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Father Christmas is not coming to Australia on December 25th

By Helen Hughes - posted Thursday, 15 December 2011

After years of observing shocking Indigenous dysfunction in remote communities in the midst of Australia's plenty, Father Christmas is fed up. This December 24th, Christmas lights will go out in plazas, shopping malls and homes. He will not be coming to Australia.

Nicolas Rothwell, describing one of the largest remote Indigenous townships in the Northern Territory, pointed to "dark and fetid bedrooms" where "the sacred clan emblems each family treasures are stored under half-rotted floor mattresses, cockroaches and rats swarm about; indeed, patients with rat scratches are common and one diabetic woman appeared at the clinic with several of her toes gnawed off…The World Health Organization would place such a sovereign country on its emergency lists."

Father Christmas is abandoning Australia because he is aware that Third World conditions in remote communities are not ethnic or cultural, but the result of discriminatory policies that treat Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders differently from other Australians.


Housing is key. Surveys have been showing for more than a decade that at least 15 per cent of remote Indigenous families not only wish to build their own homes, but also can afford a mortgage to do so. Yet travelling over Australia, Father Christmas has observed that there are no private homes on the 20 per cent of Australia's land that has been returned to Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Governments have decided that all Indigenous families should live in public housing despite its utter failure to provide decent dwellings.

Lands have been returned to traditional owners without individual property rights side by side with communal rights. In the rest of Australia, families own or rent their homes privately and many work in the private sector, but all drive on public roads, send their children to schools on public lands and play sport on public ovals. Voters know that Australia' prosperity is based on a mixed private-public economy.

Travelling in the sky means that Father Christmas does not need the permits that deny Australians access to remote communities. So he has observed that Indigenous remote communities do not have the shops, cafes, motels, and other enterprises evident in similarly sized mainstream towns.

Traditional landowners also cannot obtain secure titles to business premises so there are no jobs in remote communities. The consequent welfare dependence and its dire results are clearly visible. Father Christmas cannot accept that Australian voters continue to ignore these conditions while getting on with their rewarding lives.

Amending legislation in the Northern Territory (2006) and Queensland (2008), made provision for 99-year leases to secure individual titles on Indigenous lands. To date only sixteen home leases in the Tiwi Islands have been provided. Elsewhere the lease process has stalled. After 10 months of negotiation with the Northern Land Council, Traditional Landowners in East Arnhem Land have been told that the 99-year leases they need to obtain mortgages to build homes are not for them.

Northern Land Council staff enjoy large homes in Darwin's wealthy suburbs, while each Indigenous East Arnhem family - the nominal owners of Northern Land Council lands – is packed into three bedroom derelict dwellings that have no kitchen and bathroom. There is no hot water. In the middle of the night little children have to tramp to communal 'long drop' dunnies.


Traditional landowners have also been deprived of their democratic voting rights. Every three years or so, a new 85 member Northern Land Council (Annual Report 2008-9) is appointed from nominations received from remote townships and outstations by the existing Council and rubber stamped by the Minister for Indigenous Affairs to whom the Council reports. Unlike strata property owners in blocks of flats who vote for bodies corporate to manage their properties, Indigenous landowners do not have voting rights. Council members elect an Executive Council of nine that manages the Northern Land Council between the two or three annual meetings of the full Council.

The Commonwealth Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs issued an Indigenous Home Ownership Issues Paper in May 2010, with submissions closing in December 2010. Queensland followed with a Home Ownership Discussion Paper in April 2011.

Neither Government has followed up by freeing up long-term leases for home ownership that are essential for mortgages for private housing or any other move to permit home ownership on Indigenous lands. South Australia specifically prohibits mortgage funding for private homes on Indigenous lands.

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About the Author

Professor Helen Hughes AO is a senior fellow of the Centre for Independent Studies.

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