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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.

Peter Fray

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