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Aug 27, 2009

Jenny Macklin’s special brand of consultation

Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin has discovered an interesting kind of consultation involving fences, writes Chris Graham.


It appears that Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin is a recent convert to the fine art of consultation.

The Age reports this week, under the headline, “Macklin to consult camps over takeover”:

The Rudd government will deliver notices about a possible compulsory takeover of Aboriginal town camps to every tin shed and outdoor mattress in Alice Springs, says Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin.

The move comes after a court found Labor’s previous consultation efforts were inadequate. After threatening to compulsorily take over the camps, Labor signed 40-year leases with 16 camp housing associations earlier this year. But since then a Federal Court injunction has prevented their execution.

In other news, outhouses, humpies and lean-tos are reported to be upset at being left out of the process. On the upside, fences were included. Here’s a picture of one from the Mt Nancy town camp. It received its notification earlier this week:

The fence surrounds the house occupied by Barbara Shaw, the woman who dragged Jenny Macklin into court a month ago and successfully sought an injunction against the Commonwealth takeover of the Alice’s town camps.

Shaw was home at the time her fence received the notice, but no-one bothered to knock on her door to, (a) check if she was at home or (b) wonder if she spoke English and could therefore read the notification attached to her fence.

Back here in Canberra, this sort of fence posting exercise apparently equates to “consultation” and “negotiation”; this is how Minister Macklin described the process in a subsequent press release.

“The Australian Government is determined to start work on improving living standards for residents of the Alice Springs town camps,” Macklin announced.

“I want to get on with the job of upgrading and building new houses so that women and children who live in the camps have a safe and healthy life.”

You might wonder why it is that if Macklin is so keen to “get on with the job” of building new houses for Aboriginal women and children, why has her Northern Territory intervention emergency housing program not delivered a single dwelling in two years?

Macklin: “My preference has always been an agreed outcome, but the Australian Government must look at all available options including possible compulsory acquisition.

“The Government will extend the period for consultations and submissions on the possible acquisition of the Alice Springs town camps until 27 October 2009.”

If “consultation” is as simple as pinning a warning notice on a fence surrounding the home of an occupier whose land you’re about to compulsorily acquire — regardless of the language they speak — then I’ve got first dibs on New Zealand.

This whole sorry mess could have been avoided by Minister Macklin properly notifying Alice Springs town camp residents of her intentions to steal their land. It’s not as though this is a new and radical branch of British common law. Courts have been developing land laws since the Magna Carta in 1215.

You do have to wonder though … how much longer will Kevin Rudd sit quietly and watch his minister for Indigenous affairs launch housing programs that don’t deliver houses, and compulsory acquisitions that don’t deliver land?

The upshot is that this matter is due to return to court on Friday, which raises three other pertinent questions.

Firstly, why is Macklin still fighting a “disappointing” legal action, when she is now out doing precisely what the legal action says she didn’t do properly in the first place? How you could classify the nation’s most marginalised citizens exercising their basic human and legal rights to be consulted before their land is forcibly taken from them as “disappointing” is puzzling, although it does speak some volumes about Macklin and the modern day Labor Party.

Secondly, Macklin could have ceased this legal process at any time by acknowledging her error and seeking to properly notify residents of the changes to their property interests. Instead, Macklin chose to feign ignorance and expend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer’s dollars in a bid to cover her backside.

Thirdly, Macklin herself concedes that lawyers for Barbara Shaw won an injunction against the government proceeding with the compulsory acquisition, or the signing of an agreement with Tangentyere Council and the housing associations.

But an injunction means “a judicial order that restrains a person from beginning or continuing an action”.

I look forward to Macklin’s lawyers explaining to the court not only why the “be reasonable do it my way” school of negotiation has merit, but why some ministers of the crown consider court-ordered injunctions to be “optional”.

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5 thoughts on “Jenny Macklin’s special brand of consultation

  1. Caroline Armstrong

    It is an illusion surely to think that this should be attributed to Macklin only. This is the action of our Federal Govt, and Kevin Rudd is not sit quietly. He obviously agrees with this action. The ministers are not separate from, but are part of his government. Shame on the government.

  2. SBH

    Chris, there’s two bits I don’t get.

    One is, Macklin previous seemed to try to suggest that town camps were not aboriginal land in the same way that say Maningrida or Jilkminggan are. Is this so? Her suggestion seemed to be that whitefellas should not equate this with the other kinds of land theft that has gone on over the years.

    The second bit which I just can’t find a rational answer for, and forgive the apparent stupidity of this question, is why do you need to aquire the land to build or fix houses? My guess is that this has more to do with bourgeois sensibilities (hence all the chatter about rubish etc) than housing? Is there any rationale or commentary from herself?

    Caroline is of course spot on, Macklin only survives on Rudd’s good grace.

  3. RaymondChurch

    Perhaps Mr Rudd knows something, Ms Macklin is not the only Minister failing to deliver the goods, yet remains in favour. Surely the PM is not counting heads already? Has the red terror made a move? Has he heard a whisper? Time First Dog got nose to ground 🙂

  4. Chris Graham

    SBH: Re your queries, good questions:

    1. The land in and around the town camps is a lease in perpetuity – ie just like any other lease granted to any other organisation in the territory, black or white. The difference is it’s not a 99-year lease, for example, it’s a lease that runs indefinitely (ie that’s the ‘in perpetuity part’). Other Aboriginal land is inalienable Aboriginal land under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, so it can’t be bought or sold and must remain ‘Aboriginal’. But both land rights act land, and lease in perpetuity land, can be compulsorily acquired by the crown (indeed all land in Australia can be). So for the purposes of this issue, there is really no difference at all – Macklin is simply trying to confuse the issue by making out the town camp land ownership is a lesser form of title (which it very clearly is not). The test should be – ‘who owns the land?’ not ‘How do they own the land?’ And in this case, the answer is Aboriginal people own it, and government is seeking to forcibly take it.

    2. The government’s spin on this is that in order for taxpayers to have confidence in their ‘investment’ in Aboriginal housing, the government needs to own and control the land. Which is of course complete rubbish. There’s nothing other than political will stopping government from forming an agreement with a community to provide housing. There’s also no good reason to believe that if properly resourced, Aboriginal people can’t maintain their own housing, just like state and territory governments do. It’s a simple mission manager mentality.

  5. Sean

    I wonder to what extent this whole exercise is simply a land grab in order to obtain more land for mining, agriculture and other forms of Western exploitation, while avoiding paying hefty royalties to the indigenous peoples — it’s simply a winding back of recognition of native title by stealth. Who is behind this move then? Follow the trail of cash, as they say, right back to the elites.

    Meanwhile, the Federal govt can’t even provide affordable housing for key workers in urban spaces for Australia, shying clear of doing its own development and not wanting to interfere in profiteering in the market by the usual suspects — megadevelopers, landbankers, mum and dad speculative investors and landlords, the RE complex, and so on.

    We’ve recently seen a surprise handout of $6bn to developers to buy up the stock they otherwise can’t sell at today’s inflated prices for public housing, and to help keep them solvent a bit longer, and start exhausting the carefully acquired landbanks they paid too much for. This was not signalled prior to the election, nor for a long time afterwards, it required a desperate developer rentseeking approach to Canberra. The rest of the affordable housing initiatives out there are a disconnected grabbag of proposals across 3 tiers of government, none of which have borne any fruit yet.