Article by Neda Vanovac, ABC Darwin, reposted with permission, originally appeared at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-11-14/groote-eyla...
- The NT Government has a 10-year plan to empower Aboriginal communities
- Groote Eylandt's plan is the most substantial — covering education, justice, health, housing and local governance
- About a dozen other communities are negotiating their own agreements
Complete control over local education, justice, health and governance has been handed over by the Northern Territory Government to a remote island Aboriginal community in what the chief minister says is the first step towards a treaty.The Groote Archipelago is situated off the eastern coast of Arnhem Land in the Gulf of Carpentaria, approximately 650 kilometres from Darwin, and includes Groote Eylandt and numerous small named and unnamed islands scattered nearby.
It's home to 14 clans who speak the Anindilyakwa language, who will soon administer of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of services and assets for themselves, after the Anindilyakwa Land Council wrote to Chief Minister Michael Gunner in May, advising they wanted to enter a binding agreement with the NT Government to implement its Local Decision-Making Policy.
This is the NT Government's 10-year plan which aims to empower Aboriginal people to determine the service delivery models that work best for their community.
Under the agreement is a plan to shift the management of all community housing from the Government to the Land Council, and future plans include a bilingual education curriculum and new boarding school, a new low-security alternative to prison, community-run health clinics, and plans to create a new regional council.
Mr Gunner said the agreement was the largest and broadest of its type to be devised in the Northern Territory, and marked the first step towards creating a treaty with Aboriginal people.
"You pay respect, you truth-tell, and you trust each other, and this agreement today I think is a seed of what a treaty could be," he told reporters in Angurugu community on Wednesday.
The deal was an acknowledgement that successive governments both Territory and federal had failed to adequately provide services in remote Indigenous communities, he said.
"This is a recognition that that old way hasn't worked and we have to end that old way and find a new way of working with traditional people. This is a resetting of that relationship.
"We need to trust local people to get it right; local decisions are the best decisions."
The NT Government's Local Decision-Making Policy was "recompense for hundreds of decisions made by Territory governments and Australian governments," Mr Gunner said.
The agreement was very significant, said Tony Wurramarrba, chairman of the Anindilyakwa Land Council.
"Today for us it is a step forward to actually realise our dreams," he said.
60 houses to be built in next five years
The takeover of local affairs has been planned for years, and will take up to a decade to fully implement, said Mark Hewitt, CEO of the Anindilyakwa Land Council.
"This has been a long time in the making," he said.
"A lot of people here remember when they did have more control, particularly in local government, things were very functional compared to now.
"People just feel like they know exactly what they need to do to improve quality of life; they don't have the ability to make decisions themselves and they want that decision brought back to them."
The local community has a substantial income in royalty payments from GEMCO, which operates the Groote Eylandt manganese mine and township of Alyangula.
Mr Hewitt said this set it apart from about a dozen other Aboriginal communities negotiating their own agreements with the NT Government.
The community's housing plan is so far the most developed tranche of the new deal, he said, where houses would be designed in collaboration with the local clans regarding how they'd like to live, which would then be taken to tender.
This is the inverse of how government housing is currently commissioned, he said.
Sixty houses need to be built over the next five years on Groote Eylandt, and the housing deal alone is worth around $80 million.
Local boarding school hope to boost poor attendance
Schooling is another element that the community wants more say in; there are four schools on the island "and we've got very, very low school attendance, and no matter what we've tried it doesn't seem to improve," Mr Hewitt said.
A community survey about what educational model would most be supported overwhelmingly showed that almost nine in 10 parents wanted a bilingual residential boarding school set up on the island away from the three communities, employing local teachers.
This was based on the successful Tiwi College boarding school on Melville Island.
Initially it's planned that children aged eight to 12 will attend before it expands, with existing schools focusing on early education with assistance from Save The Children Australia, Mr Hewitt said.
The 14 clans of the Anindilyakwa people also want more say over local health services, and so will partner with the Miwatj Health service in Nhulunbuy, on the mainland.
"Aboriginal people are more comfortable going to an Aboriginal medical service," Mr Hewitt said.
He said the infrastructure costs would be "obviously very expensive".
"We have a significant royalty flow and will no doubt be contributing," he said, but would also seek financial assistance from financial bodies such as the Aboriginal Benefit Account "of which we're a major contributor".
Highest community incarceration rate in NT
Mr Hewitt said the NT justice system was not working for the community on Groote Eylandt: "We've got the highest rate of incarceration for a community in the Territory," he said.
He said Australian laws would still apply, with a local NT Police presence and a visiting magistrate, but that those convicted of crimes would be sent to a low-security community-supported local facility in the bush rather than to Darwin's correctional complex.
He rejected the suggestion that the community wanted to take taxpayer money without being accountable on how it would be spent.
"No, we're still accountable, we're accountable to the taxpayer, no question about that," he said.
"We still will be reporting to NT Government departments about how money is being spent.
"We're putting in a very large amount of funding ourselves to make these things work better."