Culture, not “choice”
Today, across Western Australia there are 274 small communities in fear of losing power, water, and other essential services needed to sustain their towns. Worse still, they have no idea what criteria will be used to decide if their power will stay on, or exactly who gets to make the call on whether their town will remain inhabitable. All are Aboriginal communities.
16 months ago, the Australian Federal Government announced it would stop funding essential services to remote indigenous communities, devolving that responsibility (and expense) to each state. Western Australia’s Government accepted that responsibility, along with $90m of “transitional” funding from the Federal Government, which will last until 2016. Now the state’s Premier, Colin Barnett, says that once the Federal cash for these communities dries up, the state won’t keep supporting all of them.
Barnett has said that anywhere from 100 to 150 towns are “not viable,” and will no longer be provided with the essentials of life. PM Tony Abbott supports the closures, implying that Aboriginal people should simply move to more populated areas: “We can’t…endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have.” His words sparked outrage, as many of these communities were created with help from the 1974 Aboriginal Land Fund—a government endowment that helped indigenous Australians return to life on homelands from which they had been forcibly removed.
Sensing heat over the “subsidising lifestyle choices” argument, Premier Barnett then argued the communities needed to close, as they were rife with child sexual abuse: “[Those communities] cannot look anyone in the eye and guarantee the safety of little boys and girls.” Opposition spokesman Ben Wyatt hit back, saying Barnett “is now slurring every Aboriginal person in an attempt to shore up his political argument.”
Aboriginal leaders contend that Barnett’s concerns about child welfare should prompt more support for people within their communities, instead of scattering whatever problems they may have to the outskirts of larger towns and cities. They argue that inhabiting their ancestral land is a major source of identity and wellbeing; citing a 2011 Amnesty International report that found better results for health and drug rehabilitation for Aboriginal people who were able to live on their homeland.
Indigenous Australians don’t necessarily prioritise full participation in Tony Abbott’s definition of “Australian society.” Many long to be reconnected to the land, family, and culture stolen from them over several generations. There may be problems in remote communities, but effectively removing a people from the land once again cannot be the only answer. If services are to be withdrawn, the state Government must first make clear their criteria for deciding which communities are shut off, and allow those communities a chance to stand up and be heard. If improvements need to be made in order to qualify, communities should be given the opportunity to improve before being cut off.
No matter where it happens, concerns about child welfare, and other social breakdown should be investigated and taken seriously. However, the reality is that if you take a people from their land, then take a generation of children to re-educate them in a different culture, it’s going to take a long time—and a lot of support—for the people and culture to recover.