By Nyunggai Warren Mundine
Last week WA Premier Colin Barnett acknowledged that his suggestion of closing 150 remote Indigenous communities was “a bit bald”. He’s now given an assurance no one will be forced from their land. I welcome that assurance.
Barnett’s original statement was rhetoric in a battle over funding responsibilities. The Commonwealth has been funding Indigenous communities and state governments have been let off the hook. WA has plenty of remote non-Indigenous communites and it never talks about closing them. But the Abbott Government expects state governments to service all communities consistently, as is their responsibility. Barnett was throwing down the gauntlet over additional funding burdens.
There’s a legitimate debate about servicing of remote communities — black and white — in one of the world’s biggest countries by geography and one of the smallest by population. But you won’t have a productive discussion threatening to close communities. It terrifies Indigenous people living on country, many of whom now fear forcible removal. It’s also false. Governments can’t close communities. They can withdraw services but can’t tell people where to live or force them off their own land.
That is just one of many unhelpful misconceptions. Another is that remoteness is the reason for long-term unemployment and lack of education in those communities.
That belief is often accompanied by the refrain “there are no jobs” in remote communities. This too is a myth. There’s work to be done in remote communities like everywhere else. The problem is the jobs are mostly done by outsiders. There are also jobs in industries like mining and agriculture but most are filled by fly-in, fly-out workers or even foreign backpackers.
It’s often said people in remote areas should be willing to move elsewhere if that’s what it takes to find work. In fact, Indigenous Australians have been doing that for years. My father was one of them. It’s why the biggest Indigenous populations are in urban and regional areas of Queensland and NSW. Today, however, moving off traditional lands may mean forfeiting a native title claim because claimants must establish a continuous connection to the land. That wasn’t a factor in my father’s decision as native title wasn’t then recognised.
It’s a very real factor now. Would you move away from your home if it meant losing title to it? Incidentally, there’s a simple solution to this - dispense with the continuous connection condition and fast-track native title settlements recognising the native title of the groups in the areas we know they occupied before British colonisation.
Even if people do move, it doesn’t guarantee they’ll work or their children will be educated.
Long-term unemployment and lack of education exist all over Australia. For example, about half of all Tasmanians aged 15 to 74 are functionally illiterate and innumerate. There are suburbs in Sydney where generations of families live in public housing and have never worked. These are social – not geographical – problems stemming from chronic inter-generational welfare dependence.
No community, big or small, can survive without a real economy. People in remote communities aren’t stupid. They know this.
Every time I visit communities, I meet smart and motivated people who desperately want to develop real and sustainable economies. They’re deeply frustrated by the structural barriers making it so difficult, barriers often put in place with good intentions but now depriving these communities of oxygen.
The missions closed long ago but you wouldn’t know it when you visit some of these places, where the established civic structures work against commerce and private land ownership. Indigenous lands are also the only parts of Australia where private home ownership isn’t legally allowed. I call it “state-sponsored socialism. Those conditions don’t nurture a real economy.
Last year a parliamentary committee released a report on the development of Northern Australia. The committee observed “Australia must find ways to build its population in the tropical North—not only to attract people, but also to retain them. That is absolutely critical. There are great opportunities available in Northern Australia, but we need more people living and working in the North to be able to realise these opportunities.”
So politicians are saying more people need to move north to enable development. But then we hear there aren’t jobs in remote areas and communities should be closed. How can there be a shortage of labour on the one hand and a shortage of jobs on the other?
By 2040, Indigenous Australians will make up half the population of northern Australia. Yet people are scratching their heads, saying: “How can we encourage people to move north?” Well, Indigenous Australians in the north don’t need encouragement.
No government can be expected to provide a full suite of municipal services to every remote settlement no matter how small, but they can balance cost with service delivery by having a regional focus and considering access to services, recognising distance travel is an accepted part of life in remote areas. Barnett has adopted a “hub and orbit” strategy where a better resourced “hub” can service communities in an “orbit”. Directionally, I support that approach.
Ultimately, however, the problem for Indigenous traditional lands isn’t remoteness. It’s lack of the conditions needed for economic development.
All cities in Australia originated from small, remote communities. In the 1830s Melbourne had a few hundred residents. Can you imagine a more remote place on Earth in the 1830s than Melbourne? Decades later it was a thriving city with a diverse economy off the back of a mining boom.
Many Indigenous people have big dreams and aspirations for their small remote communities. Governments need to be practical and lift the shackles.
An edited version of this article was first published in The Herald Sun on 8 May 2015