For over three years we partnered with the Alyawarr and Anmatyerr communities of Utopia homelands to develop our report. "'The land holds us:' Aboriginal Peoples' right to traditional homelands in the Northern Territory."

Our report highlights the way specific policies on homelands in the Northern Territory undermine the rights of Aboriginal communities, including:

  • All Indigenous peoples have the fundamental human right to their traditional lands. For Aboriginal Peoples of Australia, this connection to traditional lands or ‘country' is of central importance to Aboriginal identity and culture.

  • This report documents the efforts of the Alyawarr and Anmatyerr Peoples of the Utopia homelands in Central Australia to live a healthy life on their homelands, despite a series of legislative and policy changes made at a national, state, territory and local level over the last decade that have been detrimental to the rights of Aboriginal Peoples to live on their ancestral lands.

  • These policy initiatives fall below international human rights standards, in particular the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Central to the declaration are the rights of Indigenous peoples to own, live on and develop their lands; to consultation and free, prior and informed consent; and to culture. The themes of land, culture, and informed consent are the subject of this report.

Our recommendations focus on the need for governments at both national and territory level to show political and financial support for homelands.

Report digest | Open publication - Free publishing

Key issues for homelands:

Under the National Partnership Agreements (NPA) on Remote Service Delivery only 15 towns in the Northern Territory, will receive ongoing funding for municipal and essential services, excluding people living in 500 homelands and many other large communities.

Although there are provisions for Indigenous engagement and participation under the Remote Service Delivery National Partnership Agreement, this only applies to growth towns, not to homelands communities.

Aboriginal people have not been included as a party to any of the NPA under Closing the Gap, nor have there been national consultations in the development of these agreements. This is reflected in homelands communities being excluded from the policy and decisions such as where the growth towns will be located.

Homeland communities - like Utopia - hold a real fear of displacement and there is widespread concern that they will be forced to move to larger communities to receive basic services.

Aboriginal people that inhabit homelands see this as a threat to their connection to land.

Rights to adequate housing under International law

In February 2009, Prime Minister Julia Gillard made a statement of support of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and spoke of her government's efforts to "overcome decades of under-investment in services and infrastructure" in Aboriginal communities.

Our research shows that these efforts are not being directed at homelands - which consists of approximately 500 communities, and are home to one third of the Northern Territory's Aboriginal population.

The Australian Government has transferred the responsibility for homelands to the Northern Territory Government, whose own policy clearly states no new homes and new homelands in the Northern Territory. Instead, the governments are focusing attention on just 21 'hub' towns.

Australia's obligations to homeland communities

The declaration outlines the rights of Indigenous Peoples, including the rights to:

  • own, use and control their own lands (Article 26)
  • control and develop their culture (Article 31)
  • participate in decisions that affect them.

It also states that:

Governments shall consult with Indigenous Peoples in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting laws and policies that may affect them (Article 19).

"Let me assure anybody who cares for the Aboriginal people of Australia that once we are moved from our place of origin, we will not only lose our identity, we will die a traumatised tragic end. We must stop this, and we must remain on our country. It’s not [simply] attachment to the land, it’s survival of a cultural practice that is still alive in spite of what has been thrown at it."

A woman from the Northern Territory town of Elliot.

  • Indigenous Peoples have the right to choose their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent (Articles 26, 19, 8).
  • The Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, to which Australia is a signatory, also clearly articulates the rights of effective participation and informed consent as fundamental aspects of non-discrimination.

Australia is also party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Article 11 of ICESCR recognises the right of all people to adequate housing and commits governments to take appropriate steps to ensure the realisation of that right.

Australia has an obligation under ICESCR to ensure that minimum essential standards are met in the provision of basic housing for all Australians. The minimum standards are:

  • Availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure, including access to safe drinking water and sanitation.
  • Affordability.
  • Habitability.
  • Accessibility for disadvantaged groups, including the elderly, children, the physically disabled and the terminally ill.

For Aboriginal people, where land is an integral part of their cultural identity, the relationship between the right to land and the right to adequate housing is even more essential.

Policies of exclusion

Over the last five years, the Australian Government has made considerable financial and political investment in Aboriginal affairs in the Northern Territory. But homelands are not benefitting.

The changes to laws and policies outlined below demonstrate how government support for homelands has been incrementally reduced. Common across these changes has been the lack of processes to secure the free, prior and informed consent of the Aboriginal Peoples affected.

Closing the Gap in the Northern Territory and the Working Future policy

  • In 2009 the Intervention was renamed Closing the Gap in the Northern Territory. This was brought under the National Indigenous Reform Agreement 'Closing the Gap', the overarching national plan to address Indigenous disadvantage in Australia. Closing the Gap is implemented through a series of National Partnership Agreements. The agreements commit state and territory governments to a common framework of outcomes, progress measures and policy directions, and provide funding.

  • A key National Partnership Agreement for people living in remote communities is the agreement on Remote Service Delivery. This agreement establishes the priority or 'hub' town model, which involves supporting a few selected, larger economic centres, relying on them to act as servicing hubs for outlying areas where many Aboriginal Peoples live.

  • The Northern Territory Government is implementing the agreement on Remote Service Delivery through the Working Future policy. Because the agreement is focused on 21 growth towns, the Northern Territory Government additionally developed the outstations/homelands headline policy statement, as part of the Working Future policy. Three key elements of this policy are:

  • - It outlines how government services will be delivered to homelands - mostly through remote delivery from growth towns.
  • - It defines housing on Aboriginal land as privately owned.
  • - It states that no new housing on outstations/homelands will be built by the Northern Territory Government.
  • Housing policy for homelands communities

    One area where the lack of support for homelands is most evident is housing. Since the 1960s, the Commonwealth Community Housing and Infrastructure Program provided grants to Indigenous community housing organisations, Northern Territory government agencies and local governments to deliver housing, including for homeland communities.

    • A review of Indigenous housing in 2007 then recommended a shift away from building new housing on homelands. Additionally, the report's recommendations included examining, 'the benefits of providing mobility incentives' to encourage families to move to more centralised locations.

    Following the 2007 review, a new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between the Commonwealth and Northern Territory governments that handed responsibility for municipal and local government services for 500 homeland communities to the Northern Territory Government.

    • Despite the fact that independent assessments of remote Aboriginal housing cite 'extraordinarily poor performance of Aboriginal houses' and the Commonwealth Government's own acceptance that 'many houses in remote communities are overcrowded and in poor condition, impacting on the living conditions of many Indigenous Territorians', funding allocation demonstrates the difference in commitment between larger remote communities and homelands.

    Housing funding breakdownSource: Northern Territory Government Department of Housing, Local Government and Regional Services Housing Management and Maintenance Programs guidelines 2010-2011

    • As a result, remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory are increasingly being separated into different layers or tiers, and differentials in living standards between the tiers are likely to increase. Small communities classed as outstations, including homelands and most excision communities are on the lowest tier and receive no new houses, no refurbishments and a low level of maintenance funding.

    Creation of mega-shires in the Northern Territory

    In July 2008 small town councils, community government councils, Aboriginal corporations and associations and other local government structures were amalgamated into larger regional or mega-shires in the Northern Territory. In homelands, shires are now responsible for the on-the-ground delivery of essential and municipal services. In the case of the Utopia homelands, their own Urapuntja Council was dissolved and replaced by a larger regional shire - the Barkly Shire Council. Each of the 16 wards in Utopia was represented on the Urapuntja Council - this has decreased to three representatives under the shire system.

    • The amalgamations brought together a wide variety of regional and disparate interests from pastoral, mining, Indigenous and non-Indigenous town-based and remote representatives on shire boards. Aboriginal communities believe that the previous model was more representative of Aboriginal interests. The Aboriginal voice, despite being the dominant demographic in the region, has been diluted by the amalgamation into mega-shires.

    Research confirms that recent Australian and Northern Territory government policies breach Australia's obligations to protect the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples to their traditional lands, their culture and to adequate consultation about laws and policies that affect their lives.

    One of the most visible outcomes of long-term under-investment and a lack of government commitment to homelands is the state of infrastructure and housing. The housing we surveyed in Utopia is inadequate and poses a threat to Anmatyerr and Alyawarr aspirations to stay on their homelands.

    Our recommendations

    The Commonwealth Government has transferred the responsibility for homelands to the Northern Territory Government, whose own policy clearly states no new home and new homelands in the Northern Territory. Instead the Commonwealth and Northern Territory governments are focusing attention on 21 Territory Growth Towns. In this report, Amnesty International has argued that Aboriginal Peoples have the right to live on their traditional homelands without being effectively denied access to services like public housing and related infrastructure.

    Both the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory governments need to address this problem with the full and equal participation of those directly affected - the Aboriginal Peoples occupying the homelands of the Northern Territory. As Rosalie Kunoth-Monks says:

    What we need and demand is our dignity and rightful situation in Australia. We are Australians. We are not reluctant to take up the challenge and own a journey which might take us closer to closing the gap which Prime Minister Rudd [sic] talks about. But he does not have to destroy the spirit or the ethos of who we are. We want that to continue into generations after generations. And Australia is in the unique position of safeguarding and assisting us to continue into the next century.

    For Australia to uphold its obligation to housing rights, we recommend the following:


    1. The Australian Commonwealth and North Territory governments recognise and fulfil the rights of Aboriginal Peoples to their traditional lands.

    2. The Commonwealth and Northern Territory governments apply the Closing the Gap policies to all Aboriginal Peoples in the Northern Territory, not only to those living in Territory Growth Towns.

    3. Closing the Gap funding is equitably distributed to include homelands. Criteria for funding must reflect the importance of homelands to Aboriginal Peoples and the significant backlog in housing as a result of historical underinvestment.

    4. The Commonwealth Government must ensure that all housing on homelands meets the standards for adequate housing under international law, and that effective, equitable and non-discriminatory processes are in place to ensure the rights of Aboriginal Peoples to their traditional lands and the rights to adequate housing.

    5. The Commonwealth and Northern Territory governments engage with homelands communities to secure their free, prior and informed consent on all housing policy and plans for homelands given the significance of these policies for homeland communities.

    6. The Commonwealth and Northern Territory governments to take into account the above recommendations when re-negotiating the 2007 Memorandum of Understanding on Indigenous Housing, Accommodation and Related Services.

    Read more