Cost of closing remote communities greater than tackling issues, Aboriginal leaders say

Wayne Bergmann, pictured here (far right) at the Nyikina Mangala consent determination in Lanji Lanji in May, says it will cause dysfunction if remote Aboriginal communities are closed.

Nicolas Perpitch and Anna Vidot ABC News 14 Nov 2014

Closing remote communities would cause chaos, Aboriginal leaders warn

Aboriginal leaders and advocates are warning the "chaos and dysfunction" caused by closing down remote Indigenous communities will cost the West Australian Government far more than addressing existing issues.

Premier Colin Barnett has acknowledged his decision to shut about half the state's 274 remote communities will cause distress to the more than 12,000 Aboriginal people living there and cause problems in the towns they move to.

However, he said existing high rates of suicide, poor health and a lack of jobs could not be ignored.

He has also labelled the "abuse and neglect of young children" a disgrace for the state.

The former head of the Kimberley Land Council, Wayne Bergmann, believed it was not good enough for the Premier to simply acknowledge the turmoil and social dysfunction closing communities would create.

He said it would end up costing the taxpayer a lot more to address those consequences.

"Some people will move into towns and you'll get more overcrowding in towns, you'll get more congestion in housing and probably social disruption," Mr Bergmann said.

"Some senior people won't want to leave their homes, because this is their homes, they've lived on country, lived in houses all their life.

"You'll just create massive social chaos that will cost more for government, because government can't ultimately turn their back and just leave people in absolute devastation."

The Indigenous affairs minister in the Fraser government, Fred Chaney, agreed. He said pushing people into towns would "invite squalor" and have an enormous cost.

"The cost of jailing someone in Western Australia I'm told is $300 a day," Mr Chaney said.

"We'll accelerate costs like that, we'll accelerate the costs of the hospitals and so on, we'll accelerate the costs of running the schools, which are dysfunctional if we don't do this in a proper, civilised, planned way."

Federal Government funding arrangements force issue: Premier

When the Premier first signalled his intention to close the communities, he said WA would not be able to fill the void left by the Federal Government's decision to stop funding power, water and other services beyond the next two years.

To back up his assertion that many Aboriginal communities were not viable, his office released figures stating there were 1,309 Aboriginal people living in 174 of the smallest communities, with an average of 7.5 people in each one.

Mr Barnett told 720 ABC Perth that in one community it was costing $85,000 per person per year to provide municipal services like water and sewerage.

"There's no way that the State Government can fund that into the long-term future," he said.

He said federal policy that supported people living on their ancestral lands had "failed".

"I think that this policy, that really came out of previous federal governments that people could ... return to homeland areas and live out their [lives] ... I think pretty well any fair-minded person would say that has failed. That has not been successful," he said.

The Premier said the State Government would begin by identifying remote communities that were viable, and building them up.

"We're never going to have no Aboriginal communities, they will never disappear," he said.

"There will always be certainly 100, probably well in excess of 100, but we've got to get them to a stage where they are viable."

"We're going to do this gradually. We're not going to simply go out and put closure signs outside communities, but we need to start to address the problem immediately."

We saw that with Oombulgurri, which had ripple effects all throughout the Kimberley, because it displaces other people and there's already not enough housing.
Amnesty International's, Tammy Solonec

Mr Bergmann said communities with strong leadership were doing better.

"The only solution is the Government has to empower Aboriginal leadership in the local organisations and the local communities, to empower them to be able to address these issues," he said.

Housing Minister Bill Marmion said communities would be consulted before any decision was made, but it was not clear if people would eventually be forced off the land.

The east Kimberley community of Oombulgurri was closed down in 2011, after a coronial inquiry revealed it was wracked by suicide, sexual abuse, child neglect and domestic violence.

Amnesty International's indigenous peoples' rights manager Tammy Solonec said there was no plan to help people evicted from Ooombulgurri integrate into Wyndham or other towns, leaving them "highly traumatised".

"They were put in dongas for 18 months, inappropriate housing, no compensation," she said.

She said one of the men who stayed to the end was ultimately evicted, and he took his own life soon after in Wyndham.

She predicted a repeat of what happened when Oombulgurri was shut.

"We saw that with Oombulgurri, which had ripple effects all throughout the Kimberley, because it displaces other people and there's already not enough housing," she said.

"We're concerned about lack of strategy."

She said governments needed to support communities rather than shutting them down.

Greens MLC Robin Chapple has gone one step further, accusing the Government of peddling a racially-motivated agenda.

"It's smacks of the assimilation policies over the early 60s," he said.

"It's horrendous. This is a diabolical, in my view, highly racially motivated agenda."

The Barnett Government has said it was forced to accept a $90 million payment from the Commonwealth to take over responsibility for the remote communities.