Macklin seizes Alice Springs Aboriginal town camps

By Hamish Chitts

Whenever Australian capitalist politicians have talked about protection, welfare and reconciliation in relation to Aboriginal people they have actually meant dispossession, forced cultural assimilation and racial oppression. The capitalist class knows that much of its wealth has been gained at the expense of Aboriginal people through the takeover of their lands. The only way these rulers were able to take possession of the Australian continent was through a 200-year campaign of ethnic cleansing of its original inhabitants.

In the latest chapter in this saga of dispossession and racist oppression, federal Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin announced on May 24 that she would use the racist Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) legislation to compulsorily acquire control over 16 Alice Spring town camps. This move, made at the start of Reconciliation Week followed a decision of the Tangentyere Council, acting on behalf of town camp residents, to reject a 40-year lease deal that would have removed all Aboriginal control and management of camp housing and put decision-making and resources into the hands of Northern Territory and federal governments. While the NTER legislation expires in 2012, Macklin said the law nonetheless allowed her to make a permanent acquisition of the town camps. “It’s forever. It’s not a 40-year lease, it’s a compulsory acquisition”, she declared.

History of dispossession

In 1872 the Alice Springs Telegraph Station was established. This was the beginning of Aboriginal dispossession in the area, with the presence of the of the telegraph station attracting pastoralists who took land around the precious permanent water supplies. This invasion and theft of natural resources was resisted by the Aborigines and in 1881 the South Australian colonial authorities sent paramilitary police to quash the uprising. The troopers were already experienced in the bloody suppression of Aboriginal people in lands further south and by 1891 they had killed over 1000 Aborigines around Alice Springs. Faced with this onslaught, Aboriginal resistance in central Australia ceased to be an armed struggle, but their struggle against to dispossession has continued to this day.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Aborigines who had been dispossessed from the best hunting grounds began to gravitate to the developing township of Alice Springs. Denied residence within the township itself, they set up camps on its fringes. In 1940, the government forced most Aboriginal town camp dwellers to move to three permanent reserves — Hermannsburg, 150 kilometres west of Alice Springs; Jay Creek, 50km west; and Little Flower Mission at Arltunga, 110 km east of Alice Springs. Wartime labour shortages led the Australian government to establish a reserve for Aboriginal workers on the edge of Alice Springs at the old telegraph station. Despite a strong push to remove other camp dwellers from the town area, they persisted in residing around Alice Springs.

Throughout the 1960s the Alice Springs Town Management Board used police and welfare officers to look for health hazards, child neglect, drunkenness and general untidiness to evict individual town camp dwellers and to put pressure on all of them to leave. However, this pressure largely failed and the camps became important places not just for Aborigines who wanted to permanently live near Alice Springs but also for those who needed a place to stay when they had to access health, dental and other services that are only available in the town.

Tangentyere Council

A group called “Tunkatjira” was formed in 1974 by Aborigines to assist the town camps to gain land, shelter, public services, transport, firewood and garbage collection. Through decades of struggle, at times strengthened by the land rights campaign, this group, now known as Tangentyere Council, became the umbrella group for the 18 town camp associations around Alice Springs. The council manages public housing and waste management but, unlike the Alice Springs town council, is also responsible for aged care, community policing, employment and training services.

Tangentyere Council is an Aboriginal owned and controlled organisation governed by an executive of representatives from the 18 town camps. It employs around 170 people. The internal planning of the camps adheres to traditional customs — camp planning constraints include the need to provide areas for different family groups, temporary accommodation for people who have to leave houses following a death, the need for visitor camping, and sacred site protection.

There are 188 houses and 72 tin sheds in the camps, usually overcrowded due to gross underfunding of housing construction by successive federal and NT governments. The myth that Aboriginal community organisations receive more per capita government money than non-Aborigines is completely false. The money that they do receive has to maintain services like aged care which, in areas predominantly inhabited by non-Aboriginal Australians, is administered by separately funded state or federal government agencies.

As with all past attacks on Aboriginal communities, the Rudd government claims to be acting for Aborigines’ own “welfare”. Macklin’s media release on the compulsory acquisitions stated: “Anybody who has been to the Alice Springs town camps knows that action is drastically and urgently needed. Living conditions in the camps are appalling. Acute overcrowding and sub-standard housing combined with alcohol abuse, despair and hopelessness have led to desperate and dangerous consequences. The camps have been the sites of horrific crimes. For vulnerable women and children in the camps, the basic human right to a safe and healthy life is simply absent.” Macklin, however, deliberately failed to acknowledge is that these conditions are the result of decades of gross government underfunding of housing and other social services for NT Aborinigal communities, and more than 130 years of government-backed racist oppression.

The Alice Springs Aboriginal town camps have special purpose leases from the NT government. The federal government has been trying to force Tangentyere Council to sign a 40-year lease that would hand over control of the camps’ housing assets, extracting rent and managing tenants to the NT Department of Housing. Aboriginal community councils across the territory in NTER-prescribed areas are being pressured to sign leases with Canberra ranging from 40-90 years giving control of land use and housing to the federal or NT governments. If they do not sign, these communities will not receive urgently needed new housing and other infrastructure that most white Australians would take for granted.

Control over housing

Tangentyere Council proposed a community housing model on a three-year trial basis, but the federal government won’t allow Aboriginal control of housing. The Howard Coalition government offered Tangentyere Council $60 million for infrastructure upgrades if it accepted government control over the camps for 40 years. The Rudd Labor government upped this to $100 million and then to $125 million, but each time the council has refused. Tangentyere Council wants its Central Australian Affordable Housing Company to manage the new housing, including determining who would go to the front of waiting lists. “There’s no contest that the housing requires a major upgrade”, the council’s lawyer, Danny Gilbert, of Gilbert and Tobin, told the May 25 Australian. “They want their affordable housing company to be given the role. They’re prepared to sign an agreement that says if we fail, you can terminate the agreement.”

The Australian reported that the government “fears favouritism and nepotism under this counter-proposal and insists the camps’ housing be handled by government to avoid such problems”. This racist slander doesn’t even stand up to logic. The council did not refuse hundreds of millions of dollars in government funds because its leadership is corrupt and seeks personal power. It refused because the camp residents fear the high rate of evictions and predicted rent increases under NT government management. Many Aboriginal people who have been former tenants of Territory Housing have already experienced evictions, with the most common reasons being cooking kangaroo tail in their backyards or having relatives from remote communities visit them. Camp residents will have nowhere else to live if evicted from their homes by Territory Housing, which already has a three-year waiting list.

The federal government’s compulsory acquisition of the town camps is due to take effect on July 6. The May 25 Australian reported that Sydney lawyer George Newhouse, who is acting on behalf of town camp residents in a separate UN complaint against the NTER, claimed Macklin is facing legal challenges to her compulsory acquisition decision. The May 29 Sydney Morning Herald reported that PM Kevin Rudd had told reporters Labor intended to continue with the previous Howard government’s intervention into remote NT communities, despite promising to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act, which was suspended by the NTER legislation.