“Indigenous
communities have suffered from misplaced idealism,” Jenness Warren, a
workplace English language and literacy tutor for the Laynhapuy
Homeland Association Inc in the Northern Territory, wrote in a Financial Reviewfeature .
It’s true. From the age of “smoothing the dying pillow” to today,
benevolence has been a curse to Indigenous Australians – hence the
shock caused by the tough love message of some young Indigenous
activists today.

“An individual property rights land ownership
framework must be established to enable Aborigines and Torres Strait
Islanders to develop enterprises and attract investment to create jobs
and incomes,” Warren said. “Ninety-nine year leases are essential to
facilitate individually owned private housing.”

Last week, the
prime minister visited the remote Wadeye community in the Top End,
where a housing shortage means people live 17 to a house. The idea of
allowing individual Indigenous Australians to buy their own houses in
settlements, where property is now collectively owned, is now firmly on
the political agenda – backed by Aboriginal activist and incoming
federal Labor Party president Warren Mundine.

Its supporters say
communally controlled housing is too easily degraded, that no
individual has any reason to take responsibility for property everyone
owns. It’s part of a wider debate. Warren wrote: “With the 1967
Aboriginal citizenship referendum, liberals expected that Aborigines
would be able to take advantage of the full opportunities and
challenges of Australian life. But HC (Nugget) Coombs, who had been so
influential in postwar economic planning in Australia, together with
Maria Brandl and Warren Snowdon, wrote a blueprint to enable Aborigines
to revert to living in remote hunter-gatherer communities, that would
eventually culminate in a ‘nation’ independent of the rest of Australia.

The
Mabo and subsequent judgments and legislation provided communal land
for that experiment. Substantial taxpayer transfers made it a reality.
The results have been hidden from mainstream Australia by a policy of
apartheid-like permits needed to visit the remote communities. Only
their so-called curators have free access to these living museums.
Fortunately, fearless Aboriginal leaders, notably Noel Pearson, and
some journalists have opened up a debate on the effects of the Coombs
experiment…”

“No economy in the world has ever developed without
private property rights,” Warren says. This new debate, however, is
sparking controversy. “John Howard is bent on taking the white picket
fence to remote Aboriginal Australia,” Michelle Grattan wrote last
weekend in The Age .

If
we’re going to have a new debate, we need some background. Social
systems vary across Indigenous groups – from city to country, from
traditional to dislocated, from “home grown” land council to white land
council legislative creation and so on. Will one form of land tenure
fit all these various social systems? Unlikely. So perhaps we should
all admit that from the word go, before we debate – before our nation’s
greatest shame, the state of its Indigenous population, is put in the
too hard basket yet again.

Peter Fray

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