Annual Report 2017-2018 OmbudsmanNT
Tabled paper 934
Tabled Papers for 13th Assembly 2016 - 2020; Tabled Papers; ParliamentNT
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9 I noted that residents of indigenous communities are in a special position because of the nature of land tenure in those communities. No matter how many houses sit within a community, community title usually vests in one incorporated body. No matter how long a person has lived in a house, the house is not owned by that person. This group tenure has many implications for individual householders. Among them is the relationship they have with essential service providers. The report raised no issue with group tenure in indigenous communities. It did not suggest that individual tenure is superior or the preferred model. However, it did conclude that there are differences arising from group tenure that should be recognised and accommodated by organisations such as PWC. I provide an update on implementation of that reports recommendations in Chapter 4. Notwithstanding that report, complaints regarding the management of large debts owed to public authorities by Aboriginal communities continue to reach my Office. Issues have recently been raised not only in relation to debt owed for essential services but also debt arising from assessed rates. In the latter case, the community faces a huge and ever-growing rates bill on land which is largely bushland, with only a small portion used for residential or commercial purposes a bill that it is unlikely to be able to repay and which the Council has little realistic prospect of recovering. That case presents two variations on the theme I identified in Bills, Bills, Bills. One is that general rates are levied in the nature of a tax rather than as direct payment for services provided. The other is that the potential for future use or disposal of the rated land is significantly reduced by legal and cultural limitations. This land is substantially different in nature to other land in the Council area held by private individuals or corporations. Its cultural value may be high but its zoning and unimproved capital value (UCV - the traditional means of assessing rates) almost certainly overstate its financial value. In this case, I suggested that, in recognition of Indigenous land tenure and disadvantage, Council could consider a varied approach in relation to the community land and potentially any other Indigenous community land in Darwin which faces a similar situation. A special approach to rating might be taken which does not rely on UCV or which utilises a nominal rate, at least for areas that have not been developed or zoned specifically for development. During the course of enquiries, the potential for a change in the approach to concessions was suggested as an alternative to a change in rating. Looking to the large historical debt, a repayment plan which sees small contributions lost in a sea of ever growing debt (to the Council and many others) is unlikely to be an attractive or realistic proposition for the community or the Council. This and other liabilities of the community have the real potential to create a debt spiral, where there may never be a genuine chance to repay monies owed. The prospect of such large debts can cast a debilitating shadow over the ability of the community to meet its current and future obligations to its members and service providers. This would be of no benefit to the community or ratepayers in the Council area. A paper debt which sits on the Councils books and grows larger each year (with no prospect of recovery) creates a false impression which must be regularly explained and accounted for. This is a problem for the community and the Council. It deserves careful consideration leading to development of a realistic and ongoing solution. My Office will continue to pursue this issue with the Council. However, this case is illustrative of an issue that is considerably broader than its impact on one community or one authority. I have discussed developments in relation to the Town Camps Review Report in the context of my Bills, Bills, Bills report in Chapter 4. My Office will continue to pursue the broader issue with the NT Government and relevant authorities.
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