NACCHO NEWS: Will closing Aboriginal communities be detrimental to future health and wellbeing ?

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 “Closing small indigenous communities would increase fringe populations of “displaced and depressed Aboriginal people around towns’’, which “is likely to be extremel­y detrimental to their health and wellbeing and really costly for governments, both now and in the future’’.

Epidemiologist and child health expert Fiona Stanley, a former Australian of the Year

“It seems we are a long way off reconciliation if even our Prime Minister doesn’t know that Aboriginal people living on country is not a ‘lifestyle choice’ but an integ­ral part of identity and culture’’.
 
Matthew Cooke, the head of peak indigenous health group the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation
Fred

INDIGENOUS advocate Fred Chaney  (pictured above left) has cautioned against repeating the “catastrophic’’ social degradation of the 1960s when Aborigines were moved into towns, warning that governments must ensure those in remote communities “have a decent life and don’t actually wind up as fringe-dwellers and long-grassers’’.

Mr Chaney, the Fraser government’s Aboriginal affairs minister and a founding co-chair of Reconciliation Australia, has added his voice to mounting concerns over the future of thousands of people living in remote communities.

by: STEFANIE BALOGH and SARAH MARTIN

His entry into the debate comes as indigenous leaders express fears that Tony Abbott’s description of life in remote centres as a “lifestyle choice’’ could set back reconciliation efforts and erode the goodwill needed for constitutional change to recognise indigenous Australians.

“I want to see the gaps closed. I want to see Aboriginal people edu­cated, I want to see them employed … but to make changes (forcing them to move) without making provision for how people transition is simply cruelty, irresponsible cruelty,’’ Mr Chaney told The Australian. “If you are simply dumping them on the edge of town, which happened in the 1960s, that would be absolutely wrong. It is just appalling.’’

Tensions have been smouldering for months over the viability of indigenous settlements amid a funding row between the federal and some state governments over the provision of services.

The issue gained fresh oxygen this week after the Prime Minister’s comments.

The West Australian government is threatening the closure of 150 of its 274 indigenous communities, which are home to about 12,000 people. It says there are 1309 people living in 174 of the smallest Aboriginal communities in the state.

The Prime Minister is standing by his comments as a realistic appraisal of the financial challenges facing the government. But his choice of words, which reduced the complex and fraught debate to what Noel Pearson described as “thought bubbles’’, has fuelled a backlash among indigenous leaders across the political spectrum.

Matthew Cooke, the head of peak indigenous health group the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, said “it seems we are a long way off reconciliation if even our Prime Minister doesn’t know that Aboriginal people living on country is not a ‘lifestyle choice’ but an integ­ral part of identity and culture’’.

His view was echoed by Northern Land Council chief executive Joe Morrison, who said it would be difficult for Mr Abbott “to take a leadership role in the constitutional recognition debate without apologising … first”.

Warren Mundine, chairman of the Prime Minister’s advisory council on indigenous affairs, said Mr Abbott had strained the relationship with indigenous groups and he feared it would impact on the consensus needed for constitutional recognition.

“That could play into it, there is no doubt about that,” Mr Mundine said. “It is frustrating for us, because it makes our job more difficult in regards to what we are trying to achieve. There was goodwill there, but it is getting more difficult each day.”

Mr Chaney, a former senior Australian of the Year, said “the more negative the discussion around Aboriginal people, the harder for them to embrace the concept of recognition and the less likely the community is to think it is relevant’’. He added: “We have the dreadful precedent of the 1960s when people were holus bolus taken off country, they were ejected from the pastoral leases and the results were catastrophic, socially and in every way, as well as catastrophic for the towns they went to.

“I think there is a responsibility on government, and the commonwealth government can’t wipe its hands of this, to say if we are going to see a movement off country, what do we do to ensure that people­ have a decent life and don’t actually end up as fringe-dwellers and long-grassers.’’

Kimberley indigenous leader Wayne Bergmann, who has written to Mr Abbott over his “deeply disturbing comments’’, said his connection to country “goes back eons” and most Aboriginal people had nowhere else to live but on their traditional lands. “None of us were born with a silver spoon in our mouth,” he said. “We didn’t choose poverty. I personally feel that it’s safer for some of these kids to live out in the communities.’’

The West Australian government is threatening the closure of communities after the souring of a deal to hand responsibility to the states for essential and municipal services in remote communities.

The Abbott government signed bilateral deals with four states in September in which they assumed responsibility for essential services such as power, water and rubbish collection in remote communities, ending the $40-million-a-year federal Municipal and Essential Services Program.

Western Australia accepted a $90m, one-off payment but now argues it was forced in an “ultimatum” to accept the running of the communities. South Australia has refused a $10m offer to take over the service provision for 4000 people in 60 communities.

In the Northern Territory, there are about 10,000 people in 500 homelands.

A separate agreement with the Territory as part of the Stronger Futures package provides $206m over 10 years.

Epidemiologist and child health expert Fiona Stanley, a former Australian of the Year, said closing small indigenous communities would increase fringe populations of “displaced and depressed Aboriginal people around towns’’, which “is likely to be extremel­y detrimental to their health and wellbeing and really costly for governments, both now and in the future’’.

“The data from remote communities does show higher rates of preventable infections (mostly due to poor living conditions, which should and could be improved­) but much lower rates of psychosocial problems in young people due to the strong and protecti­ve effects of culture,’’ Professor Stanley told The Australian.

Health statistics associated with remote indigenous living compiled by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare last year show that indigenous ­Australians are disadvantaged compared with all Australians, across almost every indicator.

But the relative health outcomes of remote and very remote communities are mixed.

Additional reporting: Amos Aikman, Andrew Burrell

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