Since 99-year lease negotiations began in May 2006, the Tiwi community has been asking the government for information on how the leasing scheme will work. Last week the community’s requests were finally answered, with a visit from representatives of the Commonwealth and NT governments on 7 March.

There were rumours circulating around Nguiu that the lease was about to be signed. Minister Brough told the ABC that he expects Tiwis to sign the lease by May this year.

The Minister has also announced that the Federal Government will create the entity that will administer the leasing scheme because it is tired of waiting for the NT Government to do so, as previously agreed. NT Chief Minister Clare Martin has said “there is a lot of discussion on the Tiwis, there’s a lot of uncertainty and that has to be worked through… I’m not going to rush that and certainly, I don’t think our communities want it to be rushed.”

The community is unsure what to believe. At the meeting they were given the impression that signing was a long way off – as Bill Gray, advisor to the traditional owners, emphasised that the current negotiations are part of a much longer series of talks. He said that they were only at the first stage; the second stage would involve community consultations, and the third stage would involve the Tiwi Land Council signing off on the deal. However, Mr Brough is indicating that the agreement has almost been reached.

Wayne Gibbons, head of the Commonwealth Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination (OIPC) explained that 99-year leasing was part of a greater change, where indigenous communities are being encouraged to open up and allow a mainstream economy to develop within their lands. He stated that the Federal Government wanted to “normalise” services in indigenous communities and bring them in to line with other parts of Australia.

Mr Gibbons also emphasised the need for more of a partnership to develop between the Government and indigenous communities, saying that the Government no longer wants a situation where it must “stand at the front gate and throw money over the fence”.

This comment gives an insight in to how the current Federal Government views its relationship with indigenous communities – essentially, as a one-sided one, where it sees itself as funding communities which still unduly retain control of their lands. Minister Brough has stated that he wants to abolish the permit system so that indigenous communities cannot control who enters their land, and he has also spoken out against the concept of communal ownership of land which is central to indigenous culture, and instead asserts the notion of individual ownership.

This clearly shows a policy shift from one of self-determination for indigenous people to something more like integration or assimilation.

Mr Gibbons and Mr Gray spoke about the opportunities that the 99 year leasing will provide to the community, such as the potential for Tiwis to own their own homes and start up their own businesses. 99-year leasing was also said to encourage outside businesses to invest in Nguiu and that this will create jobs.

Minister Marion Scrymgour stated that, “unless we address the issues of drinking, card games, ganja and all the other things that come in to this community, nothing will change. It’s going to get worse, our communities are getting sicker. We’re kidding ourselves if we think leasing will make a difference if these issues aren’t dealt with.”

There are about 1,500 Tiwis residing in Nguiu. Over 100 are traditional owners for Nguiu. Of these, only about six traditional owners (including the senior landowner) have been chosen to be part of the negotiating team, along with non-Tiwi advisors.

Many generations of Tiwis will be affected by this decision; however, the decision appears to be in the hands of a very few.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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