Governments needs to engage more and listen to First Peoples to develop a better understanding of culture, connection to land, and health and wellbeing.
The Prime Minister’s recent comments about plans to close more than 150 communities in Western Australia where he said that government could not fund ‘lifestyle choices’ has rightly put the debate on the national agenda.
However, I want to focus this piece on the role and comments of the WA Government and its Premier, Colin Barnett.
Just before Christmas the Premier announced that the WA government will close up to 150 remote Indigenous communities. To date he has made no case for the closure of one community, let alone closing up to 150. These communities, are home to about 12,000 people; with around 1300 people living in 174 of the smallest Aboriginal communities in the state.
This came as a shock to people living in over 270 remote communities; they were not informed that this was even being considered.
More recently the Premier commented that the community closures have been largely motivated by child safety issues; this is extremely concerning. Allegations of child abuse should be investigated by the proper authorities and if found to be of substance, charges should be laid and tested in the courts. Closing whole communities on the basis of untested allegations is punitive in the extreme; and if communities are closed without the appropriate investigation and prosecution, all that the closures will do is move the ‘alleged problem’ to another location.
The premier has not outlined any consultation process or consideration of the social and cultural implications that such closures would have on the people living in those communities. Fred Chaney has cautioned against repeating the “catastrophic’’ social degradation of the 1960s when Aborigines were moved into towns, warning that governments must ensure those in remote communities “have a decent life and don’t actually wind up as fringe-dwellers and long-grassers’’.
How can we, as a society, allow governments to close communities and force Indigenous people from their land? How can we allow policies of removal and assimilation to continue? Announcing the closure of even one community with no consultation is fraught with control and disrespect. It also creates high levels of anxiety and uncertainty. Communities emerge as individuals come together to connect and give life to that which is important to them. The sheer announcement to “close” a community implies that the government has the right to start or end existing communities when and how it wishes. This suggests that governments continue to hold inordinate levels of power over Aboriginal communities, in which case every approach to empowerment and self-determination is diluted to cosmetics… How does a government close down a community and disregard all that is within it? This is a new form of colonialism. Furthermore, the point of disrespect is the assumption that without closing the community down, it will not survive.
There are numerous logistical factors that need careful planning before closing any community, such as: where are the members of the closed community supposed to go to live; will there be relocation assistance; will the community be able to move together? What are the implications for other communities and towns they may be forced to move to?
The history of the development of the Pilbara and Kimberley is still within living memory for many people. It is a narrative of people being pushed off country, into missions, reserves and country towns. It is a tragic history.
Consultation or not, this decision by is repugnant. It undermines so many commitments made by current and previous governments to work towards historical justice, reparation and reconciliation.
All questions posed to the government to date, have gone unanswered.
There has been no information about which communities are being targeted or why, there has been no provision of criteria to clarify the basis of the decisions being made. There is no rationale for closing any communities, let alone a case for any specific community closures.
The Premier said he had no alternative after the Federal Government announced they would no longer fund essential services to remote communities, instead providing a one-off payment of $90 million to the State Government to take responsibility. The Premier said: “We are not, and I stress, we are not simply going to replace the amount of money withdrawn by the Commonwealth.”
Perhaps people don’t get pushed off country and into towns, reserves and missions as blatantly as we have done in the past. Now it comes under the banner of constraints; but it is the same outcome; Indigenous people forced from their country with no consultation and no opportunity for self-determination.
This economic rationalistic approach to the value of an Indigenous community is not new, but it illustrates how Governments fail to understand Indigenous culture and fail to understand the importance of land in non-economic terms. To deprive an Indigenous community of their cultural lands and communities is to deprive them of their identities and create suffering on social and cultural levels. And we wonder why we have a crisis in Aboriginal mental health?
The WA Government has developed a mental health plan for the next decade; it consulting about that plan and welcomes input and feedback. Within the timeframe of the consultation period the same government has dropped its plan on reform in local government and announced its intention to close about 150 communities. There was a large and well-resourced campaign around the local government reform. To date there is no rationale for closing these communities, no announced plan, and definitely no consultation.
We struggle to find answers in relation to Indigenous mental health; and yet, we are prepared to displace indigenous peoples and make them refugees in their own land.
Both the Premier and the Prime Minister’s comments show enormous disrespect and a complete lack of understanding of connection to land, the importance of culture, and the positive impact of both on health and wellbeing.
There is ample evidence of the health and wellbeing benefits of living in homelands, particularly in relation to maintaining culture and connection to country. Breaking Aboriginal connection to land and culture, and forcing people to move to regional towns will just increase exposure to drugs, alcohol, and crime, with no guarantees of adequate housing or employment.