COMMENT by ERWIN CHLANDA
Candidates spruiking repetitive and uninformative platitudes is an irritating feature of Australian elections which always result in the victory of one major party that is only marginally different from the other. We quickly get over it.
Lingiari is different: here the election is a matter of life and death. Consider the deaths or early deaths in the area of the current Lingiari – more than 99% of the Territory – resulting from booze, bad diet, domestic and other violence, car accidents, tribal conflicts, neglect of children, foetal alcohol syndrome, paybacks, and so on.
The NT’s Indigenous population, some 65,000 people, roughly one-third of Territorians, are disproportionately represented in that line-up, massively, distressingly so.
Warren Snowdon has been the Member for the seat which includes Central Australia from 1987 to 1996 and from 1998 to the present. For most of the two years in-between he was working for the Central Land Council (CLC).
And all this time Mr Snowdon has been a player – in Opposition or in Government – in the formulation of policies that have spent billions of dollars purportedly on bettering the Aborigines’ lot. Gauge the outcomes of that effort from the current crime, health, education and employment statistics.
Much of what makes Alice Springs tick is the product of Territory or Local Government spending.
Much of what makes the bush tick is in the Feds’ court because they continue to bear the major responsibility for Aborigines.
So why worry at all about the September 7 elections? Because the fates of this town and the bush are inextricably linked, not just on compassionate grounds: unless we start getting it right in the bush, Alice Springs will continue to feel the burden of a population suffering terrible ill health as well as the pressure of crime and anti-social behaviour, as idle, disaffected, angry, demanding, aggressive people continue to drift into town.
This would further transform our demographic from a go-getting, bustling tourism and pastoral town run by a resourceful, adventurous bunch of people, to a giant nursing home and penal colony run by a growing number of government and NGO public servants which such a society requires.
In terms of the two major parties’ Lower House candidates the choice could not be more diverse: Mr Snowdon (see above) and Tina MacFarlane, although a novice to parliamentary politics, a member of a family deeply involved in primary production, doing what some commentators are saying Aboriginal people in the bush should be doing: making a living from the land, in her case raising cattle and growing food.
These sentiments are partly enshrined in the wish lists of our major lobbies, the Town Council, Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Central Australia, Arid Lands Environment Centre and Central Australian Aboriginal Congress.
We have drawn all local candidates’ attention to these demands, added some of our own questions, and asked for comment by the end of the week. We’ll report on the replies on the weekend.
Half a million square kilometres of Central Australia – 50% of the landmass – is under inalienable Aboriginal freehold but its occupants own nothing. Collectives known as land trusts do. The land can’t be mortgaged because it can’t be sold.
In 2006 the Howard Government, with Mal Brough as the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, amended the Land Rights Act allowing 99 year leases to be granted by the trusts. Labor later reduced the term to 40 years. These leases apparently can be mortgaged.
Not a single lease has been issued in The Centre in the seven years the option has been available.
Leases can work in a variety of ways: the house you live in could become your real property. Would you be likely to look after it better? Almost certainly.
You might have a patch of dirt that belongs to you alone (no different to how it is done elsewhere in Australia), and you’d grow fruit and veg on it – for your family or for sale. A Vietnamese family in Alice Springs is doing that with great success: all they have is two hectares; that is one 25 millionth of the Aboriginal land in Central Australia.
Another option clearly is involving joint ventures with experienced horticultural companies: an Aboriginal lessee would contribute the land, creating a source of income for himself and providing job opportunities for people chronically idle in his community.
Although land use has now emerged as a major issue in the campaign, after nearly 40 years of Aboriginal landrights there is still zero progress with it, notwithstanding the fact that the Central Land Council, and more recently, its Centrefarm, have been tinkering with the issue for decades.
Mr Snowdon has not made himself available for discussing these issues, despite our requests. A conversation with Ms MacFarlane late last week left no doubt that she is keenly interested in them, but it was also clear that – surprisingly – some aspects are not fully understood.
We believe the leasing process would go something like this: A traditional owner wants to get into the fast lane … he or she does a deal with a joint venturer … he/she identifies a patch of land … asks the land trust for a lease … the trustees instruct the CLC to issue the lease … a thriving industry is started, something like the non-Aboriginal Hayes family’s vineyard at Rocky Hill 50 kms east of Alice Springs … win, win, win all ’round.
Possible Scenario # 2 – and this is where it gets messy: The CLC says it doesn’t want to issue a lease … why should we give a leg-up to a rapacious exploitative corporation seeking only to further disadvantage the dispossessed (words to the effect) … trust and applicant complain to the Minister who has the right of review … the CLC, noted for its decades-long failure to reform the use of land and initiate any productive use of it, says to the Minister you can’t make us do it, we’re a statutory body … the Minister says I’ll cut funds and strike you off my Christmas card list … what then?
Ms MacFarlane so far says: “I am really not in a position to go into specifics … there are details to which I am not privy to.”
She’s working on a much more specific answer, together with NT Senator Nigel Scullion, who will be the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs if the Coalition gets in.
Meanwhile Mr Snowdon is doing what he is doing best: handing out public money ahead of an election – except this time there could be a snag, at least with some of the cash. It is from the Aboriginals Benefit Account which – some say – is Aboriginal money.
Not a good look as Mr Snowdon’s erstwhile safe black constituency is turning its back on him, as it did in last year’s Territory elections.
Twelve days to polling day …
Land use emerges as big issue in Centre
COMMENT by ERWIN CHLANDA