THE FEDERAL Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, denies reports that indigenous communities were being forced to lease their townships for 99 years to the Government in order to attract education funding.
The Law Council of Australia last year criticised Brough over his apparent intention to make $10 million available to a community on the Tiwi Islands for school facilities on the condition that they sign a lease over to the Commonwealth. But the Minister disputed this claim.
“This is not about people losing rights over land,” Brough told Lawyers Weekly. “Traditional owners make the choice themselves and retain the underlying title. The residents of the townships are mostly not traditional owners and currently have no property rights whatsoever.
“By issuing a headlease, traditional owners would allow residents to take up sub-leases so they can enjoy property rights like other Australians,” he said. “Ninety-nine-year lease provisions provide opportunity for private home ownership and investment over and above the outcomes of normal programs. Entry into 99-year leases provides the security of tenure that will often be the essential first step.”
According to the Minister, the $10 million Commonwealth funding was intended for the construction of a private secondary college on the Tiwi Islands, rather than a public school which would fall under the responsibility of the Northern Territory Government.
“It was part of a mutually agreed negotiation with traditional owners who wanted to try something different that offered more than current arrangements could provide,” Brough said. “The Australian Government [does not] apologise for trying to open up further opportunities for indigenous Australians to own their own homes with security of tenure and in a way that encourages lending institutions to provide finance.”
In fact, Brough views the proposed headlease plan to be an example of the Federal Government assisting “communities that are assisting themselves”.
Late last year the Law Council of Australia questioned Brough on the mechanics of the Tiwi Islands school funding proposal.
“[Brough] has offered to invest $10 million for a school in the Tiwi Island community but only on the condition that they sign a lease over their own township to the Commonwealth,” Law Council president Tim Bugg said. “Now a $10 million investment in housing at Wadeye, in the Northern Territory, has been tied to a similar agreement.”
But Brough disputed any such similarity in relation to Wadeye.
“Contrary to the claim of the Law Council, the funding previously committed for housing in Wadeye is not conditional on a 99-year lease,” Brough said.
“Readers might be surprised to learn that currently Wadeye, a community of 2600 people, does not have a Northern Territory government-funded high school — although one has finally been approved. This doesn’t require a change of land tenure, but reflects that the current arrangements have not underpinned adequate service provision.”