Threats of closing Homeland community leaves our people in limbo and confused

Many First Nations people prefer to live in small Homeland communities because it gives them the opportunity to pass their culture to the children and protect them from the drugs, alcohol, violence and depression that occurs in larger communities and towns. Research on the homelands in Northern Territory has revealed that First Nations people living in Homeland communities have a better diet, get more exercise and are much healthier.

Penny Bidd with the five grandchildren and a great-grandchild she cares for
Penny Bidd, second from right, with the five grandchildren and a great-grandchild she cares for after her daughter's death; she believes her family would be safer in the bush.

(Image: Colin Murty Source: News Corp Australia)

Paige Taylor The Australian 6 May 2015

Penny Bidd is in anguish. Her daughter died last month in what police allege was a fatal attack by another woman during a riot in the remote Kimberley community of Kalumburu.

Bidd, 52, says the only hope for the five children her daughter left behind, who are now in her care, is to escape even further into the bush, to her homeland on the remote Charnley River Station.

Her impulse is understandable. But it, and countless similar actions by Aboriginal people, poses tough questions for West Australian Premier Colin Barnett. The state, he says, has to rationalise services to Western Australia's remote Aboriginal communities. The state simply cannot afford to do otherwise.

But, at the same time, many indigenous West Australians are voting with their feet and opting to live "on country" in remote settlements. They see that as the safest and healthiest way of beating grog, drugs and violence, both physical and sexual, that stalks Aboriginal townships.

"You see people bringing in drugs, ganja and alcohol, and there's been suicides of kids. I like to go back to Charnley because it's sad living here," says Bidd, who now lives in the community of Mowanjum, near Derby.

"We are having a lot of problems … I can't stop my children, I got to take them back out the bush where there's no drugs or alcohol out there. That's the only way I can stop it."

Barnett's argument that the state cannot afford to pay for ser­vices to so many remote communities may well make economic sense. But it is set against some of the most challenging dilemmas and entrenched anti-social behaviours in contemporary Australia.

The picture is not uniform, nor is it easily understood. Some remote communities, such as Lombadina, near Broome, appear to be shining examples of what can be achieved.

More than a third of the township's 70 residents work in a community-owned tourist business, there are no children in state care, and school attendance is high. Only one person has diabetes.

But there are also communities with well-documented and frightful troubles, such as Kalumburu, where Bidd's daughter was allegedly killed on April 5.

Two years ago, a child protection worker documented what was going on and how skewed social norms could pervade a remote community.

The document, leaked to The Australian without the knowledge of its author, Rosalee Webb, shows how challenging this can be for authorities whose priority is to look after the children who live there against a backdrop of endemic abuse and deep kinship ties.

Webb's report is now being used in the training of child protection workers, police and teachers because it reveals how difficult it is to keep these remote communities free of sexual predators.

In 2007, police, prompted by local community members, cleared out the sex offenders from Kalumburu. A dozen men were subsequently convicted of sex ­offences.

But after doing their time, inexorably they drifted back; when the joint police and child protection taskforce Operation Reset returned to Kalumburu in 2012, it identified 17 of the 100 adult males living there as convicted sex offenders. It little wonder that West Australian Child Protection Minister Helen Morton says that resetting the social norms in some communities is "like painting the bloody Sydney Harbour Bridge".

When Webb gave her presentation in Kalumburu in March 2013, rumours were already swirling that some victims of the sexual abuse dealt with by authorities in 2007 had since become ­perpetrators.

"If we know statistically that every second house in Kalumburu has a convicted sex offender living there, what needs to be occurring in the community for sexual abuse/rape of children to occur, as frequently as it has done/is doing?" she writes in the paper. .

Examining why offenders were allowed back after they had served their time, the paper suggested that the ruling Kalumburu council consisted of a group of families and each family would have had links to at least one sexual offender in their immediate or extended group, sometimes two or three.

Webb's paper asks: "How much value do children have in the community when offenders, mostly without any intervention, are allowed back, having served their full time? How much does the community as a whole deny their offences/minimise their offences? Does the community view the offences as minor/not that serious?"

She offers one example of offending that was not reported until it suited one of the adults who knew about it.

"A child was being sexually abused by a male family member. She told her grandmother, her uncle and then her aunty. No one did anything or stopped it. Her aunty finally told the police when she had a fight with the perpetrator's family and wanted to get back at them … six months later."

In September last year, when the commonwealth struck a deal with the states to hand over responsibility for the infrastructure, and for essential and municipal services in remote communities, Barnett's ministerial subcommittee on Aboriginal affairs was already on the case.

It had begun to consider how to address waste, duplication of ser­vices and the warped social norms in some small and isolated Aboriginal communities.

The former issue was essentially a stoush over money, and the latter was a genuine attempt by state Aboriginal Affairs Minister Peter Collier to find ways to better help leaders trying to reset their communities, get rid of ineffective services and inject more accountability into the way money is spent in remote places.

But the two issues were quickly conflated. In Collier's words, the commonwealth's decision to stop funding confused everything. "It completely hijacked the issue," he said.

It happened like this. On Nov­ember 10, Barnett was asked at a press conference about a spate of Aboriginal youth suicides revealed in The Weekend Australian but not yet counted in official figures that inform government policy. He said his government was "working to try and reduce that, but it is extremely difficult".

Asked to elaborate, Barnett moved immediately to the issue of remote communities and their ­future.

"We've got 280 remote communities in Western Australia. It's impossible to service those in terms of not only essential services but also in terms of policing, healthcare, education and the like, and one of the biggest challenges Western Australia is going to face in the next few years is to reduce the number of those communities — that's going to be traumatic for people involved, it'll have an effect on regional towns and cities as people move into them."

Barnett had articulated this view before. In October 2010, two years into his first term as premier, he told reporters that he doubted the viability of many of the state's remote Aboriginal communities. "We've got something like 200 Aboriginal communities in this state; if you compare it with Queensland, there's about a dozen larger communities which have a viability," he said at the time.

So why is it different now?

This time Barnett began talking about closures just as the commonwealth handed responsibility for infrastructure and for essential and municipal services in remote communities to the states.

The Barnett government accepted $90 million in the deal, but has repeatedly said it is not enough.

Barnett was careful not to offer a timeline on closures. Nor did he say the government would actively shut communities down.

But the fact he had now put an estimate on the number of West Australian communities that would likely close — between 100 and 150 out of 274 — helped a perception there was a plan, and that action was imminent.

Reporters scrambled to uncover what the blueprint for closures might be, dragging out government-commissioned assessments and reports on costings from up to seven years ago.

The Barnett government flatly denied any of it was part of a plan for remote communities.

Just as journalists were beginning to wonder if there was any plan at all, Tony Abbott appeared on ABC radio in the West Australian goldfields city of Kalgoorlie on March 10 and made sure the story did not die.

"It is not the job of the taxpayer to subsidise lifestyle choices," the Prime Minister said.

"Fine, by all means live in a remote location, but there's a limit to what you can expect the state to do for you if you want to live there.

"What we can't do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have."

Bidd and her extended family of 18 members live in Mowanjum, a supposedly alcohol-free community with a thriving art centre about 10km from the Kimberley port town of Derby.

But she says Mowanjum — better resourced than many of Western Australia's 274 remote communities — is plagued by social strife.

"I want to get them back home to Charnley River where my father came from, going for rides, getting people to come in and help them know what grog is doing to their body," she says.

The Premier last week significantly softened down his rhetoric on closures, saying it would take years or decades for the number of communities to dwindle.

He also now says he cannot put a figure on the number that will "lapse".

His government plans to create bigger hub communities and orbit settlements that would access the hub's essential services.

Greens senator Rachel Siewert says Aboriginal people in five Kimberley towns told her in face-to-face meetings this week that they feared being forced to shift into other communities. "Colin Barnett is trying to modify his message after sensing community anger, but he will still close down smaller communities," she says.

"Many mothers have said to me that they don't want to go into towns. They say, ‘If there are (sex) perpetrators in our communities, then move them out, don't make us move.' "

Mowanjum is the product of historic upheaval — former mission inmates were moved off their country into Derby in the 1950s, and shifted again in 1975 to Mowanjum after the government decided it needed additional land for an airport in Derby.

Siewert says moving people will be "history repeating itself".

She says she agrees with Liberal federal MP Ken Wyatt, who blames the Barnett government's dilemma over funding remote communities on the commonwealth.

Wyatt says the commonwealth rollout of the homelands movement under the Hawke Labor government in the 80s "created the problem of growth of homelands that now exists".

He says it coincided at the time with the creation of 100 state-instituted Aboriginal Lands Trust ­leases, which he helped oversee.

"It caused concern at the time because the state was not in a position to provide funding.

"It annoys me that the state made a commitment to funding Lands Trust properties but the commonwealth came in over the top with the homelands properties," he says.

Bidd says she will wait until she receives a new kidney before trying to move her family back to her country at Charnley River.

If she meets Barnett, she says, "I'll bow down and I'll beg him to let me be back home, where my culture is still alive. With my children surrounding me, all safe."