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Tragedy for Aboriginal Land Rights - Senate approves paternal bill

Elliot | 16.08.2006 06:46 | Analysis | Repression | Social Struggles | World

August 16, 2006: "This will be marked as a tragic day for land rights in Australia," said Senator Rachel Siewert today. Despite strong criticism the laws are "paternalistic and strip Aboriginal Australians of their property rights." Amendments to Northern Territory Land Rights Act passed through the Senate today. The changes scrap the NT's 30-year-old scheme of communal land ownership under land council administration...

Tragedy for Aboriginal Land Rights
Tragedy for Aboriginal Land Rights

AUSTRALIA: Attempts by Labor and the Greens to have amendments, including the provision of 99-year leases on Aboriginal land and a reduction in powers for land councils removed from the Bill, failed.

"It became obvious during the debate that this is just part of the Government's renewed paternalistic approach to Aboriginal Australians. They are simply telling communities of their intentions, not listening to their concerns or seeking agreement or compromise," said Senator Siewert.

In some cases this involved merely telling the NT government or the land councils at a very late stage, and then claiming it was their responsibility to ensure the communities directly affected knew of these radical changes.

"The Government isn't interested in economic development and improving living conditions in Aboriginal communities, it is only interested in its own agenda of undermining land councils and traditional owners" said Senator Siewert.

A United Nations expert has warned yesterday that the federal laws overhauling land rights in the Northern Territory are unwise and unworkable. UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing Miloon Kothari says the laws could be unworkable. Mr Kothari, who has spent the last two weeks touring Indigenous communities, says the move is unwise.

"I'm quite sure that it's not going to work," he said. Mr Kothari said home ownership arrangements for non-indigenous Australians were not necessarily suitable. "I think you have larger issues of self-determination, you have issues of community title, land titling, you have issues of just the sheer lack of family or community resources to be able to engage in the housing market," he said.

Australia could borrow from schemes in other countries, like community land trusts and cooperatives. Mr Kothari also said the government's changes were largely unknown in the affected communities.

"I think that the act has been pushed through too hurriedly," he said. "Whenever I visited places I asked both civil society groups working with the indigenous and the people themselves and nobody had even heard of the bill in the Northern Territory.

"I think there's certainly a lack of information and for something so significant which so significantly changes the terms of land essentially from a community right and a question of identity to an economic good where money can be made from leases... I think needs to be very, very carefully considered."

Some aspects of the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill 2006 could breach international law, like the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, he said.

Federal Labor said the debate over changes shows the Government's lack of respect for traditional owners. Labor Senator Chris Evans told the Senate the way the Government forced the amendments through is one of the most depressing processes he has been involved in.

"That's why we've concentrated so much on process, on consultation because it creates the atmosphere in which the detail is debated," he said. "They haven't been engaged with the detail because they haven't been given the opportunity. But the approach is what's been so insulting and it fundamentally represents a lack of respect a lack of respect for traditional owners."