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HomeIssue 7Shires join forces on lease payment issue

Shires join forces on lease payment issue

Where will the money come from to pay rent for shire assets on Aboriginal land? 
The eight Northern Territory shires are acting in concert on the issue of lease payments for shire facilities on Aboriginal land. The Northern and Central Land Councils’ position is that traditional owners are entitled to rent for leases over the various land parcels once the Australian Government’s five-year town leases expire in August. The Australian and NT Governments have accepted this, with the NT Government determining that rents should be set at 5-10% of UCV (unimproved capital value). This will amount to a bill of around $3 million annually for the NT, potentially rising to $5 million once all leases are settled. The leases for public housing land are exempt, with ‘peppercorn’ rents charged “in recognition of the direct benefit for local people”, according to Minister for Local Government, Malarndirri McCarthy.
The cash-strapped shires are appalled: already they are struggling to provide a basic level of service to their communities.  Don’t their services amount to a “direct benefit for local people”? And, with limited operational funding, rates revenue, and budgets patched together from grants and charges to agencies for delivering their programs, where will the money come from?
A meeting on January 24 was attended by representatives of the eight shires, a lawyer from the firm Minter Ellison to advise them, and representatives of the Australian and Territory Governments as well as the Local Government Association of the NT.
The eight shires agreed to five points of a joint approach:-
• They’ve asked Minter Ellison to concentrate on gaining secure Section 19 leases [under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, leased direct from Land Councils] for the councils’ core and strategic assets, such as council offices and works depots.
• They will jointly lobby the NT Government to increase operating grants to cover the costs of these leases.
• They will inform the Australian Government that leasing of assets for the delivery of their services – such as aged care, childcare, night patrol –  is their responsibility. The shires are prepared to sub-lease from the Australia Government for the life of the service agreements. (Ms McCarthy has indicated she will work with the shires on this, but does not appear to have made any commitment about an increase in her own government’s funding for the shires.)
• Shires won’t take leases for open areas such as parks, but will be willing to continue providing services under letters of agreement. (Ms McCarthy considers this a “worthwhile” approach.)
• Shires want rubbish dumps exempt from lease payments, due to the constantly changing legal and regulatory requirements. This issue should be worked through “on a Territory basis”, they say.
This approach was unanimously endorsed by the Central Desert Shire Council, which met last Friday. They added a further point of resolution, that Commonwealth grants for the delivery of Commonwealth services include an additional amount to meet lease payments. The payments should not be made out of the existing service funding grant, they argue, as this would mean a reduction in the service.
Central Desert Shire CEO Roydon Robertson, who attended the January 24 meeting, told the Alice Springs News that all the shires share concerns about where the lease payment money will go.
“Our elected members want this money – millions of dollars –  to benefit their communities, not just disappear into Land Trust coffers.
“Their [the Land Trusts’] people are our people too, the people we are trying to provide services for. For most of these services, there’s no-one else to do it, if we don’t.
“We’ve got to resolve this issue without sending ourselves broke.”
Ms McCarthy also wants the lease payments to be put towards “commercial developments and projects of broad community benefit” but this amounts to no more than an “encouragement”, as she acknowledges that the payments are “essentially private payments to Traditional Owners”.
The next step is for the shires to meet with the relevant Land Councils, and Minter Ellison has written to the Central Land Council as a starting point for negotiations to begin. There’s been no formal response to this letter to date, says Mr Robertson.  It is interesting to note that the CLC is currently advertising for an anthropologist to undertake research, “focussing especially on the progress of Section 19 leasing projects in the CLC region”.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. If the August 2012 expiry date on the five-year town leases comes around and the issues have not been resolved, shire assets will revert to ownership by the relevant Land Trust  – the “astonishing” situation that existed for all government infrastructure prior to 2007, to use Bob Beadman’s descripton.
The former NT Coordinator-General for Remote Services’ discussion of leasing in his reports 3 and 4 is instructive, particular for the way the unresolved issues impede economic development.  And his recommendation of possible reforms to the Land Rights Act – “that do not erode the rights of the Traditional Owners, but hold the Land Councils to account” – are relevant for the current situation:
• Statutory timeframes for Land Councils to respond to lease applications (similar provisions were inserted in the Mining provisions in the 1980’s);
• A requirement for independent observers to attend consultations between Land Councils and Traditional Owners to ensure an objective representation of leasing proposals is conveyed;
• Subject to any commercial-in-confidence concerns of proponents, a requirement for a public report to be produced on lease negotiations, including those consulted and reasons for decisions by Traditional Owners and Land Councils.
Pictured: Shire workers learning to undertake maintenance on work plant at the Ti Tree works depot. Photo courtesy Central Desert Shire. The works team includes the following people: Mick Lern, Morgan Abbott, Henry Haley, Trevor Glenn, Dan Pepperill, Mark Gorey, Anthony Pepperill, and Gabrielle Presley.



  1. When government requires land for public purposes such land is either purchased on market or resumed.
    Landowners receive their “just compensation” as required by our Commonwealth of Australia Constitution.
    Use of such payments then are matters for recipient landowners, management and shareholders – aka “Traditional Owners” for these particular corporate entities.
    These problems were created by Commonwealth racist actions.
    Commonwealth racist actions, to resolve problems from previous Commonwealth racist actions, when Commonwealth claimed no legal authority to pass laws concerning “Aboriginals”.
    Today Commonwealth purports its claims to rights to pass racist legislation, when in 1967 Australians voted to eliminate such practices.
    Were these land titles conventional freehold, these problems could be resolved as they occurred.
    Commonwealth racists spent decades building these problems, with consequences harming thousands.
    Unless these shire councils obtain required secure valid leases, and secure contracts, they should withdraw from providing the services, leave them to the Commonwealth and the landowners to resolve.
    If the landowners want the services they must arrange suitable leases.
    Many may well be disadvantaged.
    These disputes need be resolved by their relevant corporate landowners, their agents, and/or the Commonwealth.
    NTG may have a role to play prosecuting them all where they fail to satisfy public health standards.


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