The community of Pirlangimpi in the Northern Territory has signed an agreement to recommence negotiations for a 99-year township lease, which will make it the fourth and final community in the Tiwi Islands to sign up.
In 2007, Wurrumiyanga on Bathurst Island, about 80km north of Darwin, signed the first ever 99-year township lease with the government, getting a $5 million initial payment and funding for a community wellness centre and upgrades to the football ovals.
Ranku and Milikapiti have both signed up as well, and, following an abandoned attempt to negotiate with the Rudd/Gillard government over the past six years, Pirlangimpi on neighbouring Melville Island has joined in.
The voluntary leases, which grew out of compulsory five-year leases over Aboriginal communities and towns as a measure of the Intervention, are now in place in the Tiwi Islands, Groot Eyelandt, and Gunbalunya in Eastern Arnhem Land.
They provide long-term secure land tenure from the Land Trust that open up economic opportunities for Aboriginal people, such as borrowing money to start up their own businesses or to buy their own homes, while still retaining underlying ownership of their land.
“The most precious thing, and sometimes the only thing, our First Australians have that is theirs to hold is their land,” said Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion, at the signing of the Pirlangimpi agreement on Friday.
“Every decision they make around their land, we need to give them proper time to think and consider.”
The community has until the end of November to finalise a deal with the Commonwealth.
Traditional owners quizzed the minister on how transparent the process would be and how much say they would have.
“We would like to know we can make any decision regarding ourselves without any pressure from outside people telling us what to do,” said elder Pirrawayingi.
“It’s up to us at the end of the day to take that advice based on our own values, beliefs, and whether we think it’s right or wrong.”
He said the community did not want to be suffocated by red tape.
Senator Scullion said the leasing process had been streamlined through negotiations with other communities that have already signed up.
“‘What’s in it for us?’ That should absolutely be the question you keep in your minds,” he told the community.
Elder Cyril Kalippa wanted an assurance that if Pirlangimpi signed up, it would be easier to obtain bank loans.
“We have got a problem getting a loan from the banks, we are still having trouble,” he said.
“The banks don’t trust Aboriginal people to get a loan.”
But Senator Scullion said bottom-line profits would motivate lenders.
“They are mercenary – they are looking for successful businesses that will make them money and repay the interest.”
He pointed to the success in Wurrumiyanga, where a supermarket and four small retail outlets have opened, and 15 people have bought their own homes.
Also on Friday, that community reviewed the first five years of its 99-year lease.
2007 was the first time local ownership of businesses and homes had been seen on this scale in a remote Aboriginal community, Senator Scullion said.
Since Wurrumiyanga first signed a township lease, the system has been refined, said Greg Roach, executive director of township leasing for the federal government.
He says it took a while to convince the Catholic Church, the Tiwi Land Council and government organisations in the community to pay rent in recognition of the fact they were on Aboriginal land.
“(The community) suffered financially, so the lease has been varied to recognise the loss,” he told AAP.
“What we’ve done is now developed a systematic process where everyone on Aboriginal land in our communities pays rent.”
In 2007, $2000 was collected in rent, while last year, $642,000 was collected, Mr Roach said.
“That’s the difference we can make to their future.”
Jennifer Ullungura Clancy, a traditional owner at Wurrumiyanga, said the community has been very happy with the township lease.
“Township leasing is good for our people so we can support our families and kids; no one has complained at all,” she said.
“All the money coming in from rent, we’re putting it aside to support this community.”
The review demonstrates how a township lease can adapt and evolve over time, Senator Scullion said, and gives Aboriginal people the same opportunity as other Australians to leverage their assets to generate wealth for themselves, their families and their communities.
“They have a responsibility handed down for generations to ensure that they can maintain their hold and control on land, that’s why it’s such an important decision,” he said.