When Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough first visited the Tiwi Islands in May this year, he announced that the government will provide $10 million in funding for the new school on Melville Island. The joy and excitement that this announcement brought was clear, as people cheered and clapped.

However, there was another announcement made that day by Minister Brough which did not really grab the crowd’s attention…something about 99 year leases on towns in indigenous communities.

The proposal was that the town of Nguiu on Bathurst Island be leased to the government for a period of 99 years. The government would in turn lease plots of land in Nguiu to various businesses, individuals and organisations. An agreement was signed during the Minister’s visit, committing the traditional owners to consider this proposal and reach a decision by the end of the year.

Nguiu residents wanted to know how this proposal was going to work. For instance, landowners can already grant leases on their land – what’s the advantage of handing over control to a government body? Who would be allowed to lease land in Nguiu? How much rent would be paid? What rights will the traditional owners have once the lease is signed?

Rumours were also floating around that the government’s promise of $10 million for the new school was linked to the signing of the agreement about 99 year leases – was this true? As Women’s Group Chairperson, Theresita Puruntatameri, said “When people found out about the 99 year leases they started thinking that the [school and the land proposal] were tied up. People feel blackmailed”.

There was no information given to the community about the leasing scheme. There have been no open public meetings for the community. When Minister Brough returned to the Tiwi Islands earlier this month, he did not receive the same welcome as on his first visit.

Jason de Santis asked a question that has been on everyone’s minds since the Minister’s first visit – was the government only going to fund the new school if Tiwis agreed to the 99 year proposal? The Minister answered “yes…we are not going to spend $10 million on something nobody owns”. This was a surprising response, given the fact that the land on Melville Island where the new school will be built is part of a current lease, and will not be affected by a 99 year lease on the town of Nguiu.

The meeting lasted about half an hour. At no point did anyone from the government explain how the leasing scheme was going to work. No effort was made to break down the complex and legalistic language. At the end of the meeting, Adam Kerinaiua, a traditional owner for Nguiu, handed the Minister a several page list of questions and said that the community wants answers for them all.

The Minister said at the meeting that the government wanted to help Tiwi people to achieve their dream of owning their own homes. Communal ownership of land has been central to Tiwi culture for thousands of years, and the prospect of handing over their land to the government for a century just so they can own a building is unlikely to be the dream of many Tiwi people.

The Minister also said, “We want children to come out of school with numeracy, with literacy and with English as their first language so they can go anywhere in this country…and not be locked in to a location simply because this education system failed them”. Most Tiwis would not consider themselves as being “locked” in to this location. The Tiwi islands are their home, and they value their land above all else. 

Minister Brough told the Tiwi people at the meeting, “we are trying to find a way to help you realise your dreams and what is holding back people in so many communities in Australia, I know it’s a horrible word, called land tenure”.

Land, community and culture are tightly bound up and are treasured by the Tiwi. It seems a contradiction in terms that to realise their dreams, Tiwi people must give up the things that are most important to them.

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off