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Lost in the relief over the ceasefire in Lebanon, the dropping of the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006, and the proposed conscience vote on stem cell research, another bill has passed that will greatly affect the lives of many speakers of Aboriginal languages. This week the Senate has been discussing the ABORIGINAL LAND RIGHTS (NORTHERN TERRITORY) AMENDMENT BILL 2006. Go to Hansard for Tuesday 15/8/06 and Wednesday 16/8/06 for the speeches by Senators Christopher Evans, Rachel Siewert and Andrew Bartlett which bring out the likely consequences of the bill. The Age has an article on it [thanks!], but there's not much else. Working in the Northern Territory in the 1980s, I provided linguistic evidence for the Warumungu land claim, and was able to see the effect that the success of that and other claims had. People took greater control of their own lives and futures, and one effect was increased interest in, and effort to maintain, their own languages. It was clear that land mattered to people, and, on the negative side, could lead to violent disagreements between groups. The implementation of the Native title legislation has made this much worse. But this bill has the potential to create even more disagreements.

The change from communal title to individual title pits residents of towns against traditional owners of the land; 55% of the residents are enough to consent to change the land title of the town, regardless of how many of the residents are traditional owners. Communities often live close to important sites that may be owned by a small group. Suppose the town wants more houses, because the overcrowding is intolerable. The traditional owners may be forced by a majority vote of the town to give a lease for 99 years over their land.

We're told that people's decision to change the titles to 99 year leases are voluntary, that they are not required to do so in return for essential services. What's an essential service? The debate in Hansard on Tuesday suggests there will be a lot of buck passing between the NT and the Commonwealth Government as to who provides what essential services. For example, Senator Rod Kemp says:
"We all understand what requirements we would like to provide as essential services,but some of them are additional. On Elcho Island, my understanding is that the offer of 50 houses is a home ownership scheme and it does require land tenure change. That is the offer which has been made." p.8

Overcrowded housing is one of the causes of the appalling health of many Indigenous people. Voluntary choice? Oxfam's public policy director James Ensor (who's well acquainted with the complexities of land tenure in the Centre) is worried that non-essential services may include education.

And once a person owns 99 year leases on blocks of land, then they have an asset, which will reduce their access to some other Government services. So they'll have to sell it. Maybe it will open up beach-front developments for coastal Indigenous people, but snowflakes and tourist operators have about the same chance of settling on a block in the Tanami Desert.

The bill also reduces the funding and power of the major Lands Councils, which have acted both as mediators in disputes between Aboriginal groups, and as effective voices for Indigenous people's rights. It allows a divide-and-conquer approach. I see little good for Aboriginal people and their languages emerging from it.

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