Amnesty rhetoric fails to show the way forward for homelands



ABOVE: Lenny Jones, 73, and Albert Bailey, 79, Chairperson of  Urapuntja Health both from Soapy Bore, speak with Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty. Photo courtesy Amnesty International.
The one-day visit last Saturday by Secretary General of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty, to the Utopia homelands generated the usual round of headlines: conditions are “devastating”, comparable to those in the “Third World”, policies amount to “ethnic cleansing” (this last from Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, Utopia resident and Barkly Shire President).
What the so-called “fact finding mission” did not do was shed any light on the challenges facing governments and Aboriginal people about the future of the homelands at Utopia and elsewhere.
This was done incisively by the outgoing Northern Territory Coordinator General for Remote Services, Bob Beadman (at right), in his final report in May of this year. His few pages of analysis provide far more insight into the situation than all of Amnesty’s rhetoric, either in Mr Shetty’s pronouncements or Amnesty’s report, The Land Holds Us, released in August. Mr Beadman also recommends some immediate (catch-up) steps for governments to take. There’s no sign of the Northern Territory Government doing so.
Minister for Indigenous Development Malarndirri McCarthy declined to answer the questions put to her by the Alice Springs News (see below). Amnesty also declined to be interviewed by the Alice Springs News.
Mr Shetty claims in a release: “Despite 20 years of research which provides evidence of the benefits of living on traditional homelands, around 500 homeland communities are being left to wither as the Government starves them of essential services.”
We would have liked to ask Mr Shetty where these 500 communities are, how many had been vacated because residents chose live elsewhere, and does he expect the taxpayer to provide full services to deserted outstations?
Mr Beadman starts his analysis with a re-cap of the Australian Government’s policy guidelines when the homelands (or outstations) movement gained momentum in the early 1970s. The movement was encouraged because of expected benefits in health and harmony, but people needed to clearly understand, through detailed consultation, that “they would be leaving behind a range of services and facilities, most of which could not be replicated on a small homeland”.
Only basic facilities would be provided – access via road, airstrip or barge landing, water supply (in Central Australia comprising a bore, windmill and tank-stand), and basic shelters – “certainly not conventional housing”. “Avoidance of recurrent costs was the overriding objective,” says Mr Beadman.
This clarity was eroded over time. When the NT was granted self-government, the Australian Government retained responsibility for homelands. However, responsibility for essential services (water, power, sewerage, roads, airstrips, and barge landings) did transfer to the new NT Government – “leading to endless disputes about the status of a settlement”.
For example, asks Mr Beadman: “At what point does a rapidly growing homeland become a community? At various times we have had ‘homelands’ of many hundreds of people, yet, when it suited, a group of 120 people incorporated as a Community Government Council. Arlparra [in the Utopia homelands] today is a good example of such a transition from a resource centre to a town.”
Housing responsibility was transferred to the Aboriginal Development Commission in 1980, leading to more confusion and some conventional houses being built on homelands without power or water. This happened before it was clear to governments that people choosing to decentralise fully understood that they “would not be followed by government support with a full range of facilities,” says Mr Beadman.
He comments: “It amazes me even today that some people, mainly non-Aborigines, seem to think that the capacity of governments to replicate a full set of town facilities for every small pocket of population scattered far and wide through the bush, is limitless.” This is an apt description of  Amnesty’s calls, which are un-costed, despite their years of ‘research’, and are framed in terms of the Australian Government needing to put in place a “comprehensive plan in place to ensure the sustainability of Aboriginal culture” – nothing less!
In 1990 ATSIC (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission) took over the functions of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and the Aboriginal Development Commission. In 1996 it commenced a review of the homelands program, with the premise that there would be no funding for new homelands, and no new housing on existing homelands.
Somehow the review was never completed and the football was kicked back to the Federal department in 2005 when ATSIC was abolished. When responsibilities for homelands were transferred to the NT Government in July 2008, the review was still stalled.
Says Mr Beadman: “With the fragmentation of responsibilities came a relaxation of the original policy guidelines. Conventional houses, power supplies and recurrent costs crept in, distorting the differences between homelands and the bigger communities.”
The situation today is full of irony, says Mr Beadman: “If the Australian Government had transferred responsibility for municipal and essential services to the newly established Northern Territory Government in 1978, the annual cost of the program would have been factored into the baseline funding allocation to the new government and flowed, duly indexed, forever after.”
Instead, with the transfer of responsibility in 2008 came a limited funding package for three years, now extended to June 30, 2012. Mr Beadman says it was expected that this money ($20m p.a.) would be added to the local government reform pool, but the NT Government decided to maintain existing arrangements pending a review – the review that ATSIC had started in 1996, that has never been concluded.
“Arrangements were still frozen in a time warp.”
He had mentioned the review in his first report as Coordinator-General in November 2009 and had been advised it would be concluded by the end of that month.
He even attached to that report the list of consultations with homelands residents that had already taken place: as well as numerous locations in the Top End, 55 outstations and homelands in the Barkly Shire had been visited, including around Utopia; another 52 in the Central Desert Shire; and in MacDonnell Shire 143 had been visited.
“My understanding was that the review would identify once and for all which homelands are occupied (and which abandoned), how many people live there, how far out they are, access difficulties, proportion of the year they are occupied, details of all facilities at each place, and so on. “Then you could make rational decisions about how to put available funding to best effect. Residents were to be given choice about service providers, funding allocations would be transparent. You could also make rational decisions about regional transport.”
Transport could deliver (and return) populations scattered across homelands to the Growth Towns where there would be significant public facilities providing goods and services. Supporting homelands in this way could help relieve pressure on Growth Towns.
“The draft Outstations / Homelands Policy led people to believe that the government would work with each and every outstation and homeland settlement to prepare a Statement of Expectation of Service Delivery; provide transparency and choice in relation to their modest recurrent funding and service delivery options; and provide assistance for residents to move towards self-sufficiency.
It does not appear that this has occurred.” Mr Beadman describes the policy dilemma facing governments and Indigenous peoples as “terrible” . The question of whether homelands are viable has been dodged for 30 years, he says, “probably because of all the ethical and moral issues it throws up,” issues like these:
• Should government actually support the removal of kids from school when we know how essential education is, or the movement of adults away from the only prospects of a job?
• Can Indigenous people really expect the Australian taxpayer to support them for life?
• How many people have moved from welfare dependency to independence as a consequence of moving to a homeland?
• Are homelands self-sustainable without external support?
• Should governments continue to fund fixed improvements like housing on privately owned Aboriginal land? It doesn’t build things on a cattle station, for example.
• If not, is it really the intention of governments to pressure newly formed young families to move from homelands to Growth Towns with the lure of new housing?
• The failure to do the intensive work with outstations on self-sufficiency may not be the fault of the public servants alone. As mentioned, almost two years into Working Future we have not seen the Homelands / Outstations Policy finalised by the Northern Territory Government. Further, self-sufficiency and economic development will almost certainly require long-term, tradeable land tenure for residents and this appears beyond the policy mindsets of the Land Councils.
• There are dramatic financial crises looming too. CDEP is scheduled to wind up early in 2012 and the $20 million in Commonwealth funding for municipal services to homelands / outstations will cease in June 2012. It is likely that a number of Resource Centres will struggle to survive.
• The consequences could well be that people will vote with their feet, and the movement of people to Growth Towns, and the main towns on the bitumen, will accelerate, placing all of them under enormous pressure. If that happens, the social consequences will likely be tragic. Glimpses of such a future have been evident in all towns over the recent severe climatic period.
• The consequences will be tragic for the migratory Aboriginal people, AND the permanent residences of the towns. The original ATSIC rule of no new housing on Homelands has been reinforced by other government decisions to not provide new public housing unless the government can control the asset through having title to the land on which the house sits. Mr Beadman says he is unaware of any effort regarding leasing of housing precincts on homelands, where in any case it may face stronger resistance on the part of residents and Land Councils than it has in the Growth Towns. So, he concludes, “we have this set of policy teasers”:
• Nowhere else in Australia can a citizen reasonably expect the government to build a house for them on privately owned land.
• Yet in the past the government has done just that on homelands (indeed all Aboriginal Land) right throughout the Northern Territory.
• Without new housing on homelands (whether public or private) people may move to Growth Towns where the Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) is building new houses (just as people are moving into Alice Springs because of delays in rolling out the SIHIP program in Growth Towns in the Centre).
• Are governments planning to divest the investment in housing in homelands, and leave whatever repairs and maintenance requirements that arise in harsh climates to the meagre resources of the residents without a clear transition and capacity building process?
• Publicly funded community housing cooperatives were vogue once, and might be a compromise solution for homelands. The logic behind the program, that it would relieve demand on public housing, would remain the same.
• Some more vexed questions: If homelands survive, how can we ensure children are educated (noting that it would be impossible to provide schools at every outstation)?
• One regularly hears stories about the stripping of abandoned outstation assets. Are the assets on abandoned outstations recoverable? If so, by whom? Have they been secured?
• The same questions arise when considering the future of Resource Centres.
• How will the mutual obligation tests for residents in receipt of welfare benefits be structured as these measures inevitably tighten in the future?
Mr Beadman says the unintended outcome of this mix is to accelerate the urban drift: “Take Central Australia for example. No new housing on outstations. No new housing (SIHIP) yet in Growth Towns in the Centre. But close to $100 million of housing and infrastructure improvements has been provided in Alice Springs town camps, as well as a Visitors Centre, and Transitory Housing.” So, what should governments do? Mr Beadman proposes four immediate steps:
1. The Northern Territory Government concludes, and publishes the outcomes of, its review into homelands / outstations.
2. The Northern Territory and Australian Governments provide certainty about onwards funding arrangements for the thousands of residents out there.
3. That a very clear policy about new housing, repairs and maintenance of existing housing, private housing support, and potential for home ownership be announced. For example, if there is to be no more public expenditure, and no move to lease that stock, is the government washing its hands of any further responsibility for housing on homelands?
4. Examine the feasibility of extending the community housing cooperative grant scheme to homelands.
The Alice Springs News Online asked Minister McCarthy to what extent the NT Government had made progress on these recommendations. No answer.
When Working Future was announced in May, 2009, it was noted that there was no Growth Town east of the Stuart Highway in the southern region and it was said that Arlparra would be funded to support the Utopia Homelands. We asked the Minister if that has occurred. No answer. We also asked if the Minister could point to any specific improvements in the Utopia homelands since the transfer of responsibility for homelands to the NT Government. No answer.
Meanwhile a spokesperson for the Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin provided answers to questions from Alice Springs News Online.

News: Amnesty International and activist Rosalie Kunoth-Monks are saying that “around 500 homeland communities [in the NT] are being left to wither as the Government starves them of essential services” and suggesting this is tantamount to ethnic cleansing.

Response: The Australian Government respects the rights of Indigenous Australians to live on their traditional lands and acknowledges the profound connection which many Aboriginal people have with their homelands.

The Government would oppose any suggestion that people should be required to move away from their homelands into larger centres.

The Australian Government provides funding to support people who live on homelands or visit regularly through a range of programs and financial assistance.

Under the National Indigenous Reform Agreement between the Commonwealth and all States and Territories, the priority for enhanced infrastructure support and service provision is given to the places where most people live and where secure land tenure exists. This also allows for services to provide outreach to smaller surrounding communities, including homelands and for people from those communities to access those services.

The Australian Government is responding to enormous need for improved housing, services and facilities across the Northern Territory by making an unprecedented investment of $1.7 billion on housing in remote communities in the Northern Territory through the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing.

However, decades of neglect and underinvestment by successive governments have left a backlog of housing need which cannot be fixed quickly.

Because of this, housing investment is currently focussed on larger Indigenous communities where more Indigenous people live and which are faced with poor housing and overcrowding.

News: A long-running NT Government review, started in 1996, of outstations and formulation of policies is still incomplete. The Australian Government has been paying to the NT Government $20m a year for several years for outstations but this is scheduled to cease next year, as we understand it. Are the Feds putting pressure on the NT Government to make some decisions about these issues?

Response: The Northern Territory Government took on responsibility for homelands in 2007.

The Australian Government has provided $80 million for provision of basic municipal and essential services to homelands in the Northern Territory over the past four years.

In addition, the Australian Government supports people who live on homelands or visit regularly through a range of programs, supports and financial assistance.

Future funding from July next year will be discussed with the Northern Territory Government.


  1. Amnesty’s Salil Shetty shames NOT the ALRNT landlords. Are his “rent-a-crowd” style comments due to ignorance, intent to mislead, or mischief?
    Amnesty’s surprise to find two-bedroom houses with 15 people living in them, others without toilets, showers, or without electricity and water, is not news.
    Such is clear consequence from Australian governments’ apartheid approach to these communities.
    Such conditions are common where landlords are NOT held accountable!
    Amnesty’s condemnation of Australia’s Government efforts to address poverty within their “Indigenous” communities does NOT question the failed apartheid approach, discredited elsewhere, being practiced upon these communities.
    Failed housing is the responsibility firstly of the relevant landowners which for these communities are mostly corporations.
    Amnesty fails – or refuses – to address the corporate landlords of these communities for their ongoing refusals to act as responsible landowners towards their tenants.
    Amnesty appears not to mention the Commonwealth and NT Government’s failure to take these landowner corporations to court for their sub-standard living conditions.
    Australians need a full open public inquiry into these corporate landowners, their management boards, concerning gross failures to satisfy public housing standards within their landholdings.
    Upgrades need funds, from where? The first source needs be these corporate landlords fixing their properties.
    When corporate landlords are NOT prepared allocate their funds to satisfy our Australian and NT public standards of housing then governments need resume, with just compensation, such land as is required to ensure all the essential services are up to our national and NT basic public standards.
    Paul Parker

  2. The NT government so often reminds me of a rabbit caught in the headlights when confronted with question about homelands, housing and urban drift. If they have a clue, or better yet a plan, they aren’t exactly saying.
    So here are a couple more questions.
    If the government is washing its hands of housing on the homelands, as it appears to be doing in central Australia, then I think it’s a given that urban drift will increase. With this in mind, will the NT government tell us what percentage of the blocks in the new Kilgariff subdivision it is planning to purchase for NT Housing? Was the original figure 20%?
    Having promised with hand on heart back in the days of public meetings that this development would not become a poverty sink, do they still stand by that promise?

  3. There is another story here that needs investigation.
    Utopia art is famous and has sold for large sums interstate, mostly Sydney. Most people at Utopia are living on welfare, but known artists have significant income, which would be distributed to extended family.
    Why then are the Utopia people living in such poverty?
    Several possibilities come to mind:
    Is it that dealers are pocketing most of the proceeds and little is getting to the artists? (Seems unlikely, why would the artists have persisted for 20 years with such an arrangement?)
    Is it that income is being squandered and not available for maintenance of these houses on privately owned land?
    Is it that maintenance of houses and household appliances is simply not seen as a priority by the residents.
    I note that one of the failings Amnesty listed is that washing machines do not work. Why are these not a private responsibilty, especially if there is significant income from art? For that matter where in the world are washing machines a government responsibility?
    If Utopia is unable to be self supporting there seems to be little hope for other outstations with less sought after art.

  4. The Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Land Trusts are Corporate Bodies.
    So Traditional Owners are shareholders in their ALR(NT) corporate entities.
    Until so treated, held to account, as responsible, expect little change.
    Legal status of Land Trust
    (3) A Land Trust
    (a) is a body corporate, with perpetual succession;
    (b) shall have a common seal;
    (c) subject to this Part, may acquire, hold and dispose of real and personal property; and
    (d) may sue and be sued in its corporate name.


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