, some 5.8 per cent, to the Northern Territory economy”.
To be fair, this is a direct quote from a research paper published by the ANU’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, headed up by frequent commentator on Aboriginal affairs, Jon Altman.
The paper in turn sources its information to the Tourism NT website. Just in case readers are confused by the construction of the sentence, the dollar figure quoted has to be for the entire Territory-wide tourism industry. The Alice Springs News has not been able to find this figure on the Tourism NT site but there are figures of this order describing the size of the whole industry.
Neither have we been able to find a dollar figure to match the contribution of people on homelands, nor a description of homelands as central to the industry. Research on Indigenous Cultural Tourism that is on the site, using figures relevant to the period from 2006-07 to 2008-09, shows international “cultural visitors” as rating highly visiting an Aboriginal site or community – 27% favour doing this. “Cultural visitors” make up 72% of all international visitors to the NT. However, roughly twice as many visitors to the NT are domestic, and of them only 13.2% are “cultural visitors” and in turn only 6.8% of that group are reported as favouring a visit to an Aboriginal site or community. This data helps put into perspective the claim for homelands as being “central”. Who could quarrel with it as an aspiration but achieving it will not be helped by a lack of realism about the current situation. For example, tourists are not allowed to go to most homelands without a permit.
The report’s discussion of NT Intervention is focussed on the Intervention’s alleged removal of Aboriginal peoples’ rights. Like many Intervention critics before them, the authors’ approach to rights is broad-brush. There is no consideration given to those aspects of the Intervention that have attempted to protect the rights of the vulnerable, such as children. The report’s emphasis on the overriding importance of consultation and consent – Recommendation 5 – pays no heed to the potential voicelessness of children, and possibly others, in such scenarios.
On the question of having a voice, the report is critical of the NT local government reform that scrapped small Aboriginal community councils, replacing them with shires (“mega-shires” in the language of the report). Once again, the report fudges on this issue. It gives no account of the local boards that feed local issues through to councillors, and thus loses the opportunity to look at instances of their effectiveness or lack thereof. It deplores a loss of representation in the Utopia homelands, but does not acknowledge that their number one advocate, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, is the president of the Barkly Shire. It is critical of the way the shires have brought together “a wide variety of regional and disparate interests from pastoral, mining, Indigenous and non‐Indigenous town‐based and remote representatives on shire boards”, without even being prepared to consider the way that this might present opportunities for the peoples of the homelands. The report also does not acknowledge that Aboriginal people have a majority on the Barkly Shire Council, a majority that is in proportion to the 70% Aboriginal demographic . Would acknowledging this be unstrategic, detracting from the victim status assigned to Aboriginal peoples in their arguments?
The report’s final recommendation, number 6, is that governments take into account the previous five when it comes to renegotiating the 2007 Memorandum of Understanding on Indigenous Housing, Accommodation and Related Services, which will expire next year, together with the SIHIP. The “renegotiation” will presumably happen in the wake of the current “Stronger Futures” consultations being conducted by the Commonwealth. The amorphousness of Amnesty’s ambit claim on the issues is hardly helpful. There may well be achievable steps that could be taken to support the development of a viable future for the peoples of the Utopia homelands but they are hard to discover in Amnesty International’s report.