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8 Dec 2017


Address to the STICS

Human Rights Day Forum

Redfern - 8 December 2017

by Greg Marks

Homelands and Outstations

in the Northern Territory


Acknowledgement of TOs

Also acknowledge International Human Rights day this is all about human rights

The hidden strand of the Intervention – the Intervention’s dirty secret. Not so much hidden in the Territory, but even there to some degree.

We all know about:

  • the military sent to remote Aboriginal communities,
  • compulsory 5 years leases by Government over communities,
  • The new mission managers – the Government Business Managers
  • dramatically increased policing,
  • the abolition of CDEP jobs and
  • the introduction of welfare quarantining – the BasicsCard
  • the 99-year leases over Aboriginal townships
  • the winding back of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 in the NTER legislation


But what we don’t know so much about, or hear much about, is the place of outstations and homelands housing policy in the Intervention.


The link between the Intervention and outstations is not so clear, except in a very general way. But the link is there, it is concrete, definite, deliberate. Despite appearances, it is a fundamental part of the Intervention. I want to bring that link out into the open.


The Intervention is like a rope made up of different strands – this is one of them. It is one that I am closely aware of – it is what I will talk about tonight.


Why do I know about this link in particular


I have been involved with outstations right from the start – it is outstations that led to me living for 9 years in Alice Springs. Hermannsburg 1974 – outstations movement taking off. I was an Education Officer based in Darwin with the Commonwealth Department of Education - asked to visit the Hermannsburg outstations to assess the impact of the outstation movement on schooling – in fact I was impressed by the educational arrangements for the outstations. I was then involved with outstations, homelands and similar Aboriginal communities as the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) officer responsible for Alice Springs and the south east corner of the Territory - years later (2005-06) as a consultant reporting on the history, status and service provision of homelands and outstations.


Since then I have followed developments, written papers, made submissions to Senate enquiries, worked for Amnesty on homelands policy etc.


First some definitions and history

What do we mean by the term outstations?

Outstations are small to medium sized Aboriginal communities, living on or close to traditional land/country. Outstations and homelands are interchangeable terms.

How many in outstations NT – lots – 500 outstation/homelands communities, about 10,000 Aboriginal people – a large proportion of Aboriginal people living outside urban areas. Where – mainly land granted under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (ALRA), also National parks, some on pastoral properties.


A number of major Aboriginal communities were established in remote areas of the NT through the 50s and 60s – artificial exercises in social engineering under assimilation, examples include Papunya, Maningrida, Docker River etc.

People were coerced, encouraged and directed to live in these artificial communities through the 50s and 60s. This led to huge problems of all sorts and communities were often quite dysfunctional, e.g.

  • Multi-lingual, multi-tribal,
  • poor living conditions,
  • western food not bush food,
  • conflict and fighting,
  • stress, substance abuse, boredom,
  • loss of control of children and delinquency.

So, with land rights emerging, Aboriginal people decided to move out, to decentralise and establish outstations on or near their traditional country, often at first with very limited resources. They wanted to

  • Get away from major settlement problems,
  • get onto own country,
  • look after country,
  • have some control over their own lives, and especially,
  • build a sustainable future for the children and their children

This outstation or decentralisation movement, setting up outstations and homelands, mainly took place in the 1970s and 1980s.

Government policy initially was to provide modest support to outstations and homelands. DAA (and later ATSIC) provided support – confirmed by an important House of Representative Report of 1987 – known as the Blanchard Report.

Houses were provided through the Community Housing and Infrastructure Program – known as CHIP


The communities

The outstations and homelands established by Aboriginal people are communities in their own right – usually now with a substantial infrastructure built up during DAA and ATSIC days. Outstations are not just collections of tents and rough shelters – although this is how many politicians and bureaucrats probably think of them.

Some have grown into significant and impressive places – Wallace Rock Hole west of Alice Springs, Harts Range (Atitjere) - substantial communities with schools, shops, art centres, housing.

These are major achievements starting from nothing. The people are proud of what they have achieved.

It’s the way people stay on country and build a sustainable future for themselves, and future generations rather than being stuck in large dysfunctional major communities.

The outstation movement has been one of the few developments in the last 40 years that actually reflects Aboriginal aspirations – not simply the latest policy fashion in Government.

This is an important point and cannot be stressed too often.

But in 2004 the Commonwealth Government overturned outstation support and put a moratorium on new houses on homelands.

Then it made the moratorium permanent in 2007. No more new houses, ever, to be built on outstation or homelands communities with Commonwealth housing money – outstations had been sent to Siberia, funding permanently frozen.

Now, 14 years after the first freeze, outstation housing is still frozen.


The Intervention

This freeze on new public housing on outstations and homelands is part of the Intervention

What was going on? - Assimilation

Underlying the Intervention was a renewed assimilation objective.

We had thought assimilation was gone – but with the Intervention it came back with a vengeance.

Important to note was the influence of right wing commentators – they demonised Aboriginal society, and the stronger the attachment to country the more they demonised it.

Outstations and homelands were particularly demonised – there was a lot of racist stuff in this.

They had a lot of influence on Government policy from about 2004 for a few years at least. More importantly they were very successful with the media and much of the public, who came to see outstations as taxpayer supported dens of iniquity and vice.

This remains a challenge – to undo this negative image.

The new assimilation led to a

Two prong strategy

  • Run down, and eventually get rid of, outstations – empty the homelands and get everybody living in urban environments – a new form of terra nullius.
  • Impose 99-year leases on the major communities – to be run by a Government bureaucrat - not by the TOs or the community.

The objective being to get rid of the requirement of informed consent by traditional owners – the very basis of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) 1976

I’m not going to talk about the 99-year leases tonight – there’s plenty of discussion on that.

But the outstations strand of the Intervention has largely been hidden from view – you have to comb through complex COAG documents with a fine tooth comb to find the policy.

This policy is not well known outside the Northern Territory, and even in the Territory to some extent. Of course those people affected by the policy know it is connected to the Intervention:

Yingiya Mark Guyula, Member for Nhulunbuy stated

After the Intervention there was less funding available for homelands, many Yolngu have drifted back to the larger community towns. But with that they have left their clan lands with an abundance of fresh food. That is taking a heavy toll on people’s health and looking at the larger communities we can see the direct effect of that on people’s health. TLO’s were talking about the need for more funds for homelands housing to allow their people to return to country.

But for many people, including the wider public, journalists and politicians, the outstation policy is out of sight out of mind – that is how Governments get away with it.

Tonight I want to unlock some of this

The key document

There is a document that is the key to this – a document that the Commonwealth Government for a long time tried to keep secret.

It is the September 2007 Memorandum of Understanding between the Australian Government and the Northern Territory Government on Indigenous Housing, Accommodation and Related Services.

I want to stress the importance of this document.

In the MOU the Commonwealth told the Northern Territory that it would provide money for Aboriginal housing on major communities, but nothing for outstations.

It was a take it or leave it offer – the Territory had to take it or have no money for Aboriginal housing.

This MOU turned arrangements for the hundreds of outstations and homelands on their head, reversed the arrangements of the previous three decades completely:

  • Was the NT Government willing? - no
  • Were Aboriginal communities affected, or Aboriginal representative bodies ever consulted, or even informed? – no
  • Did the general Australian public know – the answer again is no.

So much for transparency and accountability.

In my view this is the most radical shift in Government policy in the NT in 40 years – the Commonwealth handed over responsibility for outstations and homelands to the NT without a dollar for housing – even though there was a big backlog


The key words in the MOU:

(para. 17) No Australian Government funding will be provided to construct housing on outstations/homelands and

(para. 25) full responsibility for outstations now rests with the Northern Territory Government.

This MOU was signed off on 17 September 2007. Notice the timing – September 2007. The Intervention was announced in June 2007. The MOU was the final step of the Intervention.

It is a key strand in the Intervention, although not always recognised as such.

It has stayed in place ever since – no change to the basic policy at all under the Labor Governments of Rudd and Gillard. I am not aware of any shift in Federal Labor’s policy now – I hope I am wrong but doubt it.

This policy has remained almost completely unaltered through various forms of COAG remote housing agreements etc.

The Northern Territory does not have the resources, or probably ability, or maybe the desire, to pick up public housing for these communities. There is a complete housing vacuum for 500 communities.

These developments are the deliberate overturning of self-determination. This is all about top down, unilateralism, paternalism, authoritarian bureaucracy – call it what you will.


Where are we now?

Remote Housing Review Report:

In 2008 the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreed to the $5.4 billion National Partnership Agreement for Remote Indigenous Housing (NPARIH), which was replaced by the Remote Housing Strategy (the Strategy) in 2016. The Strategy concludes in the middle of 2018.

This year a review into NPARIH was released in October. It is called

Remote Housing Review: A review of the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing and the Remote Housing Strategy (2008-2018)

and can be found on the PM&C website.

In this 95-page report about remote Indigenous housing the word ‘outstations’ appears once. How bizarre is that? In a sentence on page 25 referring to outstations and homelands the Report notes that:


“The Strategy ... did not invest in very small communities, or in homelands and outstations”. The Report goes on to say:


“The Panel acknowledges the anxiety of communities which did not receive investment and the factors resulting in individuals wanting to live in certain areas.” (italics added)


Weasel words.

The Review then stated that the States and Territories should be responsible for homelands, and urban and regional housing.

That’s it – nothing else. No discussion, no analysis, no recommendations except the implicit recommendation of no change in policy. In other words, the freeze continues.

Outstation and homelands communities are to remain banished, exiled from Commonwealth support – even in the Commonwealth’s own Northern Territory. That is where we seem to stand at the moment.


The challenge

The Minister’s press release of October this year states:

Safe, appropriate housing is crucial to better lives for residents in remote communities, including to improve health and education and address family violence.”

The challenge is to get this accepted for outstation and homelands communities, as well as others.

However to get anywhere - it is essential to know the nuts and bolts – it is essential to highlight that there is an actual specific explicit policy to deprive outstation and homelands communities of new housing.

This is a legacy of the Intervention and needs to be flushed out into the open.

Why should some communities have the so-called Gap closed and others not.

This is discrimination – apparently some communities are more equal than others.

This is paternalism – the Government knows where you should live, if you are an Aboriginal person.



The Intervention has a number of strands – I have focussed on one strand i.e. public housing for small to medium sized communities, often referred to as outstations and homelands.

It is time to shine a spotlight on this particular strand of the Intervention.

Land rights are a legal fact. However to be meaningful land rights have to be a lived experience.

  • Without the ability and resources to live on the land, land rights are an empty promise, a mirage, something that sounds good, but has no reality in the day- to-day lives of Aboriginal communities.

We need to ask ourselves – what can we do to turn around the negativity, and to reinstate Commonwealth Government funding for new houses on outstations and homelands?

Outstations and homelands have been marginalised for too long – time to bring them back to centre stage.

We need to open up a full discussion of remote housing funding post June 2018

- are homelands and outstations to be brought in from the cold, so that they can plan for growth and a positive future?

These are the questions, and the task, that face us.


Greg Marks, International human rights law expert, specialising in Indigenous rights. Policy analyst, researcher and writer. Centre Associate, Indigenous Law Centre UNSW.


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