“The North” has always been a convenient target for massive social engineering by politicians from “The South”. If you live in the comfortable south, the north is a mythical faraway land regarded with fear and loathing, a place that no one sane wants to live — or die — in, a place to spend as little time in as is necessary and a place that you can muck around with at your political pleasure.

There are very good reasons why politicians, like so much of the workforce up here, fly in and fly out as quick as they can, and only in the dry season, when the humidity drops below 80% and the temperate below 34 degrees. The best reason for politicians to ignore the north is that it is a political terra nullius. Bugger-all people live up here. No people means no votes. The NT sends just four politicians to Canberra — two each from the major parties to each federal house — and it will be ever thus, until the population climbs well above that of a middling-sized local council in the south.

Except when it suits. Next year there will be elections for Canberra and in the NT and Western Australia will follow in 2017. You can tell that I — like many up here — are cynical about Tony Abbott’s “White Paper on Developing North Australia“. There are very good reasons to be so.

But “Developing North Australia” is, somewhat surprisingly, a curate’s — or perhaps in this case a failed seminarian’s — egg. It is good in parts and in small measure. But as Longfellow said, “When she was good, She was very, very good, And when she was bad she was horrid.“

As Jon Altman pointed out in this piece for Land Rights News earlier this year, the demographics and tenure in the north are changing, and fast. Aboriginal people own or have land-holding interests in very large parts of the north and, on gross figures, are, at 15%, a large part of the population. Strip out the larger cities and towns from that equation and it is soon apparent that most outback townships are increasingly dependent on the Aboriginal dollar, particularly outside the short tourist season. Aboriginal people are the fastest-growing demographic, and at current rates of population growth, half of the north’s population will be blackfellows by 2050.

So how are Aboriginal interests treated in “Developing North Australia”? This is the “horrid” part. At page 4 of we are told:

“Developing the north will need to be done in full partnership with Indigenous Australians, with a focus on creating opportunities through education, job creation and economic development. These opportunities for Indigenous Australians will contribute to achieving the objectives of the Government’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy.”

Noble sentiments, but a reliance on the vexed Indigenous Advancement Strategy rings out some very loud warning bells. The first chapter is entitled “Simpler Land Arrangements to Support Investment”, and some elements of the plan are welcome — particularly the fast-tracking of outstanding native title claims for resolution within the next 10 years, increased funding for native title representative bodies and modest increased support for indigenous ranger groups and pastoral land use pilot projects.

Overall though, the approach to Aboriginal land interests in “Developing North Australia” appears very much to be one of “you’ve got something and we want it back”. This is particularly apparent in the emphasis on “township leasing”, which will give control of Aboriginal land in townships — by far the most commercially valuable land in the Aboriginal estate — to a Commonwealth bureaucracy and “cut red tape” around hard-won cultural heritage protections. The old saw of “Aboriginal home ownership” — creating housing markets in communities largely reliant on welfare income and where no market exists — also gets a run.

The really “horrid” parts of Developing North Australia concern the proposed treatment of exclusive native title and of that hard-won land returned as communal Aboriginal freehold under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. Both represent the highest form of recognition of Aboriginal land interests, and both are targets. Exclusive native title is, as the High Court found in 1992, that bundle of rights and interests arising from the traditional laws and customs of the relevant Aboriginal group or groups to the possession, occupation, use and enjoyment to the exclusion of all others. “Developing North Australia” says that in the north, “… around 13 per cent of Crown land in northern Australia is covered by exclusive native title — an area around 458,000 km2, which is about twice the size of Victoria”.

This is a disingenuous and misleading comment that compares apples with quandongs. Victoria has some of the most closely settled land in the country, the north has the least. Victoria has a booming economy, a strong tax base and First World infrastructure and government support services. The north has many fractured and fragile economies, an anaemic tax base, Third World infrastructure and a dearth of government services. At page 25 Developing North Australia says of exclusive native title:

“Indigenous Australians should be able to use their exclusive native title to attract capital necessary for economic development. But banks do not lend against native title because native title is not transferable in the event of a default. Even though they have native title rights, Indigenous people cannot use them as financial security.”

Again, this is misleading and fails to note the settled law of native title that governments — particularly the parochial governments in the north and west — have failed to grasp. It also fails to recognise that, despite resistance by government, exclusive native title holders are using their land for economic development and are keen to do more, on their terms. They just aren’t knocking on the doors of the banks for money to do so.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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