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The lack of consultation and detail in the WA government’s plan to close up to 150 remote Indigenous communities has left people unsure of their future. By Marie McInerney.

Barnett’s closure plans upset remote communities

Gaile and Rachel Mallard were just kids when the family went back to their father’s traditional Nanda land. At Barrel Well, north of Geraldton in Western Australia’s Mid West, they slept on groundsheets, with just one drinking well and “nothing but bush” beyond.

They were part of the “homelands movement” of the 1970s and 1980s – a concerted move by remote Indigenous people to get away from the reserves, missions or non-Indigenous townships that their people had often been forced onto and to renew cultural and spiritual connections to their lands.

It wasn’t always easy. In the early days, local white farmers once cut the head off a cow and hung it on their gate to scare them. A few times the farmers drove through at night, shooting off rounds. “They thought our stock would infect theirs,” Rachel remembers.

Thirty years on, the Mallard sisters proudly list the amenities at Barrel Well: three big family houses, separate quarters for single women and men, a community kitchen, ablution blocks, a farm down the road, and “a big bough-shed where we meet, yarn, share our food”.

Now the threat is from the Western Australian government, which plans to shut down up to 150 remote Aboriginal communities after taking on responsibility for their essential services from the federal government.

Like other communities across WA, Barrel Well is worried sick it is on a hit list. Gaile, now in her 40s with her own kids, is defiant and determined to hold on – with or without access to power, sewerage and water. “When we first moved there we carried water and cleaned the well,” she says. “We’ll carry the water again.” But the consensus is that taking away basic services amounts to putting chains on the gates and forcing people off.

At Geraldton Airport, an hour’s flight north of Perth, there’s a large framed poster of wildflowers. It welcomes visitors to Yamaji country, home to the Amangu, Naaguja, Wajarri, Nanda, Badimia and Martu peoples, whose lands stretch out over half a million square kilometres and across communities such as Barrel Well, Burringurrah, and Yulga Jinna.

About 30 people from communities and Indigenous services across the region and beyond are meeting under the carport at the back of the Geraldton Regional Aboriginal Medical Service to plan the next stage of their campaign to keep the remote communities alive.

The service operates in a big redbrick building in the suburbs of this regional port city of 35,000, well away from the revived foreshore with its backpacker hostels and groovy cafes, but it is primed for a busy breakfast trade today. Waiting for the barbecue to fire up, elders sit in the staff kitchen wondering whether Geraldton has always been this humid.

Most have also been in town for the past two days for a major conference on the high rates of incarceration faced by Indigenous people, who make up 3 per cent of the Western Australian population but 40 per cent of its prison numbers. History tells them that forcing people off their traditional lands will only make that worse.

Uppermost in many minds is the calamity of the 1960s when changes to the federal pastoral industry award finally granted equal pay to Aboriginal stockmen but saw them and their families evicted from stations without support, creating decades of dysfunction and distress.

Closures would stress remaining townships

The meeting hears the concerns from Wiluna, 700 kilometres to the north-east, an old gold-rush town on the edge of the Western Desert that is now chiefly a Martu Indigenous community. It’s not at risk of closure, says elder Gail Allison, but of what the closure of outlying communities might bring to Wiluna.

Supply and demand there already works with a heavy hand. Food costs are high anyway, but kangaroo tails triple in price when big numbers of people come in from remote areas for funerals or other “culture business”. If there’s a break-in, staples go up, too. “Everybody’s got to pay for it.”

Allison says chronic housing shortages mean people moving in to town end up crowding in with relatives. Any disruptive behaviour can then put them in breach of Western Australia’s tough “three strikes and you’re out” public housing laws, and often on a cycle of homelessness, poor health and crime. “We can’t cater for any more people,” she says.

In the carport, they line up for photos behind placards declaring “Land and community not a lifestyle choice” and “Too many Captain Cooks” and draft a statement of support for a rally in Melbourne later that day, which attracts thousands of protesters and shuts down the CBD at peak hour.

On their agenda is how to support the next national protest action against the community closures, held on May 1. The date was chosen to mark the anniversary of the 1946 Pilbara strike, when hundreds of Aboriginal pastoral workers walked off for better pay and conditions. Famously organised without phones or radios, it lasted until 1949 – one of the longest strikes in Australian history. Now social media is mobilising communities and crowds under Facebook and Twitter banners such as #SOSBlakAustralia and #NOconsent.

Both WA Premier Colin Barnett and Prime Minister Tony Abbott have made the case that many Indigenous communities are, at best, “lifestyle choices” that can no longer justify public funding and, at worst, dysfunctional with dangerous rates of abuse and neglect. But five months since closures were floated, there’s been no consultation, no assessment framework, and no list of at-risk communities or criteria that will decide that – or certainly none that is public. If the Western Australian government wanted to create maximum anxiety among people with a history of dispossession, then this process so far has been a masterclass.

Gordon Gray is a member of the Western Australian Aboriginal Advisory Council (WAAAC) and a local Yamaji man. The council was set up, he says, to advise the state’s Aboriginal affairs minister, currently Peter Collier, but it only found out about the proposed closures from the media. “Not once has that minister come to see us about these plans,” Gray says.

Into the void has gone rumour and confusion. There’s a document tabled in state parliament that purports to name all the 274 recognised remote communities, although curiously it doesn’t include the tiny Kimberley community of Wuggubun, which just made headlines around the world when Prince Harry dropped in. At the top of the list is a warning that no decision has been made to close any of the communities. But the names were discussed widely on the likes of Facebook without the caveat, upsetting those who saw their communities mentioned. Other lists are floating about, including one that rates each community under A, B and C for feasibility. It’s thought to be years old and for different community investment purposes, but it too is doing the rounds.

Ignoring successes

Indigenous people are ready to have difficult conversations, says meeting convenor Sandy Davies. The regional health service chairman agrees not all communities are safe, saying he once knew of one that had 27 registered sex offenders among its 300 residents. “If ever a community needed closing down, that one did.” But he says there are, at most, a handful of problem communities and it’s unconscionable to “blanket” them all as risky when there’s evidence that most are better than towns for health, livelihood and social cohesion.

Yulga Jinna, north of Meekatharra, is proof of that, says Belinda Riley, who broke down at the earlier conference when she was asked about the threat of closure. Her Nharnuwangga, Wajarri and Ngarlawangga people were the first in Western Australia to successfully prove native title to their country. Far from putting kids at risk, she says Yulga Jinna wins awards for school attendance and is a safe haven for families. “[In towns] you got a lot of kids sniffing [petrol], doing drugs, roaming the streets from six years on,” Riley says. “That doesn’t happen in Yulga Jinna.”

Barrel Well is in the shire of Northampton, a Liberal National Party heartland. The shire’s sons may once have tried to frighten the community off but the local authority is now onside. It has written to the premier asking him to leave Barrel Well alone, saying it helps keep the local school open, contributes to the local workforce and supplies talent for the football teams.

Northampton’s representatives remind Barnett that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that they “shall not be forcibly removed from their lands”. “You’ve got to recognise they are custodians of the land – you’ve got to have some respect for that,” shire CEO Garry Keeffe says later, by phone.

Barnett has said the government can’t afford to keep all remote communities operating. In one case, he says, it costs $85,000 per person per year to provide essential services.

Keeffe says he has no idea if that kind of costing is right or not, but wonders what white communities might be at stake if the same rules were applied. “If you ask that question, you’ve got to ask it of everyone,” he says.  

 

The journalist’s travel and accommodation expenses to attend the prison health conference were covered by the Geraldton Regional Aboriginal Medical Service.

 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2015 as "Remote control". Subscribe here.

Marie McInerney
is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne.

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