THE BIG READ NIT: The promise of the homelands

Thursday, 29 April 201
In the Northern Territory, Graham Ring suggests ‘politicians holding a white-knuckle grip on the purse-strings of homelands funding may be blind to the opportunities in front of their eyes.’ Bold and italics original:


‘ISSUE 200, April 29, 2010: On May 20 last year, Alison Anderson – then NT Minister for Indigenous Policy – stood alongside the NT’s Chief Minister Paul Henderson in a small room at Darwin’s Parliament House to announce the Northern Territory government’s Working Future policy.

In true Territory Labor style, the launch was more about colour and movement than policy detail. The media scrum were advised that the six part strategy would “improve the lives of remote Territorians and make our towns and communities better places to live”.

Part one of the plan called for the establishment of 20 Territory Growth Towns – for the most part, large Indigenous communities like Maningrida, Yuendumu, and Wadeye, but also including existing towns such as Borroloola and Elliot which are not on Aboriginal land.

These locations are to become “proper towns” with services, buildings and facilities “just like other country towns in Australia” which would function as hub centres for the surrounding country. So far so good.

Part two of the strategy focused on homelands. The government pledged to “keep helping outstations and homelands with funding for services”. However the few nuggets of detail provided under the headline policy statement caused the alarm bells to ring.

“To benefit from government funding” proclaimed the document, “an outstation must be occupied for at least eight months of the year.”

It also announced that “the government will not build new houses on outstations and homelands, but will support residents to take responsibility for their properties.” Just what this meant in practice was – like so much that surrounds homelands policy – not fully explained. Some weeks after the Working Future announcement, this writer was present at the Yilpara homeland at Blue Mud Bay in east Arnhem Land, where Yolngu people burned a copy of the new policy as a demonstration of their concern over its content.

If the NT government felt that they had come up with a workable compromise on the vexed issues of the future of these small communities, then it was abundantly clear that elements of the Laynhapuy Homelands Association continued to entertain significant reservations.

Another visitor to Yilpara that day was former Deputy Chief Minister Marion Scrymgour, who had earlier resigned from the Labor Party, describing the homelands policy as “insulting” to Indigenous people. Scrymgour, who was later to rejoin the party, suggested that the ALP had not been genuine in their dealings with Aboriginal people on the issue, and that further consultation should have occurred before final decisions about policy were taken.

The powerful Northern Land Council was also highly critical of the process, with CEO Kim Hill saying that traditional owners felt “betrayed” and were “very angry and upset that they had been further marginalised” by the NT government. Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory have long been regarded by governments – federal and territory – as ‘problems’ that need to be ‘fixed’.

At irregular intervals, politicians of both political stripes twiddle unconvincingly on their policy levers. But prime ministers staring down the barrel of political annihilation are not beholden to bureaucracy. That’s why the Howard government, in its death throes, found a small fortune to tip into a hastily conceived and poorly executed Northern Territory Emergency Response.

A less spectacular, but more thoughtful approach on the part of the Howard government and its successor might have seen them resist the temptation to demonise Aboriginal people for their perceived failings, and look instead for existing strengths which could be nurtured.

The shining star of Indigenous opportunity in the NT is the presence of 500-odd ‘homeland communities’ scattered across the Territory.

Nourished and encouraged, these small settlements have the potential to provide the spark which could ignite Aboriginal involvement in the mainstream economy. Historically, the homelands movement has its roots in the 1970s. Many Aboriginal people living in the large regional centres – often the locations of former government ration depots or missions – were becoming increasingly disillusioned with life in these communities.

People from different countries were too often herded in together, resulting in entirely predictable cultural tensions. Alcohol and anomie were cutting a swathe through these locations, and the pernicious influence of western consumerism too, was taking a toll. Traditional culture was increasingly under threat, and the absence of opportunities in these locations resulted in an air of despondency permeating many of these townships.

Consequently, significant numbers of people decided to return to their traditional country, to re-establish small ‘outstations’ or homelands some distance away from the larger centres, where they could escape the grog and the grimness, and adopt a healthier and more purposeful lifestyle. Here they could care for their country, fulfil their cultural obligations and hunt and fish for traditional food. They could also teach their children in a way that has sustained a great culture since time immemorial.

Today one quarter of the 40,000 Aboriginal people who live on remote communities in the Northern Territory choose to live on homelands.

The Socom and DodsonLane consultation undertaken for the Northern Territory government produced a report entitled Our home, our homeland in which the authors went to great pains to point out that homelands settlements have a profound cultural basis. “Homelands represent the intersection of specific areas of country, with individual, social and spiritual Indigenous identities. “That is, they do not represent random settlements ‘where people go for a better lifestyle’ away from the larger communities created by non-Indigenous agents.

“In contrast, homelands represent particular living areas in which each Indigenous individual and group is based in order to fulfil their own cultural obligations to their inherited country and its underlying traditional Law,” it said.

The terms ‘homeland’ and ‘outstation’ tend to be used interchangeably. However, in a submission to a recent NT Government inquiry, the Mala leaders at Galiwin’ku made their feelings clear. In the course of the document, the Mala leaders asked “Who changed the name from homelands to outstations? These are our homelands.”They are the homelands of the people and they are the Djalkiri, the heritage of the people”.

The submission from the Marla leaders went on to request that “both governments – Australian and Northern Territory – recognise that there is a land law here that was here before either of them and is still here”. The Marla mob added: “We do not have private ownership of land, we have clan ownership…. Homelands belong to the clan.”

The 1987 Blanchard Report produced by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs was more properly entitled Return to Country – The Aboriginal Homelands Movement in Australia. Although somewhat dated, the report still has some telling points to make:

“The homelands movement has been very much an Aboriginal initiative….

“It is a clear statement by the Aboriginal people involved of the sort of future they wish for themselves and their children, a future on land to which they have spiritual and economic ties, and a future over which they have much greater control.” Indeed the document goes on to assert that “it may well be that homeland centres form more natural and durable communities in the longer term than the artificially created major communities”. Twenty years ahead of its time, the Blanchard Report noted that “government rhetoric about the traditional nature and independent position of homeland communities has been used as a pretext for not providing assistance… when the real concerns have been with the cost of funding the movement”.


Healthy Homelands

The psychological benefits of living on country and being actively involved in the preservation of language and culture are undisputed. People enjoy a greater self-esteem which has implications for every facet of their existence.

There is mounting evidence from homelands such as Utopia in Central Australia that people living on country are healthier, in part because they tend to lead a more active lifestyle and eat a greater proportion of traditional foods. There is also promising evidence to suggest that, where schools are available, attendance rates are significantly higher than is the case in many larger townships.

It is estimated that up to 80 percent of the art which sustains a multi-million dollar export industry is produced in homelands, rather than in the larger communities. A range of sunrise industries associated with carbon abatement and management of country are likely to become serious money-spinners as the new century wears on.

There will be work too, in bio-security, protecting country against invasive species and diseases, and biodiversity, which underwrites massive investments in agriculture, health, business, ecology and leisure. There is also a role for land and sea rangers in coastal surveillance, including border protection activities and the monitoring of illegal fishing.

Aboriginal people on country enjoy the ‘locational advantage’ of being right on the spot, and of knowing the landscape intimately. There is no requirement for government or industry to contract an expensive ‘fly-in / fly-out’ workforce, or to pay remote location bonuses. And the new technology of high-speed broadband internet connection will bring the world to the bush. Here surely lies opportunity. And the very range of opportunities available also provides a kind of ‘insurance’ which is not available when a community is dependent on a single enterprise, such as a mining venture.


Countering the ‘narrative of failure’

Professor Jon Altman is the Director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) at the ANU in Canberra. He speaks regretfully about what he describes as the “narrative of failure” around remote Indigenous communities and is upbeat about the potential of homelands in particular to “operate in ways which will be in regional, Territory and national interests as well, of course, as Indigenous interests”.

According to Altman, the notion that it is difficult to establish an economic basis for the existence of bush communities may be most significantly a failure of the imagination. “One of the reasons the Commonwealth supported the establishment of outstations in the first place was that they could see that when people were out bush they were much more self-sufficient than they were in the larger settlements,” says Prof Altman.

“They were engaging in customary activities like hunting, fishing and gathering of foods. They were involved in artefact manufacture and the self-provisioning of services like the construction of rudimentary shelters.” Prof Altman points out the considerable potential for the emergence of ‘sunrise’ environmental industries in the bush and cites the ground-breaking work of the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement Project (WALFA) as an example.

“Carbon abatement is just one of a suite of environmental services that Indigenous people can provide. We are already seeing land and sea rangers providing services to Australian Customs and to Australian Quarantine and there are further possibilities for expansion.” The notion that homelands must be occupied for prescribed minimum periods to be considered viable may be dangerous and simplistic, Prof Altman suggests.

“Having infrastructure on country is enormously important for strategic purposes, so we shouldn’t use technical methods like ‘periods of residence’ to try and decide which outstations to fund,” he cautions. “There are enough success stories in remote Indigenous Australia for us to look at what works and to replicate that, enable it, and resource it. “Let’s flip the thing over, forget the narrative of failure and focus on the best practice examples of success, and look to make that flourish.”


Homelands: the views from around the country

“What you’re doing is going back to the old ways of dealing with Aboriginal people, and that is to herd them into towns…. Whilst we want to address the education and health issues, there are a number of reports out there that show that people residing on outstations are a lot more healthy than the people that live in these towns or major communities.” – CEO of the Northern Land Council, Kim Hill

“All the evidence does not support herding people into larger centres if you’re hoping for improved health and well-being. The government carries on about evidence-based policy but there is no evidence that people will be better off by neglecting smaller communities.” – Director of the Central Land Council, David Ross

“The Homelands movement is a powerful expression of Aboriginal self-determination and self-governance. Government should be assisting these communities in their quest to control their lives and their future rather than undermining these efforts.” – Former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice, Commissioner Tom Calma.

“It looks like the NT government is going to slowly strangle the life out of the outstations through attrition. It’s a form of assimilation that disrespects Aboriginal cultural life and the desire of many people to stay away from the many bad influences of the whitefella world.” – Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance of the Northern Territory Executive Officer, John Paterson.

“We want to stay on our own land. We have our culture, we have our law, we have our land rights, we have our painting and carving, we have our stories from our old people, not only my people, but everyone, all Dhuwa and Yirritja, we are not making this up. I want you to listen to me government.” – Senior Yolngu leader and accomplished artist Gawirrin Gumana.


The 2007 Memorandum

The second class status of homelands was set in concrete by the 2007 memorandum of understanding between the Federal and NT governments on Indigenous Housing, Accommodation and Related Services. Cash-strapped Northern Territory Chief Ministers do not usually vacillate over agreements which offer $793 million in federal funding, and this occasion was no exception.

Curiously, the actual document was signed off only at officer level, despite the fact that agreements of this magnitude might more usually be signed off by elected ministers rather than public servants. The MOU saw responsibility for homelands deposited fairly in the lap of the NT government, as Darwin agreed to take over responsibility for the delivery of municipal and essential services to Territory ‘outstations’ for an initial three year period, commencing on 1 July 2008.

The Territory agreed to take on the task for the bargain basement price of $20 million per year. Then, rather poignantly, it insisted on noting at Clause 25 of the MOU that it was “concerned that $20 million is insufficient to fund adequate services to outstations” and that it “remains concerned about the unmet need for infrastructure in some outstations.”

CAEPR researcher, Sean Kerins, has observed that “this hand-back was enormously problematic for the NT government: though unwilling to jeopardise the entire funding package it was concerned that the $20 million would be insufficient to adequately provide for the needs of over 500 such communities falling within its jurisdiction”.

A less measured interpretation of the outcome is that the NT government was stitched up by the Commonwealth in respect to homelands, but was forced to wear the deal in order to get their hands on the $793 million.


Current policy

The NT’s Minister for Indigenous Development Malarndirri McCarthy made it clear to the National Indigenous Times that, in general terms at least, the government is supportive of homelands. “The NT government understands the importance to Aboriginal people of living on their country of affiliation and the importance of maintaining language, custom and culture.

“The government values outstations and homelands, and the social, economic and environmental contributions that outstations and homelands make to the Territory as a whole.” Ms McCarthy further notes that “many important achievements made by Aboriginal people in the arts, sport, caring for country, coastal surveillance work, and in community development are made possible through the experience of living on country.”

Although the Working Future document purports to offer a “homelands policy”, the little material that is actually in the public domain is characterised by guarded and sometimes ambiguous constructions. Clear, unqualified statements providing specific and concrete details about the future for homelands are rather more difficult to come by.

In circumstances where the Labor Government clings to power only with the contingent blessing of a maverick independent, every action of the Henderson administration is politically fraught. Small armies of spin-doctors work at a frenetic pace as the government strives to portray itself as being all things to all people. But image and style cannot do duty indefinitely for clear and coherent policy.


Many questions remain:

• If the NT government refuses point-blank to support new homelands, will they countenance the provision of new houses on existing homelands?

In what circumstances? And what do they mean when they say they in the Working Future document that they will ‘continue to provide assistance’ to residents of homelands ‘to take responsibility for their properties’?

Advice from the Minister’s office is that “new housing on existing outstations and homelands is not being provided by government.” This apparent unwillingness to provide infrastructure on homelands appears to be at odds with the NT government’s budget commitment to provide $2 million for upgrades to Homeland Learning Centres.

• How will the homelands be resourced into the future? Who will use what criteria to make these decisions? What has become of the stock-take audit designed to identify which of the homelands were occupied for a threshold period of than eight months of the year? Is it finished? Will it be made public? When?

Advice from the minister’s office is that there is a “process underway to determine which outstations/homelands meet a set of eligibility criteria which involves bringing together available information from diverse information and data sources”.

• Has the ‘Statement of Expectation of Service Delivery’ to homelands residents, as promised in the Working Future document, been developed? When is it due? Will it be made public? When?

The Minister’s office advises that “the government is working to finalise our outstation policy and implementation arrangements by July 2010”.

• Where is the Integrated Regional Transport System, with its critical implications for outstations, which was promised by December 2009? Just how far behind schedule is it? Will it be made public? When?

The Minister’s office advises that “this report is still being prepared for consideration by the Government.”

If the NT government wants the support of the wider community for its policy prescriptions, then they must produce an evidence base to justify their positions. Without clear decisions supported by concrete, objective information, they cannot hope to earn the trust of the electorate.

Meanwhile, the question lurking in the murky background is whether the NT government has the stomach to seek to renegotiate with the Commonwealth the inequitable aspects of the 2007 Memorandum of Understanding, which it placed on record in the document itself.


The Future

In remote Indigenous Australia, hope is a rare and precious commodity. When it is found it must be protected and nurtured. Governments, federal and territory, are clearly nervous about land tenure arrangements in remote locations, and continue to peddle leases of various durations in return for the provision of services that most Australian citizens can take for granted. However, this should not be a first order issue.

As we go to press, the NT’s Chief Minister, Paul Henderson, is in Canberra negotiating a COAG agreement which could see the federal government inject large sums of money into the nation’s health system, in return for states agreeing to cede more control to the Commonwealth.

Mr Henderson is pleading with voters to look at the big picture, rather than “focus on accounting principles”. A similar logic would see governments moving to fund homelands adequately to provide them with the resources they need to get things moving.

If remote communities are to enjoy a prosperous future then governments of vision must identify what is working and seek to do more of it. The ‘deficit model’ that sees Aboriginal people as problems has to be jettisoned. Governments must work instead with the strengths and skills already present in remote communities, and in homelands in particular.

The kind of pedestrian managerialism that typifies state and territory Labor governments around the country isn’t going to be enough. Bureaucrats are not by nature innovative and exploratory, because that is not their remit. The politicians who stand over them must find the political courage to nurture and develop these small settlements that are so rich in possibility.

Homelands should be seen for what they are – a great opportunity for sustainable, culturally sensitive economic development, that has the potential to transform the lives of Aboriginal people in the bush.’



• Graham Ring is a Darwin-based writer. His last NIT feature focused on Indigenous incarceration rates in the Northern Territory.

Leave a comment

Filed under Current social issues, Indigenous Rights

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s