Aboriginal communities are still threatened with closure

The WA Government apparently still does not understand Aboriginal people's relationship with country

By Sarah George, Home is Heritage Campaign Manager
Sunday, June 19, 2016

In late 2014, Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett made the shocking announcement that 150 remote Aboriginal communities would soon be closed by the Government. Considering Australia's history of Indigenous human rights abuses, it was not surprising that this announcement angered many, and tens of thousands of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people rallied all over Australia and major cities around the world for an entire year.

Fast forward to mid-2016. Just when many people thought the threat of Aboriginal community closures was behind us, Mr Barnett has stated that he would like to see fewer of these communities. Alarmingly, the Government has also confirmed that closures are still not out of the question.

This comes as a surprise to many people, who thought the Government had changed its mind on closures – but not to those who have been here before, and suspected that more bad news was to follow.

"I hope over time we do get a lesser number of communities, and larger ones," the Premier indicated in May. "Maybe that's going to mean some intervention and that will be unpopular, people will say 'well I don't support that'."

Mr Barnett is correct, people will not support it – and for good reason. Aboriginal Australians are part of the oldest living culture in the world, and not only are homelands an irreplaceable part of that culture, but studies show that people experience better health outcomes while living there. This makes it outrageous that the Government continues to threaten their existence.

And right now the Government's latest approach, the Regional Services Reform, is identifying higher performing communities for funding – which will potentially leave the most vulnerable communities underfunded or closed altogether.

"We're a cultural type of people and we need this land to live and survive. It's the place we call home," emphasised Martu leader Milton Chapman. "Taking people into town will cause problems and we don't want to see our kids growing up doing things that are happening in there."

Worryingly, Mr Chapman may witness that very situation if the Reform has its way with the most vulnerable communities. According to the Reform's website, these residents may have to relocate temporarily to access health services, education, and employment – or worse, relocate permanently should their communities be closed altogether.
It is hard to imagine the closure of a metropolitan suburb due to socio-economic difficulties, yet remote communities are constantly at risk despite their unique importance to the families who live in them.

It is in times like these that we need to remind our Government where the true responsibility lies: it is never the responsibility of residents to prove their deservedness or to relocate to access services – it is the responsibility of the Government to provide services to all Australians.

Australia has endorsed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states that people have the right to belong to their own communities and to be supported to do so. So instead of bargaining to have their basic needs met, residents of remote communities actually have the right to Government cooperation and funding.
Thankfully, not all politicians share Mr Barnett's views. Some understand the real life benefits of remote communities as well as the responsibility to support them. For example, Greens MP Robin Chapple has introduced the Prevention of Forced Closures of Remote Aboriginal Communities Draft Bill 2016 as part of his Home is Heritage campaign which aims to prevent forced community closures and enable residents to contest closures which take place without their permission.

So not only is it time for people to rally in Australia and all over the world again, but it is also time for people to support politicians who defend human rights in Parliament. When these voices are heard at every level, Indigenous people all over the world will start to receive the respect and support they should have had from the beginning.

Photo: At an SOS Blak Australia rally in 2015 attended by Robin and Sarah Tim Oliver