Threat To Close Communities In Western Australia

In 2014 the Federal Government decided that it would no longer accept responsibility for the provision of municipal services to remote Aboriginal communities including, in Tasmania and Victoria, the provision of remote housing. The argument was that such services should be the responsibility of states and local communities.

The reality is money. In Western Australia these services cost approximately $1 billion annually, but the WA Government was offered an extra $90 million over two years. Not surprisingly the WA Government has decided to close communities – nearly 150 of them. It made the announcement in November 2014, then seemed to backtrack with a promise of funding, but has again recently reiterated its threat to close communities.

This has caused enormous stress and anxiety across these communities. In a nutshell the issues are:
• there has been no consultation with Aboriginal people or the organisations which represent them;
• many of these communities exist in places that allow Aboriginal people to stay in touch with their land and their culture. This is another example of forced removal and dispossession (see below). There has been no attempt by government to understand what such forced community closures and movement of people means for people’s social, mental, spiritual and physical life; and
• the movement of this many people will put enormous pressure on the communities they go to – housing, education, health facilities, and community relationships. Nothing has been done to plan for and deal with such impacts.

While these are decisions of the WA Government, they arise from decisions of the Federal Government and its attempt to shift the financial responsibility. It is an indefensible attack on the human rights of Aboriginal people.

Some Brief History Of The Communities

People have chosen to live in these small, remote communities as a way of responding to colonial dispossession and an attempt to stay close to the land which is the source of their life.

Aboriginal people had their land taken away from them by force, and the massacres that occurred around the country bear testimony to their determination to defend their belonging to the land. Yet even when they lost control, Aboriginal people continued to live on and live off the land, and many stayed in their country working for pastoralists and farmers. However, in 1968 it became law that they had to be paid wages and when the pastoralists and farmers could no longer afford to pay them, Aboriginal people had to move to town camps.

In addition to the massacres and their dispossession from the land, Aboriginal people have had to deal with the consequences of racism and racist policies including:
• the 1905 Act by the Protector of Aborigines which led to the forced removal of children;
• the men in the Kimberley being ‘black-birded’ (conscripted) and forced marched in chains to Broome to be pearl divers – many died from the ‘bends’;
• the sexual and economic exploitation of women as they struggled to find work to maintain their families;
• the abuse of alcohol, drugs and suicide by young people – a direct result of their continued dispossession and disillusionment;
• the imprisonment of people far from their homelands and families; and
• the continuing tragedy of Aboriginal deaths in custody – a tragedy that has touched every Aboriginal family.

In the 1970s there was a movement to allow people to return to their ‘country’ and communities were established. Some of those are quite small today. Living on community is integral to the identity, health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people. To force Aboriginal people to leave their land is nothing less than an act of genocide.

The rationale for the proposed closure of communities was that they were not economically viable. However, the real purpose of any community is to sustain the people who live in it across all aspects of human life. If ‘financial sustainability’ was the only measure of the value of a community then quite a few non-Indigenous communities across Australia – in rural and remote areas – could equally be closed. That this would never be countenanced by governments or broader Australian society just highlights the racist nature of this policy.

A Breach Of Human Rights

In September 2007 the United Nations adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It is a non-binding document, but provides a framework for recognising and protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples, based on existing human rights standards. It does not suggest ‘new’ or ‘special’ rights for Indigenous peoples, but draws together existing rights from international laws and conventions and explains how they apply to Indigenous peoples. To our shame, Australia was one of only four countries that voted against the adoption of the Declaration, and it took a change of Government for Australia to endorse the document on 3 April 2009.

There are a number of rights breached by this decision to close communities. The Declaration affirms peoples’ right to their land, the importance of self-determination and the right for people to control development on their land. It affirms the right of people to participate in decisions that affect their lives:
Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves. (Article 18)

It affirms the right to free, prior and informed consent, which means that governments and corporations are expected to negotiate with, and obtain the consent of, Indigenous peoples before taking actions that affect them. Article 19 says:
States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.

Not only must governments and corporations negotiate, the expectation is that they will do so in good faith, not simply using the negotiations to explain what they have already decided to do.

Article 8 says, “Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.” Yet this is precisely what this decision to close communities will mean.

Article 8 also says:
States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for:
(b) Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources;
(c) Any form of forced population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of their rights;
(d) Any form of forced assimilation or integration;

Article 10 says:
Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.

Article 25 affirms the right to maintain a relationship with their land, and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations:
Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.

As noted above, Australia has endorsed the Declaration. We have accepted it as a framework for relationships in this country. It should shape what is happening in WA, remembering that, as Article 43 says: “The rights recognized herein constitute the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world” and, as Article 46.3 says: “The provisions set forth in this Declaration shall be interpreted in accordance with the principles of justice, democracy, respect for human rights, equality, non-discrimination, good governance and good faith.”

What Can Be Done?

If you are concerned about this issue and the devastating effects the closure of communities will have on Aboriginal people, please, as a matter of urgency, contact your local Federal member and the office of the Minister for Indigenous, Mr Nigel Scullion, to express your concern about the way funds have been withdrawn from the states. It is unacceptable for the Federal Government to walk away from its responsibilities in this way.

UAICC also calls on governments to change how they relate to Aboriginal people, in particular:

• the Western Australian Government must begin genuine negotiations with the communities and those who represent them;
• the Western Australian Government must immediately undertake a serious analysis of the impact that closures will have on surrounding communities, in consultation with Aboriginal people develop a plan to deal with the effects;
• All governments in Australia must sign a code of conduct for working with Aboriginal people. This code must be developed through sincere dialogue with the people in all Aboriginal communities, and not just those individuals in positions of influence with government and the general community.

Contact the Hon. Colin Barnett, Premier of WA, and express your concern about the lack of genuine consultation with the communities, and encourage the government to start urgent and genuine negotiations with the land councils across WA.

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