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1 April 2007

Privatising Palm Island

It's a tropical paradise worth many millions on the open market. The debate is intense about how the indigenous people will fare when new laws allowing privatisation of land open up a different world. Reporter, Ian Townsend.


Transcript

Transcript

This transcript was typed from a recording of the program. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying speakers.

SONG: 'Palm Island'

Ian Townsend: When the High Court delivered its landmark Mabo decision in 1992, it recognised the rights of indigenous Australians to own their land.

But 15 years of Mabo has failed to deliver the economic benefits of private ownership to people living in poverty in most indigenous towns across the country.

And so now there's a new push to change the land tenure again; this time to sweep away communal title in remote towns and replace it with 'the Australian dream' of private home ownership.

I'm Ian Townsend, and welcome to Background Briefing.

SONG:

Ian Townsend: This song, 'Palm Island is My Home' is written and sung by Noel Cannon, and shortly we'll be visiting Palm Island where the indigenous community has a lot riding on the move to privatise the land.

Noel Cannon sings that he loves his home on Palm Island; he wouldn't trade it for the world.

But across Australia, policies are changing, to help people living on communal land, people such as Noel Cannon, buy land and trade it, if they wish.

Leading the charge is the Federal Government's Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough.

Mal Brough: So we're saying, open them up to the market economy. If you go to any rural town in Australia with 2-1/2-thousand people, there'll be 20, 30, or 40 businesses. You go to an indigenous community, which is owned by a collective, and there'll be one, two or three businesses. So people can't aspire to get basic jobs, let alone own their own business or to be in their own home. And therefore that spirals down to the children; why do you bother going to school, why do you get trained? Because there's nothing at the end of that rainbow.

Ian Townsend: It's not just the Federal government that's convinced that a market economy can solve the employment, education and even health problems of indigenous communities.

The man who's been pushing private home ownership as one of the main cures for the economic ills in these towns is indigenous leader, Noel Pearson.

Noel Pearson has recently started talking about home ownership as 'skin in the game'. 'Skin in the game' is a financial term, and it's used to refer to employees of a company who also own shares in that company. Workers with a stake in the profits have 'skin in the game'.

The Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership is a lobby group championing reform in indigenous policies. Noel Pearson is its director, and he spoke recently at a housing forum in Cairns.

Noel Pearson: We're determined to really try and work out a way of approaching housing so that there's more skin in the game. This is not just an economic question, I don't think, this is a question about esteem, about pride, about ownership in a real sense, not just a kind of legal ownership or a real estate ownership, this is about spiritual ownership, you know, this is yours, you built that, or you contributed money towards that, and the carving on those posts were done by your family members. You know, the garden around the house has been constructed by your family working together, and so on.

Ian Townsend: Noel Pearson is also now invoking 'spiritual ownership', a term commonly used when describing the traditional, communal ownership of land, as an important component of private ownership.

Noel Pearson: We've never really crunched the problem of how do you get more engagement and more skin in the game on the part of Aboriginal families when you're living on communal land.

Ian Townsend: Noel Pearson's call for an end to passive welfare and his argument for private home ownership is persuasive, and it's caused a seismic shift in indigenous policies around the country.

In an historic change in its policy, the Australian Labor party now also wants to wean indigenous communities off welfare, and especially welfare housing. At its national conference later this month, the ALP will debate a policy to help people in remote communities buy homes.

Soon, the Queensland and West Australian governments are expected to announce how they plan to accommodate private home ownership on communal land.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this dramatic change in policy has universal support. But not everyone's happy.

Robert Blackley: I'd warn anyone here on Palm Island or out in the wider world if you try and sell out Palm Island you're going to have to deal with people like me, and people like me fight hard. So for all those developers out there who think Palm Island's ripe for the picking, you're going to have to take your bribes elsewhere, because our people aren't really for sale over here.

Ian Townsend: We'll hear from Robert Blackley on Palm Island later. But there is a fear within communities, that transferring communal land into private hands, creating a real estate market in remote communities, will cause more problems for the people living there, and in the end, destroy the title the land that Mabo recognised.

And if it is to work, there are questions still unanswered. Can towns with 90% unemployment support a real estate market? Who could afford a mortgage? How will it solve the chronic overcrowding in these towns? And what's to stop developers swooping in to buy up land in, say, beachside communities?

To answer these questions, let's visit one indigenous community where no-one has 'skin in the game' yet, but they might soon be forced to join the game.

How long does the flight take?

Man: 15 minutes.

Ian Townsend: The community of Palm Island is classed as a remote indigenous community, but it's really just a short flight from the largest city in Northern Australia, Townsville, home to 140,000 people.

Palm Island on the other hand has a population, depending on who you talk to, of 2-1/2-thousand to 4,000 people. They're crammed into 320 rented houses on communal land.

You've no doubt heard of Palm Island. It was described in the 1999 Guinness Book of Records as 'the most dangerous place on earth outside a war zone'. It has a frightening reputation.

Again in 2004, a death in custody sparked a riot there. Palm Island today, though, looks peaceful enough, in the blue green waters of the Coral Sea. It's a large island; in fact, it's nearly twice the size of Norfolk Island. Most of it is steep and covered in rainforest. It's fringed by coral reefs. The main settlement is squashed between the steep slope of a mountain and beautiful Coolgaree Bay.

Hal Walsh: My name is Hal Walsh and I study commercial law at Deakin University in Melbourne, and I'm in my third year.

Ian Townsend: Were you born on Palm Island?

Hal Walsh: No, I was born in Cairns, but my Dad was born on Palm Island and my Dad's family's from Palm. But I've grown up here most of my life.

Ian Townsend: What's Palm Island like to grow up on?

Hal Walsh: It's fun. It's fun if you're a kid. Everyone dreams about places like this where you can go on holidays, and we've got this everyday of our life. So we get a lot of negative publicity and stuff, but the people aren't that bad, you know. They're just normal, I guess. Yes.

Ian Townsend: Standing on the beachfront, near the town centre, Palm Island looks peaceful, but it doesn't look normal. The roads are pot holed. There are no street signs. In fact the main town on Palm Island doesn't actually have a name. Some locals still refer to it as the Mission.

Just about everything here is controlled by the Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council. The land is held by the Council in trust for the community, by what's vaguely called a Deed of Grant in Trust: DOGIT is the ugly acronym. Palm Island is one of more than 30 DOGIT communities in Queensland.

The Deed of Grant in Trust, or DOGIT, protects the land for the community. It means that the Aboriginal Council can say who is and who is isn't allowed to use the land.

At the moment, no developer can get its hands on the land and build, say, a condominium on the waterfront without the community's approval. No outsider can come in and buy a house with a Coral Sea view. And so there are just a handful of businesses, and most of them are owned by the Council.

Hal Walsh.

Hal Walsh: Now this is the garage across here.

Ian Townsend: Who owns the garage?

Hal Walsh: The garage is owned by the Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council. That's only new; they haven't had a mechanic in there for a while.

Ian Townsend: Local mechanic, a Palm Islander?

Hal Walsh: No, they've flown someone in from Townsville, I think. The two-storey building is an admin building for the Council. It holds the Commonwealth Bank agency too that the Council is an agent of.

Ian Townsend: There's not many signs around, you wouldn't know there was a Commonwealth Bank or even a Council there.

Hal Walsh: Well there's no street signs either, so you wouldn't know where people live as well, if you're not from here I guess, or you don't have someone who's from here showing you around.

The Fish Bar is owned by locals. Next to the Fish Bar there's a clothes shop, owned by locals as well.

Ian Townsend: They have a lease with the Council?

Hal Walsh: Yes, they lease the premises, yes, off the Council.

Ian Townsend: Are they the only privately owned businesses on the island?

Hal Walsh: By locals, yes.

Ian Townsend: And what's this place?

Hal Walsh: This is the Coolgaree Bay Hotel.

Ian Townsend: Who runs the pub?

Hal Walsh: The Council, the Council runs the pub. I think the pub's the biggest revenue for the Council.

Ian Townsend: But this, it appears, is going to change. The Queensland government's taking a close look at its Aboriginal Land Act.

We heard earlier from the Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough about exposing indigenous communities to the market economy.

Well the Federal government's already changed the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in the Northern Territory, to pave the way for this to happen. Mal Brough expects the Tiwi Islands, to the north of Darwin, to sign an agreement soon, to put house blocks on the market.

The news arrived at Palm Island during my visit.

Newsreader: ... moving forward with negotiations over private 99-year leases. Mal Brough has suggested that head leases over Aboriginal land at Nguiu could be signed within the next few months. But Mr Brough has told the ABC's Stateline program the matter is in the hands of the traditional owners.

Ian Townsend: Mal Brough is holding this up as an example to Queensland and Western Australia, and urging them to act faster to change their laws.

It has to be said that there is widespread frustration with communal title; whether you're a government department or a businessperson, or a budding homeowner, building anything on communal title is a headache.

Take Palm Island, for example.

If you wanted to build a house or start a business here, getting the initial approval can take three years. There is no town plan; most of the town hasn't even been surveyed. Any lease you do get is restricted to 30 years.

If you can persuade a bank to give you a loan on those terms, you'll need $350,000 to $400,000 to build a basic three-bedroom house on Palm Island. That doesn't include sewerage, power, phone and water, or the cost of the land.

On the other hand, Palm Island is a tropical island in the Coral Sea. It might be worth the trouble. Who wouldn't want to live here?

Hal Walsh: It's majestical, mate. People in the big cities, they sit down and they daydream in their offices in their sky-rise buildings about being on a tropical island and here we are. I guess that island kind of mentality comes into it too, where it's relaxation.

Ian Townsend: We'll walk along the beachfront here.

Hal Walsh: Yes, that's right.

Ian Townsend: Walking along the foreshore with Hal Walsh it's obvious that this is a prime piece of real estate. The town centre might look neglected, but there's an airport, two well-maintained schools, a post office, a relatively new hospital with its own morgue, a police station and courthouse. The electricity, water and phone systems are reliable. This is a serviced town on a tropical island in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. The developers have been circling for some time.

Hal Walsh: This lady here's a good one to talk to too. Gidday.

Ian Townsend: Walking further down the beachfront, we meet a group of women from the new Barrier Reef Institute of TAFE, talking a break under a tree.

There are hardly any real jobs on Palm Island, but there's no shortage of people looking for work. Lynette Morton is studying computer skills, and she wants to start an island newspaper.

Lynette Morton: We have been getting a bad rap with the news and that. You know, people don't know what people are like over here. They call this place a devil island. I mean we're not all bad people; we're just like people on the mainland, Migaloos, if you call them that. You know, they've got bad people in Australia everywhere. We have our ups and downs. I mean you know the riots tipped that all upside down.

Ian Townsend: There's not only frustration about the island's reputation, but there's anger with the community leaders about the lack of work. Less than 10% of the island's workforce has a job. That's because there is no sustaining industry here. But there could be.

Lynette Morton: I mean this is a beautiful place and a bit of tourism, like showing them around our island and that, it will bring money into the community as well as jobs, because they also have hospitality courses. So they can open a restaurant here with the sea view, and the people who study hospitality here can go and work in those businesses. But then again, it's up to the elders or the people running this place to get themselves into gear and think about these things. That's why we're in trouble financially. They should have done that in the first place.

Ian Townsend: These things should have happened a long time ago.

Lynette Morton: Exactly. They wouldn't be financially ruined. And now if they had have got that done years ago, this place wouldn't be in so much trouble.

Ian Townsend: Lynette Morton.

The main concerns on Palm Island are the lack of jobs and houses.

There's no doubt that if the communal land is privatised, it will be easier to start a business here.

Being able to buy land would also mean that if you didn't have a house, you could build your own, instead of waiting for Council to build one for you.

Sitting under a tree with Lynette Morton is Stephanie Boyd. Stephanie has been waiting for a council house for 15 years. At the moment, she's living with her three children in somebody else's house.

Stephanie Boyd: There are seven men, three women and three children, and that's how we all live in that house. We're just like sardines just sleeping in the lunge.

Ian Townsend: In the lounge?

Stephanie Boyd: In the lounge, and I've got two brothers who sleep out on the verandah and four that's got the four bedrooms.

Ian Townsend: What's it like for the kids when trying to get to sleep at night and going to school tomorrow?

Stephanie Boyd: I do get frustrated sometimes because I'm just concerned about the kids have to get up for school in the morning.

Ian Townsend: Stephanie Boyd's experience is typical of people living in remote indigenous communities.

Unlike other Shire Councils, the core business of Aboriginal Shire Councils has become the provision of housing. The Council owns the houses and charges subsidised rents; on Palm Island a typical rent is about $60 a week.

These rents, matched by government subsidies, give the Council much of its income. From that income they have to not only provide services, but build new houses for the community.

The Palm Island Council recently did an audit of its houses and the people living in them. It found that it needed 120 new homes. From its meagre income it can build only one or two a year.

All sides of government have been persuaded that a market economy can fix this. The Federal government's already changed the Northern Territory's Aboriginal Land Rights Act to allow this to happen. It's already asking the traditional owners of the Tiwi Islands to grant it a 99-year lease over the town of Nguiu. Once it gets the lease, the government can then set up an organisation to cut the lease up into housing blocks, and sub-lease them back to individuals for 99 years.

Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough, says it'll be similar to the leasing arrangements in Canberra.

Mal Brough: The more they've got into it, the more they've gone 'You're actually giving us, for the first time, some real say over what happens and who lives on our land, and we are going to be compensated, in the same way as if Mal Brough owns a shopping centre down here and gives out subleases to people. I get compensated for people that are using my land.' Well it's very much the same principle.

Ian Townsend: Who's going to be able to afford to build a house, if they want to build a house on land there it's going to cost upwards of $300,000, $400,000 perhaps in some of these remote communities. Without the jobs, who can afford a mortgage?

Mal Brough: Well they're good points, Ian. And these are the very questions we've been asked, and we have answers to all of them. First of all, the houses have cost up to $800,000 up to now. $500,000 is not uncommon, and that is daylight robbery. We know, and we have now proven, that we are going to be able to do that for maybe half the price, $250,000-odd, plus people can decide what sort of a house they wish to live in, because it won't be a public house. And if they want to live in a 2-bedroom home, or an 8-bedroom home, and what the fixtures and fittings are, will be determined by them. Secondly, through Federal government initiatives and Indigenous Business Australia, and home ownership initiatives, we can actually assist people to lease purchase, and we can show that on CDEP money, for argument's sake, or as one family wants to do out Wadeye way, with their extended family, which is the grandparents and a couple of the brothers, they want an 8-bedroom home, and their income is far below the stress thresholds that occur for settling payments to meet the repayments.

Ian Townsend: In other words, the members of the family at Wadeye, could pool their wages to buy a house. A lease purchase means that they could also lease the house with the right to buy it later. Mal Brough.

Mal Brough: I'll give you a couple of examples that have occurred already. Up in the Cape we have the Financial Management Program, FIM running up there, Family Income Management is the official title, as the result of a 12-month assistance with people, they have had a savings plan that has worked. As a result they've been able to buy a house through a mainstream bank.

So it is quite possible, it is real in Wadeye in the Northern Territory right now, on homelands, there's upwards of 15 families that will build their own homes, they'll be participating in the physical building of the house, and they will own those homes on a lease purchase arrangement this dry season.

Ian Townsend: Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough.

To some people, though, this doesn't quite add up.

The director of the Centre for Indigenous Studies at the ANU, Mick Dodson, has worked for the rights of indigenous people worldwide with the United Nations.

Last year, he published a discussion paper on communal title and the amendments to the Northern Territory's Land Rights Act, and Background Briefing caught up with him in Brisbane recently.

Mick Dodson: The local store's not going to employ every one of the 500 employable people who are out of work, and the building trade isn't going to do that. And again, where are people going to get the money to build the houses? It's a bit chicken and egg here.

Ian Townsend: What do you think might be a solution for some of these overcrowded communities, isolated, overcrowded communities?

Mick Dodson: Well I think the sad fact for many people for a long time, is going to be cheap public housing, provided by the public purse.

Ian Townsend: Noel Pearson's argument is that welfare housing is partly responsible for creating the problem, that people are reliant on welfare. Is providing more community housing really the answer?

Noel Pearson: Well what are we going to do about the overcrowding, Noel? Kick people out of the overcrowded houses? Take them off welfare? I think it's got to be a combination of things. You know, you can't just say, Well let's cut off welfare, and I don't think Noel's saying that. The situation at the moment demands much more in the way of cheap, publicly provided housing. People simply do not have the capacity to go into the housing market on a commercial basis. They're just simply too poor to do that. And there are simply not the jobs there for people to earn the money to become homeowners and to get off welfare.

Ian Townsend: Professor Mick Dodson's other concern is what will happen to the Native Title beneath these towns.

Mal Brough says it will still exist, with a 99-year-year lease laid over the top.

But Mick Dodson says smothering Native Title this way will not only extinguish it, but it's not even necessary.

Mick Dodson: It's not the title that's the problem, it's the regulation of access that's the problem, and perhaps we can look at that. But what happens if you destroy the title, the experience overseas and going back 160 years ago from the United States, is that if you destroy the communal title, the indigenous people lose the land, and that's what happens. We lose the land. Just let me repeat that. If we get rid of communal title, the experience historically worldwide and particularly in the United States and Canada, is that the indigenous people lose the land.

Ian Townsend: Nevertheless, the Federal government is adamant that it can be done, that it has the answers, and it's setting about proving it in the Northern Territory and on Cape York.

Mal Brough says it's not only achievable, but it's necessary to improve living conditions in remote indigenous communities.

This comes back to Noel Pearson's argument about 'skin in the game'.

In many remote indigenous communities, houses don't last very long.

On Cape York, for instance, the life span of a house is 10 to 20 years, and more than a third of homes there now nee major repairs or replacing. On Palm Island, 35 damaged houses have been replaced since 1999.

Noel Pearson.

Noel Pearson: You know, in our communities there's a whole lot of reasons why house degradation does take place. They're not just related to poor tenancy. It does have to do with overcrowding, it does have to do with poor construction in the first place, and my view, I've seen the same Aboriginal people who mistreat their houses, treat with utmost care the motor car of the spears or the beach shack which they've paid for themselves, you know. That they've owned and they treasure and so on. But as long as we keep delivering houses on a plate to people that they've only had a role in saying 'I want a 3-bedroom, or I want a 4-bedroom, or I want a red one or a blue one,' you know, if you're going to limit people's engagement in a house to something perfunctory like that, then this problem is going to continue.

Ian Townsend: Back on Palm Island, the community's split over private housing.

Law student Hal Walsh, for one, remains uncomfortable with this rush to private home ownership.

Hal Walsh: Everyone dreams of owning their own house. I'm sure that people don't want to rent for the rest of their lives, and don't want their children to rent for the rest of their lives as well. But again, we need to look at equality issues as well, where like some people who do have 17 people in a 4-bedroom house, may be able to make payments for the ownership of that house from the Council, however some people who have 17 people in the house but don't have any income, it's going to be a bit unfair on them.

Ian Townsend: Hal Walsh says that many families have been feuding for years, and there'll be deep resentment if some people buy homes while others miss out.

What's the blue building there?

Hal Walsh: That small blue building is the Council Chambers.

Ian Townsend: Inside the Palm Island Council building, Chief Executive Officer, Barry Moyle, is spending a lot of his time trying to ease the overcrowding on the island, and he's recently turned for help to Non-government organisations, such as the Red Cross, and Architects Without Borders.

Barry Moyle is the former Mayor of the Johnstone Shire at Innisfail, and took over the job of administering Palm Island last year. He says many Palm Islanders don't want a private housing market.

Barry Moyle: There certainly is some concern that if people were to have their own title of land, then what they would do is sell it off to the highest bidder and that bid mightn't be very high, but it's a person who's in a desperate situation and are looking for some funds, say. Certainly that is a concern.

Ian Townsend: Barry Moyle says if there is to be change to encourage private housing and tourism, it has to be carefully managed.

Barry Moyle: They don't want tourists coming here to gawk at a dysfunctional Aboriginal community. They don't want to be a human zoo. They would probably like people to come here and share in their culture, and we had some other people on the community, a couple that have recently started up their own business to do some horse trails, and I think those sorts of things could happen fairly easily.

Ian Townsend: What Barry Moyle is saying is that the Palm Islanders would like to retain control over who comes and goes on the island, and what they do.

There are tourism projects that the community would support. In fact, some of the most successful around the Pacific and in Asia are those that offer a unique experience and where the local community retains a role. There are good examples in Australia, at Uluru and Broome, for instance.

The dilemma for Palm Island would be how far should it let a market economy dictate what happens here. The Council at the moment is hobbled by its communal title system, and also by its reputation. In a small way, Barry Moyle has started testing the water for tourism.

Barry Moyle: If you get on the internet and Google 'Palm Island', you're going to find all the bad stuff. There's some really nice people, some really beautiful people in the island here, but unfortunately, the portrayal in the broader Australia is that they're all alcoholics, they're all no-hopers, and they're all perpetrators of domestic violence. Well that's just not the case. So the little DVD that we've done up, there's a great tropical drive North Queensland, so we're trying to blend ourself in with some of the other things that are happening in North Queensland, that hey, we are part of North Queensland.

Promo: Palm Island, a tropical experience waiting for you, where every turn leads to a new discovery of culture and natural beauty. From indigenous culture and indigenous artistic expression, to bushwalking, snorkelling, horse riding and fishing. Part of the great tropical drive the Palm Island Group offers pristine beaches, rock crevices and caves, wildlife, and crystal clear waters. Absorb the serenity and take in the beauty of this untouched gem of North Queensland.

KIDS SCREAMING

Ian Townsend: Walking through Palm Island's unnamed streets, there's a real sense of community. Neighbours are talking to each other; the streets are full of children playing. But most of the indigenous people who live here, aren't actually the traditional owners of this land. Palm Island, like most of Queensland's indigenous communities, is a former mission.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European farmers displaced Queensland's Aboriginal tribes, and the survivors eventually settled in government and church-run missions. On Palm Island the people are from about 50 language groups. Only seven traditional owners, the Manbarra people, actually live on the island.

So not only do most people on Palm Island have no right to own their homes, they have no claim to land rights here either. This is a legally grey area, but Palm Islanders want their historical rights recognised.

Several blocks away from the town's main centre, and only 100 metres from the sea, I arrive, unannounced, at the door of the home of Eddie and Irene Nullajar.

Eddie Nullajar was born on Palm Island in 1945. His mother came from Tully and his father from Coen, in Far North Queensland. Irene Nullajar's family is from the Northern Territory border.

Eddie Nullajar strongly identifies himself as a Palm Islander, and even though he's not a traditional owner, he asserts his historical rights to the island. His family has lived on this block of land for decades, and would like one day to buy it. In fact, Eddie Nullajar tried to buy this home more than 20 years ago.

Eddie Nullajar: I tried to buy the house from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs way back in the late '70s, early '80s, and I ran up against was just red tape.

Ian Townsend: Because the rent you must have paid on this over the years would have probably paid for the house a couple of times over.

Eddie Nullajar: Yes, most definitely, yes.

Ian Townsend: So in that case you would have had a house, an asset that you could pass on to your kids. At the moment, all you've got is a rental house that if you leave, somebody else is going to take over.

Eddie Nullajar: That would be right again. Because that's something that I'm afraid of. If I pass away, who's going to take over the home? Because the Council will probably take it back off me and they'll put my kids out in the open, no home, no roof over their heads.

Ian Townsend: Gidday.

Robin: Gidday. This is my mother, this is their grandchild.

Ian Townsend: My name's Ian Townsend and I work for ABC Radio National in Brisbane.

Robin: Righto. My name's Robin, anyway.

Ian Townsend: Eddie's son Robin and his wife Noby, have just arrived home. Noby Clay is a boxer and she's in training for a fight.

Noby Clay: So this is my first fight in three years. I was nervous because I was having dreams about fighting and I started getting nervous because I've just been training back for two weeks now. I want to get used to hits getting thrown at me, and I think I like being hit - not in a bad way! But I like the sport, I really like it, because my grandfather on my father's side, he was a boxer. My grandfather on my mother's side, he was a boxer. My mother wanted to be a boxer, she's a bit of a wild woman, and my father was a boxer, he ranks number ten in the world.

Ian Townsend: Noby Clay is also an artist, and has found a market at the local hospital, selling her paintings to the doctors who come and go from Palm Island.

Noby Clay: Oh yes, this one, it's a dotted painting and the topic to it is 'Stolen Generation (Making a Connection)' and the colours in the middle represent before - no, no offence - but before the white man came we were all black, and so that represents the - what do you call it? - native, no ...

Ian Townsend: And Noby's dream is to set up her own business.

Noby Clay: I'm saving up this year to get a computer to go on eBay, and in the next two weeks I'll be doing some more paintings and taking some into town to the museum and to see what they think about it. Yes, there's plenty of money to be made in the art business.

Ian Townsend: This is the sort of aspirational family that Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough and indigenous leader Noel Pearson say need to be given the chance to own homes and businesses.

These are the people who could benefit most from a privatised Palm Island.

It's late in the evening and the island's council-owned motel is closed. The Nullajar family invites me to stay with them, and although there are nine people in this house, and I'm happy to sleep on the verandah, someone vacates a room.

SONG: 'Palm Island Song'

MORNING NOISES/CONVERSATION

Ian Townsend: A new day is dawning for Palm Island.

Down at the Police Citizens' Youth Club, Noby Clay starts training for her fight.

PUNCHING BAG

Ian Townsend: The real stoush over land tenure on indigenous communities is being fought off the island, on the mainland. And the fight's not over, whether there should or shouldn't be private ownership on communal land. It's over how fast it should happen.

Section 29 of the Queensland Aboriginal Land Act of 1991 says that the communal land held by indigenous councils should be changed to freehold 'as soon as possible'. That hasn't happened yet, but the Queensland government's under pressure from the Federal government to change the communal land tenure quickly.

In Brisbane, the State's Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Warren Pitt, hopes to make a 'significant announcement' within three months, but says he won't be bullied by Canberra.

Warren Pitt: Native title was a very important breakthrough for many communities, but it hasn't always brought a simple solution, and in many cases provided a complication. Now be that as it may, I think we've all matured since the original Act came into place, and we all now realise that although it's very important to maintain the core of what was determined at that stage, but to actually look now how we can make it work for the betterment of Aboriginal people. And I'm very confident I really am, I'm very confident, that the time has now come when this realisation is there from all parties, and that we now know we have to do something if we're ever going to move forward.

Ian Townsend: How much pressure is the Federal government putting on you to fast-track this? They seem to be in a hurry to get all this done quickly.

Warren Pitt: They know very well how complex this is, and what has been able to be achieved in the Northern Territory just cannot be replicated in Queensland, and I would suggest that they should just stand aside, give us a bit of breathing space, let us do our job, and we'll get the result that's necessary.

Ian Townsend: Queensland's Indigenous Affairs Minister, Warren Pitt.

All sides of government are pressing ahead with land tenure reform. They all say that it's vital that communities are protected from exploitation if there's to be a private real estate market.

Also in Brisbane, Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough, is trying to allay fears that privatisation could be damaging. He says the community would still maintain control of housing; it could if it chooses, operate a closed market, restricting access from outsiders with caveats on leases, for example.

Mal Brough says it's the principle of home ownership that's important here, how it's achieved should be up to individual communities.

Mal Brough: So rather than dictating exactly what it is all, all we have to understand is what it is we have to achieve for it to be a reality. And for it to be a reality, banks have to have enough assurity that if they are investing that they have something in which they can hold as collateral. And you don't do that with 10 years, 15 years etc., so whether it's a lease or whether it's some other form of land tenure change, it's the principles that are important.

Ian Townsend: Now Palm Island's a beautiful spot. It's one of the nicest pieces of real estate around Australia, and it's an indigenous community where, as you say, people can't really own their own house. Changing that system, won't that open it up to an open market? The people there are worried that they'll be overrun, they'll lose the title, people will move away, take the cash and get away and the community will disappear.

Mal Brough: These are the sort of worries and fears that you have to deal with all the time. Some are mischief-making by those who don't want to see a change, and for some reason that is way beyond my comprehension, would prefer to see the status quo and the abuses that occur. Others, it's simply because of fear of the unknown, and if the Queensland government is prepared to go down this path, it is essential that the time is taken to explain these things in detail with people on the ground, that this is actually about empowering them, not disempowering them.

Ian Townsend: Back on Palm Island, though, suspicion runs deep. It stems from years of neglect and broken promises.

If you walk from the government-run Palm Island Store, across an overgrown paddock and an open drain, you'll find the offices of the Men's Group.

The Men's Group runs a prison cell visitors program, a support service, and a children's night patrol. Its coordinator, Robert Blackley, is a former mayor and an influential figure on the island. The last thing that Robert Blackley wants to see is Palm Island property being sold to outsiders.

Robert Blackley: I'd warn anyone here on Palm Island or out in the wider world against trying to do that because if you try and sell our Palm Island, you're going to have to deal with people like me, and people like me fight hard. So for all those developers out there who think Palm Island is ripe for the picking, you're going to have to take your bribes elsewhere, because our people aren't really for sale over here.

Ian Townsend: It's not that Robert Blackley is against private home ownership. In fact, he'd like to see it happen as soon as possible. But he says any housing market has to be a closed market, to protect his community.

Robert Blackley: We're sort of waiting with bated breath and fingers crossed that the Queensland government might make land available to us that we're able to use as equity so that we could borrow against the value of that equity and build our own homes and sort of be able to live the Australian dream, like everybody else, own a home and put a fence around it, put a garden in, stuff like that, raise our kids.

Ian Townsend: And this brings us to a looming problem. There's a demographic bubble on the island that's about to burst. One third of the island's population is under 15. At this time of the year you can hear them day and night. They make their presence known by wandering the streets, cracking whips.

Robert Blackley.

Robert Blackley: The whips are an annoying fad, come on. Kids pick up these fads and it's whip season at the moment. Where other people have summer, autumn, winter and spring, we have whip season, and a whole lot of other seasons, so you've got kids who are ripping out live wires at the moment from almost-built homes, to make whips and cutting off their parents' washing machines cords, stealing the extension cord to the air conditioner to make these whips and they just walk around aimlessly cracking the whips.

Ian Townsend: If you happen to be standing at the Palm Island Coolgaree Bay Hotel one afternoon, during the four hours it's open, and you watch the sun set over the bay, someone might point out Orpheus Island.

The Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council owns 10 of the 12 islands in the Palm group of islands. Orpheus is one of the two islands the council doesn't own, and here's an irony. A small part of Orpheus, about 10-hectares, happens to be the only piece of privately-owned real estate in the entire Palm group. The Orpheus Island Resort is one of the most exclusive resorts in the country.

Orpheus Promo: You see we've stranded ourselves on Orpheus Island off the coast of Queensland's new Townsville. Oh, I love it here, it is so quiet. There are no day-trippers, no TVs, no telephones. Awesome. No kids.

Ian Townsend: The Orpheus Resort caters for just 42 guests at one time. It costs $1,000 a night to stay there. Among its rules is that children under 15 aren't allowed. It's owned by a Brisbane businessman, who's put it on the market for $15-million.

Orpheus is Palm Island's rich cousin. The Orpheus Island Resort was established by Italians in the 1930s, not that long after Palm Island was established as a mission.

Flying out of Palm Island, looking down Orpheus is just one beautiful island amongst a dozen in the Coral Sea. It shares the same environment as Palm Island: beautiful beaches, rainforests, coral reefs, and yet it's history couldn't be more different.

Back in Townsville, the James Cook University's Centre for Tropical Urban and Regional Planning has been looking at Palm Island's potential to solve its problems, through housing and tourism.

At the centre, Douglas Goudie has completed a land use study of Palm Island and has found that the island has most of the resources it needs to be largely self-sufficient.

Douglas Goudie: It's a beautiful tropical island, wonderful views and wonderful breezes, good rainfall, there's a lot of good soil for agriculture there, which again is part of the sustainability land use plan, is to try and generate food locally, because that's another issue of food provision over there that could be largely met locally.

Ian Townsend: But Douglas Goudie says uncontrolled development could ruin all of that.

Douglas Goudie: Because Palm Island has so many absolutely prime, glorious pieces of real estate on it, I think it would be almost impossible if it were true freehold to say to a major developer, 'OK, you want that headland, you're prepared to pay the community $15-million today to buy that headland', and in that way, over time, sure, the community would get lots of money quite rapidly. But, as you say, over time all the good spots, or many of the good spots, would end up being taken over possibly by people from overseas. The very rich end of town I think would flock to a place in a stable national government near a major local growth centre with an international airport, a steady economy and it's a tropical island paradise.

Ian Townsend: You do foresee a way that the community could remain intact, even given some tenure on the land?

Douglas Goudie: I would believe it would be absolutely necessary so that the power and control of the land allocation absolutely remained with the community.

Ian Townsend: Douglas Goudie.

There is unprecedented bipartisan political support for land reforms, to make private home ownership possible in remote indigenous communities around the country.

There is an acceptance by Palm Islanders such as Lynette Morton, that change is inevitable, and even necessary, and also that, one way or another, it will profoundly affect their lives.

Lynette Morton: A lot of people don't want tourism over here, but that's the only way to make more jobs happening on the island. They can have diving expeditions, trekking around the island, people showing them around, telling them the history about the place. But they don't want to do that, they think it's going to be invaded by white man ways. But then they've got to get to white man ways now, they can't just stay a little small community all their life, they've got to move on, and that's the only way to move on, because this is a beautiful island, why don't they just share it with the rest of the country?

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Ian Townsend: Background Briefing's Co-ordinating Producer is Angus Kingston. Research, Anna Whitfeld. The Executive Producer is Kirsten Garrett. I'm Ian Townsend, and this is ABC Radio National.

THEME