No place to call your own
A demonstration is held in Martin Place, Sydney, calling for Aboriginal land rights.
The Australian Capital Territory is one of the most favored spots on earth. A vigorous private sector and large public service employment generate incomes for Canberra's leafy suburbs of comfortable houses, shopping centres, cafes on every corner and countless recreational facilities.
Contrast this with communities on indigenous lands with no private sector and few public sector jobs, mostly staffed by non-Aborigines. They may have a dreary communally owned supermarket, but there are no other shops, cafes, fast food outlets, motels, hairdressers or other businesses and facilities found in most mainstream Australian country towns.
In the ACT, as in the rest of mainstream Australia, private property rights side by side with communal property rights are the foundations of prosperity. Outside the ACT, private property rights are principally freehold, but in Canberra leases successfully provide secure individual title for homes and business.
Some 20 per cent of Australia's land has been returned to indigenous owners. But most of this land, whether returned through land rights legislation, purchase by the Indigenous Land Corporation or Native Title decisions, has been returned to traditional owners without provision for individual property rights side by side with communal property rights.
Without these individual property rights a private sector has not developed. Communities on indigenous lands are almost entirely dependent on welfare. When combined with overcrowded housing it is inevitable that poor health and social dysfunction is the result.
Social welfare also funds utilities and services through transfers of taxpayers' funds. Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders living on indigenous lands are consequently land rich but by far the poorest people in Australia.
The absence of property rights has closed off the option of owning a home. Without title to a block of land, families on indigenous lands are denied the first home owner's grant and other benefits available to Canberra home owners.
While almost 70 per cent of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders working in mainstream Australian cities and towns own or are buying their home, families on indigenous lands are supposed to be content crowded into public housing. Private housing is deemed not to be for them, although many could afford mortgages. Last year's census showed that while the median Australian indigenous household income was $51,000, many remote communities had median household incomes about $80,000.
When the public housing crisis on indigenous lands became evident in the mid-2000s, the Howard government sought to introduce private housing as well as increasing public housing construction. The Rudd/Gillard government focused only on public housing, expanding it to a 10-year, $5.5 billion program. Putting aside quality and cost issues, the refurbishments under this program are ahead of schedule and the building of 4200 new houses is on track.
But when this program is successfully completed in 2018, there will be still be a 9000-house shortfall, the same as when the program started in 2008. The number of families having to share a house will therefore also be unchanged.
The Remote Indigenous Housing Program is confined to townships and larger communities. The worst and most crowded housing, however, is in the many remote outstations. These are on private land and it is not the government's responsibility to provide public housing on private property. But without private housing, there is no solution to the housing crisis in these communities.
Families in an East Arnhem outstation therefore applied to the Northern Land Council for 99-year leases to enable them to build private homes on their land. The requested leases were modelled on ACT leases, albeit modified by covenants to prevent land from being alienated from the community. The Northern Land Council, which is supposed to represent the interests of the traditional landowners, refused to issue leases to these traditional owners over their own land. A subsequent petition to the Senate did not receive a response.
Australia is a signatory to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination which both state that everyone has ''the right to own property alone as well as in association with others''. By refusing to enable private housing on indigenous lands, Australian governments are contravening these declarations and the Racial Discrimination Act.
The Commonwealth blames the states for not taking action to enable private housing on their indigenous lands, but has turned a blind eye to its own responsibilities in the Northern Territory, which has Australia's largest population living on indigenous lands.
There is evidently one rule for Canberra and one for Aborigines on indigenous lands.
Emeritus Professor Helen Hughes' research paper, ''Private and Public Housing on Indigenous Lands'', co-written with Mark Hughes, is available at indigenouspolicyreview.info