The confusion over 99 year leasing reached a new high this week on the Tiwi Islands. And, even after yesterday’s meeting with Minister Mal Brough, the cloud of uncertainty has still not lifted.

From the time 99 year leasing was first spoken about on the Tiwi Islands, there has been only a slow trickling through of information about the scheme.

On the four occasions where Federal Government representatives have held meetings for the community, they have presented their information in the form of lengthy lectures in complex language. Furthermore, it has been with a view to convince rather than inform. Yesterday’s meeting was no exception.

Tiwis have heard the sales pitch on repeated occasions – home ownership, end to welfare-dependence, $13 million for a new high school on Melville Island, football oval upgrade, and more recently, the promise of 25 new houses for Nguiu.

But there has not been a clear explanation of how signing a 99 year lease will alleviate the social problems that face the community, as Minister Brough asserts.

The children of Nguiu will continue to attend the local primary school, which is poorly resourced and in a dilapidated condition. The local high school struggles to maintain attendance. A new high school has been talked about for a long time, but has not become a reality. And, the connection that the new school has with the forestry company on Melville Island raises questions about how broad the education will be. If it is to be a training college to create employees for the forestry industry, then what prospects will it offer for those who wish to pursue other career paths?

The existing organisations in Nguiu, such as the store, garage, clinic, local government council and schools continue to have many non-Tiwi staff, despite genuine efforts to employ Tiwis. The forestry industry has been under attack for several years for not employing Tiwis, although it has more recently employed some Tiwis. What promise is there that when businesses set up in Nguiu after the lease is signed that Tiwis will have jobs, when the underlying reasons for people’s joblessness will remain unaddressed?

Last Wednesday, following a meeting between the Tiwi Land Council and the traditional owners of Nguiu, the community thought the 99 year lease over Nguiu had been signed. It was not just the community that thought this was true, but the media nationwide reported that the first 99 year lease on Indigenous land had been signed.

It was then thought that the lease would be signed the following week, during Minister Brough’s visit to Nguiu. In an effort to stall the signing, a group of Tiwis filed for an injunction in the NT Supreme Court, only to be told that it was a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding that would be signed during the Minister’s visit.

After the meeting yesterday where the MOU was signed, many Tiwis (including those who are landowners for Nguiu) are still not clear on what is going on. One Nguiu landowner thought the lease had been signed yesterday. Many residents, who had heard on the news that the injunction had been withdrawn, misunderstood this to mean that the lease had been withdrawn.

Some landowners had been planning on buying furniture this week, with the money they expected to receive from signing up to the lease. Another landowner said that the $5 million spoken about would be a loan from the Government, which must be repaid over 15 years. She explained that it was only after 15 years that the landowners would receive rental payments and that they will not receive anything until then. These comments were made by Nguiu landowners, who are supposed to have received all the information.

The confusion about the leasing scheme is certainly not confined to residents. At the meeting yesterday Minister Brough and NT Environment Minister Marion Scrymgour, herself a Tiwi islander, argued publicly over many aspects of the deal. Minister Scrymgour urged Minister Brough to discuss the detail of the scheme, and highlighted the lack of information that has been provided.

Despite the confusion, the news that the lease had been signed got Tiwis talking about whether they are ready for this to occur now and whether it is something they want. While previously only a few voiced their opposition in public, now there are many more who are speaking out.

At yesterday’s meeting, Clemetine Puruntatameri, a respected elder, explained the history of Nguiu. She said that prior to the arrival of the missionaries in 1911, not many people were living in Nguiu. She explained that people from surrounding areas came to Nguiu when the mission was established here, emphasising that Nguiu is now home to many more people and that all residents, who for generations have made Nguiu their home, should have a say.

Questions were also raised at the meeting about whether all traditional owners had been included in the negotiations. Several people claimed that they are landowners for Nguiu even though the Tiwi Land Council does not recognise them as such.

Adam Kerinaiua, has not been allowed to take part in the negotiation process despite his assertion that he is a landowner for Nguiu. At the meeting he presented a genealogy chart to Tiwi Land Council CEO John Hicks and said it showed that he, and many others in his family, are in fact traditional owners for Nguiu. He asked that his claim be followed up. He then turned to the senior traditional owner for Nguiu, Walter Kerinaiua, his uncle, and said “I am tired of arguing”.

Minister Brough assured Tiwis that there will be community consultations over the next 5 weeks before the lease is signed. However, for these consultations to be meaningful, steps must be taken to breakdown the legal concepts and translate the information into Tiwi so that people can gain a genuine understanding of what they may be agreeing to. And, people’s concerns about this far-reaching change must be addressed and not dismissed.