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

If you haven’t been part of them, you’ve most likely at least heard of the recent protests against the closure of remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia.

You may have seen #SOSBlakAustralia trending on Facebook last week. Or maybe you follow Hugh Jackman on Instagram.

Maybe you heard Tony Abbott say the government couldn’t subsidise “lifestyle choices” and the collective horrified gasp that followed.

But chances are you’re asking — what the hell is going on?

Today, we’re here to explain.

Why is the government closing Aboriginal communities? 

The federal government ceased funding for remote communities in WA, leading to the state planning to close some small towns.

Last year, the Federal government announced it would stop funding essential services in remote Australian communities — essentially transferring this responsibility to the states.

Last week, WA Premier Colin Barnett said his state would have to “close” between 100 to 150 Indigenous communities, as a result.

Previously, the Federal government provided funding for two thirds of WA’s remote Aboriginal communities, and without that support, the state claims it cannot afford to maintain funding on its own.

The WA government believes the closure of communities is for the safety of the children who reside there.

In Parliament, Premier Barnett said:

“They [the smaller remote communities] are not viable and the social outcomes, the abuse and neglect of young children, is a disgrace to this state … this is the biggest social issue this state faces.

“Those communities, 273 of them, are not sustainable into the future. They cannot look anyone in the face and guarantee the safety of little boys and girls.”

What did Tony Abbott say that pissed everybody off?

Tony Abbott said living in remote communities is a “lifestyle choice”.

Upon the WA Premier’s announcement, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said:  “What we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices.”

The “lifestyle choice” he was referring to, is the “choice” to live in a remote area.

Related content: The 7 “lifestyle choices” the government is happy to pay for.

Very few people, including members of Abbott’s ministry, have seconded this idea that living in a remote community is a “lifestyle choice.”

Even the PM’s own regular adviser on indigenous issues, Warren Mundine, was not happy with the Prime Minister’s comments, stating:

“That is a complete misconception of what it is and he’s wrong in that regard.

“It is not about a lifestyle, it is not like retiring and moving for a sea change. It is about thousands of years’ connection, their religious beliefs and the essence of who they are.”

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What’s wrong with closing down remote communities?

“The forced removal of people from lands also draws depressing parallels to the paternalistic habits of white Australians and their invasion of Australia, the take over of land, the Stolen Generations… need I go on?” – Noel Pearson.

Apart from the injustice that is the cruel forced removal of people from their homes — sadly, something Australia has been doing to its Indigenous people for generations — there are also economic and social repercussions of this displacement.

“The forced removal of people from lands also draws depressing parallels to the paternalistic habits of white Australians and their invasion of Australia…”

It will put a strain on the towns where these populations will be “re-settled” — housing will need to be provided and services will need to be shared.

Labor’s Indigenous Affairs spokesperson, Ben Wyatt, said: “There are serious concerns from both the communities and the shires about where people will go if the communities are shut down.

“They will move to places like Broome, Kununurra and Fitzroy Crossing – places that are not equipped with adequate investment in housing and services to cope.”

Furthermore, Amnesty International believes those displaced from their homes suffer significant trauma.

“White Australia has a black history.”

But the primary issue is that the move undermines a central value of Indigenous culture: connection to their land.

CEO of Aboriginal Legal Services WA David Eggington put it rather nicely when he said: “I want you to stop and think about this sacred land that has been home to our people for tens of thousands of years – our land that is central to our culture.

“Every gumnut, every gumtree, every grain of sand on every shore, every insect and every animal in our holy land and in memory of our people.

“We are part of the earth and it is part of us.”

So how does one simply “close down” a community?

Premier Barnett has admitted that his government is yet to work out the fine print.

However, there is a precedent. In 2010, the WA government closed the Oombulgurri community in the Kimberley.

According to The Guardian:

First, the government closed the services. It closed the shop, so people could not buy food and essentials. It closed the clinic, so the sick and the elderly had to move, and the school, so families with children had to leave, or face having their children taken away from them. The police station was the last service to close, then eventually the electricity and water were turned off.

While most had relocated by March 2011, the several that remained were forcibly evicted and moved to Wyndham, where they were housed in “dongas” or temporary housing at a government cost of $1.6 million.

According to Kimberley Land Council’s Acting CEO, Anthony Watson: “They were just lumped at the town site and lived on the outskirts in the marsh.

“We had to provide swags for them and tents to accommodate them in the meantime.”

What is an alternative to shutting down Aboriginal communities?

This year, an entire report of alternatives was offered to improve the wellbeing of Indigenous Australians — and no where did it mention removing people from their homes and relocating them to urban centres.

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Instead, the Closing the Gap report suggested putting more, not less, funding into improving access to health services in remote communities.

The Closing the Gap report encouraged improving health services in remote Australian communities.

Another common suggestion is to uncover new policy solutions through proper engagement with Indigenous people to involve them in the policy decisions that will directly affect them. (One NT cabinet minister suggests the Prime Minister needs “cross cultural training” in order to correct his misconceptions about what it means to live in a remote community.)

Related content: A group of MPs walked out of this closing the gap speech.

Aboriginal elders are recommending a program of cultural rejuvination — returning Indigenous peoples to their traditional lands in order to reconnect them with stolen heritage that has lead to somewhat of an identity crisis.

Amnesty International advocates for the government to focus on “prevention rather than punishment”, with initiatives such as this justice reinvestment program.

Amnesty International protests the closure of Indigenous communities, and proposes a tactic of “prevention not punishment”.

A 2012 report, Fixing the Hole in Australia’s Heartland, recommends an Outback Commission to better attend to the needs of remote Australians.

Poor life expectancy rates, and health and education standards, high rates of incarceration, alcohol and drug abuse, are just a few of the issues plaguing Australia’s Indigenous population — and many, many solutions to address these problems have been offered.

Regardless of the alternative, recent protests would indicate that many people believe ceasing funding to essential services in remote areas and closing communities is not the answer.

What is #SOSBlakAustralia?

SOS Blak Australia is a non-government affiliated support organisation to raise awareness of and support remote Indigenous communities.

According to their website: “The purpose of this site is to gain an understanding of what the communities need in order to thrive and what support is available to them in order to achieve this from the global community. We all have skills, we all matter and we are all in this together.”

It aims to consult with the threatened communities and discern the risks at stake.

Hugh Jackman posted this photo to Instagram to support #SOSblakaustralia.

The hashtag gained momentum on social media last week as a statement of support for Indigenous Australians, in protest of remote community closures.

What do you think about the closure of remote Indigenous communities? Share your thoughts below.

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