By ERWIN CHLANDA
The location of Alice town camps make them suitable for development, on and off site, of Indigenous businesses, using land and labour available, says Living on the Edge.
That review, much of it scathing, was compiled by Deloitte for the NT Department of Housing and Community Development, and says this development should happen.
The common belief, including by most of the camp residents, is that nothing can happen without the permission of Tangentyere Council. That is far from the truth.
The fact is that each of the 18 camps is owned and controlled by an association, including 17 of them under Special Purpose Leases in Perpetuity.
Although the camps at present cannot be subdivided (and the review recommends this to be changed) “subject to the consent of the Minister, a lessee may transfer the whole or a part of his lease; mortgage his lease; sub-let the whole or a part of the land comprised in his lease; and surrender the whole or a part of his lease,”according to the legislation.
The Minister has to submit these proposed actions to the land council “for consideration and report”. But while he or she has to “consider” any resulting report by the land council, the Minister isn’t bound by what it says.
In December 2009, the Executive Director of Township Leasing entered into subleases with 15 Housing Associations over seventeen town camps on behalf of the Commonwealth.
The term of each sublease is for 40 years.
The executive director was simultaneously granted an under-lease in the form of a housing management agreement to the NT Government which gave it the responsibility for all areas within the town camp boundary. This included all infrastructures – housing, open spaces, roads, parks and community centres, the review explains.
Of course, at the stroke of a pen (or two pens), the Commonwealth and the NT can vary these sub-leases upon request of the lease holders. The review sets out how they, the people who live in the respective camps, through their associations, can promote “any proposal to access or develop land in a township lease”.
This puts the 906 Alice town campers, medium age 26, (2011 Census QuickStats) in a position of opportunity or of obligation, depending on the point of view.
On the one hand the residents have the opportunity of becoming landlords and entrepreneurs, with land assets worth many millions of dollars in a town that has some of the nation’s highest real estate prices.
On the other hand, the taxpayer may say these very opportunities are placing an obligation on the town camp dwellers to put their assets to work and reduce their dependence on government handouts.
What may come into play include the asset tests Centrelink applies to pension applicants, for example, and the fact that Tangentyere is a shareholder in the secretive Centrecorp Aboriginal Investment Corporation, believed to have assets valued in the hundreds of millions.
Tangentyere, in its own right, in 2017 had an operating income of $22.2m, received $12.4m in net recurring grants and paid $14.1m in employee costs. The NGO did its best to stifle the work of the Deloitte review.
The Census average numbers for town campers give no hint of the suffering and trauma there, especially so far as women and children are concerned: 3.9 people per household; $671 weekly income; monthly mortgage repayments $0; weekly rent $65. Sounds all very benign.
Amazingly, of the 323 total dwellings surveyed in the Census, 112 were reported as being unoccupied – more than one-third. So much for the Indigenous housing shortage in Alice Springs, and self-help fixing up these houses.
We put these facts to Malarndirri McCarthy. She is an Aboriginal woman. She is the Labor Senator for the Northern Territory. She sits in the Parliament which governs the massive Federal expenditure for Indigenous people. She is a member of the Labor Party currently governing the Territory.
If welfare payments are asset tested in the broad community, should they also be for the lease holders of the Alice town camps?
McCARTHY: There should be consistent rules, but let’s remember that [some people] are disadvantaged in terms of job opportunities, in terms of closing the gap in health and education.
NEWS: Would using their assets not be a way of closing the gap?
McCARTHY (pictured): That should always come back to a choice. We need to look at what an individual’s circumstances are. Imposing this on people has never worked. This has to come down to an individual’s or a family’s right to choose the direction they want, irrespective of whether they live on a town camp or elsewhere in Alice Springs.
NEWS: That choice is not given to welfare and pension applicants in the general population.
McCARTHY: Applications need to be looked at case by case. How can policies give any Australians an opportunity to step out of poverty? That is the question.
NEWS: Are you saying the same conditions for welfare support should apply across the board?
McCARTHY: We have an issue in this country that we have not yet closed the gap, in terms of life expectancy, educational opportunities or in health. Our Parliament of Australia, in a bi-partisan approach, focusses on closing the gap, and everything else we do, as a country, must be focussed on that. When we close that gap, then we can have the other conversations.
NEWS: Are you saying the equal treatment of welfare applicants has to wait until the gap is closed?
McCARTHY: We always have to take into consideration that the gap has not closed.
NEWS: Should the public continue to pay for Indigenous housing or should people with significant assets pay for their own housing, at least in part?
McCARTHY: Canberra should always work with First Nations people, whether they live in town camps or not. We should work with community controlled organisations and the individuals who are part of making the decisions about their future.
NEWS: Currently the consistent message is, Indigenous people have large needs and these will need to be met mostly by Canberra. Should these people become self-sufficient, at least to a degree that is reasonable?
McCARTHY: People must be allowed to make their own decisions to rise above incredible disadvantage. That has to always be an enormous priority.
NEWS: The Deloitte report says land ownership should deliver on economic and social aspirations. This would mean the dependance on Canberra would decrease. Would that be a good thing?
McCARTHY: The NT Government says there should be separate funding from Canberra for town camps. That’s an immediate concern that is happening right now.
NEWS: In the end all money comes from the taxpayer. Should Indigenous people be required to become self-sufficient at the level of the general population?
McCARTHY: First Nations people like any Australian are entitled to be supported. The question is, what are governments doing to enable disadvantaged people to rise out of those situations. When you have Community Development Programs which don’t provide the economic support for 33,000 people across this country, most of whom are Indigenous, then you are not dealing with job prospects enabling people to step up and out of difficult circumstances.
NEWS: The Larapinta camp is 90 hectares and quite sparsely populated. Why should the lessees not use the excess land for gap-closing ventures?
McCARTHY: Firstly, the question is, do the people of Larapinta want to go in that particular direction? People need to have the choice to do what they like to do, to develop their land or to do nothing with it. That is still their choice.
It’s a view clearly not shared by the $2.4m, 16,000 page Deloitte report. It says: “History has shown, across cultures, and across communities, that welfare dependence does not, as a general rule, create vibrant, happy, well balanced people. Non-participation in most aspects of life leads to a sense of helplessness and often depression.”
PHOTO at top: Larapinta Valley town camp (triangular shape at left in the image), 92 residents. Hidden Valley town camp (spinning top shape at right in the image), 108 residents • Google Earth image showing Larapinta Valley • Scene from a town camp (from our archives) • Community centre at the Larapinta camp (from our archives).
By ERWIN CHLANDA