Private land title key to development

Opinion Article

2012 November, 16

When you drive out of the last gully and reach the top of the rise, the glorious vista of my home town stretches down the green valley, tucked between the hills that defined the world of my childhood. In the distance you can see the blue hills on the coast marking the place where the original valley of hope was founded by the Lutheran missionaries in 1886. 

On the left as you drive into the village is a vast paddock of sloping grass with a fence in various states of disrepair. The land was cleared in the early days of the new mission, after World War II, when Joh Bjelke-Petersen was the chairman of the Hope Vale Lutheran Mission Board. The rich red soil has a varied agricultural history of peanuts, sorghum and cattle pasture. 

Now cattle and horses of indeterminate ownership randomly graze on the remnant pasture. 

Just before you reach the cemetery there is a trial plot for some timber species, installed by a government agency, which has endured several bushfires. If anything has been learned from the trial it is that fire is not helpful to young trees. 

I have driven this road for all my adult life and not seen this land put to any economic use. It has just sat there. There has not been a dollar made from it since the Lutheran mission turned into an Aboriginal community after the 1970s. 

How can such a large area of potentially productive land just sit dormant decade after decade? 

It can't be the soil. It is among the best in the district, specifically chosen by Bjelke-Petersen as a better site for the mission's relocation after the war. 

It can't be lack of water. There is ample water. There are groundwater bores and with infrastructure the surface water could be readily harvested. 

It can't be the unwillingness of the people to work. The people of my home town have a long and proud history of work. It can't be lack of affinity with agricultural work or animal husbandry. Again, my people have a long and proud history in these industries. 

There have been three decades of paralysis concerning this land - and similar land throughout the 110,000ha that comprise my community's trust lands. 

On the right-hand side is a smaller plot that my cousin was given approval more than 25 years ago to lease under legislation enacted by then Queensland minister for Aboriginal affairs Bob Katter. He was to receive a perpetual lease for his residential block and a term lease for the remainder. 

But the land administration machinery stalled and, as with hundreds of other indigenous Queenslanders, my cousin still does not have any formal title a quarter of a century later. Think about it. Twenty-five years later he could have finished paying off a mortgage for his home. But there has been no way to get a loan, for a home or a business, as long as he did not have title to the land. 

His father ran a herd of his own cattle on the block for many years. He improved the pastures and made a side living from his herd. There was no lack of initiative. There was no lack of work or industry. There was a lack of land title. And therefore access to capital. 

While my uncle ran his own small herd on his block, in the same way my eldest brother does and my many cousins do, there is an interesting contrast between cattle with a private brand on their backsides and those that don't. The mission cattle had a brand UB6, and when the mission turned into an Aboriginal community, pity the cow or bullock that had UB6 on its rump. The communal cattle became endangered from local poachers. Talk about the tragedy of the commons. 

While all cattle are vulnerable to duffing, it helps if the cow is privately owned because at least it has a vigilant owner. 

Meanwhile, throughout these decades federal and state governments invested in countless enterprise proposals, large and small. Let's start (another) market garden. Let's grow this crop. Let's promote the start-up of these small service businesses. This town could do with a cafe, a motel, a laundrette, rental accommodation for workers. Why aren't these demands supplied?

Yet the story is the same, again and again. We just don't have much to show for all the investment of money and hope. 

The clue to failure lies in the top paddock. It concerns the lack of title to the land. There is no private property market in my home town and that is why there is virtually no development. 

Katter realised this was the problem and he came up with a plan that was before its time. He convinced the Bjelke-Petersen government in the 80s to create private interests in land to be held by individual families. 

But the Queensland land administration system neglected to support the Katter plan, and 25 years later hundreds of Aboriginal families are still awaiting title. 

This week the Newman government's Natural Resources Minister, Andrew Cripps, and Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Glen Elmes, announced a new policy framework to provide freehold title in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. 

The step to freehold is a radical departure from past attempts at privatising land title in Aboriginal communities, which have been limited to leasehold titles. If restricted to townships and business precincts, then the spectre of "Swiss cheese" holes appearing on Aboriginal lands will not impede this reform. 

Converting Aboriginal township lands to freehold is the right reform. To avoid fears about the progressive selling off of Aboriginal lands, lands outside of town precincts should be limited to leasehold tenures. 

Unfortunately, the scheme outlined by the Queensland government is unlikely to work. It is far too onerous, and expecting community members to pay the costs associated with creating the private property system is unworkable and unaffordable. 

The transaction costs associated with sorting out native title agreements, getting lands surveyed and processing applications will cruel the scheme outlined by Cripps and Elmes. 

This is a case of politicians having the right reform idea but the bureaucracy coming up with the most convoluted system for carrying out the reform. It is what happened to Katter's initiative, and it is being repeated here.

The most important contribution the commonwealth and Queensland governments can make to enable development in places such as my home town is to invest in the infrastructure that is necessary to enable a private property system to operate. It is time neglected Aboriginal communities gained the benefit of a proper land administration system.

Under the Newman government's framework, applicants for private tenure are put in the place of a developer faced with creating a subdivision from crown land. The developer has to deal with and compensate for native title, will have to progress the application to the minister, will have to pay for the land and the survey, and will have to pay for services to the land. Then they will have to pay for conveyancing costs and so on. And do you know the costs of a survey in remote areas? 

The right reform idea. A naive approach. If the Newman government does not learn from the history of this issue, I fear another 25 years of private property paralysis.

Private land title key to development