Nestled in the hills east of Alice Springs lies Irrkerlantye, a community in limbo.
The word means kite hawk in the Arrernte language and like its namesake, the community’s existence remains up in the air.
Irrkerlantye, also known as White Gate, has none of the basic services the rest of Australia takes for granted: water is trucked in and a meagre power supply is provided by a few solar panels. There is no sewerage.
The residents live in tin sheds and a few decaying demountables that offer little protection from Central Australia’s extreme desert temperatures.
Felicity Hayes has lived at Irrkerlantye most of her life.
The stoic Elder is at her wit’s end, and is using the last days of the federal election campaign to draw attention to her community’s plight.
“We’ve been asking the government for housing and essential services this whole time, however nothing has been done to provide the most basic services that all people are entitled to," she told NITV News.
“We’re the first people to live in Australia and now we’re the second class citizens of Australia.
“We can’t live like this forever. Somebody’s gotta come and listen to us."
Felicity Hayes invited Labor‘s candidate for Lingiari Marion Scrymgour to "sit down on the ground and listen to us”.
She never visited. Few, if any, politicians have.
Irrkerlantye residents don’t really care who wins the election. They just want the next federal government to work with the NT government to resolve the forty-year impasse.
“We just want people to come here and have a look and not sit in their offices all day and make decisions about us,” Ms Hayes said.
"They need to come here and talk to us because we’re the ones that are suffering."
In a cruel twist, Felicity Hayes is a recognised Traditional Owner of the NT’s second-largest town of Alice Springs but the land her ancestors roamed doesn’t belong to her.
“It is our traditional land. Our old people walked this land and hunted and lived here before the white man came - we got culture and language, we survived colonisation.”
The only water supply to the community was cut in 2014 under a Country Liberal government and was never restored. At the time it was seen as an attempt to force the closure of Irrkerlantye.
Tangentyre Council runs services in Aboriginal town camps in Alice Springs. It is “not funded to deliver services to Irrkerlantye, but continues to provide rubbish collection, potable water, and investment in critical infrastructure.”
Tangentyre’s website says “White Gate was first incorporated on the 28th of October 1992 by residents to support their efforts to obtain security of tenure, housing and essential services.”
It says as many as 60 to 70 people lived at White Gate, but as Felicity Hayes points out many have left and some like her sister have passed away.
“Last week I buried my sister. She was diagnosed with cancer and passed within two weeks of her diagnosis.
"She was living in a tin shed with no running water [and] no electricity three miles from the centre of Alice Springs.
"We have been living this way, neglected by all levels of government, for forty years.”
Between 10 and 20 residents remain at White Gate and many of them are elderly.
A recent federal audit report confirmed more than $2.5 billion dollars has been spent on remote housing in the NT alone over the past 15 years.
The NT government says that in 2019 it provided a $500,000 deed to assist in the provision of essential services to Irrkerlantye to an aboriginal led organisation called Children’s Ground that’s helping the residents.
A government spokesperson said, “To date, water tanks have been installed, however, negotiations continue about the expenditure of the remaining $450,000.”
“The Northern Territory government continues to work with the Traditional Owners of Irrkerlantye (White Gate) and Children’s Ground to provide improvements on site."
History of deadlock
When the Northern Territory land rights act was introduced in the late 1970s it paved the way for fringe camp dwellers on the edge of Alice Springs to apply for tenure under so-called special purpose leases.
With secure tenure came essential services, infrastructure and housing which lead to the development of town camps around Alice Springs.
White Gate applied but the tenure was never granted.
Despite the gains of the land rights movement, a historic native title claim over Alice Springs, and the rise of some of the most powerful Aboriginal organisations in Australia, Irrkerlantye remains neglected.
Where to for Irrkerlantye?
Public housing across remote Aboriginal communities, Alice Springs town camps and Tennant Creek community living areas are funded and managed by the National Partnership for Remote Housing Northern Territory Agreement (NPRHNT) 2018-2023.
The agreement’s “footprint” covers the Northern Territory and the Commonwealth government’s leasing obligations under the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act 2007, known commonly as the federal intervention.
The title for each of the 17 town camps in the footprint is held by a Housing Association under a perpetual lease, either as a Special Purpose Lease or a Crown Lease.
White Gate (Irrkerlantye) Town Camp is not included in the footprint of the National Partnership Agreement.
However, it could be if the Northern Territory and federal governments could agree to alter the footprint.
This has not happened, which leaves the community cut out of the government funding stream.
The Department of the Chief Minister and Cabinet attests they are "in the process of negotiating an Indigenous Land Use Agreement with residents of Irrkerlantye.”
Of course, there is no time frame on when these negotiations will be concluded and tenure granted.
Felicity Hayes and her family could be facing another forty years forgotten on the fringes of one of the world’s most developed countries.
“We’ve been fighting for forty years and we’ve got children, the next generation, and they’re still going to be living here."