Western Australia and the Northern Territory are home to the majority of remote communities and camps. Many of these towns and camps were conceived by Australia’s historic and not-too-long-ago apartheid. Many of the townships and camps are former missions where children were removed to as part of the Stolen Generations. Towns were created by moving people off their Country, so their Country could be stolen, pastoralised, mined and turned into freehold land. But now another apartheid is unfolding, with the Western Australian Premier calling for the closure of 150 of the State’s 274 remote communities.
Communities up to four generations old that have been dealing with the traumas of the past will have more trauma and displacement to deal with again. They will be starved out of their communities, services phased out, their townships shut down, and then the majority of people relocated to larger towns.
Western Australia is home to 274 remote First Peoples communities – the most in the nation. Of these communities, 94 are categorised as ‘camps’ and 180 as communities or towns. The Commonwealth Government is doing a number on these communities by withdrawing its responsibility and funding for the majority of these communities – 180 of them. In early October, the Western Australian Minister for mines, energy, housing, Bill Marmion issued a statement condemning the Commonwealth’s move. Minister Marmion said that the Commonwealth’s action was “reprehensible” and would more than likely leave little option for Western Australia but to close “unsustainable camps.” Less than four weeks later, Premier Barnett publicly called for the closures of up to 150 communities.
Minister Marmion said that it would cost Western Australia $10 billion over twenty years to “sustain” these communities. But the Commonwealth has withdrawn $45 million per year from the remote communities, which will affect these already starved communities. But the Commonwealth spend would have totalled to $900 million over twenty years, not $10 billion.
Premier Barnett and Minister Marmion pulled the swift line that the State would not be able to service these communities with the Federal Government’s paltry $45 million per year for municipal services. The perceived spat between the Federal and State Governments should not be at the expense of people, and in that power, water, and other services will not be provided. But to back up the Premier’s claim that remote Aboriginal communities are not sustainable, Premier’s mob released statistics to skew the debate – that 1,309 First People are residing in 174 of the smallest communities – with an average of 7.5 people in each one. But this is not true, as many of these are outstations not dissimilar to White-only regional, rural and remote pastoral and mining-based outstations.
Premier Barnett claimed that the Commonwealth policies that supported First Peoples living on their Country “had failed.”
“There is no way that the State Government can fund that into the long-term future.”
He said that the Commonwealth Government policies “where people could return to homeland areas and live out their lives, I think any fair-minded person would say that has failed.”
“This has not been successful,” said Premier Barnett.
“We are never going to have no Aboriginal communities, they will never disappear. There will always be certainly 100, probably well in excess of 100, but we have got to get them to a stage where they are viable.”
He said the closures will begin “gradually” but “we need to start to address the problem immediately.”
Amnesty Australia’s Indigenous Rights manager, Kimberley born Nikyina woman, Tammy Solonec said closing communities would be “highly traumatic”. Ms Solonec discussed the closing down of the Kimberley community of Oombulgurru in 2011. There had been four suicides over a year long period. But any social ills were transplanted to Wydham, Kununurra and Broome where the former residents were relocated. Last year in Wydham, two former Oombulgurri residents took their lives, one was a 12 year old girl.
Ms Solonec said that Oombulgurri residents relocated to the outskirts of Wyndham “were put in dongas for 18 months, inappropriate housing, no compensation.” Some now live homeless.
“We saw with Oombulgurri a ripple effect all throughout the Kimberley, because it displaces other people and there is already not enough housing.”
Greens members of the State’s Legislative Assembly, Robin Chapple hit hard, saying it is purely a “racially motivated agenda.”
“It smacks of the assimilation policies during the early 1960s.”
“It is horrendous. This is a diabolical, and in my view, highly racially motivated agenda.”
The State Government has a terrible record in doing next-to-nothing for remote communities, in treating these communities as second-class citizenry, in dishing out inequalities, and lo and behold in closing down community services and towns. Just prior to Christmas last year, a family of eight left their community from near the Northern Territory border and lived homeless for six month on the outskirts of Perth while getting their children to school every day. Their community’s school had been closed down and they were told that the children could go to a school in Warburton, 194 kilometres from their own community. Eventually, we crossed paths and I found them interim housing because the Department of Housing and other agencies were not able to.
Last year, the State Minister for Education and Aboriginal Affairs, Peter Collier, reduced funding to resources to schools right across the State, but with the biggest cuts hitting Aboriginal remote schools.
Three years ago, the Kimberley town of Oombulgurri was shut down and its 62 homes and other buildings are now being razed into oblivion. Many of the former residents are homeless. Seven per cent of the Kimberley is homeless, with nearly 100 per cent of this homelessness comprising First Peoples.
Eleven years ago Perth’s Swan Valley Nyungah Community was shut down and all the residents evicted, with many finishing up homeless. Former residents have died homeless on Perth’s streets. But there is minimal press coverage of this tragedy.
The Commonwealth will fund Western Australia $90 million for a two year “transition” – in other words the closing down of as many communities as possible. The old arguments of isolated communities disadvantaged by distance just do not wash. Mining towns whisper their way in but next-to-nothing done is forever the way for remote communities. They are not remote communities to those that live in them. You never hear of non-Aboriginal towns threatened by closure – it’s a racialised issue, it is more of the same-old apartheid.
Minister Marmion said the State Government had no choice but to accept the Commonwealth’s position. This is a bullshit statement, as the State Government has in the past refused to agree to Commonwealth partnerships and agreements – education, health and homelessness policies and deals that other States and Territories did agree to.
“This was not an agreement, it was an ultimatum. We had a gun pointed at our head,” said Mr Marmion.
The Commonwealth has withdrawn $45 million in funding per annum but Minister Marmion then slated out the potential total cost of municipal and essential services to all 274 communities of which the State certainly has various existing responsibilities for – and that with forward estimates could cost between $3 billion to $10 billion over two decades.
Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion said, “Providing essential and municipal services in towns and cities across Australia has always been the responsibility of State and local governments and it should be no different in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.”
Labor shadow minister for native title and treasury, Yamatji man Ben Wyatt pointed out that Western Australia did not have to accept the agreement. Mr Wyatt said South Australia has refused to accept the agreement. Mr Wyatt said that the State Government should commit to funding the shortfall but the State Government is crying poor.