Northern Territory Minister for Indigenous Advancement Alison Anderson’s new “Homelands and Outstations — A Shared Responsibility” policy embodies a dual approach: a view that individualism, the free market and other neoliberal ideas can sit comfortably alongside Aboriginal emphases on kinship, reciprocity and rights.

The policy concerns homelands, communities where some Aboriginal people prefer to live. From the early 1970s, when the homelands movement began, to 2007, homelands were supported from Canberra, but in 2007 responsibility for homelands was handed over to the NT government. After struggling with the new responsibility for five years, in August 2012, the Paul Henderson government released a comprehensive and revised policy on homelands, preceded by the federal government’s commitment of $200 million over 10 years for municipal and essential services.

The main work that Anderson relies on is a submission to the Commonwealth’s Indigenous Home Ownership Issues Paper of December 2010, prepared by Helen Hughes and Sara Hudson of the Centre for Independent Studies, a neoconservative think tank in Sydney. The thrust of the CIS paper is that Aboriginal land currently held under the inalienable common property land rights regime should be individualised and privatised with 99-year leases. This is relatively uncontentious and can already be legally done under section 19 of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, although whether hyper-long 99 year leases are needed is questionable.

But what is contentious is Anderson’s view that such land titling will provide the elixir to address the problem of housing shortage and much more at homelands, and she proposes a mortgage-led development strategy for homelands. Anderson notes former ALP president Warren Mundine has advocated the benefits of mortgages:

“Private ownership of housing is good because it encourages people to take out mortgages. Warren Mundine has spoken of this, of the great benefits of a mortgage once you start to think about it. Having a mortgage means you can build a better house for yourself and your children. It means you get up in the morning and have a shower and go to work, to earn the money to pay the mortgage. That means you set a good example for your children, who get up to go to school. “

A key part of Anderson’s policy is the Homelands Extra Allowance, which will provide a payment of $5200 per eligible dwelling for repair and maintenance work if homeland residents demonstrate active economic participation, pay a residential service fee and ensure resident children regularly attend school. It’s unclear who will do the monitoring, or what will happen if jobs or schooling are not available.

The lynchpin and sensitive issue that Anderson is seeking to address is new housing at homelands. In September 2007 the John Howard government and a reluctant NT government (of which Anderson was a member) agreed to preclude homeland residents from gaining access to new Commonwealth funding for housing. Her new proposal, inspired by the CIS paper, is to use the Aboriginals Benefit Account, which receives the equivalents of royalties raised from mining on Aboriginal land, as a bank.

Anderson, quoting Hughes, states the ABA receives $220 million a year, but in fact the ABA has only received such an amount once — in 2008-09. Its annual income over the past 10 years has averaged just over $100 million, with most pre-committed by law to specified purposes. While the ABA held equity of $432 million at June 30 last year, which could most certainly be granted or loaned for housing, this money is controlled by the Commonwealth minister, not by the NT government. Importantly, homelands are not Canberra; there is no real estate market at homelands, so it is difficult to see what will securitise mortgages.

Recent evidence on the expensive disaster of the discontinued Home Ownership on Indigenous Land Program reported by the Australian National Audit Office demonstrates the reluctance of indigenous people to seek private home ownership. And Anderson’s evidence that there are 2400 dwellings at homelands with a total population of 10,000 indicates an occupancy rate of 4.2 per house, which is far better than the aspirational 9.3 persons per dwellings of the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing at larger priority communities in the NT.

The challenge for her Homelands Extra Allowance will be to convince the homelands constituency to embrace its contradictory key elements: a right to live on ancestral land, but accepting support will be conditional on governmental scrutiny and new housing will depend on privatisation of land.

The new policy is very risky, and the enigmatic Anderson will be under pressure to deliver. Homelands Extra is apparently the best policy framework the tenuous Terry Mills government and its Minister for Indigenous Advancement has been able to conjure up. Time will tell if it is good enough to deliver new houses, essential services — and the votes, of course — of the homelands constituency.

*A version of this article was originally published at Tracker

Peter Fray

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