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Issue #1647      July 16, 2014

Normalisation: What does it mean?

In June 2004, Clare Martin’s Labor government laid the groundwork for Commonwealth legislation which two years later delivered a new legal framework for township leasing on Aboriginal land in the Northern Territory.

In a so-called concept paper, “Tenure and Town Planning in Remote Communities” the Martin government identified a “legal and planning vacuum for individual stakeholders and communities”.

“The serious concern over continuing unacceptable (and sometimes worsening) social and economic conditions in communities and remote towns has focused in part on the extent to which this legal and planning vacuum is a contributing factor,” the paper said.

As ideological and evidence-lacking as the NT government paper was, its rhetoric was roundly trumped by members of the Howard government when it introduced amendments to the (NT) Aboriginal Land Rights Act in 2006 which enabled the Commonwealth to introduce its program of township leasing.

The amendments were driven by a perceived need for individual property rights in Aboriginal communities.

Home ownership was at the heart of it – an aspiration championed by neo-liberal ideologues like the late Dr Helen Hughes from southern think-tank, the Centre for Independent Studies.

In his second reading speech to the amendments, then Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough spoke of residents in NT Aboriginal communities being “mostly marooned in unsafe settlements devoid of economic opportunity and hope for the future”.

Ignoring the fact that leases of Aboriginal-owned land had always been available under the Land Rights Act (section 19), Brough wrongly asserted that residents in Aboriginal communities had no choice but to live as tenants. If they wanted to own a house or start a business, they had to move, he claimed in Parliament.

“The bill provides for a new tenure system for townships on Aboriginal land that will allow individuals to have property rights,” he said. “It is individual property rights that drive economic development.

“The days of the failed collective are over.

“Much more needs to be done to normalise life for these Australian citizens.”

And so the word, “normalise” was introduced into the debate about tenure of Aboriginal land, and, later, about the provision of services and infrastructure.

NLC lawyer Kirsty Howey wrote an MA thesis in 2012 that said:

“Normalising what? Aboriginal land tenure reform in the Northern Territory of Australia.”

She tracked the proliferation of the term in four years of parliamentary debates, after Brough’s first use of it. Federal politicians used the term 52 times after Brough and the CLP’s Nigel Scullion (now Indigenous Affairs Minister) was the most prolific.

Howey wrote:

“Not only were Aboriginal communities described as anti-economic and cultural sanctuaries during debate about township lease reforms, they also allegedly harboured the very worst type of social dysfunction. Indeed, although the references were ostensibly about stimulating economic development, (Mal) Brough and (Dave) Tollner often seemed to focus more on the alleged abuse, violence and lack of ‘social norms’ in Aboriginal communities.”

Such language reached a crescendo with the introduction of the federal intervention in mid-2007.

As in colonial times in the Northern Territory, wrote Howey, it was the inherent “Aboriginality” of communities which was considered in part responsible for their inferior and “abnormal” state. “While in the 19th century Northern Territory, the characterisation of Aboriginal society as one of hunting designated it ‘uncivilised’, ‘savage’ and inferior, normalisation discourse viewed the property regime enshrined in the Land Rights Act, including communal land holding and the permit system, as harmful expressions of anachronistic tradition, serving to lock away Aboriginal society from wider society,” she wrote.

In short, and in effect, attacks on Aboriginal culture itself were at the heart of the federal government’s original justifications for township leases, and the later five-year leases of Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory which were imposed as part of the federal Intervention.

Land Rights News

Next article – Culture & Life – Private prisons and Fascism

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