Another day, another deal done with Aboriginal people while a gun is held to their head. I am, of course, referring to the news overnight that Jenny Macklin has signed a deal with the Alice Springs town camps which is supposed to deliver $138 million in housing and infrastructure upgrades in exchange for a 40-year lease over the land.
Except, of course, no deal has actually been done. All that’s really happened is a letter has been sent to Macklin from some of the town camp housing associations indicating they’ll accept a deal. So they’ve agreed to agree.
Call me pedantic, but when a $100 million or so and a pile of Aboriginal land is at stake, I prefer to see some names on dotted lines. The truth is, the battle for the Alice Springs town camps is just beginning.
Here are six reasons why:
Later this afternoon, lawyers for town camp resident and anti-intervention activist Barb Shaw are expected to head back into the Federal Court. Last week, Shaw sought an injunction against Minister Macklin compulsorily acquiring the land because while the government notified Tangentyere council and the housing associations about the possibility of compulsory acquisition, no-one had thought to formally notify the actual tenants. Even under a Rudd government it’s still illegal to remove or dilute someone’s property interest without first telling them. The legal action Shaw is now likely to push will be an injunction against Macklin entering into any agreement with Tangentyere or the housing associations. If successful, it would presumably join the original action in court in September. The short answer is Macklin won’t be signing any agreement any time soon.
At least two of the housing associations have reportedly not agreed to lease their land. They will, Macklin has promised, be compulsorily acquired. There’s quite a few problems on this front, not least of all the court challenge. There’s also Macklin’s recently leaked legal advice published by NIT and Crikey last month. It warns the Minister that when the Racial Discrimination Act is reinstated to the Northern Territory intervention, she’s going to have all sorts of legal problems with the compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal land.
The Australian Government promised the United Nations in March this year that it would properly consult with Aboriginal people on the NT intervention. The town camps seizure is part of the intervention, yet Aboriginal people are seeking an injunction against it on the grounds they weren’t properly consulted. Indeed, Macklin’s leaked legal advice warns against consulting, because the government won’t get the outcome it wants. Expect Australia to look mighty silly next month when we get a “Please Explain” from the UN’s Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).
Macklin has promised to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act by the spring session of parliament. There’s not much chance this issue will be sorted out before then. And if Macklin does keep her promise and make the NT intervention compliant with our race laws, she won’t be able to turn around later and forcibly acquire the town camps. Why? Because it’s racist, as her own legal advice acknowledges. It’s why Macklin has been rushing to acquire the town camps in the first place — she has to do it before she takes the racism out of the intervention. The irony, of course, is that on the one hand Macklin acknowledges the NT intervention is racist, and on the other hand, says it not so racist that she shouldn’t use it just one more time … to forcibly acquire hard-fought land from the nation’s most vulnerable citizens. What an auspicious day for the Labor Party.
Even if agreements are eventually signed the whole process still relies on Jenny Macklin actually building some houses. And on that front, recent history suggests we shouldn’t hold our breath. Macklin, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs and the Minister for Housing, has had almost two years to build homes under the Northern Territory “national emergency” housing program (SIHIP). Current tally of houses completed: zero. If Macklin builds a house in Alice Springs before Christmas, I’ll walk there on my hands and paint the thing.
All of this has been announced on the eve of the ALP national conference in Sydney. It assumes that people like Warren Snowdon, Trish Crossin and Damien Hale, federally elected politicians who rely on the black vote for their weekly income, will sit quietly by and watch delegate Macklin marginalise the rights of their most vulnerable constituents. I like to think representation under the Labor Party is better than that.
And in case you missed the sarcasm, that last point was my tribute to the vacuous media reporting of this issue so far today.