A homeland is a remote area where a small population of Aboriginal people lives, on lands to which they have traditional or historical ties. There are more than 500 recognised homelands in the NT. Of those, 394 are currently funded to receive municipal and essential services.
Around 7000 people live on homelands, and another 40,000 are linked to a homeland though they live in a larger community. Hence around 47,000 people – more than half of the Aboriginal population of the NT – are directly connected to a homeland either because they live there or spend time there with family.
The homelands movement began over 50 years ago and was a significant development in Aboriginal affairs nationally. It was a visible demonstration of Aboriginal people across the NT asserting their rights to control and determine their lives on their traditional lands.
When first established in the 1970s and 1980s, a homeland could receive a few thousand dollars, called an establishment grant, from the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs, as it was then known. Physical infrastructure was largely left to Aboriginal people themselves to design, build and manage. They carried water in buckets, cleared airstrips and roads and dug toilets by hand. Solar power was gradually introduced.
To this day, residents talk proudly of how they overcame significant barriers through hard work and determination to build their own communities on their ancestral estates.
Today, homelands are a unique part of the Aboriginal social and cultural landscape, enabling people to live on country, which provides social, spiritual, cultural, health and economic benefits.
- Homelands nourish Aboriginal people and enable them to sustain cultural practices including kinship obligations and ceremonies. Many homelands are governed mainly through traditional kinship structures.
- Cultural burning practices mean that homelands country is healthy country.
- Homelands give Aboriginal people resources and inspiration to make wonderful art that is acclaimed around the world.
- During the Covid-19 pandemic, homelands provided alternative and safe accommodation for Aboriginal people.
As NT independent Member for Mulka, Mark Yingiya Guyula MLA says: ‘Our connection to country is an umbilical cord.’
Clear rights, unclear policy
Most homelands are located on Aboriginal land held by Aboriginal land trusts established under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (ALRA). A small number have other statutory tenures, such as community living areas (CLAs) or parcels of land within national parks.
The process to formally establish a new homeland with infrastructure usually involves the relevant land council.
Generally, housing in homelands is communally owned under the ALRA. There is no overarching policy that clearly defines the roles and responsibilities of the Australian and NT governments and the land councils – who owns the assets on Aboriginal land trusts; how rents can be levied; how assets might be privately owned and therefore become tradeable; and who has responsibility to maintain housing and essential infrastructure.
In this policy vacuum, homelands housing and infrastructure is unregulated and deteriorating. Homelands are beyond the NT’s declared ‘building control areas’ (where all housing construction must have a building permit and meet the standards for building in the National Construction Code and Building Regulations). As a result, buildings and other infrastructure (power, water and sewerage) may be substandard.
Decades of neglect
Funding for housing on homelands and for repairs and maintenance was provided by the Commonwealth until 2015, at which time the NT accepted full responsibility for the delivery of municipal and essential services to homelands in exchange for a $155 million cash-out of the municipal and essential services component of the existing funding agreement.
At the time of the transfer of responsibility, the NT Government had no data or baseline evidence to accurately determine the condition of existing assets and essential infrastructure, or the level of unfunded liabilities across homelands. It is likely that the true cost of unfunded liabilities for housing and essential infrastructure across homelands far exceeded the $155 million cash payment.
No public records are available to show how the NT Government spent that $155 million.
Relentless decline in funding
The NT Government has retained funding responsibility for homelands, but in 2015–16 it spent less than a third of the $155 million it received for homelands. And every single year after that it has reduced the funding allocation. In 2022–23 it was $38.6 million.
In other words, homelands now receive 28% less funding than they did in 2015–16.
The NT Government hasn’t funded any new houses on homelands.
This steady decline in funding is severely compromising service providers’ ability to keep up with necessary repairs. It is impossible for them to establish a preventative schedule of maintenance work. The flow-on effect is an accelerated deterioration of housing and infrastructure across homelands.
Service providers are forced to apply band-aids on top of older band-aids – to patch up dwellings that would be considered beyond economic repair (BER) if located in an urban area or one of NT’s 73 remote communities.
Hope for the future
In 2023, the Australian Government announced a new investment of $100 million in homelands housing and infrastructure, for urgent repairs and maintenance. We hope that this funding injection is the beginning of a long-term commitment to homelands.
From 15 January to 22 March 2024, Housing Australia is offering funding for new housing on homelands.
Map of homelands
Photo credit: North East Arnhem landscape by Cath Styles.