Northern Territory

Jul 27, 2009

Macklin botches Alice Springs town camp compulsory acquisition

Jenny Macklin has botched the compulsory acquisition of the Alice Springs town camps for the second time in as many months, and now faces the prospect of having to cut a deal with Tangentyere Council.

Chris Graham

Tracker managing editor

Jenny Macklin has botched the compulsory acquisition of the Alice Springs town camps for the second time in as many months, and now faces the prospect of having to cut a deal with Tangentyere Council -- an organisation she has been publicly flogging for two months -- or delay the government takeover until at least October, documents obtained by the National Indigenous Times reveal. The latest blunder relates to the period of notice that must be provided by the Commonwealth to anyone whose interest in the town camp land is affected by the proposed compulsory acquisition. Currently, Tangentyere Council holds a lease over the land on behalf of the town camp housing associations, who in turn lease individual homes to town camp families. In late May -- after Tangentyere refused to sign over control of its land for 40 years in exchange for $125 million in housing and infrastructure upgrades -- Macklin gave the council and the town camp associations formal notice that the Commonwealth was considering compulsorily acquiring the land. But it seems no-one in the Minister's office thought to formally notify the actual tenants of the town camp. NIT understands that there are around 200 people who hold lease agreements with the town camp housing associations, and whose tenancy rights would be affected by any government takeover. By law, they are required to be given a reasonable period of notice about the forced acquisition. The mistake was exposed on Friday, when lawyers acting for town camp resident and prominent anti-intervention activist Barbara Shaw wrote to the Minister notifying her an application had been lodged in the Federal Court seeking an injunction against the proposed acquisition. Lawyers acting pro bono for Ms Shaw include prominent Queens Counsel Ron Merkel, the Human Rights Law Resource Centre, leading international law firm Allens Arthur Robinson, UTS-based lawyers Professor Larissa Behrendt and Alison Vivian, and George Newhouse, a prominent Sydney-based human rights lawyer. They've set a deadline of 5pm tomorrow (Tuesday) for the Minister to provide Barbara Shaw with a written assurance the government will not proceed with a decision about the proposed compulsory acquisition, warning her that any attempt to "defeat or diminish the current rights" held by town campers must be preceded by a reasonable period of proper notice. Macklin will now either have to re-extend the period of notice of compulsory acquisition by another 60 days -- the same notice she gave Tangentyere and the housing associations -- or hope she can convince Tangentyere to sign over control of the town camps, thus negating the need to use the compulsory acquisition powers. A further two month delay would mean it took the Minister for Indigenous Affairs almost six months to complete a process that should have taken two. Government sources have confirmed that the Minister's office intensified its efforts to secure an agreement with Tangentyere late this week, but no accord has been reached. Macklin could also try and strike a deal directly with the town camp residents, although negotiating with 200 parties for a single outcome -- and in a timely fashion -- would seem a tall order. Whatever happens, it's another highly embarrassing blunder from a Minister already under siege. In the past month a string of departmental leaks have put Macklin squarely in the media's gaze over her handling of the NT intervention. Last week, the government came under fire after leaked party advice revealed Macklin's mishandling of $672 million in Indigenous housing funding. That came two weeks after leaked documents revealed she had accepted advice from her department warning against consulting with Aboriginal people over a key part of the Northern Territory intervention - the compulsory acquisition of land in and around towns. But what makes this latest error even more remarkable is that it's the second time the Minister has botched the process of taking over the town camps. On May 24, Macklin announced she was beginning the process of compulsorily acquisition because Tangentyere had refused to surrender control over the town camps. Macklin set a deadline of July 6 for Tangentyere to either sign the land over for 40 years, or lose it forever through forced acquisition. But two weeks later, Macklin extended the deadline to August 4 while publicly rebuking the Australian Government Solicitor's office for not providing her timely advice. "On 24 May 2009, I announced that the Australian Government was taking the first step towards compulsory acquisition of the Alice Springs town camps," Macklin wrote. "Based on legal advice recently provided to me, I am releasing a revised timetable. "The Australian Government Solicitor has advised the Government to extend the period during which people may provide submissions about a possible acquisition to 60 days. "While I am disappointed that this latest legal advice was not provided earlier, I have an obligation to give affected persons a reasonable notice period in relation to my considerations under the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act (2007). "I am not prepared to risk the outcome of this process by ignoring the Australian Government Solicitor's legal advice." Ironically, it's the "process" that has been botched by Macklin. And it appears she's done so on more than one front. In late May, in an undated letter, Macklin wrote to the town camp associations: "After any acquisition, current residents in the camp will be able to continue to reside on the land, subject to any new residential tenancy arrangements." The statement could prove problematic for the government. In the media and during public meetings at the town camps -- albeit poorly attended meetings -- Macklin guaranteed the rights of tenants would continue unaltered if a forced acquisition went ahead. But her letter to town camp associations clearly states that the rights of town camp tenants will be altered. Macklin also appears to have already decided to compulsorily acquire the town camps, despite publicly stating that she wouldn't reach a final decision until after August 4. Macklin has given numerous interviews over town camp issue in the past two months. In most of them, the Minister has gone to great lengths to emphasize that 'no decision has yet been taken' about whether or not to proceed, and that a period of notice needed to first be completed. But given the sheer volume of media Macklin did, it was inevitable she would eventually slip up. It came on May 26 -- National Sorry Day -- in an interview with Kerry O'Brien on the ABC's 7:30 Report. O'Brien specifically asked Macklin if there really was "no other resort" to the "forced acquisition" of the town camps "particularly given the claim that this will be in breach of international law?" Macklin's response revealed a decision to forcibly acquire the land had already been taken. "I have worked very, very hard over the last year to get an agreement with Tangentyere Council and with the housing associations covering the town camps in Alice Springs. I certainly wanted an agreement. And I thought we had one ... Unfortunately, Tangentyere Council have gone back on that agreement ... It is, in my view, no longer tenable for us to wait any longer. The level of overcrowding, the level of violence, is just too great, and I considered that it was time to act," Macklin said. Add her comments to a list of explanations Macklin will likely have to furnish the Prime Minister's office over the coming days, as disquiet grows over her handling of the Indigenous affairs portfolio, and in particular the NT intervention. The Rudd government's largest and most controversial Indigenous affairs policy appears to be crumbling. And more than a few in Indigenous affairs have begun to suspect it might take a Minister with it.

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17 thoughts on “Macklin botches Alice Springs town camp compulsory acquisition

  1. David1

    Regretfully, although an apparantly caring, well intentioned person, Minister Macklin is out of her depth with the Indiginous Affairs Ministry. Maybe it is pressure of having two high profile portfolios or not getting the support from her staff she needs, it certainly wouldn’t be a case of not being concerned for the Aboriginal and Torris Straight people. Wonder how many other Ministers are not handling their jobs well. A certain Communications Minister immediately comes to mind and Peter Garrett is hardly on top of his . May well be time for the PM to have a good long look at his expectations and work load expected from the front bench. He may only want 3- 4 hrs sleep a night, but hardly a desirable accross the board imposition. Not saying it is, wondering?

  2. James Bennett

    Good work Chris,

    Your blackfellas have outsmarted Macklin again.

    That should teach her not to try to spend ‘ $125 million in housing and infrastructure upgrades ‘ on the community.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. John T

    Surely someone in the JM’s Dept is across the legislation the Minister is responsible for!

    Or is this a case of foot dragging by a reluctant public servant?

    Didn’t Chairman Rudd promise to stop this sort of bureaucratic game playing and obfuscation by the self-interested power brokers in govt and inthe slew of Aboriginal communities?

  4. Jenny McFarland

    Each of the town camps is run by it’s own housing association – it is they, not Tangentyere, that makes the call on the resumption of the leases. The town camps are justifiably concerned that their tenancies will come under the auspices of Territory Housing – who are notorious for not maintaining properties, gettting rid of public housing stock as fast as they can, evicting Aboriginal families, and for years-long waiting lists to get accommodation. Aboriginal people do not trust Territory Housing for very good reasons. A counter proposal has been put to government for a separate housing association (funded by the Federal government and already set up) to administer the town camps under a new lease agreement. For some unaccountable reason, the Feds find this practical proposal unpalatable – why??

  5. Gary Stowe

    I’m sorry Jenny, but your comment that the occupants of the town camps would not trust Territory Housing to maintain properties is really difficult to accept. I’ve seen the town camps of Alice Springs several times – they’re disgusting dumps. The people who live there trash the place – repeatedly, insistently and in spite of all supports. I can’t accept that these occupants, or their representatives, should maintain control of the area when they clearly refuse to take responsibility for something so simple as the rubbish they throw at their own feet.

  6. Chris Graham

    Spoken like a true middle class white Australian, Gary Stowe. I love how white Australians look at the town camps and despite massive unemployment, poor access to schooling, generational poverty and government neglect, misery, dislocation, disempowerment and every other nasty you can think of, all guys like Gary see is rubbish on the ground. How do you reckon you’d live Gary if you’d had your land, your wages, your kids and your ancestors remains stolen? Reckon you’d give a f**k about picking up litter?

    Jenny McFarland is spot on – the town campers do not trust Territory Housing and anyone with 10 seconds understanding of this issue wouldn’t either. It is decades of government neglect that got people here – try maintaining a house with 30 unemployed people living in it.

  7. Mark Duffett

    Poor access to schooling? Most of the town camps are within comfortable walking distance of local public schools.

  8. James Bennett

    So Chris,

    Do you really think those fellas living like dogs in those camps are spending their days thinking

    ‘ They have stolen my kids, my land ,my wages , my ancestors remains.
    Oh woe is me !
    We are a proud race but we cannot move on untill the injustices of the past are resolved.
    We will live in our own shit for as long as it takes! ‘

    Or would it be more like

    ‘ Man i’m bored , i think i’ll get on the piss again.’

    Also do you think maybe life in the town camps could be a microcosm of life for aboriginals before the invaders arrived ? ie

    – large caring community groups showing their love for the land and each other and many dreamtime stories related by wise elders around traditional campfires.

    It sounds so good , it must be true.

  9. David1

    Chris while you are an apologist for the ‘Town Camp’ inhabitants, why do the same standards apply in indiginous State Housing in every state and territory in this fair land. My daily visits to such housing at times has me dry retching, while walking among roaches and mice with children joining them on the floors. These are people who live in middle class Australia. Try doing an investigation of the public records on how much is spent on maintenance of indiginous State Housing, compared to other. There is no comparison to the housing provided in both situations but the results are the same. Do you insist those living in Govt provided Housing nationwide also suffer from massive unemployment, poor access to schooling, generational poverty and government neglect, misery, dislocation, disempowerment and every other nasty you can think of? I do not think so. The two words you have not used is “culturally inbred”. If the shoe fits…..

  10. Gary Stowe

    Ummm .. Chris Graham. Would it ease your rage, or help your understanding of perspectives other than your own, if I were to let you know that my own children are part aboriginal? And that I’ve spent significant time in not only Alice Springs but Hermansberg and Urandangie? The lesson I have taught my children is that they are responsible for their own decisions and actions – no-one else is to blame, no history makes them choose any path. As a result they are very successful people. Of course they could be sitting in squalor somewhere and accumulating a litany of resentment while they wait for someone else to change their lives for them, and you would probably be encouraging them that way, but they’re better than that.

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