Colin Barnett has stepped away from his controversial rhetoric that up to 150 remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia will be closed down, revealing plans for a “hub and orbit” strategy that will leave some communities bigger and better resourced, others reduced in services and the smallest ones abandoned.
But major rallies are still planned in more than 60 centres across Australia and around the world for today
The Premier admitted to The Australian yesterday that his declaration last November that “we are probably going to see certainly over 100, maybe 150 remote communities close” was a “bit bald”.
Giving the first clear details of his government’s more nuanced approach, Mr Barnett noted that a hub and orbit approach could lead to building up the larger communities while closing down the smallest and most under-resourced. “Looking somewhere into the future, I’m talking years and decades, what I would like ultimately to see and what we are trying to achieve is that some of those larger communities would become ultimately gazetted towns like any other town and operate that way,” Mr Barnett told The Australian on the last day of a three-day tour of regional and remote Western Australia.
“That is going to take some time. Then there will be some remote communities which will be supported from the outside to a greater extent (than others) and that will cater for the largest portion of Aboriginal people. But the very small communities I think will lapse over time.”
Aboriginal communities across the state have been fearful of closure since Mr Barnett’s statement to a conference of childcare workers last November. Strident opposition has mounted in the absence of details about which places are being targeted, and on what grounds.
“Stop the Closures” banners will be displayed at May Day marches in towns and cities across Australia today, and in several overseas cities including London, New York, Berlin and Auckland.
Mr Barnett this week found himself reassuring members of the Warralong community, 190km east of Port Hedland, that it was very unlikely to close. Community leaders told him that rumours of closure had been sparked by the appearance of a visiting police van. It was the Premier’s first visit to a remote Aboriginal community since his November comments.
Warralong has fewer than 100 residents, 11 houses, no shop and twice weekly visits from a nurse travelling from Port Hedland. Mr Barnett said he was impressed by the community’s independently run school. Asked if he had done an about-face on his previous stance about closures, Mr Barnett said his comments in November had been lacking in detail. “Well, my comments were a bit bald, you know, at the time,” he said.
“But what I was saying is that 274 communities is not realistic in the long term. Many younger leaders and some older ones in Aboriginal communities have been actually quite moderate on this issue. (They) recognise there are a number of communities that don’t have the prospect of education, health, let alone employment and that is where we are trying to go.”
Indigenous Liberal federal MP Ken Wyatt said he believed there would be far fewer closures than originally stated by Mr Barnett.
Mr Wyatt, who in the 1980s helped create 99-year Aboriginal Lands Trust leases and is a supporter of Aborigines being able to live back on their traditional country, said he had a frank discussion with the Premier on the issue. “I get the sense that it is not his intention to close down communities so much as find better solutions in how they access services,” he said. “They are auditing all those communities and looking at solutions. I’ve had discussions with three key ministers and they don’t seem to talk about closing down communities.”
He said they had discussed a “hub and orbit” model and the Northern Territory offered examples of the Barnett government’s mooted approach.
“At Utopia, people still live within the Utopia lands, and some of them still live traditional lives further out but they come in to access the community store, the school and the medical clinic,” Mr Wyatt said.
In the past, Mr Barnett has cited lack of opportunities to educate and employ residents, and the risk of child abuse and domestic violence as reasons to close under-resourced communities. He has said reduced federal funding of only $90 million over three years will make it “impossible to provide the state’s 274 remote communities with essential services as well as policing, healthcare and education”.
Mr Barnett’s opponents have claimed that moving people out of settlements could end up costing even more.
Family harnesses power of social media to drive protests against forced closures of Aboriginal communities
Pressure is growing across Australia against plans by West Australian Premier Colin Barnett to close scores of remote Aboriginal communities.
A call to protest has spread across social media with rallies expected in capital cities across the country tomorrow.
But the protests had their origins far from any big city.
Layangali Bieundurry and her brother Nelson Bieundurry are from Wangkatjungka, a remote Aboriginal community on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert with a permanent population of approximately 200 people.
Although internet access is slow in Wangkatjungka, the call to protest against the Government’s threat to close up to 150 communities started there thanks to family support, and then spread nationally and now globally.
“We knew that all our family were on Facebook, so what we did, we just set the page up and started sending out messages throughout Facebook and that is how most of our family knew,” Ms Bieunderry said.
“And then other communities started to jump on Facebook and started realising what the Government [was] going to do to us in the remote communities.”
#SOSBlakAustralia has since emerged, connecting people, communities and organisations with similar interests and concerns through the Twittersphere.
“I want it to go into the ears of Tony Abbott, that’s where I want it to go,” Mr Bieundurry said.
“And all those other Government officials, because I’ve just been watching the news about all these tax breaks all these big corporations are getting and he says that the taxpayer can no longer afford to fund Aboriginal people, fund their lifestyle choices.
“I mean wake up, what’s going on here?”
Throughout the Kimberley, the threat to close up to 150 remote Aboriginal communities has raised both fear and anger.
At Wangkatjunga, there is disbelief that the next wave in a long history of dispossession may soon hit.
The State Government has not stated which communities may close, sparking fear across the state.
Jacqueline Cox, from nearby Fitzroy Crossing, moved to Wangkatjungka last year with her partner.
“It happened to past generations and now it’s happening to [the] future generation,” she said.
“What hope is there for Indigenous people in Australia?”
Wangkatjungka is one of the larger outstations, established in 1975, its title carved out from neighbouring Christmas Creek cattle station.
Last November when the WA Government announced it wanted to close many communities, it cast doubt on their viability.
“There are something like 274 Aboriginal communities in Western Australia,” Mr Barnett told Parliament.
“I think 150 or so of those are in the Kimberley itself, and they are not viable.
“They are not viable and they are not sustainable.”
Last month Mr Barnett raised the spectre of child sexual abuse, citing 39 recorded cases of gonorrhoea among Aboriginal children in WA in 2013.
The Opposition called Mr Barnett’s comment a slur against Aboriginal people, but the Premier was backed by Chief Police Commissioner, who insisted that child abuse was rife and unreported in remote communities.
In the north, the Government’s statements have left people confused.
Aboriginal elder Marty Sibosado first heard about the State Government’s planned closures in the media.
“It is just frustrating in today’s age that here we have a Government that can’t even give us a reason, can’t even communicate with the people,” Mr Sibosado said.
“My biggest fear is for my people, we have had a history of basically being removed off the land and again with no consultation and no involvement.
“I just ask, in 2015 how can this happen in Australia?”
Major rallies are now planned in more than 60 centres across Australia and around the world for tomorrow.
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