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Indigenous participation in the developing north: a national emergency

Northern futures, northern voices: It seems everyone has ideas about how Australia’s north could be better, but most of those ideas come from the south. In this six-part weekly series, developed by the…

Plans to develop the north are taking no account of Indigenous aspirations. AAP Image/Terry Trewin

Northern futures, northern voices: It seems everyone has ideas about how Australia’s north could be better, but most of those ideas come from the south. In this six-part weekly series, developed by the Northern Research Futures Collaborative Research Network and The Conversation, northern researchers lay out their own plans for a feasible, sustainable future.

For me, one of the most unsettling comments in this election campaign was made by Prime Minister Rudd when a journalist suggested that his just-announced special economic zone policy for the Northern Territory sounded like “policy on the run”. Rudd responded: “It is a first class policy for the Northern Territory’s future … The Northern Territory wants their territory developed, and I’m standing 100% behind the policy”. End of story.

North Australian development is one of Australia’s Holy Grails. No matter how many economic, ecological and social disasters are created, it seems the quest to develop the north should not be questioned.

The bipartisan northern development ideal of this election campaign should be called for what it is: a 19th century vision of conquest. The term “frontier” is all over the Coalition’s policy document. The policy spin is also laden with historic irony because the term frontier has been used extensively to describe the area of conflict as European powers took over the lands of Indigenous people in North America and Australia.

The colonial meaning of frontier still stands in northern Australia: Indigenous people have not been conquered. Indigenous people own or control approximately 40% of statutory land titles in northern Australia. They assert coexisting rights to practically all the rest. In the whole region stretching from the Pacific to the Indian oceans, there are less than two dozen urban settlements with a non-Indigenous population majority. Indigenous people are the majority in one thousand communities across northern Australia.

Southern Australian political power, in tandem with global capital, is pursuing a development agenda in northern Australia that ignores the rights of Indigenous people as well as the region’s demographic reality. The Southern development discourse is all about jobs — the trickle down approach — despite evidence that this approach does not work for Indigenous people.

Let’s be utterly frank. The major parties' development approach for northern Australia will be accompanied by a permanent intervention in the lives of Indigenous people. There is no exit in sight. This is not only unjust and wasteful of public funds but it entrenches northern Australia in a state of underdevelopment.

But there is another alternative and it is not that hard. Rather than viewing Indigenous people as an impediment to development we should be included as genuine partners in the planning and equity negotiations over development of the north.

A sound and inclusive debate on northern Australia’s future should be based on two fundamental principles. Firstly, the Australian nation state must enshrine an unambiguous commitment that protecting and supporting traditional culture in northern Australia is a national imperative. It cannot be compromised by short-term development objectives. Rudd’s 2007 apology to Australia’s Indigenous people was a step in the right direction, but we need to move beyond rhetoric and commit to real, long-term measures. There is a light on the hill.

The North Australian Indigenous Experts Forum, Chaired by Patrick Dodson and Peter Yu, had its most recent meeting held in Jabiru in May 2013. For the first time, Indigenous people engaged in the debate about global food security and the rise of Asia. This historic gathering called for development of an Indigenous-created prospectus that secures Indigenous-market engagement at a northern scale never before witnessed.

This landmark change signals a critical shift for northern development. It must be supported for any development to be done properly and in accordance with Australia’s first people.

Second, economic incentives such as taxation concessions must incorporate Indigenous capacity development. Indigenous-led efforts to create small, niche industries that engage large numbers of Indigenous families have made enormous steps towards locally based and culturally appropriate enterprises in their communities. We need to respond to the cultural and social reality that faces northern residents, and develop industries that are sustainable for northern people while meeting niche markets in Asia and elsewhere.

This election campaign has become a race to the bottom on many issues, not least the position of Indigenous people and the future of northern Australia. When the election is over, I hope northern Indigenous interests, governments and industry can engage in a genuine dialogue. We must explore ways to grow an inclusive economy where agricultural and pastoral industries can coexist and support the emerging industries associated with the Indigenous culture based economy such as tourism, carbon abatement, conservation management, education and the creative arts.

NAILSMA regularly partners with Charles Darwin University on research projects.

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