Wednesday, 13 May 2015
Aboriginal Remote Communities
I rise tonight to talk about remote communities in my home state of Western Australia. When Mr Barnett, the Premier of Western Australia, talked about the proposed closures of 150 remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia earlier this year, the country—not just the state—reacted with outrage. The announcement collected a momentum when the Prime Minister referred to those living on their homelands in Western Australia as a 'lifestyle choice'. Rallies have repeatedly drawn huge crowds across the country—even shutting down traffic in central Melbourne. Thousands have signed on to petitions protesting the action, and the Senate itself added its own condemnation at its last sitting.
I recently spent some time in the Kimberley in Western Australia, visiting and talking with people that have felt completely in the dark about the possible closure of their remote Aboriginal communities and the funding chaos under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, commonly known as the IAS. Different conversations in places such as Halls Creek, Kununurra, Broome, Fitzroy Crossing and in communities such as the Wangkatjungka community had the same theme. People who have deep spiritual connections with the land were unsure whether they would be allowed to remain on their homelands and in their communities, where their ancestors and elders are buried.
News hitting the region was often stressful and fuelled uncertainty. People talked about living in fear of what will happen. They did not know whether it would be their community that would be closed or whether it would be nearby communities, and they were not sure whether essential services would be cut or phased out, or what lay ahead.
I spoke with an elder in the Wangkatjungka community who told me that the news that the government was intending to close some communities was ripping their spirit and their community apart. Members of the Kurungal council were clearly distressed with uncertainty about what the Prime Minister calls a 'lifestyle choice'. These communities were outraged by the description. Their connection to the land runs so deep, and far deeper than the way in which it was trivialised by the Prime Minister as a 'lifestyle choice'.
Elders from the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre, known as KALACC, are operating on a shoestring budget but do incredible work in their lands. Many of the elders who run the centre were displaced as young adults. They talked to me of the fear of history repeating itself. It is a scary prospect for these men. They talked about how their ancestors were displaced from the land when Europeans took over the land. They talked about going back onto the pastoral country to help run pastoral stations. These are the men I spoke to. It was their living experience that they were put on trucks and trucked to Fitzroy Crossing and dumped on the bank of the Fitzroy River when the wage case was held and pastoralists would not pay their wages. So in other words they were dispossessed again. Then they talked about the experience of being able to establish homelands and communities. They are saying that now the government is talking about moving them off again, history is repeating itself. It is a very live and real fear.
I also spoke to elders who were doing an excellent job running organisations such as Marra Worra Worra, in the Kimberley, and Gooniyandi Aboriginal Corporation, which just very recently got their native title back. They shared the same sentiment. Shutting down communities on their homelands and shunting people into larger hubs would devastate communities. It would stunt positive outcomes and stymy Aboriginal culture.
KALACC and the Gooniyandi community gave me messages and asked me to table them in the Senate. I seek leave to table these tonight.
Before I table the documents I will read one part, because they are quite extensive. The Gooniyandi Aboriginal Corporation said:
We are saddened at the government's and federal government's threats to close down remote communities across Australia. The Gooniyandi native title area covers 19 Aboriginal communities, many of which are remote, and some are listed as being at risk of de-funding or closure. These political threats have caused real fear in those communities and have upset many, especially the elders in these communities.
One other section says:
The GAC directors already have a clear long-term vision that is also shared by its member base and believe it is the best way of addressing a lot of the concerns raised by federal and state representatives when justifying their position of closing remote communities.
We do not want to be consulted. We demand genuine dialog.
People in remote communities would like Mr Barnett and Senator Scullion to know that they are not stupid. They are aware that the state government is unlikely to shut outright 150 communities all at once. They are aware that the state government could try to wind back services and fold smaller communities into townships and bigger communities. They oppose this. They want control over the decisions affecting their lives and communities.
The clear message from community members and stakeholders is that they want genuine conversations with the government so that they can make the decisions and decide their own fate. Mr Barnett has just said he intends to consult communities as part of his plan. He announced this at the end of last week. But it is clear that he still intends to close many communities. It is hardly consultation to tell a group, two years into the planning process, that the closures are happening whether they like it or not, but they will be consulted from now on.
If the Premier really did care about these groups and communities, then proper and genuine conversations would have begun two years ago when Minister Collier, the Aboriginal affairs minister in Western Australia, claims a broader review into Aboriginal issues began. Communities only heard of the opaque and concerning plans through the media, when Premier Barnett made his comments earlier this year.
Members of the communities I visited told me that consultation means the government coming in and telling them what they are going to do—not listening, top-down decision making and basically making decisions over their lives. The message is that consultation is a dirty word. So I committed to them that I would try not use the word 'consultation' any more, because it has such negative connotations for people. I have promised that I will try at all times to use terms like 'conversation with', 'talking with', 'listening to' and 'genuine dialog', as KALACC has asked. To Aboriginal communities, consultation does not mean anything any more, because they are so used to that meaning, 'We will come in and tell you what to do.' When I visited the Kimberley the resounding answer to my question 'Has the Premier or anybody from the government visited and come up to speak with you and listen to you about these issues?' was no.
With the unfolding debacle of the federal government handing-off municipal services and trying to do deals with states to hand-off responsibility for remote communities, and with the debacle over the Indigenous advancement strategy, mixed in with the comments from the government that they want to close down and wind back Aboriginal communities, there is deep concern in the community. People spoke to me about their concerns over moving into the bigger towns. Mothers said, 'We do not think we will be able to keep our children safe.' Questions were asked about where the support services are, as support services are already being wound back under cuts to Aboriginal supports and funding. They know that the money for those supports is not there. They know that the housing is not available. They told me what happened when people were moved out of the community of Oombulgurri into Wyndham, and they lived on a marsh with no housing for a long period of time. They were given no supports and no counselling for the abuse that justified the government moving them into Wyndham.
People saw what happened in the past and they know what will happen now. People are clear that they want to stay on their lands. They want decision-making control over their own lives. They want to determine their own future. It is time for the government to abandon plans to shut down remote communities and to go and have conversations with communities about how best to support them and how those communities see their future. The Gooniyandi community has already done that; they already have a plan. Fitzroy Valley already has a plan—Fitzroy Futures—for their future. Go and work with, support and be in partnership with Aboriginal communities so they can realise their hopes and aspirations for their future.