ALP offers cautious support to land rights reforms

Wednesday, 5 October 2005

NATIONAL, Oct 5, 2005: The ALP has offered cautious support to the federal governments plans, unveiled earlier today, to allow traditional owners to hand over control of land in and around Aboriginal communities.

The ALP's support is in stark contrast to that held by NT Indigenous groups, such as the Central Land Council which has labelled the scheme as 'expensive' and 'unnecessary'.

Earlier today, Indigenous Affairs Minister Senator Amanda Vanstone announced amendments to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) which would allow for head leases to be taken over land in and around Aboriginal towns.

Traditional owners of that land would have the option of handing a head lease to the NT government, and all future development to that land would be controlled by a new government authority, meaning individual leases would not have to be negotiated by traditional owners.

The Howard government has kept the plan under wraps, with no consultation with Aboriginal groups prior to the plan being unveiled.

In a media statement issued this morning, Opposition spokesman on Indigenous Affairs, Senator Chris Evans said the ALP welcomed anything that assisted economic development in Aboriginal communities.

"Labor is acutely aware of the need to increase economic opportunities in Aboriginal townships," Senator Evans said.

"The Government argues these amendments expand upon the current provisions of the Land Rights Act to give traditional owners more choices in how they use Aboriginal land.

"Labor would not support these changes if they involved compulsory acquisition or the dilution of traditional owners' decision-making over their land."

Senator Vanstone has already ruled out the possibility of the scheme being forced on traditional owners.

Senator Evans, however, does have concerns about how it will be funded.

"We have serious reservations about the Government's plans to fund this scheme with Aboriginal money earned from the Aboriginal Benefit Account," he said.

The ABA is supposed to be used for economic development for Aboriginal Territorians, and the money is paid from mining royalties into an account controlled by the Howard government.

It has been consistently accused of dipping into the account whenever it announces major funding changes in the Territory, including $50 million worth of promises in the lead-up to the 2004 federal election.

Significantly this scheme signals a rejection of conservative arguments that Indigenous communities have no future on remote Indigenous land.

"Labor welcomes additional funding to encourage home ownership but notes that the initiatives are small given the chronic shortage of housing for Indigenous people and the real economics of these communities.

"Labor has sought a briefing on the detail of the proposals and will consult with Indigenous organisations once the detail is available.

"These changes will take time to implement and are only a small part of a response to the paralysing burden of social disadvantage under which Indigenous Australians labour."

The ALP's cautious support on the issue is hardly surprising" it really had nowhere else to go.

The scheme was first mooted by the Martin Labor government in the Northern Territory and the principle of providing private leaseholds on communal land has also been strongly advocated by ALP senior vice president Warren Mundine.

Mr Mundine is also a member of the National Indigenous Council, which first flagged this issue in June by recommending to the Howard government that it should compulsorily acquire Aboriginal land, where traditional owners 'unreasonably refused' a request for a private lease.

But the compulsory nature of acquisition was, ultimately, rejected by the Howard government, leaving the NIC - and by association the ALP - hopelessly exposed on the issue.

A spokesperson for Senator Evans told NIT the rejection of the NIC's advise highlighted the flaws in having a hand-picked council that did not consult with the Indigenous community.