Paul Gregoire | Vice
Yesterday, 18,000 people turned out at rallies across Australia in protest of the Western Australian government’s proposal to close up to 150 remote Aboriginal communities. The move will see municipal and essential services provided by the government cut. Premier Colin Barnett announced the closures in November last year, claiming many of these communities are economically unviable.
On March 1, the Matagarup Aboriginal Refugee Camp was set up on Heirisson Island in Perth, anticipating the looming refugee crisis that will be caused by the remote community closures. Indigenous groups estimate that 15,000-20,000 people could potentially be affected by the closures and some see the proposals as more of a land grab than a measure against any real financial concerns.
Figures from the WA Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) detail 274 remote communities across the state, with 12,113 Aboriginal people currently living within them.
Over past decades, it’s been the federal government that’s provided funding for 180 of these communities. However last September, federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion announced that the responsibility to provide services to these communities would be handed over to the state government on July 1 this year, along with $90 million in funding to cover a two year transitional period.
Last week, Prime Minister Tony Abbott defended the WA government’s decision to close communities down stating on ABC radio, “what we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices.” This remark outraged many in the Indigenous community, as they regard people living in remote communities as carrying on the cultural and spiritual obligations to the land they inherited at birth.
On March 5, Barnett announced that an official investigation was underway into which remote communities would be closed and suggested that this would uncover incidents of child abuse. This is reminiscent of the Northern Territory Intervention, when in 2007 troops were sent in to close down remote NT communities on the pretext that paedophile rings were in operation. These claims were subsequently proven false.
WA Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Ben Wyatt, told VICE that the premier’s suggestion he will produce evidence of child abuse is an attempt to demonise Aboriginal people to justify his decision.
“Mr Barnett has shown no understanding of the history of the remote communities nor the likely impact if you shut 150 communities,” said Wyatt, himself a Yamatji man. “The larger centres currently do not have the capacity to provide services to their current populations, let alone an influx of people moving in from the remote communities.”
Mitch Torres is an organiser of Stop the Forced Closure of Aboriginal Communities, which mobilised yesterday’s national day of action in centres around the nation. A Djugun and Gooniyandi woman from the Kimberley region, Torres said the protests drew attention to the lack of consultation the government has undertaken with the remote Aboriginal communities and the pending homelessness crisis that could eventuate. She said there are grave fears the closures are a repeat of past removal policies, giving no consideration to future social impacts.
“This is about taking people off their sovereign domicile, where they want to live, which took them years to get back because of being moved off country because of stations, the pastoral leases and the stolen generation, which has had an intergenerational effect,” Torres said. “In the last 50 years people have fought to go back to their country and get established. Then we get told we don’t want that experiment anymore. It’s like pulling people off country and putting them into the missions.”
Ghillar Michael Anderson, leader of the Euahlayi people and ambassador of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, wrote an open letter to the United Nations on March 3, in which he states that the proposed closures of remote communities are to open up the land for mining.
“For the Western Australian government to now dispossess and displace the peoples of these homelands is designed to facilitate an expeditious expansion of mining interests and other developments,” he wrote.
Anderson points out that the proposed closures are a continuation of others in the past. The Swan Valley Nyoongar community in Lockridge, Perth was closed in 2003 and Oombulgurri in the Kimberley in 2011. Both were bulldozed last year.
The announcement of the closures coincides with the introduction of the Aboriginal Heritage Amendment Bill by the Barnett government last November. The bill, which is about to be debated in state parliament, proposes changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972. These simplify the process of gaining permission to develop Aboriginal sites, as the chief executive of the DAA will have sole discretion over whether to deem heritage protection. This would continue a DAA trend over recent years of site assessment which is beneficial to industry.
Marianne MacKay is an organiser of the refugee camp at Matagarup, which is part of the Nyoongar Tent Embassy. The Yoorgabilya woman from the Nyoongar nation said the camp is designed, “to show the world that we feel like refugees in our country.” And she questions whether the government has any plans to resettle the people who will be forced off their land.
“Our people are being pushed off communities and having water, electricity and essential services cut off, so they’ll move and then when they do they’re considered to be abandoning their lands and mining leases go up and exploration leases,” MacKay explained. “Services are still going to be needed, just somewhere else. So it’s not like they’re going to be making extra money. They’re going to be kicking people off their homelands to steal that land for big business and mining.”
Last week, the camp was issued with an ultimatum by the City of Perth to dismantle all permanent structures at the site by 12 pm on March 13. When this was not adhered to around 50 police moved in with horses and dogs. They began dismantling the embassy, seizing mattresses, chairs and a marquee, which they loaded into trucks. MacKay downplayed the police confiscations, stating they’d already packed most of the camp away, so it couldn’t be taken.
“We stood in a circle because our mission was to protect the sacred fire. They weren’t putting it out and we didn’t let them,” MacKay said, as the Matagarup camp defiantly continues.