What happens when a remote Aboriginal community in Western Australia is ‘closed’?

By Rose Carnes

In November last year, WA Premier Colin Barnett revealed a plan to close as many as 150 of the state’s 274 remote Aboriginal communities. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has since backed this, referring to remote Aboriginal communities as a “lifestyle choice” in controversial comments he made last week.

Premier Barnett has admitted that the closures will “cause great distress” but says that he must shut down the communities because the Federal Government will no longer fund essential services – like power, water, health and education – and the WA Government cannot meet those costs on its own.

What happens when a remote community is closed?

The phenomenon of closing an Aboriginal community is not new to Western Australia. Oombulgurri, north of Kununurra, was closed down in 2011 when the state government deemed it to no longer be viable. This followed a coronial inquiry in 2008 that found high levels of suicide, domestic violence, sexual abuse and alcoholism. It was noted as an indictment on Aboriginal Affairs in Western Australia. Subsequently, rather than address the issues with the community, the community was closed.

Amnesty International described the forced evictions that took place from Oombulgurri. “Although many refused to leave, WA Government closed the health clinic, school, police station, shop, and shut off the town’s power and water.” Houses that remained were bulldozed so that people could not return to them.

The issue of closure was first raised in the Western Australian Parliament on September 24, 2014 when the Minister for Housing Bill Marmion spoke about the withdrawal of funds by the Federal Government. Hansard records that he recommended a thorough assessment for an infrastructure package for communities to meet minimum standards in basic necessities such as sanitation and clean water. There has, as yet, been no audit by either the state or federal government.

Is this a form of forced eviction as defined by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights?

The Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights (2014) points out that the following four elements, separately or combined, define a forced eviction:

  1. A permanent or temporary removal from housing, land or both.

There is no indication that people will be able to return to their homes or their country. For Aboriginal people, country is identity, spirituality, purpose and law and has been so for tens of thousands of years. There is an obligation to care for country and it is well documented by many academics and health professionals that people’s health and wellbeing are directly and immediately impacted by being forcibly removed from country and that this trauma is intergenerational.

Bringing Them Home comprehensively documents the harm that occurs when non-Indigenous policies and removal of people from country are imposed. Many people are still finding their links to country after these old policies, only to face the horror of re-traumatisation by new policies. Community Elders are noting that they have not been involved in any discussions or consultations about the closures.

  1. The removal is carried out against the will of the occupants, with or without the use of force.

While guns and riot gear may not be employed in the removal of people from country, it is still forced. The force used is much more insidious. The 2015 Closing the Gap Report reveals that the circumstances of many of Australia’s Indigenous Peoples are either stagnant or going backwards. Housing, health and education outcomes, as well as life expectancy, remain far behind that of non-Indigenous citizens on the same measures.

Seeing Aboriginal people as some kind of social experiment, or childlike and in need of protection by benevolent all knowing non-Indigenous policies, creates situations such as that of Oombulgurri and the communities facing closure now. Patrick Dodson, the Father of Reconciliation, asks the direct question that non-Indigenous Australia needs to answer not only in words, but also in actions:

Does Australia want to have a relationship with Aboriginal people, or does it not? Or does it simply want to improve the management and control systems over the lives of Aboriginal people? That’s the seminal issue.

  1. It can be carried out without the provision of proper alternative housing and relocation, adequate compensation and/or access to productive land, when appropriate.

Hayes ominously foreshadowed much of what is now occurring when she stated in regard to the National Partnership Agreement on Remote Indigenous Housing (which involved Aboriginal communities signing their land over to government in exchange for housing) that “the only obvious gain at this stage appears to be to the State and Federal government, who again have control over Indigenous homelands.”

Anecdotal evidence from community members and people living in remote areas suggest that no extra houses are planned to be built in the larger regional towns. The state government has yet to identify plans for rehousing the displaced, forcibly removed community members.

Compensation is a thorny issue in Australia. While there seems to be no difficulty in compensating for land taken from businesses to build roads or public infrastructure, this same kind of compensation is not provided to Aboriginal communities as a matter of course. It does not appear to have been offered as of yet in WA.

  1. It is carried out without the possibility of challenging either the decision or the process of eviction, without due process and disregarding the State’s national and international obligations.

There is no avenue for appeal or challenge, despite numerous appeals to logic, common sense and ethical obligations by prominent commentators from both sides of politics, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. The Hon Fred Chaney says it could be catastrophic for Aboriginal peoples. The Prime Minister’s adviser Warren Mundine says it is a form of apartheid. There has been no due process, just the threat of withdrawal of funds and services, with communities unsure of whether or not they are going to be targeted.

In forcibly removing people from their country, what is being effectively closed is identity – the ability to meet cultural obligations to country and community, a place to build wellbeing. We know this; there are no excuses for not knowing it.

There are no benefits for Aboriginal peoples and their communities. It is hard to identify a way in which the removal of identity can close any kind of gap.

And what are we left with?

Money (the alleged reason the closures are proposed) will not be saved. Aboriginal leaders claim that the cost of closure of remote communities is higher than the cost of addressing issues they face. This is because of the social chaos and impact on social indicators of health that will ensue when people lose connection to country.

An Australia that will, in the future, be judged harshly for its racism – and rightly so. As Patrick Dodson told us in 2013 at the Annual ANU Lecture:

Whatever differences we have between us as societies we need today to find the collective courage to negotiate our way through them, to mutually agreed outcomes. True justice may never be arrived at, but what we may achieve might give us peace and mutual respect. After more than 200 years, we Aboriginal people are due at least that respect and courtesy. It does not seem much to ask.

Respect and courtesy – not that much to ask.

Rose Carnes has been the Discipline Co-ordinator for Aboriginal Studies at University of Notre Dame Fremantle. This role included teaching into this area of study. Her current position is as a Research Fellow with the Centre for Rural, Regional Law and Justice at Deakin University in Geelong.

Feature image: Michael Coghlan/Flickr

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