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”.

Peter Fray

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