Labor steps up racist NT land grab

By Hamish Chitts

After PM Kevin Rudd’s February 13 official apology to the Stolen Generations, media outlets around the world hailed him as a great humanitarian friend of Aboriginal people. That day’s New York Times reported that “Rudd opened a new chapter in Australia’s tortured relations with its indigenous peoples on Wednesday with a comprehensive and moving apology for past wrongs and a call for bipartisan action to improve the lives of Australia’s Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.” In his official apology, Rudd spoke of creating a “future where this parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.”

Rudd would make a great snake-oil seller because for all his lofty words over the past year, his government has begun the biggest and most coordinated attack on the rights of Aboriginal people since the Stolen Generations. Rudd and his modern “protector” of Aborigines, Jenny Macklin, assisted by state and territory governments, have put in place laws and policies that together can only mean one thing for Aboriginal people — cultural genocide.

In June 2007 the Howard Coalition government used the Little Children are Sacred report into child abuse in remote Northern Territory Aboriginal communities to invade these communities under what it called the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER). At the time, many saw it as just a stunt by an unpopular government looking for ways to boost its chances in the upcoming federal election. However, the Rudd Labor government has not only maintained the NTER, but also extended it.

The real intention of the NTER is the theft of more Aboriginal land through the destruction of Aboriginal culture and links to land where it is strongest. The size of the Aboriginal land holding in the NT is considerable — 45% of the land and 80% of the coastline. 70% of Aboriginal people in the NT live on native title land. Aborigines make up almost a third of the NT’s population. Outside of Darwin, Alice Springs, Katherine and Tennant Creek, 75.6% of NT residents are Aborigines. The first language for most people is an Aboriginal language. Many speak several Aboriginal languages before they learn English. Cultural and social practices continue to be overwhelmingly informed by traditions that predate European settlement.

The NTER measures apply to “prescribed areas”. These include all land held under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) 1976, all Aboriginal community living areas and all Aboriginal town camps — some 600,000 sq km. Prescribed areas encompass more than 500 Aboriginal communities, over 70% of Aboriginal people in the NT and directly affect 45,500 Aboriginal men, women and children.

To enable the NTER, the federal Racial Discrimination Act (1975) was explicitly suspended and the protections of anti-discrimination law in the NT were removed. Macklin has said the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act for Aboriginal people in the NT will continue until at least June 2009. Under the NTER, racist measures have been implemented, such as the withholding of 50% of the social security payments of all Aboriginal people in the NT.

Instead of receiving regular social security payments, some 13,000 Aborigines receive store cards that dictate where they can shop and what they are able to buy. Some cards are only for Woolworths, others are for Coles. Therefore, purchases are limited to what these stores stock. Some communities literally rely on the irregular delivery of food parcels. Others have to travel hundreds of kilometers to get to their nominated store. Many can no longer budget, and have no money to attend funerals, ceremonies, or even buy Christmas presents.

A statement from women at a Prescribed Area People’s Alliance (PAPA) meeting in Alice Springs on September 29 said: “For old people the intervention is bringing up bad memories of the past, the old days, the ration days, the dog tag days and the mission days.”

The NTER is forcing Aboriginal people away from their traditional lands to already overcrowded town camps in Darwin, Alice Springs, Katherine and Tennant Creek. As part of the NTER, all Aboriginal land in the NT has been compulsorily acquired by the federal government for five years and instruments of local self-democracy like community councils have been replaced by government-appointed “business managers”.

None of the NTER measures have improved the lives of those it was claimed it would help. Even Rudd’s handpicked NTER review board reported in October that the “single most valuable resource that the NTER has lacked from its inception is the positive, willing participation of the people it was intended to help”. The September 29 women’s statement from PAPA also commented on the outcomes of over one year under the NTER: “There’s no new houses, schools or anything for communities. They’ve only built new houses for the new intervention staff. We had programs created by the community for our community. We wanted more support for them. Community programs have been taken away. They’ve taken away our night patrol, community bus and women’s centres.”

Apparently though for the Labor government and its corporate masters, these measures aren’t working quickly enough to remove Aboriginal people from their land, so land councils in prescribed areas are being pressured to sign leases ranging from 40-99 years giving control of land to the federal or NT governments. If they do not sign, then communities will not receive urgently needed houses and infrastructure that most white people would take for granted.

Macklin has threatened to withhold funding for new housing in the 19 Alice Springs town camps after the Tangentyere Council raised objections to the proposed leasing agreements. “It’s not just about giving the government security for money spent, it’s about establishing absolute clarity about who is responsible for the management of public housing in these communities”, she told the November 25 Melbourne Age. This marks a major departure from the self-management regime established 30 years ago under which all aspects of housing were controlled by Indigenous housing authorities and community councils.

In partnership, the federal and NT Labor governments have flagged not providing future funding to smaller and more remote communities, known as “outstations” or “homelands”, that they deem unviable. In an October 26 message, the Gumatj clan, at the MataMata Homeland in northeast Arnhem Land stated: “People out here on the homelands are both saddened and angry. However, they are defiant, that no matter what the government does, they will not leave their sacred lands and their law. The government will be condemning them to a life of extreme poverty. Is this ‘closing the gap’? Is this ‘reconciliation’? They call this a representative democracy. What a joke — what representation do my family have out here? What say do they have in deciding on legislation that directly affects them and their children and their property?”

NT education minister Marion Scrymgour has announced that Aboriginal languages cannot be used in NT classrooms, except for one hour a day in the afternoons. Most affected are nine bilingual schools across the NT where people do not speak English as a first language in some of the few places left in Australia where Indigenous languages are still spoken fluently in everyday life. The governments claim that this an effort to address poor educational outcomes in Aboriginal communities yet the fact that the bilingual schools have better results in English than the English-only remote schools shows that this is another attack on Aboriginal culture. This attack has been fully backed by the Rudd government. Acting PM Julie Gillard said on November 20: “For Indigenous Australia, English is the language of further learning and English is the language of work.”

Attempts to destroy Aboriginal culture assist land theft by trying to break the strong link Aboriginal culture has with the land and which ties Aboriginal people to the homelands. Under the laws of capitalist Australia, if Indigenous culture is lost, if Aborigines move into towns and stop living on or going to their traditional lands, then native title becomes extinct.

Governments are going to great measures to transform Aboriginal land into crown land. Under Rudd’s leadership, these latest attacks on Aboriginal people have been increased in the NT and extended to affect Aboriginal people in Queensland, Western Australia and South Australia. Labor is making these attacks because in recent years remote Aboriginal communities have been successful in opposing the establishment of new uranium mines and nuclear waste dumps.

With an expected increase in global use of nuclear power, the price of uranium has rapidly increased and the big mining companies have been pressuring Australian governments to allow the opening of more mines and the establishment of a nuclear waste dump. The forced or coopted loss of Aboriginal control of their land is an important step to achieving this.