Fighting Forced Closures of Indigenous Australian Communities

Indigenous Australian community organizer Jodie Bell speaks about the Western Australian government’s threat to shut down remote Indigenous communities.

First the health clinic was shut down. Then the local store was dismantled, followed by the school, police station and finally water and electricity. Then, when a handful of residents still refused to leave, they were forcibly evicted by the government. They were given 48 hours notice, and forced to leave behind everything they owned except one box of personal items each. While some of those evicted were able to pick themselves up and start new lives, others have reportedly been left homeless, with little assistance from the state.

This isn’t a story from Palestine, Somalia or Sudan. This was in the far north of Western Australia in 2011 after the government deemed the isolated Indigenous community of Oombulgurri “unviable.”

Native title recognition of the land surrounding Oombulgurri in 2013 hasn’t helped residents return. Instead, they’ve been threatened with charges of trespassing if they try to salvage their old lives in the now vacant settlement, which is surrounded by a number of sacred sites.

In recent weeks, protests across the country have been sparked by fears that as many as 150 Indigenous communities across the state of Western Australia could be gutted like Oombulgurri. Alarm bells first rang in late 2014, when the federal government said it could no longer afford to maintain infrastructure in remote communities, and handed responsibility to the states. Western Australia’s government responded by stating it too would be unwilling to cover basic utility costs. Despite receiving around AU$90 million (US$68 million) from the federal government in exchange for taking responsibility for the communities, the state government says many communities may soon be scuttled.

Crunching the Numbers

If Indigenous communities are closed, it’s not exactly clear how much the state will save. In November 2014, Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett told radio station 720 ABC Perth that the cost of delivering municipal services to each person in some remote communities can run as high as AU$85,000 (US$64,000) a year. At that figure, the state would be paying out around AU$1 billion (US$770 million) a year to provide basic services to the 12,000 people estimated to be living in the state’s 274 remote Indigenous communities.

Yet, the Western Australian government has allocated roughly the same amount of money to mining companies through subsidies and tax breaks every year since at least 2008, according to a 2014 report by the policy think tank the Australia Institute. Comparatively, the state’s 2014-15 budget earmarked just under AU$1 billion for building a new football stadium in the capital of Perth.

Fighting Back

Over 200 kilometers north of Perth, in the Western Australian town of Broome, local Indigenous community organizer Jodie Bell warned wholesale community closures isn’t just about cost-cutting.

“It’s about assimilation – many non-Indigenous people cannot fathom or understand the Indigenous connection to country,” Bell told teleSUR. “And because they do not understand it, they trivialize it and think they are helping people by moving them off country.”

Bell spoke to teleSUR shortly after participating in a rally that brought Broome to a standstill on Thursday. Protesters marched down the small country town’s normally subdued main street, demanding the government backtrack on threats to shut down many Indigenous communities in the area.

The rally in Broome was just one of dozens of similar demonstrations that took place nationwide, with Australians from all walks of life coming out to protest against the threat of forced community closures.

Bell is one of the organizers behind the social media campaign SoSBlakAustralia, which has mushroomed from a handful of activists to a nationwide movement.

“Within six days, our Facebook page has gone viral – we have reached nearly 24,000 likes, we have reached 700,000 on Facebook alone and have today (March 19) held the first ever National Indigenous protest in 30 known events across all major capital cities, and a number of regional towns,” she said.

At the time of writing, the movement’s Facebook page, Stop the Forced Closure of Aboriginal Communities in Australia, had already surpassed 24,000 likes.

“Our numbers (on) Facebook have been steadily growing and we have had massive, international media interest which will only help the support to grow,” she said.

Demanding Dialogue

Bell explained she and other organizers hope to use the “momentum” of the campaign to pressure the Western Australian government into “consulting in a meaningful way with these communities to stop the scaremongering and anxiety that Indigenous people are dealing with.”

Just days before teleSUR spoke with Bell, the Western Australian government said it would begin consulting Indigenous communities on June 30 – a full seven months after the state first threatened to start closures.

While Bell and other activists have welcomed the move, she warned Premier Barnett has as poor track record on public consultations.

“We know we are dealing with a very stubborn Western Australian premier – he has shown this on many occasions, over many issues. However we need to keep the pressure on him until he consults with communities, and at least allows communities a seat at the table to discuss this issue rationally,” she said.

Bell continued by explaining, “People do not know what the criteria is in deciding whether a community is considered viable or not and this is scaring people.”

“Lifestyle Choices” or 50,000-Year-Old Culture?

While the Indigenous communities will be heading into the consultations with the support of a nationwide movement behind them, Barnett has already garnered the support of the federal government. When visiting the rural Western Australian town of Kalgoorlie in early March, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Indigenous Australians living in remote areas shouldn’t expect any basic services like water or electricity to be provided by the government.

“What we can’t do is endlessly subsidize lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have,” he argued.

Indigenous leaders across the country were infuriated by the comments, accusing the prime minister of disregarding Indigenous culture.

Bell said one leader at the Broome rally hit back at Abbott’s comments by stating, “We did not choose this lifestyle, this lifestyle chose us and we have to live with it.”

“We are born of our country, our ancestors are born of our country and our children will be born from our country,” she said.

Abbott has stood by his controversial comments, arguing it’s unrealistic for some small communities to be viable.

“We are talking about very, very, very, very, very small places that might have a dozen or fewer people,” he told Sky News earlier this week.

After working in remote communities for over a decade, Bell conceded living in isolated areas isn’t easy.

“You are quite often remote from services such as health and education, (and) the labor market in remote communities is minimal,” she explained.

However, she argued that these isolated communities are often healthier than larger towns, and less plagued by issues like alcohol and substance abuse.

“People are happier when they are on their communities – they are with their ancestors, they are learning and practicing their Law and Culture,” Bell explained.

She also pointed out that many of these communities are some of the best places for children to be raised with an education in Indigenous cultures – something she argued is “central to the ongoing survival of our Law and Culture.”

Almost all of the hundreds of Indigenous cultures that existed at the time of European colonization in the late 18th Century are either extinct or endangered. Of the more than 700 languages that existed three hundred years ago, only 150 are still used. All but 20 of those remaining languages are considered endangered, mostly because they are no longer being taught to children.

By playing a vital role in preserving Indigenous cultures, remote communities offer far more than the trivial “lifestyle choice” that Abbott described, Bell explained.

“Our spiritual and cultural life is intricately linked with our country and we have fought hard in the past 30 years to regain the ability to live in our country following years of displacement as a result of government policies,” she said. “We will not move, we cannot move.”

First published on teleSUR English here.

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