Shutting down Australia's First Nations Homeland communities

Royce Kurmelovs 'aljazeera' 7 December 2014

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

Perth, Australia - The West Australian state government may bulldoze 150 remote indigenous communities that it says are too expensive to keep open under a new funding arrangement between federal and state authorities.

Canberra has offered each state a one-time, lump-sum payment to take over the responsibility of financing remote Aboriginal communities indefinitely.

In an ultimatum, Western Australia was offered $90m, enough to fund remote communities through to 2017.

But as of June 30, 2015, past federal funding agreements will end, effectively giving Western Australia authorities about seven months before they must start working out how to fund remote communities in the future - and which ones will have to close.

Similar arrangements have been made with South Australian, Queensland, Victorian and Tasmanian state governments.

All have so far remained silent on the details with the exception of South Australia, which rejected a $10m payment on the basis that it was not enough for the obligation being created.

South Australia's Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation Ian Hunter warned if his government was forced to accept the new arrangement, 60 remote communities - home to 4,000 people - would have to close.

Futures in question

So far, Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett has taken a cautionary tone, telling Al Jazeera it is "still very early", while admitting that community closures are inevitable.

"No decision has yet been made to close any of Western Australia's remote communities," said Barnett. "But the reality is that WA will struggle to afford subsidies of that amount."

This has not helped soothe concerns about the possible dislocation from traditional land of vulnerable communities dealing with profound social issues.

A recent Productivity Commission report found that despite some success, Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples still face serious issues in areas of mental health and suicide, disability and over-representation in the country's prisons and criminal justice system.

The fear is that changes to federal policy and funding arrangements that have raised the possibility of community closures only threatens to derail any achievements made to date.

That such closures may occur around the country is also what has lead the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples (NCAFP) to label the issue one of the "most significant" facing Australia's indigenous peoples to date.

"This is about our people's right to stay on our land," NCAFP co-chair Kirstie Parker told Al Jazeera. "People are very frightened that the days are numbered and their communities will be closed."

In an effort to address the issue, Parker and her co-chair Les Malezer called on Prime Minister Tony Abbott to act in an open letter last week, but so far they have not received a response.

For others such as Tammy Solonec, Amnesty International Australia's (AIA) indigenous peoples rights manager, there are serious questions about the Western Australia government's ability to properly manage the transition.

Closing a community with historic experiences of dispossession is no easy task, and doing so with the care needed to carry out a closure may not be possible on the relatively short period of time available and on such a wide scale.

"It's just going to create chaos," said Solonec, who also works as a lawyer for the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia.

Most of all, Solonec said she fears a repeat of what happened when the remote community of Oombulgurri was closed in 2011.

Community in crisis

Before it was closed, Oombulgurri was a community of about 200 people on Balanggarra land in Western Australia's far north. During the wet season, the road to Oombulgurri is cut off, meaning the area can only be reached by plane or a half-hour boat ride.

The area was the scene of a massacre that took place in 1926 when law enforcement sought revenge on local Aboriginal people for the killing of a pastoralist.

In 2005 and 2006, the community hit troubled times again when it was rocked by five tragic deaths, including four suicides, in the space of a year.

David Ryder has fond memories of life in 'Oomby', but said things are much worse after the 'forced eviction'

(Marieke Ceranna/AIA)

A Coronial Inquest into the deaths went on to highlight a string of social problems that included alcohol-related violence, domestic violence, and child sexual abuse.

In response, the Western Australian government moved to close the community.

While the state government insists the former residents of Oombulgurri left voluntarily, the closure began with the withdrawal of services from the community in 2011.

The process was gradual. Welfare payments stopped being processed before the local store closed. After that, the schools and health services shutdown, followed by municipal services. This effectively forced residents with children and older residents in need of medical attention to leave in order to access services elsewhere.

Finally, the power and water were shut off. Despite this, 10 holdouts remained, one being David Ryder who has fond memories of life in "Oomby" before the trouble started a decade ago.

"It was a good life," said Ryder, an elder who remembers the good fishing in the mangroves nearby.

When he and the other holdouts were finally removed from the area, he said he had to leave his property behind. Once out, the physical remoteness of the area meant there was no way to retrieve personal belongings without support from the ranger and a 30-minute boat ride.

Few of the former residents seem to have fared well in the transition, with many having nowhere to go and ending up homeless, living on the fringes of bigger towns in the region.

To combat the problem, the state government was forced to spend at least $1.6m at the time to provide temporary housing.

Worse yet, none of the social problems that had developed in Oombulgurri over the previous decade have gone away, according to Ryder, who said many former residents turned to alcohol more than ever.

"It's a sad thing," said Ryder. "Everyone's all in town now and they're getting into trouble."

Earlier this year the demolition of Oombulgurri began. Solonec was one of the last people to visit the place before it was torn down and described how cars were left to rust, children's artwork still hung on walls, and wild horses had taken over the area.

"It was clear a forced eviction had taken place," said Solonec.

The treacherous invaders say communities such as Oombulgurri are allegedly too expensive to be kept open
(Marieke Ceranna/Amnesty International Australia)

Premier Barnett defended the decision to close the community, saying it was "unviable" and the removals followed proper consultation.

"The state government's decision to close a community found to be in a 'state of crisis' - experiencing high rates of domestic violence, child neglect, sexual abuse and excessive alcohol consumption - was necessary and in the best interests of residents and the wider community," said Barnett.

Lessons to be learned

The risk now is that the experience of Oombulgurri's closure may be repeated across the country, and for Solonec this would be the worst case scenario.

"We can never let it happen again. If we're going to talk about closing communities, we need to do it in a better way," said Solonec.

What's needed she said are "creative solutions" to actually solve the profound social issues within some remote communities, and prevent people being removed from their land.

Her view is echoed by Parker, who said self-determination is the key and closing down communities merely on the basis that they are "dysfunctional" will not solve problems, but only push them onto other communities.

"Our communities are left wondering about the future of our communities and of our children," said Parker.

"This scenario doesn't address the problems in our communities everyone knows are there, it doesn't deal with the people. To do that you sit down and talk with them."