It’s nice to know Minister for Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough reads Crikey.

How else to explain his front page response in today’s Australian to Monday’s edition of Crikey (item 8), in which I poo-pooed plans for unemployed Aboriginal people in remote regions to borrow $400,000 to build homes worth nothing in regions with no economies?

This morning’s lead story in The Oz screams: “Canberra in grab for tribal land”, and reveals (again) that “Indigenous people in some communities will be able to buy their own homes on traditional land within months after the Howard government moved to seize responsibility from the Northern Territory Government.”

It continues:

The federal government argues that promoting private ownership can break the poverty cycle and predicts families could be able to buy homes on combined incomes as low as $30,000 a year.

The use of the word “combined” is key here. What Brough is arguing is that Billy Blackfella might not be able to afford a 30-year, $800,000 loan. But if Billy combines his fortnightly welfare cheque with Abbie Aborigine, the Great Australian Dream is within reach! Of course, it will have to be on a time share basis, where each family (plus all their relatives) get to live in the house three months of the year.

But wait, there’s more. Can’t afford a $400,000 loan? The federal government will let you buy existing remote housing stock. What a deal! I can’t wait for the sales pitch:

For sale. Renovator’s dream. Three bedroom house-like structure in remote Aboriginal community. A great little fixer-upperer perfect for unemployed person with plenty of time on their hands. Excellent air flow throughout dwelling and easy access to backyard. Has water views during wet season. Community has been ear-marked for possible construction of police station, school, roads and basic health facilities. Also perfect for investors, with guaranteed tenancy of at least 17 people. Call Mal for further details.

Apart from “combined incomes”, The Australian’s article is full of other weasel words and careful language. For example, Brough refers to an “entity” that will manage the town leasing scheme.

Here’s why: in October 2005, The National Indigenous Times was leaked a copy of an email from a senior official in the Northern Territory government warning Canberra about being too upfront with its plans for private home ownership in remote regions.

The email was prompted by a brochure Brough’s department had already printed promoting the town lease scheme, but which unfortunately revealed Aboriginal people would be handing over their control of freehold land to a new NT government department:

As it is, we can fully expect this reform will be painted in some quarters as a thinly disguised land grab by the [Northern Territory Government].

“Citing the option of the function sitting in a NT government department will merely serve to underline those fears and we consider it unnecessary at this point,” the email said.

The official suggested rewording the brochure so that it referred to an “entity” rather than a government department. Canberra agreed, pulped the existing brochures and reprinted them with the “appropriate changes”. So real estate agents have to sell land honestly, but governments don’t.

But it gets worse. You’ll never guess who is going to fund this “entity.”

The bureaucracy will be created by dipping into the Aboriginal Benefits Account, a federal government-controlled trust fund which holds mining royalties on behalf of Aboriginal people.

Confused? Well think of it like this: Brough’s plan is akin to Rio Tinto being told that their profits from mining are to be siphoned off to fund a new government bureaucracy which will then allow Rio Tinto to lease back land it already owns, at an inflated price. Peter Foster would be proud!

A whirlwind Senate inquiry into the town leasing scheme (which sat for one day!) found, not surprisingly, overwhelming opposition from Aboriginal people in the Territory. They may be poor, but they’re not stupid. The legislation went ahead anyway.

And here’s why: what The Australian fails to mention is that the legislation also makes it possible for non-Indigenous people to snap up a few ‘bargains’ in black Australia, hence land that was once Aboriginal freehold magically reverts back to Wally Whitefella.

Precisely this scheme was launched in the United States in 1887 (called the Dawes Act). And you know what it did? It resulted in the wholesale loss of tribal lands by America’s first nations. One hundred and fifty years on, Indigenous Americans are only now starting to buy back their lost lands through revenues gleaned from the creation of Indian casinos.

Tackling poverty through home ownership is all well and good, but education, health, housing and basic infrastructure have to come first, something which the Howard government point blank refuses to provide. Why? Because eroding the rights of Aboriginal people while ignoring their abject misery and poverty plays out well with the Australian public, and even better with the Australian media.

The next mainstream journalist who phones NIT and asks “Why is Aboriginal Australia in such a mess?” is going to get a punch in the nose.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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