Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Government Whip) (18:30): This bill, the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Amendment Bill 2018, is essentially about the Northern Territory. It says so in the title, of course. But it has lessons for all of us. It demonstrates cooperation and common purpose, and I think it’s quite a stride in our relationship with Indigenous Australia that we’d get to a more sensible position where all parties would give a bit of ground, make a compromise and come up with a good result so that everybody’s a winner. So I congratulate all those who have negotiated through this process, and I hope that the outcomes will be good for all of those who have done so and, of course, have supported the bill.
It’s worth noting, though, from my point of view, because it gives me an opportunity to touch on a few other things which I think are important when it comes to land ownership, that Grey covers 92.4 per cent of South Australia, an area of 908,000 square kilometres. It also includes all of the remote Indigenous communities—but not all of the Indigenous communities, I might add; there are a few that live on Indigenous lands outside of Grey. But it includes all of the remote Indigenous communities at least, and it includes the APY lands. The APY lands cover 102,000 square kilometres, or around about 10 per cent of the state of South Australia. Interestingly, those lands are held in freehold title, but by the community rather than by individuals, and they can do whatever they like with their land and make whatever economic decisions they want to on that particular land.
It’s probably 50 years since they were granted that freehold title from the then Tonkin Liberal government in South Australia. I must say, though, that it has not led to the economic outcomes that many at the time thought it would. I often question myself on why this is and why, in fact, it has not run closer to its productive capacity. I think, maybe, what I have to say in the rest of this address may come to those points, but I think it’s more to do with community ownership than native title. But, like elsewhere, with the APY Lands it is very important that Aboriginal owners of land are able to utilise their assets properly, and I think Noel Pearson has had much to say on this issue in Queensland, where he believes that the native title owners, the owners of the land, should be able to get and develop the land in the way that they see fit so they can benefit from it.
As we strive for reconciliation, it’s important, too, that the Indigenous corporations that own much of Australia properly manage their assets. The Indigenous Land Corporation and Indigenous Business Australia have accumulated millions of acres and millions of dollars worth of assets, and they are the tools to success. But we need those corporations to insist that their assets are operated at least at industry average and aim for industry best. Sadly, I must say, in many of cases, these assets are not, and I think both IBA and ILC need to really up the ante on those people who are occupying those lands, leasing those lands and using those infrastructure items, to make sure that they are delivering what they should deliver. Lowering the bar of expectation when it comes to Indigenous Australia is an insult. We all need to insist on industry best practice.
In my opinion, the biggest unresolved issue, when it comes to land ownership for Indigenous people on Indigenous lands, is home ownership. As I said, it’s not so much native title; it’s more about the community title and the fact that the community title precludes individual ownership of houses.
For most of us, a home is the biggest single purchase of our lives, it’s the biggest financial commitment of our lives, it’s the biggest financial motivator of our lives and, importantly, it’s the biggest source of collateral in our lives. So an owner of a house—most people in this chamber are—can borrow money against that asset and launch off into business prospects, launch off into bettering their lot. That can’t happen on remote Indigenous lands under community title. You can’t borrow money from the bank. You can’t buy a block of land and borrow money or earn money, build a house and pay off the house. It just can’t be done.
In April last year Noel Pearson wrote: ‘Housing in Aboriginal communities is the central problem of passive welfare.’ To explain that—these are my words—it is because that land ownership model is almost exclusively occupied by public rental housing. Noel Pearson is right. This is what is holding back so much of Indigenous Australia. With but a few exceptions, remote Aboriginal housing is constructed by outsiders and the designated tenants have no role in their construction. Despite houses being built to an ever higher standard, they still have a much shorter useful life than houses in the mainstream, in the outside world. And Noel Pearson says in the same article:
Most people think that over-crowding is the main issue. For me the urgent problem of over-crowding (which certainly does depreciate the housing stock) is still second to a more important problem: how do we get skin in the game on the part of the people who live in these houses?
Tenancy, no matter how well managed by a landlord, is a form of skin in the game, but it is limited. You just don’t get the same pride, the same sense of responsibility and, yes, financial self-interest that ownership gives.
Later on in the article Pearson writes:
Homeowners know that if they abuse their houses, they will have to pay for the maintenance. Homeowners know that if they plant trees and maintain their gardens, it is theirs. They know that the home which they look after with pride is the home they are likely to leave to their children.
He is right. He is absolutely right. For Indigenous communities with common ownership, it is unfortunately an impossible dream. So while this bill today is about sensible compromise, it’s about the Northern Territory, about the seeding of land rights over a certain area for compensation in another. It is still not happening in so much of the Indigenous community where we need to come to a sensible solution with housing.
Not long ago, I visited the house of a young Aboriginal leader, in one of my communities, a homeland community. In fact, he did own the house in this particular case. He said, ‘My grandfather built it and it’s consequently not owned by South Australian Housing Trust.’ It is owned by him. He’s a descendent of his grandfather and it’s owned by him and he takes great pride in it. But it is the only house on that homeland that is owned by an individual. I can’t think of another one anywhere else so it’s bit of a one-off. But you can see what a difference it makes. It’s important in his life. It’s important to him that his grandfather built the house. So I just fear that the current model that we have right across is holding people and communities back.
In fact, the only way an Indigenous person from a remote community can ever hope to own their house is to move out of it, move out of their community and go to a mainstream community where they can buy a house, where they can buy a block of land, where they can borrow money, where they can reinvest in their assets, where they can use those assets to lever off other things in their life. But if they want to stay in their home communities, they can’t. It’s a separate way of dealing with them in Australia, and I don’t think it’s right.
Sometimes I get asked by people, ‘Why doesn’t government fix it?’ In this particular case, governments could fix it but only if it were at the insistence of those who own the land. The people who have the community title own the keys to the land. They need to make these decisions. If they want it fixed, we can fix it, but they hold the veto and they need to bring their communities together and come up with that conclusion and come up with a model. I’m not prescriptive about the model. Certainly you don’t want a model where these houses can then be sold to any outsider in Australia; that would be a bad outcome. So it’s something that they are going to have to come up with and then put to governments and say, ‘How about you back us in on this?’
When I speak to community elders about this, they are supportive of the concept but they don’t seem to show much interest in actually making it happen. As a member of parliament I can’t make it happen for them. I don’t want to be put into a position where I’m trying to force them to a place they don’t want to go. I hope they can look at it, listen to what Noel Pearson has to say and realise this is a way of enabling their communities, of making them stronger and making them more like mainstream communities, if you like.
So in the way that relates to the bill, it’s common sense. That’s what it is. I think anyone that looks at this issue would think that outcome is common sense. The outcome of this bill today is common sense. It’s common sense over a whole lot of different emotions. They’ve come to a sensible outcome. I’d like to see that happening with remote housing. We can move that part of Australia into the 21st century.