Western Australian Liberal premier Colin Barnett is closing 150 of the state’s 274 remote Indigenous communities. In a vile display of paternalism and racism, the premier announced in November that the state could not afford to provide basic services such as sewerage and electricity to the communities, calling them “economically unviable”.
Eighty percent are in the Kimberley, inhabited by between 12,000 and 15,000 people. Speaking to the Guardian on 2 February, WA Aboriginal affairs minister Peter Collier made clear his contempt for these people, saying, “To actually go out and go to all the communities is just nonsensical.”
Prominent WA Aboriginal activist Marianne Mackay, speaking to Red Flag, said: “Colin Barnett just wants to open up more mining leases for big business and development. With the amount of youth suicide and children being stolen again, the amount of deaths in custody, high incarceration rate, all these kinds of things, they’re social justice issues that have impacted on our people. They are a continuation of the genocidal policies that the government continues to create. Colin Barnett should be ashamed of himself.”
Western Australia has a dark history of colonialism and land grabs. In the 1950s and ’60s, people were forcibly pushed off their country by government and pastoralists. Mining companies have swallowed huge parts of the state, with little or no compensation to the traditional owners. Last year, the Swan Valley Nyoongar Community was bulldozed after a long battle by its residents to keep it open. Gallingly, the state government has now earmarked the site for a centre for Aboriginal art and “healing”.
One of the most damning examples of the devastation caused by closing remote communities is Oombulgurri. The east Kimberley community, home to 107 people, was closed down in 2011.
Amnesty International’s indigenous peoples’ rights manager, Tammy Solonec, was quoted by the ABC last year saying that those evicted from Oombulgurri were “highly traumatised … They were put in dongas for 18 months, inappropriate housing, no compensation.”
One man who was forcibly evicted took his own life soon after. Three years after the closure, some remain homeless; others have lost benefits because they could not receive Centrelink correspondence. Children who were moved to nearby Wyndham and did not attend school have been removed by the Department of Child Protection.
Oombulgurri sits on the site of the 1926 Forrest River massacre. Residents who refused to leave were forcibly evicted, given just two days notice of eviction and allowed to bring only one box of belongings each. Residents made official claims to the state government to regain their homes. Not only were they denied, they were threatened with trespass charges if they ever return.
People have been forced to move into larger town centres like Kununurra and Wyndham. If they have relatives there, they will often move into overcrowded homes. Many are forced to sleep rough, or in tents on the edges of town, leading to more encounters with police, law courts and prisons.
Last year the government also announced plans to axe Aboriginal court translation services in the Kimberley. For people whose first language is not English, the chances of dealing effectively with the justice system will be severely impacted. Deaths in custody continue to rise, with WA prisons being the worst in the country. Add to this the Abbott federal government’s $500 million cut to Aboriginal programs.
The message from the Liberal governments is clear: if it’s not a lucrative investment, it’s simply not worth it.
Closing communities is “causing more of an influx of people in the towns that programs and services aren’t going to be able to deal with due to the lack of funding. We’re going to have people walking into towns with no homes, no sense of stability, no anything. Colin Barnett doesn’t think of these things”, said Mackay.
While the Liberal government maintains that it cannot afford to fund basic services, it has managed to fork out $440 million for the widely criticised Elizabeth Quay project, $862 million for the new Perth Stadium and hundreds of millions in mining subsidies.
Despite community efforts to save it, Oombulgurri was finally bulldozed in October. Along with it, they bulldozed people’s possessions, homes and history. If the Liberal government proceeds with its plan, 150 other communities across WA will suffer the same fate.
Barnett says that self-determination in remote communities has been a failure, and therefore they deserve to be wiped out of existence. In reality, the Liberal government has failed Aboriginal people.
The only thing that is unviable is the Barnett government.