Decolonising the north

Above the Townsville–Port Hedland line

THE TURNBULL GOVERNMENT’S initial response to the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory highlights its failure to include northern Australia and other remote regions in the economic and social life of the nation. The commission’s findings paint a predictably grim story of the brutal practices inflicted on the children – overwhelmingly Aboriginal – who are held in the Northern Territory’s children’s prisons, as well as describing the failure of successive governments to respond to the social crisis that helps to explain the mass imprisonment of young Indigenous people. Yet the Turnbull government is so far refusing to support, with serious funding, the recommendations of the royal commission, which it established. It has ruled out contributing to the Northern Territory’s commitment to build two new child detention centres, arguing that it has adequate resources. This decision comes on top of the Commonwealth’s recent threat to abandon the ten-year National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing in favour of negotiating separate housing arrangements, as a means to leverage greater funding commitments from relevant jurisdictions (Northern Territory, Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia).

The inevitable result of the Commonwealth’s obvious retreat from investing in remote Indigenous Australia will be a further running down of community housing and infrastructure, as the provincial governments of federated Australia simply do not have the money to support these settlements. There are approximately a thousand discrete communities in remote Australia, the vast majority in the north, above an imaginary line drawn between Townsville and Port Hedland. Tens of thousands of people live in these places, which range in size from major rural townships to small semi-permanent outstations.

They are critically important to the nation-building story. This is where much traditional Indigenous culture is nurtured, where art is produced and languages are sustained. They are not ‘cultural museums…without a viable future’, as a former minister once described them; nor are they subsidised ‘lifestyle choices’, as former Prime Minister Abbott infamously dubbed them.

They are an essential part of the rich social and cultural tapestry of regional Australia, intricately connected to surrounding communities, towns and cities such as Darwin, Cairns, Katherine, Mt Isa, Broome and Port Hedland. They play a critical role in maintaining Indigenous nations’ native title rights and have long-term importance to Australia’s strategic security in terms of human occupation of a vast landscape and for environmental management.


THESE COMMUNITIES HAVE long been a source of tension between the Commonwealth, state and territory governments. Canberra-based officials advising their passing parade of ministers point out the inconsistencies of the Commonwealth paying for citizenship services such as housing and essential and municipal services in remote communities. In normal circumstances, these are clear state responsibilities. Bureaucratic combat between Commonwealth, state and territory governments has become entrenched and Aboriginal communities the innocent and non-participating victims. The transfer of Commonwealth municipal services funding to the states three years ago, and savage cutbacks to Commonwealth community employment programs, has hurt community capacity severely – so much so that in 2014, former Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett threatened to close a hundred and fifty discrete Aboriginal communities in WA, or more than half. Despite intense opposition to this threat and broad national public support, Commonwealth withdrawal from remote communities has continued accompanied by louder demands that the states and territories should cough up much more to support these settlements.

Whatever the principles that are debated – state responsibility for Indigenous people as citizens, or overriding national responsibility for Indig-enous people consistent with the 1967 constitutional amendment – the reality is that the Commonwealth–state funding arrangements do not enable the states and territories to invest what is required to adequately service and build infrastructure in remote Indigenous communities. In raw terms, the states provide 80 per cent of the services to Australian citizens: health, education, public housing, police, justice, child protection and so on. Yet the Commonwealth raises 80 per cent of total revenue from personal and corporate taxation, which means that funding has to be transferred to the states and territories to pay for the services they deliver.

These transfers, via formulas developed by the Commonwealth Grants Commission, are governed under a principle of federation called ‘horizontal fiscal equalisation’. The objective of this principle is that Australian citizens should be able to receive the same level of service and opportunity regardless of where they live. It is supposed to apply to all Australians, but in practice is restricted to Australian cities and their rural hinterlands: the 15 per cent of Australia’s landmass that is home to 95 per cent of its people. Horizontal fiscal equalisation does not incorporate the remaining 85 per cent of the country, officially categorised as ‘remote’ or ‘very remote’ by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, where only 5 per cent of Australians reside.

If the states most impacted by this discrepancy – WA, Queensland, NT, SA – redirected substantial resources from heavily populated areas to less populated areas, they would not survive in government for very long. The Commonwealth Government knows this stark fiscal and political reality, so their demands are disingenuous in the extreme.


IN 2008, THE Rudd government initiated federal fiscal reform that rationalised more than a hundred special-purpose payment agreements down to six broad-banded agreements, based on less Commonwealth oversight of expenditure and in favour of achieving agreed outcomes. But it continued with the old system of special-purpose payments for remote Australia, simply recasting them as national partnership agreements on a whole range of matters relating to housing, early childhood development and health.

The funding and policies supporting Indigenous communities in remote Australia are trapped in a deficit framework dominated by tensions around funding responsibility. This ensnares Indigenous community organisations, which receive minimal resources to deliver citizenship services. Indigenous communities are treated as mendicant recipients of government largesse, redistributing wealth from southern Australia. However, the vast majority of resource exports, which make up a significant part of the Australian economy, are sourced from northern and remote Australia, and often from lands subject to native title rights. That this fact is not part of the public and policy discourse concerning north and remote Australia is a critical shortcoming.

From time to time, some northern Indigenous leaders propose the establishment of an Indigenous capital fund to support an inclusive development approach for northern Australia, but the idea has never been taken seriously by governments. In 2012, a group of academics, government officials, practitioners and community and industry leaders came together under the auspices of Desert Knowledge Australia to produce a comprehensive report – Fixing the hole in Australia’s Heartland – that promoted a developmental approach for including remote areas more effectively in mainstream Australia. This effort was also ignored by governments. In the ongoing discussion about the potential for an effective minerals resource rent tax, there is surprisingly little attention paid to directing revenue to the regions that produce the wealth and ensuring real and sustainable benefit to traditional owners and native title holders.


IN 1971, CHARLES Rowley published the last of his seminal trilogy of books on Indigenous Australia, The Remote Aborigines (ANU Press, 1971). The book contained a dramatic map with a line that demarcated settled and remote Australia. He termed the remote region ‘colonial Australia’. The Remote Aborigines was published at the beginning of the modern, so called postcolonial era: four years after the end of the constitutional prohibition on Commonwealth Government responsibility for Indigenous people; just after governments ended their genocidal practice of forcibly taking children from their families; soon after the implementation of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission’s pastoral stockworkers award, which ended the pastoral industry feudalism; and at a time when the last racial discrimination laws were being removed from the statute books.

Yet despite these huge changes to life in the north, Rowley in 1971 still defined remote Australia as colonial. The conditions of colonialism remained fundamentally intact. The land tenure system had not changed from the nineteenth century and remained dominated by pastoral leases, Aboriginal reserves and vacant Crown land. Wealth through mining and pastoral produce was extracted and transferred to southern metropolises. Planning and development decisions that affected people’s lives were made in southern centres of political power. The majority of the permanent population was Indigenous, marginalised, impoverished and politically disenfranchised. High numbers of police and massive Indigenous imprisonment were a salient feature of this colonial society.

Despite the advent of statutory land rights, albeit fragmentary in different jurisdictions (and not at all in Western Australia), and the recognition of native title rights and the Commonwealth Native Title Act 1993, the fundamental colonial conditions that Rowley described remain today as defining features of the north and central desert regions of Australia. In the aftermath of the 1996 Wik High Court judgement, which ruled that Indigenous inherent legal rights could co-exist on pastoral leases (that is, on 40 per cent of the Australian continent), a highly charged political campaign was unleashed designed to incite settler Australian anxiety. A famous image of that campaign was then Prime Minister John Howard brandishing a map on national television that graphically showed the potential geographical extent of native title. Howard’s map was almost identical to Rowley’s 1971 colonial Australia map.


THAT A REFORM agenda to decolonise northern Australia has not taken hold in political discourse and policy-making can probably be attributed to two broadly connected themes. First, it has been clearly in the interests of the resources sector and large pastoral lease owners to maintain the centralised, state-based land titles system with minimum restriction on access and use. The Northern Territory’s Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976, which was passed in the national parliament with unanimous cross-party support following the Whitlam government’s Woodward Royal Commission, changed land law in the north dramatically. The old colonial Aboriginal reserve lands in the Northern Territory were transferred to legal entities held by traditional owners, along with the legal power to control mining access, which was previously in the hands of government. Whitlam envisaged that the Northern Territory model would be eventually become the platform for Indigenous development and transition from colonialism.

The so-called Aboriginal veto over mining exploration and development on Aboriginal-owned land was the lightning rod that rallied the mining industry and a coalition of conservative interests. A ferocious campaign against the prospect of extending the Northern Territory land rights model, as proposed by the newly elected Burke Labor government in WA and the Hawke Labor government nationally in the 1980s, destroyed the prospect of establishing a national statutory land rights regime. It also undermined the potential for building a national governmental consensus in collaboration with Indigenous interests about transitioning from colonialism to status of economic and political autonomy.

The enmity between the resources sector and traditional owners continued into the 1990s over the recognition of native title at common law and the enactment of federal native title legislation. This entrenched hostility over land ownership, access and resource development since the 1970s severely impeded the development vision, which was vibrantly alive in public policy circles during the Whitlam and Fraser governments. State and territory governments that managed land titles and planning processes were vehemently anti-Indigenous rights and pro-development. This led to intergovernmental tensions and the evolution of dysfunction in Australia’s federal governmental approach to inclusive development of the north.

The second explanation for the failure to build a decolonising policy agenda is the lack of a shared Indigenous political position for northern development. Given the legal and institutional fragmentation imposed on Indigenous peoples, extending from colonisation to modern governmental jurisdictions, it should not be surprising that this has occurred. Indigenous people from each jurisdiction have had to deal with the political peculiarities in their own states and territories that impact on land rights, community governance and the delivery of services, and as a result, many groups have focused on parochial concerns rather than mobilising around a pan--northern agenda. The negotiation of the Native Title Act in 1993 in response to the Mabo High Court judgment was a rare exception of unified northern Australian Indigenous political action.


THE CURRENT PUSH by the Turnbull government to develop the north may afford Indigenous interests an opportunity to mobilise around the potential for inclusive development and for institutional and legal reform to decolonise northern Australia. The 2015 Our North, Our Future: White Paper on Developing Northern Australia did not adequately address the position of Indigenous people despite the fact that Indigenous people directly own or have exclusive or co-existing native title rights over the majority of the northern Australian land mass. The $5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility focuses on old economic infrastructure such as ports and railway lines. There is no consideration for public investment in desperately needed social infrastructure, particularly in remote communities, nor is there any acknowledgement that such investment is important for a functioning society and economy in the north.

Since the release of the White Paper, some northern Indigenous leaders have been critical of the trickle-down economic theory approach of the government’s northern development agenda. More recently, the government has made tentative steps to engage Indigenous interests about their priorities for northern development. As this engagement grows, it is inevitable that the Indigenous development agenda will articulate positions that are deeply held by Indigenous people, namely that wealth extracted from the region should be returned in the form of a substantial capital fund so traditional owners and native title holders can realistically participate and benefit in the northern economy on their own terms, and that governments ought to collaborate meaningfully with Indigenous communities to build and maintain good community housing and infrastructure.

Given the land-owning and demographic reality of northern Australia, the long-term success of the region’s future development will largely depend on the effectiveness of the relationship that governments forge with Indigenous people. The challenge for all the parties that belong to the north – Indigenous, Commonwealth, state, territory and local governments, and industry – is to resurrect the hopes and dreams for a new and inclusive society of those people in the early 1970s who believed then that colonialism was over.

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