Government Buck-Passing Could Force Aboriginal People Off WA Homelands


An international advocacy group has slammed the Barnett government’s proposals to shut down 150 remote Aboriginal communities as “traumatic” for residents by forcing thousands of Aboriginal people off traditional lands and into regional centres.

Tammy Solenec, an Indigenous Rights campaigner at Amnesty International said the rights of Aboriginal people would be lost in buck passing between state and federal governments.

Premier Colin Barnett has signalled that up to 150 remote West Australian communities could be closed down after his government signed a deal with the Commonwealth to take over responsibility for infrastructure and other essential services earlier this year.

Ms Solenec says the plans could be in breach of Australia’s obligations under international law.

“It’s hypocritical for Premier Colin Barnett to admit that closing communities would be traumatic for people involved, while still moving ahead with plans to evict traditional owners from their homes, break their connection to land and culture, and force them to move to larger towns where they will have greater exposure to drugs, alcohol, violence and crime,” Ms Solenec said.

“Sadly, in the plans…  I heard echoes of the tragic policies of last century, which removed Aboriginal people from their homelands.”

Earlier this month Mr Barnett tried to use the suicide crisis afflicting parts of the state as justification that remote communities should be shut down, following the tragic suicide of an 11-year-old boy in Geraldton, a large regional centre with 37,000 people.

He told the Australian newspaper that while closing remote communities would be “traumatic for people involved” and would force them into towns and cities, “we simply cannot provide services and protect people, sometimes from themselves, sometimes [from]their family.”

Yesterday he told the newspaper that some larger communities, like Balgo which has nearly 500 residents, were in the stages of a “civil war”.

“They cannot provide education, they cannot provide health, they cannot provide employment,” Mr Barnett said in parliament.

“They are not viable and the social outcomes and the abuse and neglect of young children is a disgrace for this state.”

That’s despite the services to provide health and other essential services to Australian citizens being a role for government – which in remote communities around the country was previously delivered predominately by the Commonwealth.

The WA government claims it was given an “ultimatum” to accept $90 million in Commonwealth funds to run remote communities in the state.

In September, federal Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion announced “historic agreements” with Western Australian, Queensland, Victorian and Tasmanian governments to take over the Commonwealth responsibility on municipal and essential services to remote communities.

South Australia did not sign up.

“The delivery of municipal and essential services, including supply of power and water and the management of infrastructure, is a state and local government responsibility,” he said.

Despite being the richest state in Australia, the WA government says it cannot afford to fund these services, which would result in the closure of up to 150 of the 274 remote communities in the state.

Earlier this year, Housing Minister Bill Marmion was questioned by shadow Aboriginal affairs spokesperson Ben Wyatt on the deal, and admitted it had only been discussed at cabinet, with no other consultation.

Mr Marmion said to fund the 274 remote communities the cost would be “$2 billion and $6 billion over 10 years on a net present value basis”.

He blamed the Commonwealth for failing to fix critical infrastructure issues before withdrawing from its responsibility.

“The state government is deeply concerned about a large number of remote communities that do not fit a basic standard of living,” he said.

“… The National Audit of Municipal and Essential Services commissioned by the Commonwealth in 2009, found that remote Aboriginal communities regularly fail basic infrastructure and service standards…

“The state government finds it reprehensible that these communities must be left in such a state by the Commonwealth prior to its withdrawal of its responsibility.”

But Mr Wyatt said at the time the WA government’s “agreement” would have “devastating long term impacts” and many Aboriginal communities would not survive.

“It will force Aboriginal people to move from remote communities into regional centres that do not have the capacity to take on large increases in their population.

“The handling of this issue by the federal and state Liberal governments has been disgraceful.”

Ms Solenec said that the move signalled a return to the past – to the days before equal wages.

“It’s been nearly 50 years since the poor execution of the basic wage policy and lack of planned integration forced many Aboriginal people into towns in WA,” she said.

“Those people are still healing from the consequences and trying to reconnect with their culture. The WA Government needs to learn from the lessons of the past.”

The plans have also been savaged by the deputy Indigenous advisor to the Abbott government Dr Ngaire Brown, who sits on the hand-picked federal Indigenous Advisory Council.

“If communities are unsafe or unviable, then governments have the responsibility to understand the historical and contemporary contexts of those communities and the failure of systems which placed them at risk, and then negotiate the best possible options so as to minimise negative impacts and maximise opportunities and positive outcomes,” Dr Brown told The Australian.

“I am struggling with what I see increasingly as a predetermined, assimilationist agenda that privileges only economic rationalisation, without consideration of more inclusive and innovative approaches that recognise our strengths and contributions.

“The forced, non-negotiable removal and relocation of communities and entire cultural groups is not in the best interests of achieving the equality governments claim to be prioritising, and will serve to only further marginalise families and communities and add to the burden of poor health and social justice outcomes.”

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.