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Privatise Aboriginal land rights? - the lessons from PNG

By Tim Anderson - posted Friday, 29 April 2005

The Federal Government, backed by mining company funded “think tanks”, has a new agenda on Aboriginal land rights: privatise them. And privatisation here, as elsewhere, means that the sharks will move in.

In February 2005, Indigenous Affairs Minister Amanda Vanstone announced, "we have a bill under preparation dealing with the Northern Territory land rights issue". Without revealing details, she suggested the Bill would make the Northern Territory Land Rights Act 1976 (the strongest Aboriginal land rights legislation in Australia) more "workable", and would provide "greater choice" for Aboriginal people about what to do with their land.

Then in April, Prime Minster Howard told a Northern Territory audience he wanted to review the law by "looking more towards private recognition" of land rights. Similarly, Vanstone's predecessor, Philip Ruddock, announced in 2002 that his government's priorities included "reducing barriers to economic development on Aboriginal land, and facilitating effective devolution of control from existing Land Councils to more localised regional bodies".


There is no mystery about the agenda. Ideologues have declared Aboriginal land rights a socialist conspiracy constructed by non-Aboriginals, and have demanded that this experiment in "socialist utopia" be replaced by individual property rights. These views have been repeated by The Australian newspaper (February 19, 2005: “Land rights should apply to individuals”), and right wing ideologues like Christopher Pearson.

The ideologues from these “think tanks” are backed by mining companies and investment groups which want easy access to Aboriginal land. Though their arguments now stress the benefits to Aboriginal communities through mortgage and lease facilities, the unspoken danger is that Aboriginal communities will be dispossessed of their land a second time.

This is a pattern seen in Papua New Guinea, where there is still customary title over 97 per cent of the country. Some communities have been persuaded (with very small amounts of money) to register, mortgage and run the serious risk of alienating their land. Alternatively they have agreed to long term leases on very poor conditions - often 50 Kina (A$25) per hectare per year. Yet preliminary research I carried out shows that a hectare of good village farm land in PNG can be producing an equivalent value of up to 20,000 Kina (A$10,000) per year.

The result of such land deals has been that the few thousand dollars and a few motor vehicles some groups have gained have been used up and rusted out in a few years. But communities have lost their main asset - their land. Their children are then destitute, having no ready access to fertile land and housing. Community advocates in PNG have seen these disasters, and have fiercely opposed Australian Government and World Bank programs to “register” and “mobilise” their customary lands.

The “privatise land rights” arguments in Australia have made use of some Aboriginal commentators, notably Warren Mundine and Noel Pearson who, keen to win favour with the major powers (in government, the mass media and big corporations), have promoted various corporate “partnerships” and stressed “individual responsibility” before social injustice.

Warren Mundine - a member of Howard's newly appointed National Indigenous Council, but also ALP Vice-President - has openly called for the individual titling and sale of Aboriginal community land. Echoing right ideologues, but with community welfare arguments, he calls for a "move away from communal land ownership and non-profit community based businesses and take up home ownership, economic land development and private, profit-making businesses".


The major argument of the ideologues and their helpers has been that - after almost 30 years of land rights, and 12 years of “native title” - many Aboriginal communities are still poor and destitute. Privatisation is their suggested way forward; but this welfare argument is misleading, and disguises real interests.

First, Australian Aboriginal people (unlike those in PNG) have not had proper recognition of their land rights in the current era. Although around 20 per cent of the Australian land mass is now subject to some form of land rights (14.3 per cent through various successful land rights claims, and 5.7 per cent through the Native Title Act), this is mostly arid land and benefits less than 20 per cent of the Aboriginal population. Most Aboriginal lands are in the deserts of the Northern Territory, South Australia and (more recently) Western Australia. Most successful claims under the Native Title Act have also been in the north, and in particular the Torres Strait islands

Second, mismanagement of community land assets will hardy be improved by an "opening up" to individual Aboriginal operators and land developers. Since when have property developers in Australia represented anything other than “get rich quick” schemes for a handful, at the expense of the masses of ordinary people?

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About the Author

Tim Anderson is a Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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