Today, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, flies to the community of Nguiu on Bathurst Island, 70 kilometres north of Darwin, and the scene of the Government’s brave new world.
The Tiwi Islands — Bathurst and Melville — were previously best known for their extraordinary capacity to produce top-flight Aussie Rules footballers, with surnames like Long and Rioli.
However, on Wednesday, 9 May 2007, the 1500-strong settlement of Nguiu reportedly became the first indigenous community to sign up to a 99-year lease, thereby opening up the possibility of private ownership of houses on the island.
It is understood that under the terms of the lease, an entity — as yet undescribed — will be responsible for the management of the head-lease over Nguiu. The town is open for business, and the local community will have only limited say over who can set up shop.
While Aboriginal land on the Tiwi’s is managed by the small, independent Tiwi Land Council, indigenous communities on the Territory’s mainland are aligned to the much larger and more politically inclined Northern Land Council and Central Land Council. These two organisations will doubtless look on with keen interest as the precise nature of the Nguiu arrangements becomes clearer.
Extraordinary secrecy and haste appears to have surrounded the signing of the lease, with Northern Territory Chief Minister Clare Martin saying that she knew nothing about it.
Last Saturday, the Northern Territory News quoted Tiwi Local Government President Lawrence Costa as saying that some of the traditional owners who agreed to the 99-year lease may have thought they were signing for a sitting fee for attending the meeting.
“We weren’t told about [the lease scheme] and we certainly didn’t know it was happening and we weren’t notified of anything,” Mr Costa was quoted as saying.
HREOC’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, fired off a media release entitled “Today’s actions could be tomorrow’s tragedy”.
“I have real concerns about the timeliness and level of information that has been given to this community,” observed Calma.
“When I visited Nguiu in January this year and asked a community meeting of 150 people whether they understood the 99-year lease proposal, only one person said they did.”
Last night, ABC TV in the Northern Territory led their evening news with a story suggesting that no lease had yet been signed at Nguiu, and that Minister Brough will today simply be endorsing a memorandum of understanding with traditional owners, which is not legally binding.
These sketchy pieces of contradictory information indicate monumental mismanagement on the part of a government that appears to be blinded by ideology. Misinformation uncorrected becomes disinformation. Here in the Northern Territory facts are at a premium and confusion reigns supreme.