The Disgrace of Western Australia's Treatment of Aboriginal People


The Western Australian government has commenced a program of closing down about half of the state's 274 remote communities. The program will, the Premier acknowledges, 'cause distress' to the more than 12,000 Aboriginal people who live there. Premier Colin Barnett cites the 'existing high rates of suicide, poor health and a lack of jobs' as well as the 'abuse and neglect of young children' as the reason for these measures. He says that the latter is 'a disgrace for the state'.


The Western Australian government is somehow managing to make this disgrace even worse. What is unclear about these extraordinary measures is how replacing one government disgrace with another provides any kind of solution to the endemic social problems of these communities. Sadly this act of institutional racism in pursuit of so-called economic outcomes is unsurprising. The signs are all around us that government, at all levels, has failed society in its metamorphosis from state to business.



The idea of dispensing with remote communities is not a new one. In 2005, Senator Amanda Vanstone then the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, declared that remote Indigenous communities were becoming 'cultural museums'. In an interview at the time, Senator Vanstone distinguished between homelands and townships, saying:


...I do feel very strongly that people who say, "oh, but look, they want to live a traditional lifestyle": how can you ask a kid who's two whether he or she wants to make that choice at two?

Our job is to make sure that when that kid's 20 he really does have a genuine choice about whether he wants to go to the city and learn to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a plumber; or whether he wants to stay in his homelands.

And not giving him that choice, not having educational standards at that level, is consigning that kid to a cultural museum for the benefit of, you know, the chardonnay drinking commentators.


The upshot of Senator Vanstone's argument was that in the distribution of Commonwealth resources for infrastructure such as health and education, the government was unlikely to consider funding homelands in addition to townships.

A year later, the Bennelong Society ran a conference called 'Leaving Remote Communities'.  The theme of this conference was that the only 'viable' option for Indigenous people was to leave remote communities where there were no jobs and no housing. This was followed in 2007 by Helen Hughes' book, 'Lands of Shame'. Consistent with Hughes' thinking and that of the Centre for Independent Studies, government policy was increasingly focused, for example, on limiting the application of communal land tenure and abolishing many Community Development Employment projects. In 2009, Moran argued against such 'simplistic solutions'. More recently, Ken Parish has provided an overview of this policy context as it plays out in the Northern Territory.

While these policies have occurred at the Commonwealth level, state governments have held their own in oppressing Indigenous Australians. For example, as recently as 1963 the Queensland government violently dispossessed Aboriginal people from their homes in Old Mapoon, burning the township to the ground so that Comalco could open its bauxite mine there.

It should be remembered also that while all states are opposed to native title, Western Australia arguably fought the hardest to prevent its application. It threw the book at the Commonwealth in its High Court challenge to the Native Title Act arguing, amongst other things, that its operation as a sovereign state had necessarily extinguished all native title. Such attitudes die hard.

Rejecting dispossession


It is interesting to note the altered tenor of the Western Australian government's excuse for the present round of dispossession. In addition to the economic indicators cited in Senator Vanstone's arguments of a decade ago, now there is a focus on social indicators such as suicide and child neglect. Regardless of your preferred indicators of 'viability' of a community, there are a number of pressing reasons to reject the program of 'closing' these communities. In fact there are reasons for all Australians to actively oppose them.

First, arguing economics would put many more communities at risk than only Aboriginal communities. As George Megalogenis wrote following Senator Vanstone's comments, there are plenty of communities in Australia in which there is an alarming degree of welfare dependence. If the issue is truly an economic one, government needs to be consistent in withdrawing economic support for all 'non-viable' communities. In an alternative vein, Jon Altman has articulated the 'false binary' of the free market (or 'real economy') and welfare dependence. He argues that there is another way for Indigenous Australia.

Secondly, and related to the economic argument, is that displaced people need to go somewhere. This inevitably puts pressure on the communities into which these people are relocated. This requires not just basic infrastructure of jobs, housing, health services and education, but additional support for the displaced. The psychological and social impact must be factored in to infrastructure planning. This is all costly in bare economic terms even without factoring in the personal cost to the people who have been relocated from their homes.

Thirdly there is a question of appropriate checks on government power. Despite the rhetoric of 'mutual obligation' to the extent that governmental power is underwritten by a 'social contract', the contract involves citizens giving up a small degree of their absolute personal freedom in exchange for the protection of the state. It behoves the state to use its immense power in the interests of the citizens from whom it derives its very legitimacy. The state is not a business.

Increasingly however state power is used for the benefit of business or simply for power as an end in itself. The example of Old Mapoon illustrates the power of vested economic interests to the detriment of the citizen. The so-called anti-bikie laws in various states that criminalise free association, and the latest tranche of government surveillance powers likewise illustrate the inexorable extension of state power.

The structures of the law are designed to provide checks and balances on excesses of government (executive) power. Sadly however these are proving insufficient to stem the influence both of corporate interests and government-as-business in the making of law and policy. The role of government as protector of the people has been foregone, in favour of demonisation of the 'leaners' and facilitation of 'lifters'. This is an individualistic ideology that ignores the very nature of society as a collective. It also ignores that during our lives, each of us will be dependent for at least some period of time.

Social justice


Finally, but possibly most importantly, is the issue of social justice. As the Human Rights Commission puts it:


A life of opportunity and dignity, free from discrimination and disadvantage, should not be an ideal. It is, in fact, a basic human right - one that we all share in common. Social justice is about making sure that every Australian - Indigenous and non-Indigenous - has choices about how they live and the means to make those choices.
Social justice is grounded in the practical, day-to-day realities of life. It’s about waking up in a house with running water and proper sanitation; offering one’s children an education that helps them develop their potential and respect their culture. It is the prospect of satisfying employment and good health.
Social justice also means recognising the distinctive rights that Indigenous Australians hold as the original peoples of this land, including:
  • the right to a distinct status and culture, which helps maintain and strengthen the identity and spiritual and cultural practices of Indigenous communities
  • the right to self-determination, which is a process where Indigenous communities take control of their future and decide how they will address the issues facing them
  • the right to land, which provides the spiritual and cultural basis of Indigenous communities.


While the program in Western Australia mentions housing and jobs, it fails to address the broader foundation of these principles of social justice. Importantly also, that the program affects Aboriginal people and not society broadly, it is also racist. It is almost unthinkable that a similar policy would be implemented in non-Indigenous communities. It is undeniable that the suffering of people in these communities must be addressed in the interests of social justice. However shifting the people in these communities from their home does not address their suffering but compounds it.

Pivot North

In September, the Joint Select Committee of Northern Australia tabled its final report: 'Pivot North: Inquiry into the Development of Northern Australia'. The report is part of a process to develop a white paper aimed at defining policy for 'realising the full economic potential of the north'. A recognised 'impediment' to development is:

The small size of the population of Northern Australia, and its wide dispersal outside the handful of major centres, exacerbated by the lack of participation by much of the Aboriginal community in the economy, is perhaps the key impediment to be overcome. (p109) (emphasis added)


Jon Altman with colleague Francis Markham made a submission to the Select Committee Inquiry. Their report shows that


lands of confirmed Indigenous land rights and native title legal interest total 48 per cent of the 3 million square kilometres of Northern Australia. This area could expand to nearly 76 per cent if native title was determined to exist for the spatial entirety of all currently registered claims.


Altman notes however that these findings were not included in the Inquiry's report.

Without knowing the exact location of the remote communities to be closed, undoubtedly many will fall within the northern region. In terms of the goals of Pivot North, the Western Australian plan to close down remote communities could not come at a better time. (Queensland is conducting its own program to prompt loss of Indigenous tenures, through new provisions for freeholding and the debate on Northern Territory tenures has been going for some time.)

Society suffers


This is not simply an issue for the 12,000 Aboriginal people who face losing their communities. It is an issue for all Australians, for two reasons. The government is disregarding legitimate constraints in its exercise of power against the vulnerable. The worth of the people in these communities is determined according to the government's determined economic indicators. The people who are the object of this policy are simply a cost to government. The measurement of humans as a cost centre is a dangerous development that devalues each one of us and leaves all of us vulnerable to government excess.

Secondly the persistent failure of governments to deal with the ongoing sore of colonisation must be stopped. This is a question of equality and justice. Sweeping aside the suffering and social dislocation of Indigenous people is no answer to ongoing problems that exist particularly in remote communities. All of us are part of the solution to the institutional racism that continues to be practised in Australia. And that involves at the very least, calling out these community closures for the racist program it is.

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Statement from Indigenous organisations of the Fitzroy Valley


   Our organisations represent the Native Title holders and traditional owners of the Fitzroy Valley, and the organisations that service and support the township of Fitzroy Crossing, the 35 surrounding communities, large and small, and the nearly 4,000 people who live here.


    We are appalled at recent statements by the Premier about his intention to close down large numbers of remote communities, and we are deeply fearful about the potential impact of such a move on our people and communities and the township of Fitzroy Crossing. We see this as the biggest threat to our people since the shocking events of the 1960s and we believe the impact of such a move could be almost as devastating.


    We reject as nonsense and misleading the statements linking the move to concerns over suicides and other social issues. We acknowledge that there are serious social and health issues in our communities. But we also assert on the basis of evidence and our direct knowledge that, on balance, the people in the smaller bush communities are healthier and happier. And we point out that the majority of the suicides in recent years that have torn our community apart have occurred in the main township of Fitzroy Crossing, not in these smaller communities that are apparently slated for closure.


    Forcing more people into the overcrowded and inadequate housing in the township will undoubtedly worsen not improve the problems we face. The underlying issues of poverty, disadvantage, unemployment and under-employment and the like, which we struggle with on a daily basis, will not be solved by this approach, merely relocated and intensified in Fitzroy Crossing town.


    We point out that this is the latest and most dramatic twist in what has felt like a war of attrition against our communities in recent years by governments of all stripes, State and Commonwealth. Many of our communities have already been effectively defunded by ever changing policies and programs. Yet even those who receive no government support continue to hang in there against the odds.


    The reason for this is simple. Like everyone else in this country, our people love their homes, their families, and the communities where they built their lives. It is astoundingly arrogant of governments to think it is within their power to wipe all this out with a bureaucratic or political decision.


    And for us there is another level. We assert the right of people to live in and on their traditional country, for which they have ancient and deep responsibilities. To be talking of relocating people off their traditional country does indeed take us back 50 years in a very ugly way.


    We acknowledge there are real and difficult financial issues for governments in relation to supporting remote communities. We acknowledge that the communities do not have an inherent right to unlimited or unconditional funding support. But dollar and blame shifting between different levels of government is not the answer. Especially when the result is unilateral actions, first by the Commonwealth, and now it seems by the State, of which we are the victims.


    We are prepared to discuss and address the hard issues. But this can only be done if there is a dialogue. Terrifying announcements of this kind should be a thing of the past.


    We call on the State and Commonwealth Governments to take the threats off the table, and to enter into a proper, considered, conversation with the people and organisations of the Fitzroy Valley, and of other affected regions, about the long term future of our communities.


    Do not turn our people into fringe dwellers once again.


Joint statement issued by: Bunuba Dawangarri Prescribed Body Corporate, Gooniyandi Prescribed Body Corporate, Karrayili Adult Education Centre, Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre, Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency, Marrninwarntikuru Women's Resource Centre, Marra Worra Worra Aboriginal Corporation, Nindilingarri Cultural Health Services, Wangki Yupananapurru Radio, Yununijarra Prescribed Body Corporate and Yi-Martuawarta (Ngurrara People)

The Australian   November 20, 2014   Patricia Karvelas  Victoria Editor  Melbourne


LABOR and the Greens are demanding that reducing indigenous incarceration rates becomes a clear goal, after a new report which reveals self-harm and incarceration rates for Aborigines are growing at an alarming rate.


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda said Australia was better at keeping Aboriginal children in jail than in school, and we needed immediate action before the country lost an entire generation of indigenous youth.


Labor senator Nova Peris said that if Tony Abbott was serious when he said he wanted to be the "Prime Minister for Aboriginal affairs" then he should provide a comprehensive response to this report and outline clear strategies for dealing with its findings.


"The juvenile justice system is in crisis,'' Senator Peris said. "The Northern Territory government intends to use a facility for their new juvenile detention centre that their own head of corrections said was 'fit only for a bulldozer'.


"The Northern Territory government recently changed legislation so that prison officers are now able to override the advice of a qualified medical practitioner in relation to the medical needs of inmates.''


Labor's indigenous affairs spokesman, Shayne Neumann, said the Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report made it clear that the government must "walk away from its terrible plan to cut $534 million from indigenous affairs funding, along with heartless cuts to legal services and language programs''.


The Greens are calling for a justice target and reversal of cuts to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island-er funding. They said the report should send a clear signal to the federal government that it must reverse its budget cuts and put in place a justice target.

The Sydney Morning Herald    November 20, 2014



The most powerful leaders on earth have gone and the global gaze has shifted away from Australia, leaving us to bask in strengthened allegiances and a new-found sense of place in the world, at least when it comes to economy and trade.


But look in our own backyard, and the self-righteous feeling rapidly subsides.


Australia remains blighted by ignorance of, racism towards and disadvantage endured by its indigenous people, especially in remote areas: out of sight and too often out of mind.


This week, though, two important opportunities have arisen for every non-indigenous Australian to confront his or her own preconceptions: that Aborigines are in for a free ride; they get more than everyone else; they keep using the past as an excuse.


The symbolic and practical dilemmas of indigenous disadvantage present probably the most complex policy problem for Australia.


Despite good intentions and some progress, a significant proportion of our population still endures living standards more akin to the Third World than a leader of the G20 or new best friend of the second-biggest economy on the planet.


The first insight began on Tuesday through the SBS television documentary First Contact.


The program places six white Australians in proximity with the great unknown: their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander countrymen and women.


The claim is that six in 10 Australians have had little contact with indigenous people. That would be a tragedy at half the rate, and must be changed if a joint approach to reconciliation and tackling disadvantage is ever to succeed.


From Redfern to western Sydney to eastern Arnhem Land to the Red Centre to prison, First Contact challenges the misconceptions about indigenous people.


As Aboriginal school teacher Marcus Lacey explains of the encounter of the six participants with his extended family's almost traditional lifestyle in Nyinyikay: "We are not going to transform them;  we are going to fill them with the truth, out of our mouth."


First Contact continues through until Thursday night.


The second insight, primed to transform the personal momentum of First Contact into policy solutions, is the 600-page "Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage, Key Indicators 2014" report released on Wednesday - the sixth such report since 2003.


"This report should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians or working in service delivery or program design," productivity commissioner Patricia Scott says.


With respect, the report should be compulsory reading for every Australian who thinks that because their life and future are assured, everything is alright Jack.


True, some of the so-called "closing the gap" initiatives established in 2008 are cause for optimism.


Economic outcomes have improved over the longer term, with higher incomes, lower reliance on income support, increased home ownership, and higher rates of full-time and professional employment among the indigenous population. As First Contact shows, many Aborigines and their communities are taking it upon themselves to be the drivers of positive change.


Nonetheless, the improvements remain largely restricted to urban Aborigines, who are increasingly well-educated and in better health.


Overall, there has been little or no progress in tackling alcohol and substance abuse in Aboriginal communities.


The prevalence of violence remains roughly twice that of the broader community.


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults were imprisoned at 13 times the rate for non-indigenous adults in 2012-13. The corresponding multiple for indigenous youth is 24 times their non-indigenous peers and re-offending rates are much higher.


Rates of mental illness and self-harm among indigenous people remain many times worse than in the rest of the population. The suicide rate is twice that of non-indigenous people.


The Australian

November 21, 2014


AUSTRALIA'S sacred site of Uluru would not qualify as a heritage site under new definitions by the WA government -applying to sites requiring protection.


Thousands of sites could be struck off the state's heritage register and stripped of protection under a new requirement that religious activity be performed on the site in order to qualify as a site under WA's Aboriginal Heritage Act.


The new definition only came to light in a letter to the Widi -native title group about the Mongers Lake Waterway, a large series of lake systems 260 kilometres northeast of Perth. The letter from the state heritage registrar declared the area was no longer recorded as an Aboriginal site under the act because it lacked evidence that "religious activities" had occurred there.


"For the place to be considered a sacred area it requires that a religious activity had to occur at this place rather than just a belief or the presence of an Ancestral Being," registrar Tanya Butler told the Widi group.


But in expert reports lodged with the registrar in 2005, 2008 and 2010, the lakes were described as "highly significant" as a mythological route for the Beemarra, an ancestral snake.


Yamatji Marlpa chief executive Simon Hawkins, for the Widi, said the clause was a surprise to everyone and "a gross misunderstanding of Aboriginal spiritual and cultural practices''.


"Many places that are sacred to Aboriginal people are not meant to be accessed, either by a specific gender, or at all,'' he said.


A famous example was Uluru, where the Anangu people of Central Australia did not perform ceremonies on Uluru, and preferred that visitors didn't climb it. He said proposed amendments to the Heritage Act would further strengthen the government's power to unilaterally decide what constituted -Aboriginal heritage.


Aboriginal leaders from across the state gathered on the steps of WA Parliament House yesterday in a protest against changes to the heritage laws and plan to close dozens of -remote Aboriginal communities.


Pilbara leader Doris Eaton said Aborigines were "not saying no to mining companies on our land but we want them to come and discuss our concerns''.


Indigenous Affairs spokesman Ben Wyatt said the new heritage definition was calculated to deliberately exclude sites of significance to Aborigines. "There is no requirement for a non-Aboriginal 'sacred' heritage sites, like a Christian church, to be in constant use in order to have heritage value,'' he said.