Tomorrow, in Alice Springs, several hundred residents of the 18 rough and ready town camp communities dotted through the municipality will gather in the Todd Street Mall for a special general meeting of the Tangentyere executive. Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough has been invited to address the gathering.

Tangentyere Council, established in 1970 as a response to the desperately poor living conditions experienced by the town campers, is the peak body of the 18 housing associations who hold the leases for the camps. The organisation’s name means ‘working together’ in the local Arrernte language.

The big-ticket item on today’s agenda will be a discussion of Brough’s $50 million infrastructure improvement carrot recently been dangled in front of the housing associations. Under the Brough offer, the camps will receive urgently needed funding to upgrade facilities and “make them like normal suburbs — just like any other in Alice Springs”.

 But the deal is contingent upon the housing associations agreeing to relinquish their leases. The minister has dealt the campers a cunning political hand. In material terms, they simply cannot afford to refuse a fistful of dollars to improve camps that Alice Springs Mayor Fran Kilgariff has described as ‘basically ghettos’.

Some of her councillors see the proffered deal as manna from heaven, and many local contractors are understandably keen to get a look at the loot, which will provide an enormous boost to the local economy.

From a distance of 2000 kilometres, giving up the leases may appear to be no more than a procedural ‘t’ to cross. The reality for the campers may well be very different. These leases were won after long, hard battles fought by the fathers, mothers, uncles and aunties of the present generation of town campers. Only after these leases were granted did they have security of tenure, and the basis on which to seek fundamental infrastructure like sewerage and power. Respect and honour is at stake here.

Aboriginal people in this country have been maltreated for so long that many seem to have developed a level of indifference towards material hardship. The disconcerting truth is that as long as these people have their family and their culture, they retain an innate dignity which belies their straitened circumstances.

The need for further funding in the camps is achingly obvious. But the minister’s contrived nexus between basic human rights and land-tenure arrangements is oblique and demeaning. Tomorrow Brough’s bluff may well be called.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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