Many Australians would be understandably sceptical of the Greens’ call for a ‘Truth and Justice Commission’ to conduct ‘truth-telling’ with regards to human rights abuses of Indigenous Australians. However, such a commission may be valuable if it is used to lift the lid on Australia’s outback socialism that crushes Indigenous people to this day.
In January, the Greens called for ‘$250 million for a national Truth and Justice Commission to investigate human rights abuses against First Nations people’. Victorian Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe said such a commission would ‘allow the truth to be told in this country and it will allow us to come together so we can come forward’.
The devastating legacy of Australia’s land rights system in the Northern Territory is not well understood by the general public. If a Truth and Justice Commission became a vehicle to rectify that, it would be more than worthwhile.
Since the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (ALRA) was passed by the Fraser government in 1976, governments have returned roughly 50 per cent of the Northern Territory and 20 per cent of the country to Indigenous communities. This has been popularly understood as Indigenous people ‘getting their land back’. However, it may surprise many Australians that for much of the last four decades, Chinese and Russian citizens have had stronger property rights than Indigenous people living on ALRA land in the Northern Territory.
It was not possible for an Indigenous person on ALRA land in the Northern Territory to own their own home until 2006. Even now, only a handful of the tens of thousands of people on ALRA land in the Northern Territory actually do so.
Alongside this denial of private property rights are weak and opaque communal property rights. To grant an estate or interest in their land, most Traditional Owners in the Northern Territory require the approval of the relevant regional Land Council – meaning decisions about land use haven’t been returned to Traditional Owners but reside with government bureaucracies often located hundreds of kilometres away.
Suffice to say, approval can be hard to get.
In its ‘Submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia’ in January 2020, the Aboriginal Investment Group outlined the trials faced by a group of Traditional Owners trying to convert a vacated building into a youth drop-in café. Under ALRA, Traditional Owners in these circumstances must present a proposal from themselves, to themselves, and be consulted on it by the Land Council, whose costs they must pay. Furthermore, it’s likely they have to charge themselves commercial rates of rent, otherwise the Land Council won’t approve the license or lease. And the whole approval process will take at least six months.
Property rights are human rights. The denial of private and communal property rights to Indigenous Australians on ALRA land is first and foremost a moral issue. However, the economic and social impacts are unsurprisingly catastrophic. A lack of property rights on ALRA land contributes to chronic underdevelopment and unemployment with the full gamut of socials ills that invariably follow: crime, violence, alcohol, drug abuse, ill-health, and despair. Not to mention parlous health and education outcomes.
Indigenous people on ALRA land don’t require protection from the broader Australian economy and culture. They require the freedom to pursue their destiny like Australians from all different races, religions and backgrounds have been free to do so.
Australia’s outback socialism has crushed Indigenous people on ALRA land. Their stories deserve to be told every bit as much as those of victims of the Stolen Generation, frontier violence and institutional racism.
Maybe a Truth and Justice Commission isn’t such a bad idea after all.
Peter Gregory is a researcher from Melbourne.
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