The township of Gunbalanya in West Arnhem Land will be the latest of a handful of indigenous communities in the Northern Territory to sign a 99-year township lease.

On Monday the community’s elders and traditional owners signed an in-principle agreement with federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion, indicating that after more than a dozen meetings in 10 months, the key terms of the proposed lease have been worked out.

The term of the lease, the exact area it will cover and the schedule of payments to the community has been settled, with most – but not all – traditional owners signing their agreement.

“I don’t expect anyone to sign up to anything they don’t understand,” Senator Scullion said of the protracted process.

“If land is the only thing you have in your life, it’s the most important thing you own in an economic and cultural sense, and I can understand why they are very conservative about this approach.”

Traditional owners approached the government after seeing similar leases signed at three communities on Groot Eyelandt and four communities on the Tiwi Islands.

Senator Scullion said the Gunbalanya lease will feature a community development fund, whereby traditional owners have agreed to set aside a “significant portion” of income from the lease, as well as a housing fund.

“But the principal benefit is normalisation,” Senator Scullion said.

“For somebody who would wish to be a hairdresser, you get a space, hang out the shingle, and after a while it becomes quite popular. You have something to sell, if you choose to retire or move to another community.”

Some people in the Tiwi Islands have struggled under the weight of mortgages for their previously government-owned homes, ranging in value between $80,000 and $150,000, but Senator Scullion said all Australians dealt with such problems.

“The people had an income, had a job, decided they were going to buy a house and have done so,” he said.
“A couple of them have some difficulties with that, no doubt about it; we’ll find that in the mainstream as well.”

Traditional owner Adrian Gumudrul said he was happy the agreement had been signed.

“This is very important for this mob, for this country,” he said.

“Going to see how youngfellas working for the future, because now we’re losing them; there’s no jobs.

“We want something coming through to keep this country quiet and peaceful.”

Gunbalanya is the first community to move forward with negotiations for a township lease under the auspices of the Northern Land Council, which has previously been critical of the leases and the role of the minister in securing them.

Under the Land Rights Act, the NLC must be satisfied that the terms and conditions of a lease are reasonable, and that the traditional owners as a group have given their informed consent.

By Neda Vanovac