Yesterday an orderly, well-attended meeting of Alice Springs Town Camp residents voted to reject a $50 million dollar funding offer from Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough, which was made contingent upon residents agreeing to relinquish their leases.

Tangentyere Council, the peak body of the 18 town camp housing associations, has expressed a willingness to negotiate further with the Minister to explore other options. Executive Director, William Tilmouth, called on the Minister to visit Alice Springs and talk to the camp residents face-to-face, as he has done on Top End communities like Wadeye and the Tiwi Islands.

An ultimatum from Minister Brough was read to the meeting: “I cannot agree to a 3-6 month negotiating period… Town camps wishing to participate would need to agree to do so within one month.”

After 220 years of relative indifference towards Indigenous Australia by all levels of government, the Minister now finds it necessary to impose a four-week time frame on negotiations. He must explain why.

The feeling of the Todd Street Mall meeting was clear. A string of articulate, well-presented members of the housing associations took the microphone to prosecute their case. “This is our land, and these are our homes” an anguished Anthepe Town Camp resident told the meeting. “If we lose our land we lose everything.”

Labor spokesperson on Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, said today that “the Federal Government is holding Indigenous people in Alice Springs to ransom over town camp leases.” She added that the funding was needed for basic clean water, housing and electricity and that this support “should not be conditional on the type of lease the land is on.”

In the end, good sense must be allowed to triumph. The camps must receive the funding for the infrastructure upgrades they so desperately need, since the Minister clearly has money set aside for this purpose. The entirely unrelated issue of land tenure arrangements should continue as an ongoing discussion, to which Tangentyere Council will doubtless make a thoughtful contribution.

The members of the 18 housing associations that make up Tangentyere Council have no intention of budging from the leasing arrangements that their fathers, mothers, grandfathers and grand mothers won after a long struggle.

“We’re stayin’ right here” say the residents of the town camps, in an unmistakable echo of the great Gurindji leader Vincent Lingiari’s credo, as the old man placed the struggle for Indigenous justice squarely on the national agenda.

Expect a groundswell of support for Tangentyere’s brave stance from other Indigenous groups, churches, trade unions, progressive political parties and a wide range of other community organisations.

“From little things big things grow” as the bard once observed.

Peter Fray

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