People in remote Indigenous communities are panicking about their future, say an Aboriginal elder and MP, as the Western Australian Government maintains no community will close without consultation.
Last year, the WA Government announced plans to close up to 150 remote communities, but it remained tight lipped on which ones could be in the firing line.
This week’s revelation that the Federal Government identified 192 settlements as unsustainable back in 2010, has only fuelled the rumours circulating in remote WA.
Deputy Premier Kim Hames acknowledged the Government could have done things differently.
“I accept that dialogue has been significantly lacking; I accept that people are scared and I accept that our government has a very serious responsibility to get out and do something about it,” he said.
Dr Hames said he wanted to ease residents’ concerns.
“We are not closing Aboriginal communities as part of this program,” he said.
“We are not doing that. What we will do is work with those who are too small to be viable in their own right to see if they want to move.”
Dr Hames said some very small communities would lose funding for essential services and if people chose to stay on the land, they would do so without government support.
“I suspect some of the little ones that have two or three or four people will be told ‘sorry guys, keep the house, enjoy staying there, but from now on you need to look after yourself if you don’t want to come somewhere where the government can support you’,” he said.
The State Government insisted there would be extensive consultation with residents before any decision was made.
Kimberley MP says community residents are panicking
Kimberley MP Josie Farrer said those talks need to start right now, because residents in remote communities were panicking.
“I’ve been home on the weekend and people have asked me all sorts of questions. There’s a lot of angry people out there,” she said.
“People need to plan their lives, people need to know where they’ll be living.
“Does the Premier intend to travel to the Kimberley to discuss this issue this year? They’d all like to know if he’s going to go up there and sit down and talk to them.”
The original trigger for the closures was the Federal Government’s decision to withdraw funding to remote communities in mid 2016.
But the State Government said the closures were also linked to providing better health, housing and education for Indigenous people.
The Minister for Regional Development and Nationals leader Terry Redman said the changes were not financially motivated.
“This actually isn’t about money, it’s about getting better outcomes,” he said.
“It’s also not about forced closures of communities.
“If I’ve got anything to do with it I want to see a plan that’s clearly articulated and has the support of Aboriginal leaders and allows people to make choices and pursue opportunities.”
WA Opposition says Government failed to articulate reasons for closures
The Opposition’s Aboriginal affairs spokesman Ben Wyatt said the Government had failed to clearly articulate its reasoning for the closures.
“What other community in Australia would find themselves in a position where the Government of the day can say ‘you’ve failed as a community, we will close you on a yet to be defined set of standards?’,” he said.
“Initially it was the cost on the taxpayer, that’s now changed to rates of STIs, that’s changed now to literacy rates.
“And those remote communities stand there waiting for their verdict but don’t know what they’ve done to appear before the Liberal Government’s jury.”
Ms Farrer said while many Aboriginal people felt slighted by the Barnett Government, it had an opportunity to make amends.
“Let’s have a conversation about how we can make communities thrive and viable,” she said.
“There should be transparent communication between the Government and community members. After all, we are all people.”
Bobby West from the Kiwirrkurra community is hoping someone would visit soon to tell residents what was going on.
“I’d like to see them come out and talk about it. We don’t know what’s going on, it’s not fair,” he said.
“You can’t treat us like white people, to live like white people. We’re not ready yet.”