Bid to boost Aboriginal futures

On Australia's palm island, a chorus rises in support of land reform and business investment.

Kevin and Janelle Kidner did something extraordinary on this island off the northeast coast of Australia: They built their own home.

The couple salvaged scrap from public housing tear-downs; other materials had to be shipped a short trip from the Australian mainland. After a year of bending nails, the Kidners and their two children are free of the cramped government housing where most of this 3,000-strong Aboriginal community lives. Now they even have their own little fish pond.

"[Neighbors] were constantly driving by really slowly as if they hadn't seen a house built before," says Mr. Kidner, dressed in a yellow sports jersey. "They would say, 'You building it yourself? Good job!' "

For most residents, the ability not only to dream a better life but to make it happen has withered on Palm Island - along with most of the businesses, most of the jobs, and most of the drinking water.

Like a number of Aboriginal communities that are geographically and socially on the fringes, Palm Island owes some of its isolation to communal land ownership. But a growing chorus of islanders and outsiders say land reform could help foster businesses, open these communities to outside expertise, and encourage more residents like the Kidners to rely less on the government.

"Most people on Palm Island are economic wards of the state," says Bill Blackley, a teacher and former businessman who has lived on the island since 1972. "Instead of the poorest community in Australia, we should be the richest."

Potential is everywhere, radiating like the waves on Palm's idyllic beaches. The Great Barrier Reef lies just 14 nautical miles away, and wild horses roam the tropical hinterlands. All of this is just a 15-minute flight from Townsville, a major tourist launching pad on the mainland.

But tour operators and most private enterprises have been scared off by two problems that trouble many Aboriginal communities: a thicket of land-title issues and lack of local know-how.

Driving around Palm Island's few paved roads, Mr. Blackley points out a string of abandoned enterprises: a farm, a dairy, a makeshift motel, and a video-rental shop that was once his.

Just off the weed-choked central square, not far from a clocktower with frozen hands, Blackley owns a small clothing shop. This business too will soon be shuttered.

Blackley has no prospective buyers largely because of a Queensland law known as the Deed of Grant in Trust. Under the DOGIT, commercial and residential land can be leased only for short terms - up to 30 years - and then only with approval from the island's council.

"Who's going to come in and invest if you can't sell it?" says Blackley.

Scott McDougall, a consultant hired by the Queensland government, has pondered the same question.

Under debate now in parliament, Mr. McDougall's report sets its sights on the land laws because of the obstacle they present to business, government development, and the construction of private homes. For instance, the Kidners have no enforceable rights to occupancy.

The land-use system has led to overcrowding. Without pride in ownership, some homes have grown ramshackle, with trash strewn about and junked cars in yards. Crowding of relatives under one roof has also contributed to a high rate of domestic violence. In 1999, the Guinness Book of World Records listed Palm Island as the most violent place outside of a war zone, though that status is disputed here.

Nonetheless, the social decay on Palm Island hit center stage in 2004 with the arrest of an islander who died soon after being taken into custody. A riot ensued that razed the fire station.

The case has reawakened traumatic memories. As late as the 1960s, the government brought Aboriginals here from all over Australia as punishment. When the penal colony's overseers ultimately departed, they took with them much of the infrastructure, leaving a heavy burden on a community council to provide the majority of services on the island, including housing, says McDougall.

But Peter Lindsay, the federal member of Parliament for the region, says the problem hasn't been a lack of funding. "In 10 years, the federal government has put $100 million on the island and you can't see where a dollar has been spent."

Frustrated by the lack of progress, Mr. Lindsay suggested earlier this year that if the problems couldn't be sorted out, the solution might be to evacuate everyone to the mainland. He explains now that he was just trying to send a wake-up call. "It's time for a new model," he says.

Lindsay lays some of the blame at the feet of the state government, which he says has been sluggish in reforming land laws. The state government, however, says it is working with the community to determine what level of reform is acceptable. McDougall's report is one of the new blueprints on the table for guiding that process.

For the moment, full property ownership and privatization is raising concerns about losing land to developers. Some islanders say they worry about infringements on burial sites and privacy. Others fear they will no longer be able to hunt.

"If the DOGIT was taken away today, we'd have developers here Monday morning. We'd have residents lining up at the bank to buy their house. Personally, I think it needs to happen," says Deniece Geia, a worker on the council. But, she says, reform isn't "on the council's agenda, as once you lose your land, you lose your identity."

Councilor Magdalena Blackley, Bill Blackley's wife, says that while full privatization makes people nervous, halfway measures are possible. "Controlled partnerships, controlled tourism in the economic development area is the way to go right now."

Coming to a consensus on the land issue will be difficult given the divided nature of the community - some 40 different tribes form the community.

"There is a lot of anger ... and hatred between people," says Ms. Geia. "I think a big healing service needs to happen."

Geia admires what the Kidners have done. "I wouldn't know the feeling of building your own home. Then you could design it the way you want to design it," she says. "Everything here is blue. Blue paint must just be on special."

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