Plans for remote First Nations people in WA may be forced off their homelands and made homeless; Surrendering land for Mining

Oombilgurri remote community was closed down in 2014, these are the last houses before the bulldozes moved in
(Source: Amnesty International}

25th of February, 2015

This is an edited article which was originally published by Natalie Cromb for 'Independent Australia' on the 23rd of February 2015.

The Premier of Australia's wealthiest state Colin Barnett has, without notice or consultation, announced he is closing down 150 small towns in his state and has refused to meet the mayors or residents of these generally remote towns to discuss the matter.

Prior to Christmas, the West Australian Government announced that it would be closing up to 150 smaller Australian towns in the state of Western Australia, and there is no guarantee the residents would not be homeless nor will are they likely to be compensated. This announcement came as a complete surprise to the residents of these towns, who were not provided any notice of this being under consideration by the State Government.

The Premier – Colin Barnett – said he had no other options after the Federal Government announced they would no longer fund essential services to the towns, instead providing a one-off payment of $90 million to the State Government to take responsibility.

WA Premier Colin Barnett with Tony Abbott.
The following speculated scenario may be closer to the mark that we think: "The plan - Colin Barnett to find some experts to manipulate the cultural heritage act and Tony Abbott to radically reduce the Homelands budget. Then Warren Mundine, advisor on First Nations issues to justify the budget cuts and Colin Barnett can cry poor and close the remote communities down. Mining magnate Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest can then write a report to recommend training programs in the big mines and Tony Abbott can then introduce mandatory training and employment programs in remote mine sites for all First Nations people on unemployed benefits. This gives the mining billionaires cheap labour and government training assistance money and they can dig up wherever they like without having to worry about Homeland communities or cultural heritage sites. Finally, Colin Barnett can sell the land that is not useful for mining to overseas investors."

(Image source: Theo Fakos Source: PerthNow)

Apparently “taking responsibility” means simply closing the towns that has been home to the residents and their families for many generations.

Anthony Watson, a man who has worked across a number of these rural areas for years has expressed great disappointment with this decision as he says:

"It illustrates that the Government did not give thought to the social implications that such closures would have, not only on the directly affected communities, but the metropolitan communities too."

There are numerous logistical considerations that common sense would suggest needed due thought before closing any small town such as:

  • where are the members of the closed community supposed to go to live?
  • will there be relocation assistance?
  • will the families in these towns be able to move together?

Leaving aside the logistics, how can we, as a society, allow governments to close some of these towns so easily while leaving rural Australians homeless? Especially given the fact that most of the residents had been living there for so long.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott appointed mining magnate Andrew Forrest to head a policy review for First Nations people - Surprise, surprise, the mining billionaire recommended removing unemployed people from their homelands to be trained for working in the mines.

(Image source: Sydney Morning Herald

Watson confirmed that an alliance of major employers across these towns would be meeting in the first week of March to discuss the ramifications of the proposed community closures and how this can be managed. An invitation to this meeting would be extended to the Premier so that all he needs to do is turn up to the scheduled meeting and he can engage with the people as he has committed he would.

The meeting will be attended by four major employers of the area that focus on land management.

We have since found out that the premier has declined to attend this crucial meeting, which evidences his commitment to consulting Australians on the community closures. When the Alliance offered to change the day of the meeting, it was also declined, as was the offer to send a representative in his stead.

Anthony Watson said many Australians living in these areas are anxious and all questions posed to the government to date, have gone unanswered.

Anthony Watson, and his team, have been liaising with the community and attempting to contact the Government to obtain any information possible without any response, which is troubling.

Anthony Watson said that the upcoming meeting will probably be attended with much trepidation from the community as, he says:

Anthony Watson, Chairman of the Kimberley Land Council
(Source: KRED Enterprises)

"We have not been told which [Western Australian towns] are being targeted or why, we haven't even been provided with a criteria to clarify the basis of decisions being made"

Given the Premier's declined attendance and that there appears there will be no attendance on behalf of the Government at all, this meeting may raise more questions than answers, which will frustrate the community leaders who are proactively attempting to get to the crux of the issue in order to formulate a management plan.

There was hope given in the form of a suggestion by Terry Redman, regional development minister, that a fund could be used to support 274 smaller West Australian towns that may be threatened with closure after the Federal Government announced their plans for closure.

The premier has since quashed this hope by stating that Mr Redman was “misunderstood” and that the funds would be used for more appropriate investments such as power generation or water supply systems to more regional areas.

He went on to state:
"But we are not, and I stress, we are not simply going to replace the amount of money withdrawn by the Commonwealth."

This illustrates that the Government and its advisers fail to understand the needs of rural Australians and fail to understand the importance of the land to rural Australians. To deprive rural Australians the opportunities to continue to build an economic base from the land they have tended to for generations clearly indicates how this government views the Aussies who have battled hard on this land for a long time and have generally not made a huge amount of money from the land per capita. Very few residents of the towns in question have resisted moving into the potentially lucrative mining industry, instead focussing on the more environmentally sustainable land management they inherited from previous generations.

Remote government-funded communities are facing closures
(Marieke Ceranna/Amnesty International Australia)

In many of these towns, basic infrastructure afforded to most other Australians is not there however the value of living in a supportive, family-oriented rural environment has meant people have stayed anyway.

The funding for these communities would be plentiful if the big corporartions that mined extensively for profit paid a level of taxation on a scale with the rest of Australia, and if the government didn't cut funding to so many essential services in aid of excessive tax cuts and breaks to the aforementioned multi-nationals.

The WA State Government and its Federal big brother are not improving our nation and nor are they between a rock and hard place with funding, they are just simply favouring corporations over the individual citizens they purport to represent.

How long will the mining companies wait until after these misplaced Australians are forced from their communities before they move in to expand their operations? Probably not long – in fact – they probably have more information on the proposed closures than the affected communities and their democratically elected leaders have.

Anthony Watson and other residents of these towns in Western Australia will continue pressing the Government for information in what is an extremely uncertain time and all people belonging to an Alliance of organisations that covers many of these small towns in Western Australia can rest assured that the fight against arbitrary closure will continue.

Edited by James G Hoff
Ph: 0414 385 844