BY TAMSIN DOCHERTY
Last year the Federal government announced it would stop funding essential services in remote Indigenous communities, transferring responsibility to the states.
WA Premier Colin Barnett said his state would have to close between 100 – 150 Indigenous communities as a result of lack of funding.
Previously, the Federal government provided two-thirds of WA’s funding to Aboriginal communities and without that support, Barnett claimed, the state cannot afford to maintain funding on its own.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott suggested that Australian taxpayers should not subsidise the “lifestyle choices” made by Aborigines living in remote communities. His comments sparked a backlash from Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.
The Prime Minister’s own regular advisor on Aboriginal Affairs, Warren Mundine, told Fairfax Media that Abbott was wrong. “That is complete misconception of what it is and he is wrong in that regard,” Mr Mundine said. “It’s not about a lifestyle choice, it is not like retiring and moving for a sea change. It is about thousands of years’ connection, their religious beliefs and the essence of who they are.”
The forcible removal of Indigenous people from their homes is not a foreign concept in Australia. There can be social and economic repercussions of people’s displacement. Services such as housing are strained in towns where populations are re-settled.
Labor’s Indigenous Affairs spokesperson Ben Wyatt said there were serious concerns about where people will go if communities are shut down. “They will move to places like Broome, Kununurra and Fitzroy – places that are not equipped with adequate investment in housing and services to cope,” Mr Wyatt said.
In2010 WA closed the Oombulgurri community in the Kimberley. Tammy Solonec, is Amnesty International’s Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Manager, wrote about the gradual demolition of Oombulgurri in The Guardian:
First, the government closed the services. It closed the shop, so people could not buy food and essentials. It closed the clinic, so the sick and the elderly had to move, and the school, so families with children had to leave, or face having their children taken away from them. The police station was the last service to close, then eventually the electricity and water were turned off.
The remaining 10 people who remained in Oombulgurri were forcibly evicted and accommodated in temporary housing in Wyndham, costing the WA government $1.6 million.
The Closing the Gap Report suggests more funding needs to be allocated to remote communities, not less. Another of its suggestions is to uncover new policy solutions through proper engagement with Indigenous people, to involve them in the policy decisions that will directly affect them. Some Indigenous elders are recommending a program of cultural rejuvenation, returning indigenous peoples to their traditional lands in order to reconnect them with stolen heritage that has led to somewhat of an identity crisis.
Amnesty International believes those displaced from homes suffer significant trauma. The primary issue that the displacement undermines is the central value of Indigenous culture and their connection to their land.
CEO Aboriginal Legal Services WA David Eggington told protesters in Melbourne that the world was watching Australia. “I want you to stop and think about this sacred land that has been home to our people for tens of thousands of years – our land that is central to our culture.”