Australia is one of the largest and remotest countries on earth. So it never ceases to surprise me how difficult it is to have a sensible national conversation on remote indigenous communities.
Last week Tony Abbott expressed support for Western Australia’s proposal to “close” about 150 remote Aboriginal communities. The Prime Minister raised several legitimate issues. He also suggested indigenous Australians in remote communities had made a “lifestyle choice”.
His use of words was inaccurate and unfair. Indigenous Australians in remote communities haven’t made a sea change, uprooting from the city and going bush. They’re continuing to live on their own lands, where their ancestors have lived for thousands of years.
That’s not the only language problem. Talk of closing communities terrifies indigenous people living on country, invoking past instances where people were removed forcibly or driven off their land. It sends a shiver down my spine, even though I know it is not what’s happening.
Governments can’t close communities. They can withdraw services — but can’t tell people where to live.
It’s incorrect and alarmist to say communities will be closed.
There’s a legitimate debate about service allocation in remote Australia. It requires informed discussion. So let’s start with some home truths.
First, native title laws require claimants to establish a continuous connection to the land. Moving off traditional lands may mean forfeiting a native title claim. If leaving your home meant losing title to it you’d stay too. I’ve proposed governments fast-track native title claim settlements and dispense with the continuous connection condition. Then indigenous people truly would be free to choose where they live.
Second, indigenous lands are the only parts of Australia where private home ownership isn’t legally allowed. People live in community housing (funded by government) or build on communal land without security of title.
Indigenous people in remote areas will be less reliant on government if they have the autonomy of home ownership. Yet initiatives to enable private home ownership are bogged down in bureaucratic politics and process.
Third, the West Australian proposal is a fight between the federal and state governments over who funds services to Aboriginal communities. Western Australia has plenty of remote non-indigenous communities as well as farming families living hours away from the nearest town. But I’m not aware of the state withdrawing services from its tiny wheatbelt communities, for example.
The Guardian Australia published a report on three small communities in WA’s Kimberley region — Jarlmadangah, Looma and Camballin — that are about 100km from Derby. Only the two Aboriginal communities, Jarlmadangah and Looma, are at risk of service withdrawal.
State and territory governments should service all communities consistently. That’s their responsibility.
I don’t believe governments have to provide a full suite of services to every remote settlement, no matter how small. They aren’t doing that presently. What they should do is focus on service delivery to the region in which communities are located, recognising that distance travel is an accepted part of life in remote areas.
For example, I’ve proposed a remote education model where one district primary school services all communities within, say, an hour’s drive and one regional secondary school with weekly boarding facilities services all communities within, say, a two to three-hour drive.
Indigenous people leaving their lands isn’t some magical solution to closing the gap. We’ve seen what happens when indigenous people leave their lands to live in bigger population centres. Look at the town camps around Alice Springs, for example, or the “expat” Torres Strait Islander settlements in Cairns. There are ample government services in those areas but still chronic welfare dependence and low school attendance. Yet on a recent visit to the Torres Strait I saw blossoming enterprise and schools with 85 per cent school attendance.
Remote living doesn’t abrogate your responsibility to support yourself and get your kids educated. My family came from a remote NSW community 100km from the nearest large town. Some, like my father, moved into town. Some didn’t. But they all worked and all sent all their kids to school, some travelling two hours a day to and from high school.
Governments can’t shirk their responsibilities. Neither can individuals. Everyone has a responsibility to work and send their children to school, wherever they live. When you live in a remote community you have to accept some extra effort and inconvenience comes with that. That’s the substance of what the PM was saying. But indigenous people won’t hear that message if his language terrifies and insults them.
Language is important. Look how carefully politicians choose their words when discussing matters concerning Indonesia, for example. Careful language doesn’t prevent discussion of these matters, raising difficult subjects or even delivering strong messages. Actually, it facilitates communication. That same approach would have come in handy when the PM spoke last week.
This article was first published in The Australian on 21 March 2015
Mind your language
21 March 2015
By Nyunggai Warren Mundine