Protesters make their way across Princes Bridge. Photo: Joe Armao

This month the Government announced that they were going to turn off/stop maintaining access to water, electricity, etc. in multiple rural indigenous communities and this protest came very quickly in response.  We like to think that “taking the land away” or dispossession was something that happened long ago and far away and has nothing to do with me but then something like this happens to bring it front and centre and our willful blindness is confronted by the reality: this is still an issue and it is still happening.

These are the words the protestors called in chorus:

“Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land”

Talk to me about economics. Talk to me about closing the supermarket so people had to travel for food, closing the school so families with children had to travel or move, talk to me about closing the petrol station – it might be true that some of these communities have only 4 people living in them but there used to be many more.

“Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land”

Talk to me about land and place.  There’s hardly any of them, why should they get special treatment? They can move to the nearest big town… to give you a sense of scale Kimberley is c. 3 times the size of England and has a population of 40-50K people.  The nearest town is, well, pretty darn far away – what we white fullas can forget is that indigenous Australia is a lot kimberleymore like Europe, made up of many different countries with their own language, and myths, and dances and traditions… this map on the left is rough overview of the First Nations Peoples and language groups in Kimberley.  This is their map of how they see the world –  we wouldn’t expect it to be reasonable to ask the Italians to move to the nearest town in France and give up everything that informs their own unique culture and identity and we should not ask it of Aboriginal people here either.

photo credit:

“Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land”

Talk to me about civilisation.  We brought civilisation with us, did we not?  Are these people not better off because we bought them farming and livestock and tools and machinery they didn’t have before?  We brought in the piped water and wired electricity and overrode the old ways with our better new ways…?  There might not be many left who remember and could live by the old ways.  We’ve created a dependence and now you want to take the civilisation away? Did our civilisation include the law, and does the law include provision for human rights like access to water?  What is civilisation?

“Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land”IMG_5269

Tell me a story.  Tell me who your people are and where you are from.

At the start of some (too few) events, ceremonies or proceedings you might hear an Acknowledgement of Country… We acknowledge that we gather on the land of which the Peoples of the Kulin Nations have been custodians since time immemorial.  I went to a cultural awareness training day with Aunty Doreen Garvey-Wandin a few years ago and she did this activity with sticky dots to illustrate how Aboriginal people have lived here for 50,000 years – if each dot is equivalent to 1,000 years – then this black drawing, on the very last dot, represents the 200 years of contact/settlement with us white fellas.  We are a blip on a landscape that was here long before we came.  We need to understand and be reminded of our place in the story of things from Aboriginal peoples point of view. While, I’m here I’ll point out that this is what makes “Australia Day” also so hard.  It marks (and celebrates) the anniversary of colonisation over the culture that had existed here many thousands of years prior.  These acknowledgements should not be empty words.  We eat, we play, we gather, we work – on land where indigenous people were here before us – doing those things first – for many, many years.

“Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land”

Talk to me about belonging.  Do we “belong” here?  I think there is something in the psyche of all of us asking this question because at some level, perhaps we sense the truth of having displaced others to enjoy the space we now hold.  I am from New Zealand, and we have our own history and yet unfolding story of fair trade for land, foreshores and fish – and who should be the custodians of these things.  We need to respect Traditionally Acquired Knowledge more than we do because people lived and ate seasonably and sustainably and can probably teach us a thing or two about living well in this climate and speak wisely into other current social issues.  Do I belong here in this crowd? It can be easy to feel smug – Maori is taught in our schools, we had a treaty and are hearing settlement claims, we have a Ministry for Maori Development… but that is not enough: Te Whiti, a Maori Chieftain, exhorts us to “Ask that mountain” – the land itself bears 076witness to what takes place beyond any particular action of my lifetime whether we have done everything that we can to make things right.  How might the Great Barrier Reef answer? Or Uluru? or The Big Pit in Kalgoorlie? I was proud to see the Maori flag raised and carried alongside the Aboriginal flag in solidarity.  Others who have experienced displacement themselves – they do not forget.  We need to recognise that living in a world that has more languages, more dances, more patterns, more stories makes it a more enriching place for all of us and is worth protecting and defending by us all.

We chant it together.  We claim and proclaim it publicly:

“Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land”

“When you haven’t got a homeland or place to go, you lose your identity,and personality and you become sick.
Where are these communities going to go?”

Indigenous activist, Rieo Ellis

Thanks to ANTaR for this summary of the issue:

Announcement to discontinue funding essential services in remote communities

  • In September 2014 the Federal Government announced that it would no longer fund essential municipal services including supply of power, water, and management of infrastructure in remote Aboriginal communities in Queensland, Victoria, NSW, Western Australia, and Tasmania, despite having done so for decades.
  • The South Australian government refused to sign an agreement, and the Western Australian government signed an agreement with the Federal Government for funding of $90 million which would fund services until June 2016.
  • The WA government announced that it would not pick up the bill beyond that time and would instead close between 100 and 150 of the 274 remote Aboriginal communities in the state.
  • The decisions by both the Federal and the State Governments occurred without any consultation with Aboriginal people in the affected communities.

How many people live in these communities

According to the WA Department of Aboriginal Affairs, there are around 12,000 Aboriginal people currently living in the 274 communities in WA, with around 1,300 living in 174 of the smallest. In 115 of those communities, there are around 500 people in total, or an average of 4.4 people per community.

What will the impact be of shutting down communities

Premier Barnett himself acknowledged that closing communities would:

“…cause great distress to Aboriginal people who will move, it will cause issues in regional towns as Aboriginal people move into them.”

Professor Patrick Dodson, Yawuru man from the Kimberley, who authored a review of small homeland communities for the NTgovernment said closing down communities would:

“…be disastrous, increasing access to drugs and alcohol and exacerbating social tensions,  which would flow on to antisocial behaviour and incarceration. The immediate consequences would be to create an internal refugee problem for the indigenous people.

He also said that breaking people’s connection to land:

“…would threaten the survival of Aboriginal knowledge and culture, because in towns people were restricted from camping, lighting fires, hunting and fishing.” 

What criteria will be used to close communities

It is not known where any closures might occur, nor what criteria might be used.  In fact, there has been great anxiety and uncertainty over this, particularly as no consultation has occurred prior to the statement being made by Premier Barnett.

The Federal Government prepared a document in 2010 titled “Priority Investment Communities – WA” which categorised 192 of 287 remote settlements as unsustainable. The majority of those assessed as unsustainable are in the Kimberley, with 160 communities in the region.

Non-Indigenous communities

We could not find any examples of government decisions to refuse to fund essential municipal services for non-Indigenous communities, including small communities in remote areas in WA. For example, the non-Indigenous community of Camballin (of about 300 people) is located near Looma (an Aboriginal community of around 370 people) in the Kimberly. Looma will be assessed by the Western Australian government for funding whereas Camballin will not.