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Will closing Aboriginal communities actually fix the problems?

Family violence, child sexual assaults, drug and alcohol abuse, suicide… These are issues plaguing some Indigenous communities. But is the answer to shut them down?

Trigger Warning: this post deals with child sexual abuse, violence and suicide.

Stella Alberts was a daughter of the Stolen Generations.

As a child, she was taken from her mother and moved to an Anglican Mission.

She grew up there, and when it was closed, chose to return to her lands.

Sadly, this town would come to disintegrate into an infamous hotbed of crime, alcohol abuse, suicide and child sexual abuse.

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Stella Alberts. Image: Four Corners

Oombulgurri is one remote community that has been closed by the Western Australian government.

Police commissioner Karl O’Callaghan has worked for more than a decade in the region.

“Well, I guess I was first introduced to the Oombulgurri problem after I became commissioner in 2004. Ah, it became evident not long after that that there been, ah, a long history of sex abuse of children,” he told ABC’s Four Corners program.

“Not just sex abuse of children, of course: family violence, widespread consumption of alcohol and alcoholism, lots of alcohol going into the community.”

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Image: Four Corners
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Stella Alberts went on to lose her 15-year-old grand daughter in a drink driving accident. This wasn’t the only member of her family she lost to alcohol abuse.

“People were hanging themselves, ah, suicide. Hanging themselves. Another one, another boy got drowned at the pumping station: one nephew. All through grog, being drunk,” she said.

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A plane carrying alcohol is unloaded. Image: Four Corners.

The government started by removing funding for vital services, closing down public schools and hospitals until those who worked, attended or required these public services were forced to leave.

The other, were eventually given short notice to pack a suitcase and were removed from the town.

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A chair left in the middle of a road in Oombulgurri. Image: Four Corners.
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The closure of Oombulgarri forewarns of what could happen should the Western Australian government go forth with the forced closure of remote Indigenous communities.

This year, the Abbott government announced it would stop giving the states funding for these communities.

In response Western Australia said it would be forced to close the sites it considered “unsustainable.”

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Oombulgurri. Image: Four Corners.

But what does “unsustainable” mean?

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According to the WA Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Peter Collier,  sustainability is about keeping the community safe.

“Sustainability depends on whether or not the community can provide a safe, nurturing environment for the children,” he said

“[If] it can provide job opportunities and training, and outcomes for the entire community.”

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Peter Collier. Image: Screenshot via Four Corners.

For Commissioner O’Callaghan, safety is also the issue.

“Police officers up there have said to me on more than one occasion that they cannot sleep at night, worrying about what’s happening in those communities – communities that they’re supposed to be responsible for protecting.”

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Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan. Image: Screenshot via Four Corners.
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But for many, and most importantly those who live in these communities, forced closure is not the answer to address these issues.

Tammy Solonec from Amnesty International believes the closure of Oombulgurri was authoritarian.

“I think that what happened with Oombulgurri was a form of collective punishment.” she told Four Corners.

“I think it was trying to send a strong message to Aboriginal communities that if you’re going to be dysfunctional, we’ll close you down. And it’s a really authoritarian, top-down, top-heavy approach which isn’t going to work.”

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Tammy Solonec. Image: Four Corners.

For Tammy, the answer is in early prevention.

“We have to remember why these places are so remote. They’ve been neglected by successive governments. They’ve been allowed to have unlimited liquor restrictions when they know it’s damaging to people,” she argues.

“The, the housing and the infa-infrastructure has been a- been, been left to neglect. This is something Australia has to come to terms with and it’s not an answer just to shut them down.”

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People protesting the forced closure of remote Indigenous communities in WA. Image: Four Corners.
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Alcohol restrictions are commonly used as a solution to criminal activity and high mortality rates in remote Indigenous communities.

But some methods are working better than others.

Joe Brown, an Aboriginal elder from Fitzroy Crossing, cannot count the number of friends and family he has lost to alcohol and suicide.

Despite restrictions on the strength of alcohol served in the town, people find other sources.

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Joe Brown. Image: Four Corners.

While some find or make it, others are moving to the closest population centres to get their fix.

This is currently an issue in Broome — where homeless people and “fringe dwellers” are accused of taking over the popular tourist destination.

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This threat will only be compounded if more surrounding communities are closed.

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A dwelling on the outskirts of Broome. Image: Four Corners.

However, it appears self-governed alcohol bans seem to be working for other communities.

Peter and Chantelle Murray live in the town of Djugerari — where the community upholds its own longstanding rule prohibiting drugs and alcohol.

“Our grandfather made rules, really strong rules that everybody obeyed, when he was here. And we carried on that rule: no alcohol and no drugs within the community, and to make it as safe as we can for the future of our children.”

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The school in Djugerari. Image: Four Corners.
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Peter runs a ranger program for the town’s youth.

Unfortunately the ranger program — like the community itself — is being defunded and faces closure.

“That’s going to take away all the jobs for the community members themself, who I employed with the school and the Ranger program. It’ll leave no-one employed, [and no-one] to pay the rent, in those houses and power as well.”

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Peter Murray. Image: Four Corners.

For Peter, the closure of his community means removing him from the place came as a child and spent all of his life.

I love it, being out here on country, learning my traditional ways on how to hunt and collect bush tucker with my Mum,” he said.

“This is home to a lot of other family groups. And the reason why we built this community is to have ownership in our own area.”

The WA government recently announced it would consult with Indigenous leaders and community members when deciding on the actions to take in remote communities.

However, with the opinion so divided — both at levels of governance and within the community — how can we know the best solution?

Read more:

Explain to me: Why is the government closing remote Aboriginal communities?

A man is denied entry into Australia on an Aboriginal passport.

No, Prime Minister. Being Indigenous is not a “lifestyle choice.”

What do you think the government should do to address the problem?

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