Pay the Rent

By Yael Leah, with the help of Uncle Robbie Thorpe


Pay the rent concept and history

 Since the 1970’s there have been repeated calls by indigenous activists for non-Aboriginal Australians to pay the rent to local land owners.  The concept of pay the rent recognises Aboriginal sovereignty of the land.  It recognises that this sovereignty has never been ceded, and that their land was stolen under the legal fiction of terra nullius, continuing to this day through successive government policy which erodes land rights.  It also recognises that this country is built on indentured Aboriginal labour and stolen wages, and seeks to redress these injustices and the illegal occupation of this country.

Image: Marie McMahon (1982)

 While the pay the rent concept became more tangible in the 70’s, it is not new, and was first demonstrated in Australia by a Quaker settler, Robert Cock in 1837 who paid the interest on one-fifth of the value of his land as a ‘yearly rent’.  In the 70’s, amongst a powerful Aboriginal movement for self-determination, pay the rent was developed as a policy of NAIHO (National Aboriginal and Islander Health Organisation), with pay the rent money funding much of the essential services provided by Aboriginal controlled health services, and to a lesser degree other Aboriginal services such as legal services.  It could be said that the pay the rent policy is the only Aboriginal policy ever successfully implemented.

A flier on pay the rent from the 80’s reads:

“Today PAY THE RENT is a reasonable, rational and responsible way of ensuring the survival of the oldest living culture in the world.”

Paying the rent is a practical way to support the self-determination of Aboriginal peoples.  It supports elders and strengthens the capacity for economic independence, the practicing of lore and protection of land.  

Gunnai/Mara elder Robbie Thorpe speaks about the pay the rent concept as “justifying your occupation.”  It is important to note however that the practice of paying the rent in the 70’s developed as a concept that not only encompassed monetary compensation (at a suggested minimal payment of 1% of one’s annual income), but as a forum for which non-indigenous people could commit themselves to redressing colonisation through non-monetary actions as well.  This is demonstrated through the discourse of treaties, where leases that were drawn up whereby individuals would commit to paying money to specific people or orgs, as well as explicit commitment to taking actions.  Paying the rent was framed as giving non-Indigenous people the right to stay in this country but stipulated that groups of people who pay the rent also meet to self-educate and take further political action.

“Idealistically your rent should be paid to the Aboriginal community of whose land you occupy. However, this may not be possible due to the fact that many Aboriginal people have not been able to form communities in your area. Therefore you must see to it that this money REACHES THE HANDS OF THE ABORIGINAL PEOPLE.”

The history and continuation of colonisation has dislocated and eroded Aboriginal communities.  Whilst recognising the tremendous strength in the continuation of practicing culture and lore, many communities have suffered a decimation of their culture, communities and land.  It may therefore not be so straight forward as paying rent to local traditional owners.  However, within this context paying the rent could actually provide resources to support the capacity of elders and Aboriginal communities to establish elder’s councils and treaty circles.  Other factors which could also be considered are that resources that we consume are extracted from distant locations, for example the water we drink and the electricity we use, and therefore it may be appropriate to pay money to the custodians of these lands.  Practically speaking, this thinking would address potential inequity of tribes whose land is more densely populated, and with people more sympathetic to paying the rent, to others.


Why pay the rent?

We live in a system that continues colonisation whilst privileging and benefiting non-Indigenous settlers. The conditions in which Aboriginal people live in reveals the extent to which they are oppressed and marginalised in their own country.  Health statistics, racial profiling, deaths in custody, unemployment, incarceration rates…  All of this continues riding a history of massacres and genocide.  It can’t be argued that these things occurred in the past when the rates of child removal are now higher than during the so called stolen generation era.  Government policies continue to perpetuate these conditions, paying large amounts of money into policies and royal commissions where recommendations are subsequently ignored, and implementing policies which instead stigmatise and further dispossess Aboriginal people, for example the NT intervention.  With continuing destructive approaches by government, prioritising of resource exploitation and ecocide, and in the absence of any treaties, it becomes paramount for individuals, groups and institutions to address what’s going on.  We benefit from the occupation. Through inheritance of property, through wealth acquired from indentured labour, through unequal legal and political systems that benefit non-Aboriginal people.

The implementation of the cashless welfare card throughout Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and Western Australia reveals the extent that the government seeks to control Aboriginal people’s movement and consumption.  Rather than restricting Aboriginal sovereignty and right to practice culture and lore, paying the rent provides money outside of government control and directly to Aboriginal control to exercise their sovereignty.  Today, most Aboriginal organisations are state funded, all requiring a level of co-option to keep receiving funding.  Furthermore, the extent of government spending on Aboriginal people is deceptive, with massive costs swallowed up by bureaucracy and wages for non-Aboriginal persons working in what has been termed the ‘Aboriginal industry.’  Koori historian Wayne Atkinson notes allegations that at least two thirds of the ATSIC budget was absorbed by ATSIC in “administrative costs, consultancy fees and payments to a whole range of so called experts…the majority of whom are non-Koori.”

A report from the Australian revealed the NT government kept over $2 billion of its Indigenous aid budget. The report revealed that successive governments under-spent on allocated Indigenous and remote disadvantage GST funding.  A recent damming report on the Close the Gap campaign showed barely any improvement in identified indicators, saying: “The nation is now in a situation where the Closing the Gap targets will measure nothing but the collective failure of Australian governments to work together and to stay the course.”  Royalties often get locked away or used on infrastructure and services that non-Aboriginal communities already receive.  Large amounts of money are spent on royal commissions which lie in a dust pile, few recommendations ever being implanted.  The Royal commission into deaths in custody cost $50 million.  What we see is a clear picture that the government is not throwing money at Aboriginal communities, but rather squandering money and paying non-Abori
ginal beneficiaries.


Benefits of pay the rent

Contrary to government funded and orchestrated organisations and campaigns, Aboriginal controlled services and policies are the only platforms which have enacted sovereignty with demonstratable efficacy.  The Aboriginal political movement in the 60’s and 70’s saw immense social change and political action, such as the freedom rides, constitutional recognition, and the establishment of the Aboriginal tent embassy.  Alongside these changes, Aboriginal communities, initially in Redfern and Fitzroy, set about establishing Aboriginal controlled services which weren’t being provided to them by the government.   Community controlled food programs, childcare, legal services, health care, and other projects were set up.  The establishment of Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHO’s) is a clear example of the importance of Aboriginal control.  According to the World Health Organisation; “Since their establishment, ACCHO’s have demonstrated their ability to provide effective, appropriate, acceptable, affordable and accessible health services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.” This resulted in the first positive improvements in the health statistics of many Aboriginal communities in which these new clinics were operating (Foley, 1999).  As these services received recognition for their achievements, state bodies began funding them, with resulting decline in their management and service provision.  Paying the rent can support much needed community-controlled organisations and self-determination free of funding strings and government intervention with its detrimental impacts.

“PAY THE RENT promotes understanding, mutual respect and good will between colonial societies and Indigenous sovereign nations throughout the world”

This article appeared in our Just Voices magazine (issue 15, 2018) on Decolonisation and Indigenous Solidarity.