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Issue #1635      April 16, 2014

The eviction of the Last of the River People

The Swan Valley Nyungah Community are known as the Last of the River People. Their demise into homelessness and extreme poverty was induced by the state government. The River People had called the 20 acre site home, the last remnant of their ancestral lands. Despite colonialist disenfranchisement they had clung on to that piece of land, a pin prickle of the land they walked freely prior to 1829.

Greg Martin from the Nyoongar Tent Embassy pours sand into the hand of Herbert Bropho symbolising the giving back of their land. (Photo: Daniel Wilkins, PerthNow)

On July 19, 1994, the Swan Valley Nyungah Community (SVNC) was vested as a Reserve (43131) by the Governor-General Michael Jeffrey. In 1977, State Premier Richard Court formally handed back to them the 20 acres of Country. The Swan Valley Nyungah designed and built 11 rammed earth homes – environmentally and culturally sensitive. Other facilities were built too and a school was included on site which would record one of the highest attendance rates in the nation for an Aboriginal community.

In 2001, Western Australia’s first Aboriginal magistrate, Sue Gordon, was appointed by Premier Gallop to head an inquiry into family violence and alleged child abuses in Western Australia. A preceding coronial inquiry had found that 15-year-old Susan Taylor was subjected “to sexual violation, violence and the ravages of alcohol and substance abuse.”

A line of questions as to why government agencies failed her has never been pursued and this is an indictment of a lazy and racist society – the layers of racism are myriad and in this nation with its chronic hostile denial these layers are yet to be unveiled.

The Gordon Inquiry produced a 640-page report and made 197 findings and recommendations. What occurred with the knee-jerk reaction, the closure of the Swan Valley Nyungah Community, now appears a haunting precedent for the soon to follow Northern Territory “Intervention”.

In an unprecedented move in April 2003, the Geoff Gallop led government closed the community in the suburb of Lockridge by an Act of Parliament following a swirl of longstanding and more recent allegations against one of the community’s Elders, the late Robert Bropho. Allegations of sexual abuse were levelled against him. In 1999, Susan Taylor committed suicide at the site.

The Gordon inquiry was reckless leading to the removal of people from their communities, casting many into homelessness and premature death. The racism is obvious in that if there were perpetrators, only they should have been chased down, and any issues of sexual abuses rightfully contained to the perpetrators.

The Inquiry made recommendations which included the usual swathe of alcohol restrictions and the over-involvement of government agencies, but nothing much on education and other services. Premier Gallop’s cruel reaction to the report’s findings was to solve the problem by closing the site; to take it out of sight, out of mind. But what he did was create never-before-known hardships for the majority of the residents. He provided them no support, despite being obliged to; many of them finished dying on the streets. Over the years I met many of the homeless on the streets – some now who have passed away.

Those I met told me one tragic story after another about sexual violence, substance abuses and suffering on the streets of Perth. Their anguish was etched in their faces. So much for Premier Gallop, for our state government and for the Gordon Inquiry!

Any evidence from the Coroner’s Office and from the Gordon Inquiry should have been passed on to the Department of Public Prosecution for them to determine whether there were grounds for charges.

But Premier Gallop put paid to all this. In a media statement (May 14, 2003) he described the Community “as a place of ruination, of despair”. Premier Gallop refused to meet with the residents; he refused requests from the Swan Valley Nyungah Community’s women. They protested outside Parliament but still Premier Gallop refused to meet with them. On May 15, 2003, Premier Gallop issued another media statement relying on the Gordon Inquiry. In citing the Inquiry he stated, “There is only one course of action – the current Management Order must be revoked.”

After the closure the land remained idle and the homes became rundown. In recent weeks, West Australian Premier Colin Barnett, with a dose of the-public-has-no right-to-know and with Kafkaesque mendacity, ordered a deplorable act: the demolition of the Swan Valley Nyungah Community’s homes without any notice or courtesy to the former residents, many of whom are homeless.

The demolition occurred at the crack of dawn with a huge contingent of security and with the police at the ready. The government outrageously claimed that “there are no homeless people” as a result of the April 2003 evictions. These statements, which were persisted with by the Department of Housing, have both shocked and stirred the former residents, their supporters and homelessness advocates.

Swan Valley Nyungah Community stalwart, Herbert Bropho was surprised by the outrageous statements.

“(The Department of Planning’s Duncan Ord) has been saying on the (major television) news that my people were moved to State Housing, that none of us were left homeless. That is a lie, a disgraceful lie,” said Mr Bropho.”

“What about all of our people, all the young ones and old ones, who are homeless whom I marched with through Perth to Parliament for the rally last week?

“What about all the homeless who spoke at the rally?”

“What about my sisters who died homeless on the streets, what about Kerrie and Pula? Pula never had a home after being evicted. Pula’s daughter, my niece is also on the streets, pregnant and – they’re all on the streets. What is this government doing in lying to everyone?”

I sent 15 names to the Department of Housing of former residents I have met homeless on the streets of Perth, some who have now died. The Department of Housing asked me for middle names and dates of birth.

The Department provided me this response: “Prior to the closure of the SVNC, the Department of Housing was not involved in the provision of services to residents, other than individuals who lodged applications for housing assistance.

“In order to establish which families would require accommodation when the community was closed, the Department liaised with the Department of Health, the Department of Community Development, the Department of Indigenous Affairs and the WA Police Service.

“The Department identified a number of families that required public housing assistance. Their applications were fast-tracked due to the circumstances and the Department’s records indicate that all former SVNC residents who requested accommodation assistance were allocated properties by late 2003.”

“Many residents of the SVNC were initially reluctant to seek assistance from the Department due to previous tenancy difficulties. The Department persisted and worked hard to assure the residents of its willingness to assist them to relocate. Department officers were able to build positive relationships with some residents, who subsequently encouraged others to seek assistance.”

I spoke to several members of the Swan Valley Nyungah Community, including Elder Bella Bropho, and they swore the Department of Housing “is lying”.

“How can the Department of Housing make that claim and stick to it when there has been so much media about the evictions and the homelessness?” said one of the SVNC.

“You have written about the deaths on the streets of our people and then the government claims in a very public way that our people were housed, what a terrible lie.”

Mr Bropho junior said he is still homeless. “I am homeless. The Department of Housing needs to come and tell me I am not,” he said.

State parliamentarian, Robin Chapple, who was one of eight dissenting parliamentarians at the time opposed to the evictions, said “the community was one of the best managed in the State.” Mr Chapple said the Community’s onsite school had one of the best attendance rates in the State.

The former State Attorney-General Peter Foss, also a dissenter, asked the important question, “Why would you chuck out the victims with the perpetrators? You cannot solve a social problem by kicking everybody out.

“The government is kidding people if they think the only place in WA where child abuse and domestic violence is happening is the Swan Valley Nyungah Community. It’s happening everywhere. This is tokenism where the government is pretending it is solving a problem and may in fact aggravate it.”

An Upper House Select Committee Inquiry – that was set up on June 25, 2003, after a hunger strike by Mr Bropho – found that Premier Gallop “bypassed all normal processes” and that he had relied “on false information”. The Committee also found that the government did not “accommodate former residents of the SVNC”. Sue Gordon was interviewed by the Committee. Ms Gordon did not agree with the closure of the Community. She said that the Community had been “an adequate and well maintained facility.”

Former Liberal Member of Parliament Anthony Fels said, “Government should have dealt with Robert Bropho under the law, and not used him as an excuse to close down the entire community.”

* Gerry Georgatos is a PhD researcher and a journalist with The National Indigenous Times, The National Indigenous Radio Service and the independent online news service, The Stringer. Georgatos has followed the plight of the Last of the River People for a decade and has joined them in campaigning for the return of their land and their right to live on their land.

Next article – Culture & Life – Opposing global warming and supporting fascism

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