Aboriginal shareholders 'driven off land' by rising rents in remote Lake Tyers community

Jeff Waters ABC News 21 December 2013

Aboriginal shareholder-owners of Victoria's remote Lake Tyers community say they are being driven off their land, because even though they collectively own the freehold property, they are being charged what they say are ever-increasing rents.

Some have been threatened with being kicked out, but others have already been evicted.

Wilfred Carter, a life-long resident whose father fought for what became, in 1971, one of the first land rights agreements in Australia, was charged with trespassing in his own house after he found it too difficult to pay the rent charged by the Lake Tyers Aboriginal Trust.

The trust has been run by an unelected, government-appointed administrator from the Deloitte company for much of the last decade.

"Why should we pay that amount when we own the land?" Mr Carter said in the living room of his sister's house in nearby Bairnsdale.

He was softly spoken, having been recently discharged from hospital after heart bypass surgery.

"All those people who are buried in the old graveyard right now didn't march and fight for that land so we can grow up on it and [then] start paying rent; that wasn't the idea of it," he said.

Mr Carter says that, after he was charged with trespass, trust managers ordered that all of his possessions, and those of his children, be removed.

He says most of it was destroyed.

"My question is where is all this [rent] money going - who's benefiting from it?"

Trust administrator says rents have increased 'very marginally'

The trust's administrator, Simon Wallace-Smith, declined an invitation to be interviewed on the subject.

In a written statement he said average rents, charged for maintenance and council and water rates, have only increased very marginally in recent years.

The administrators say rents have increased by about $30 per week as compared with a few years ago, but that figure is disputed by tenants.

Mr Wallace-Smith said all of the rent money was spent on maintenance, council and water rates, even though many residents complain that their homes have not been maintained properly.

Over the years, families from other Indigenous communities - even some outside of Victoria - have been allowed to move to Lake Tyers.

But only the actual shareholder landlords are complaining about rental increases and eviction threats.

Another recently-evicted resident from a shareholder family is young widow Lorraine Sellings.

She says she has been forced to move, with her two toddlers and one baby, into her mother's two-bedroom house.

The grandmother is now sleeping on a mattress on the living room floor, surrounded by her belongings.

"I was given no notice whatsoever," Ms Sellings said.

"I was given a notice to say I was behind in rent, but in fact my rent had been put up without notification.

"I'm a single mum with three kids and there's nothing I can do.

"I absolutely loved growing up here, but with the way things are now today I honestly don't want my kids to be growing up like this.

"I'd rather live out in town because I can get a three-bedroom [house] for less than what I'm paying for a three-bedroom here on the mission.

"I just feel like honestly packing up my stuff and leaving."

When Lake Tyers was handed over to its residents more than 40 years ago, each adult and child living there was given shares which could only be sold under strict conditions.

Most of those shareholders and their families have now left.

Elder vows to stay: 'This is Aboriginal land'

One woman who will not be moved is Gippsland's most senior elder, Auntie May O'Rourke.

She has also been threatened with eviction, but has so far managed to stay in her house.

Auntie May O'Rourke talks to the ABC in Lake Tyers, Victoria on August 20, 2013
Auntie May O'Rourke says she will never back down in the face of eviction threats (ABC News: Jeff Waters)

"I wouldn't move because I was born here, and this is Aboriginal land," she said.

"You've got to have the community together to all talk about it, but you can't get anybody now to talk because of the white fellows and what they say up here," Auntie May said, pointing toward the administration building.

"The boss woman and that rent woman."

In response, Mr Wallace-Smith wrote that the few recent evictions related to unpaid rent as well as a refusal of regular inspections.

"All these residents were given several opportunities to enter into repayments arrangements," he said.

"Those that did unfortunately were not able to abide by them.

"Eviction is of course a last resort and the appropriate procedure were followed pursuant to the lease and the Residential Tenancies Act.

"Please note the majority of the residents are on Centrelink benefits and are given Housing Assistance by the Federal Government.

"To clarify, these residents have not been evicted from the Trust [that is the community owned land], only from the specific houses they occupied pursuant to signed lease agreements."

Victoria's Community Services Minister Mary Wooldridge also declined a request to be interviewed about the complaints from Lake Tyers, referring questions to the administrator.

There may be some hope of reconciliation, with the appointment of a new board to run the Lake Tyers trust due to take place soon.

But with the shareholders complaining about a lack of democratic representation on that board, the slow process of alienation may yet continue.

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There is an historical connection between Coranderrk and Lake Tyers in Eastern Victoria

Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country
A Victorian Inquiry which addressed Aboriginal peoples' calls for justice, land rights and self-determination. Background, The Book, The Play and Audio interview


Coranderrk: First Nations Farmers and Market Gardeners
In 1874 the APB* undermined the successful Coranderrk market gardens by moving the people away from the land that was considered too valuable for Aboriginal people.