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Aboriginal community of Wadeye seek changes to land holding laws

Extract from Australian Broadcasting Corporation - ABC Online, on 6 April 2005

TONY EASTLEY: This morning the Prime Minister John Howard will hear how the Aboriginal people of Wadeye want to scrap the communal ownership of land in their town.

Instead they want to have individual long-term leases so they can borrow against them, a move they say will help build up the economic base of the community and solve their housing shortage.

The Prime Minister's brief visit to the Northern Territory begins this morning in Darwin where he'll sign a new agreement on Indigenous affairs with Northern Territory Chief Minister, Clare Martin.

Louise Yaxley reports.

LOUISE YAXLEY: Wadeye's already been part of a two-year trial on finding new ways in Indigenous affairs.

Its Deputy Executive Officer, Dale Seaniger, says the trials helped get more children to school.

DALE SEANIGER: Education has been a star player, education's been a real winner.

LOUISE YAXLEY: But Mr Seaniger says serious health problems remain despite the trial.

DALE SEANIGER: We still don't have a resident doctor, we've got 2,500 people here, we're the sixth largest town in the Territory and the largest Aboriginal community in the Territory, 3.5 medivacs a week 'cause all the girls have to go to town to have their babies.

LOUISE YAXLEY: But at Wadeye overcrowded housing is a major problem.

DALE SEANIGER: We need something like 185 houses, or you know, $36 million, and we know the governments can't do that.

LOUISE YAXLEY: Wadeye's proposed solution is to be able to take out individual long-term leases on small parcels of land instead of the communal title.

DALE SEANIGER: If we can get ownership of our own land and ownership of our own houses, we don't need the governments to solve those problems. We can actually enter into agreements with banks for private funding for housing. We'd like to really have the opportunity to solve some of the housing issues that we have on our own basis.

LOUISE YAXLEY: Beyond Wadeye, there's a national debate about changes to Indigenous land holding. Wadeye's plan is strongly supported by Warren Mundine, an Indigenous man who'll become Federal Labor Party's president next year.

Mr Mundine calls this the next stage in the land rights movement.

WARREN MUNDINE: The second stage is okay, we've got this land, now how do we now work for this land to make it beneficial to our communities?

LOUISE YAXLEY: Mr Mundine's also an appointed member of the Government's National Indigenous Council.

/AM/ has a document from that council, which suggests changing the law to force Aboriginal owners to allow any request for a lease on their land. Although it says the Government could face significant compensation payments for taking away the right to say no.

Labor's Aboriginal Affairs Spokesman, Kim Carr, sees a Government plan to wind back Aboriginal control over land.

KIM CARR: Clearly that's a proposition the Labor Party couldn't support. There are plenty of opportunities through the existing arrangements to provide for long-term leasing of land.

We have the Alice Springs to Darwin railway of course, which was built on Aboriginal land and shows just how practical current arrangements are, and there's no need to take away fundamental principles of native title in this country.

LOUISE YAXLEY: Mr Mundine says the changes can be done with out changing legislation. But within the Government, there's significant support for using the Coalition's numbers in the Senate to change the Northern Territory Land Rights Act.

Nigel Scullion is the Coalition Senator from the Northern Territory.

NIGEL SCULLION: It's now not working very well in a number of areas, and I think that we need to make the investment of reform in the Northern Territory Land Rights Act.

LOUISE YAXLEY: David Ross, Director of the Central Land Council says it's dangerous.

DAVID ROSS: We've, you know, a number of bureaucrats who've had no past or previous experience dealing with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, nor the land councils, nor the Land Rights Act, wanting to make changes that they don't understand what it is that they're doing, and this could be detrimental to Aboriginal people throughout the Northern Territory.

TONY EASTLEY: Central Land Council Director, David Ross ending that report from Louise Yaxley.

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