The Howard-Brough-Pearson “Plan” for invasion of Indigenous Australian land is based on abolition of the permit system. Under the permit system, Indigenous communities and town camp dwellers have had a right to ban entry of outsiders and strangers to the land. This system is akin to the rights “white” Australians assume: namely, the right to live unmolested by strangers and uninvaded by police and security forces in our own homes and dwellings.
The difference has been that Indigenous Australians have a collective right under the permit system, in relation to the whole community space housing all families living on the camps and remote places, whereas “white” Australians have individual rights in relation to their individual homes.
A further difference is that from the 17th century the law has assumed “white” ownership of living spaces with a consequent right to defend the space against intrusion of outsiders - “a man’s home is his castle”.
This rule was considered by Australian courts not to extend to Indigenous Australians, assumed to own nothing and hence to have no land or homes to be defended against occupation or invasion. As the law held they were not here in the first place, for they did not exist - Australia was an unoccupied territory - unlike “white” Australians, Indigenous Australians could have no rights of ownership or occupation of the land.
The Northern Territory Land Rights Act, introduced by the Whitlam Government and passed into law by the Fraser Government, provided for Indigenous Australian rights in relation to land, including the right to occupation and a say in who came onto the land.
Now we learn that Indigenous Australians are to have that right removed.
Yet one aspect has not been considered in all this. Who owns the roads leading into the communities and town camps, the utilities such as electricity and electricity poles and wires, the light bulbs on the streets? Do Brough’s men have a right to march on these roads and under these street lights, to gain occupation of remote communities and town camps? Do Brough’s men have a right to use the roadways in, and the streets through, the camps and spaces to enforce their occupation?
Unlike the rest of Australia, where roads, streets, electricity poles and public lighting are paid for from funds allocated from general budgets, these services on Aboriginal town camps and for remote communities have been paid for from funds specifically allocated to Indigenous purposes. That is, Aboriginal funding has been allocated to the everyday services non-Indigenous Australians expect to have provided from general budgets.
When (some) Australians rail against Indigenous funding, they fail to recognise that everything for Indigenous Australian living must be paid for out of Aboriginal grants and budgets. This includes not only health and community services, but all the budgetary needs of Aboriginal communities.
In the 1990s, the Northern Territory Government ran a series of cases claiming that Indigenous organisations were not public benevolent institutions or charities and hence should pay payroll tax and other fiscal duties. The Alice Springs Town Council ran a case asserting that the Alice Springs Housing Associations were, similarly, not public benevolent institutions or charities so must pay rates.
Yet in all these instances, the Aboriginal organisations - such as Tangentyere Council and the Housing Associations - were paying for all works, municipal and local services from the funds and grants allocated to them in the federal budget. These funds came out of the Indigenous Affairs budget, and went to the clearing, building or maintenance of roads and streets, relaying electricity into the communities and houses, rubbish collection and other such everyday services.
Tangentyere Council was established under the Whitlam Government’s housing plan for Indigenous Australians. Tangentyere has worked solidly and systematically to ensure that housing for Indigenous Australians conforms to the needs of Aboriginal people living in Alice Springs Town Camps.
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She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.