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Private Housing on Indigenous Lands

Helen Hughes AO 1928 - 2013, Mark Hughes and Sara Hudson | PM113 | 17 November 2010


Almost 20% of Australia and almost 50% of the Northern Territory are Indigenous lands. Yet Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders cannot build their own houses on them. Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders living on their lands have the lowest living standards in Australia. They cannot access the benefits of the land they own. Existing territory, state and federal government legislation and programs to introduce private housing and business are seriously flawed. The governments’ own data confirm that despite the billions they are spending on ‘social’ housing, when these programs are completed housing on Indigenous lands will remain sub-standard and overcrowded.

The conclusions that follow have two objectives: to reinforce and maintain traditional landowners’ communal land rights, and to introduce individual private property rights so that Indigenous homeownership and business can develop immediately and rapidly. A million dollars spent supporting private housing would save billions of ‘social’ housing expenditure.

Welfare dependence can only be ended with a mainstream economy based on a mix of public facilities and private property. Giving existing ‘social’ housing tenants the option to take ownership—at no cost—of the homes they live in would kick start private property rights. It should be accompanied by the immediate construction of private houses.

Bipartisan political support and government bureaucracies should move away from focusing on ‘social’ housing to supporting private housing and business. A lifetime of government encouraged dependence has left Indigenous communities and individuals waiting for someone else to act. But Indigenous communities can and should make the decisions necessary to enable their people to build private houses and start businesses. These include:

1. Indigenous land tenure: The present Indigenous land title complexity is costly and counterproductive. In the process of clarifying communal and private property entitlements, the tenure of Indigenous lands on which Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have the right to live and do business should be consolidated and confirmed as freehold or long-term (perpetual or 999-year) head leases.

2. Landowner corporations: Landowners should create corporations using existing body corporate models, such as strata and company title or gated communities. Landowner corporations would operate under existing territory, state and federal laws. The corporations’ function would be land management, not business or local government.

3. Defining land boundaries: Landowner corporations would negotiate boundaries with neighbouring groups.

4. Local development plans: Landowner corporations would allocate land for public use such as schools, health centres, and recreation; for private and ‘social’ housing; and for business and other uses, leaving areas for future development. Local environment and development plans would be agreed with local governments.

5. Secure title and covenants: Landowner corporations would develop covenants that determine who is eligible for sub-leases and conditions of resale, inheritance and other restrictions necessary to retain community control. Territory, state and federal regulatory agencies, notably land title registries, would be responsible for registering leases, avoiding separate rules that inevitably discriminate against Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

6. Municipal services: Landowner corporations would identify necessary services, including roads, power, water and sewerage. They would work with existing and potential service providers to determine the cost of services, and identify how services would be funded.

7. Transferring social housing to occupants: Three groups of ‘social’ housing tenants on Indigenous lands should immediately be given the option of taking ownership at no cost of the houses they live in:

• Tenants who have been paying rent for more than 10 years

• Tenants in locations where governments are no longer funding new ‘social’ housing

• Tenants of houses that cannot be certified for occupancy, in locations where governments continue to provide new ‘social’ housing.

8. Provisional leases and funding: Provisional leasing and funding would enable immediate construction of new private houses and premises for business. Housing and business blocks could be pegged out with landowner agreement. Seed funding could be found to begin construction of private houses.

Emeritus Professor Helen Hughes has worked in the economics of development for many years, including a period of senior management at the World Bank followed by membership of the United Nations Committee for Development Planning. She returned to Australia to a chair in economics at the Australian National University, where she was also the executive director of the National Centre of Development Studies. She was the Distinguished Fellow of the Economics Society of Australia in 2004. Professor Hughes is a Senior Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, where she is working on the south Pacific as well as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander development.

Mark Hughes is an independent researcher.

Sara Hudson is a Policy Analyst in the Indigenous Affairs Research Program at The Centre for Independent Studies. Her research includes an examination of the Community Development Employment Program, 99-year leases and Indigenous homeownership, the lack of accountability
in Indigenous health, and remote community stores. Prior to joining the CIS, Sara worked as a policy adviser for the NZ Department of Labour and in the Evaluation Unit of NZ Police.

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