Why The Forced Closure Of Aboriginal Communities Is Wrong

The Western Australian government is still hiding behind the same flimsy arguments while thousands of indigenous people fear displacement.

By Josh Kraus

Australia’s indigenous people have been fighting to reclaim their ancestral homelands ever since British colonization. Recently, the Western Australian Government proposed something that would reverse years of progress.

In November 2014, WA Premier Colin Barnett announced that by July 1, 2015, essential and municipal services would be cut in up to 150 of the region’s remote indigenous communities. This would effectively shut down those communities, as they would be without water and electricity. To survive, residents would be forced to abandon their rightful homes.

The announcement was met with backlash from NGOs, politicians, and indigenous community members who continue to argue that the proposal constitutes a human rights violation. After Prime Minister Tony Abbott commented that living in indigenous communities amounted to a “lifestyle choice,” anger turned to uproar, and the issue gained global traction. An Aboriginal council condemning the closures has even received support from the UN.

Faced with mounting criticism, Barnett announced on May 5 that he intends to pull back on the number of closures, but added that there will still be “significantly fewer” Aboriginal communities in the future.

While Barnett’s efforts to appear more diplomatic may have eased some tensions, many see it as a blatant PR move, and the government’s intent still remains the same.

Buttressing these impending closures are the same flimsy arguments the government has been using for years. These arguments are short-sighted, factually incomplete, and lack wisdom. It’s time they were refuted.

Argument #1: The WA cannot afford to continue funding power, water, and other services.

The economy of Western Australia is driven largely by mineral mining, and 2014 saw a significant drop in royalty revenue from iron ore. The Barnett administration is using this deficit as grounds for defunding.

But while WA is indeed experiencing a budget ‘crisis,’ “the funding of homelands is just a mere decimal place of their deficit problem,” says Jon Altman, an emeritus professor in anthropology at the Australian National University and the founding director (1990–2010) of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research.

“In the context of Australia’s 1.5 trillion dollar per annum Australian economy, providing several ten millions per annum to support homelands is a total drop in the ocean.”

In fact, the ramifications of these closures could offset the initial budgetary savings.

With no integration strategy in place, displaced residents will be forced to abandon their homes and move to non-indigenous communities. That transition will be challenging.

“It’s very dangerous for them,” says Tammy Solonec, Amnesty International’s Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Manager. “They often don’t have housing. There’s overcrowding. There’s homicides. There’s greater access to drugs and alcohol. There’s more involvement in crime.”

Altman says that this could lead to more incarcerations. “The Australian State spends a lot of money putting Aboriginal people in prison.”

For some perspective, it costs Australian taxpayers between $100,000 and $200,000 a year to incarcerate just one inmate, and while Aboriginals only represent 3% of the total population, they make up 28% of the prison population. These closures could add to that number as people are displaced, impoverished, and marginalized.

Argument #2: The communities are not sustainable.

Yes, many of these communities are not sustainable, but they could be. The government of Western Australia needs to invest in solutions, and if they won’t, the Commonwealth needs to step in and do it for them.

Altman argues that, “The government needs to take a developmental approach that matches people’s aspirations, and find ways of supporting them and making them more self-sufficient where they live.”

One approach to creating sustainable and self-sufficient communities is for the government to invest in hub-and-spokes models of service delivery. In these models, centralized resource agencies, or “hubs,” are encircled by a manageable number of smaller remote communities. Providers from these hubs could travel to surrounding communities and assist with provision of municipal services, enterprise and community development, education, and healthcare.

“You have to empower community-based organizations, usually in a larger place, to service a hinterland,” Altman says. “The reason that the government is a little bit intolerant of that model, which can be very cost-effective, is that the government at present fundamentally distrusts the indigenous community sector.”

Altman believes hub-and-spokes models could facilitate sustainable homelands, and provide their residents a better quality of life.

“One could argue that the rehabilitation of people and communities is a first essential, and then, down the road, when people are better equipped in terms of their health and their education and self-esteem, then they might engage in more commercial opportunities where they exist and if they so desire.”

Contrary to the Barnett administration’s rhetoric, members of remote indigenous communities can successfully engage in commercial activities.

In 2011, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the median weekly income for an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander over fifteen years old was $362. Individuals could even earn up to $500 per week by producing paintings or working for community programs.

“The dominant trope is that these people are all lazy and useless and dependent on welfare,” Altman says. “But in reality, when they’re given a realistic opportunity, they actually make significant contributions to cultural industries, natural and cultural resource management in areas of global environmental significance and carbon farming.”

Argument #3: Children are being neglected and abused.

There is no denying that many of these communities are highly dysfunctional. Rampant neglect and abuse must be acknowledged and addressed, but closing the communities does neither. The Barnett administration is simply moving the problem somewhere else.

In March, Tony Abbott said that “the abuse and neglect of young children is a disgrace to this state.”

Yet Abbott’s solution is a different kind of disgrace. Instead of dealing with these issues head on, he is kicking them down the road.

“I think this reform has to happen, but I don’t think closing the communities is the answer,” Solonec says. ”They need to be sustained and nurtured.”

Rather than cut funding, the government needs to attack the problem at its root by investing in education, special services, and healthcare resources.

Argument #4: They’re free to live off the land as they used to.

Supporters of the Barnett administration’s proposal are quick to point out that indigenous people are still free to live on their land, despite the absence of services.

“There’s this notion that they can just go back and live in the bush by themselves,” Solonec says. “This is 2015, we can’t expect anyone in the world to do that anymore … They’re human beings. They want good things for their communities. They want schools, they want buildings, they want roads … They don’t want to go live out in the bush with no electricity.”

Anyone arguing that living in these communities is a “lifestyle choice” is either forgetting or ignoring the history of systematic discrimination, disenfranchisement, and exclusion that drove many indigenous people back onto their ancestral lands in the first place — lands, by the way, that they now own under land rights and native title laws.

Altman says that many of these communities are trying to socially recuperate from a colonial experience that, even in the late 20th century, has been bitter and destructive. Many indigenous people stay in remote communities because they’re not accepted anywhere else.

“The dominant narrative is that these people living in remote places need to become like other Australians, to assimilate or integrate into the dominant society,” Altman says. “If people want to live on their land, and they want to pursue a simpler lifeway than the average Australian citizen … they should have that basic human right. And that right is something the Australian state … really struggle[s] with. There is a dominant view that people should have a right to be the same, but Australia’s first peoples should surely also have the right to be different.”