Santa Teresa wins housing class action against NT Government


2617 Santa Teresa OKA class action by 70 households in Santa Teresa (Google Earth image at right) has resulted in the Aboriginal community of some 650 residents being compensated for the NT Government’s failure to maintain housing to a safe and healthy level.
The NT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NTCAT) has found the government is legally obliged to provide habitable housing in remote communities, a decision hailed “as a victory for all Aboriginal communities that have been systematically ignored by a government that continues to fail to meet its basic responsibilities as a landlord,” according to a media release this morning.
It says the lawsuit was brought after the government failed to action over 600 urgent repairs, with some families waiting over five years: “Many houses posed serious health and safety risks to residents, with some building structurally unsound, without running water, sewerage and ventilation despite the desert temperatures in the area regularly hoving above 40 degrees in summer and below zero in winter.”
Grata Fund has financially supported the class action and Australian Lawyers for Remote Aboriginal Rights (ALRAR) have acted for over three years free of charge.
ALRAR’s lead lawyer, Dan Kelly is quoted in the release: “The NTCAT decision has cemented the rights of the Eastern Arrernte people of Santa Teresa under residential tenancy law – just like anyone else who rents from a landlord – despite the Government’s attempts to shirk its obligations.
“The NT government has pursued our clients for years over these dodgy debts, which across the community came to over a million dollars.
“They let the rental system fall into disarray for years, and only raised it to try and silence our clients when they dared to take legal action for better housing.
“After years of litigation it is clear they had no right to this money, it is clear the housing system is in chaos, and it suggests that rentals debts across the Territory are unenforceable. The entire housing system has been called into question.”
Grata’s head of strategic litigation Lou Dargan is quoted: “Litigation is so expensive and time consuming that it’s rare for important public interest cases such as this one to be pursued. It’s a great outcome for Santa Teresa residents.
“This class action … provides an important precedent for all remote communities seeking to protect their right to housing that meets basic legal standards of health and safety.
“Grata Fund will continue to work with ALRAR and investigate the potential for similar litigation in other communities.”
Josie Douglas, Policy Manager at Central Land Council, is quoted in the release: “The NT Government must return responsibility for housing decisions back to Aboriginal control, through local or regional community housing organisations in a phased approach.”
The release says Jasmine Cavanagh, a resident of Santa Teresa, told the NTCAT: “The main problem was the leaking shower. The toilet was blocked and leaked sewerage into the water leaking from the shower.
“Water was everywhere in the back area of our house. This started soon after I moved in.
“I complained about it many times to Housing. Sometimes I got a bandaid solution. Then the same problem would start again.
“When it was leaking, we would have to mop up dirty water about every four hours. I would mop it up at 8pm, then get up at midnight and mop it up again, and then get up in the early morning and mop it up again.
“I used to have to go and have a shower at my mum’s house. We would also wash the kids there.”
p2106-Gerry-McCarthyUPDATE Feb 28:
Minister for Housing and Community Development, Gerry McCarthy (pictured) issued the following statement:
The class action lawsuit was filed in January 2016, during the Giles Government.
Since [we came to government] in September 2016, out of 99 houses in Santa Teresa, 93 have been fully upgraded and three replacement homes have been built.
Two new builds are currently underway, with two more planned for this year.
Further, 31 dwellings have been scoped for works under our Room to Breathe program which provides additional living spaces and improved conditions as part of our strategy to reduce overcrowding.
The Territory Labor Government acknowledges the historic underfunding of remote housing and went into the election with a 10-year, $1.1bn plan to reduce overcrowding and improve housing in remote communities.
We are proud of our remote housing program which is delivering jobs and changing the housing landscape in remote communities across the Territory because we know that better homes mean better health, education, employment and social outcomes for Australia’s most vulnerable people.
The Commonwealth needs to honour its outstanding commitment to remote housing which has been held up for eight months.
I look forward to continuing to work with the residents of Santa Teresa and other remote communities across the NT to deliver better housing in partnership with remote indigenous Territorians.

UPDATE 4.10pm February 28
The landmark test case that yesterday voided four remote tenancy agreements in the remote community of Santa Teresa may have far-reaching implications for hundreds of similar agreements across the NT, Mr Kelly is quoted in a media release today.
The NTCAT found the agreements between the NT Government and Santa Teresa residents entered into in 2010 and 2011 were inconsistent with the NT Residential Tenancies Act and therefore invalid.
Later agreements entered into in 2017 were also invalid as the department failed to properly terminate previous agreements in accordance with the Act, likely leaving the NT Department of Housing with no valid tenancy agreements in remote communities.
The release says Grata Fund welcomes “this important legal precedent which could help secure justice for dozens of Aboriginal communities with identical tenancy contracts”.


  1. If only there were unemployed people around who could perform handyman duties (or be training in them) as required, with Housing picking up the tab.
    Or just keep it as normal and pay $1000 every time there is a leaking tap for a tradie to drive out there and fix it.
    Sometimes simple suggestions are the best.

  2. How did the toilet become blocked in the first place? Not using the right paper to flush down the loo? Residents living in housing not suited to their way of living and not understanding that toilets, air conditioners, fridges, washing machines, to name a few, need to be used and looked after properly?
    I’ve worked in Santa Teresa and other indigenous communities and the amount of money poured into these communities is mind blowing.
    Government and Territory officials have no idea of what is right for the Indigenous population or never have seen it for themselves. A media that sensationalises a story without learning about the facts anonymously and objectively.
    Yes, let the Indigenous community sort out their own problems their own way and if they need help let them know there is help to be found if they wish.
    Right now lots of government contractors are making lots of money from public servants who don’t have a clue.

  3. For the sake of fairness, the 3x new builds was a project initiated and put out to tender by the CLP Giles Government.
    Also, half of the refurbishments were also initiated and put out to tender by the CLP Giles Government.
    The second half of refurbishments, awarded in September 2017 by the Gunner government was in all likelihood a carry over from the CLP Giles infrastructure / budget plan.
    So whilst most of the above works were undertaken on the Gunner watch, they were for the most part initiated by the CLP Giles Government.
    Any upcoming Room to Breath projects is certainly Labor initiated.
    The slow flow of projects through the infrastructure and budget process understandably results in a great portion of works being initiated by one Government yet claimed by their successors.

  4. No political party in Northern Territory or Commonwealth Parliament can claim innocence for this disgrace. All are complicit, having ignored these problems for decades.
    The Commonwealth government, IMHO, regularly obstructed attempts to resolve these issues.
    The NTCAT found the agreements between the NT Government and Santa Teresa residents entered into in 2010 and 2011 were inconsistent with the NT Residential Tenancies Act and therefore invalid.
    Expect similar findings from today back to commencement of the original Commonwealth Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act 1976 (ALRA).
    It requires valid leases being obtained from relevant corporate Land Trusts under the Commonwealth’s Act.
    Ongoing refusals to issue clear leases do not absolve land councils and the relevant corporate land trusts from their responsibility for occupied buildings, houses, etc.
    Commonwealth Ministers consistently provided grants, either despite awareness, or with negligence, to various (mostly) Commonwealth corporate entities that lacked valid leases, providing the right to build, manage and maintain houses and buildings.
    Where no valid leases exist all matters concerning these houses and other buildings clearly rests with relevant corporate land-owners, the relevant corporate land trusts as created under the ALRA.
    Under the ALRA corporate Land Trusts as actual property owners need be held accountable and responsible to maintain standards of buildings, particularly housing.
    The Commonwealth needs ensure the ALRA is amended to ensure various corporate land trust as actual property owners be required to issue all their tenants in houses with valid leases.
    The ALRA granted land trust exemptions with right to refuse to issue valid leases to all residents and tenants.
    This remains as an act of Commonwealth racism, apartheid, as being used by Commonwealth to promote apartheid, by land trust to enforce racial segregation upon Australians.
    The NT Government needs ensure courts hold accountable the ALRA corporate land trusts as actual property owners are directly held accountable to maintain standards of their houses.
    The ongoing failures by the NT Government to take relevant legal action IMHO appear to be acts of racism.

  5. The Commonwealth created land councils have become the problem, not the solution.
    The ABC quotes a letter signed by the CEOs of the Northern Land Council, the Central Land Council, the Tiwi Islands Land Council and the Anindilyakwa Land Council.
    “The land councils do not believe the current system of delivering housing assistance is working well in remote communities and we are committed to working with both tiers of government to design and implement an alternative one.”
    The ABC writes they are further saying: “We also see that land councils could play a key role in facilitating arrangements that promote the Territory’s Local Decision Making policy in respect to housing, including setting up community housing providers if supported.”
    IMHO the Land Councils approach since the land rights Act commenced remains a significant part of problems today.
    Australians voted in 1967 to eliminate apartheid in Australia.
    Yet the land councils treat the lands them similar to independent homelands created under South Africa’s apartheid regime.
    The current action by the corporate land councils as glorified real estate agents is to grab control of valuable assets owned by the corporate land trusts.
    The Land Councils should not receive housing monies.
    The Act established the various corporate land trusts as the owners of the lands.
    If the Commonwealth is to provide funds as grants they must be provided to the Corporate Land Trusts, with one exception.
    The exception is where relevant corporate land trusts do issue conventional long term leases to persons or to corporate entities.
    The problem here is the land councils are reluctant to issue conventional leases.
    Without conventional leases is not possible to obtain loans, except by largess from Commonwealth, IMHO acting to prop up its own mistakes.
    The Commonwealth’s approach reflects preference for promotion of racism, apartheid and rorts whilst ignoring equality of legal rights, ignoring equality of responsibility, thus denying equality of opportunity.
    This current housing financial disaster or rort has been created by the Commonwealth in its attempt to promote racism and apartheid within Australia.
    Shame for this rests clearly with the Commonwealth Parliament, and every Commonwealth minister who held the poisoned chalice portfolio because they all failed to address the problems producing the foreseeable results.


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