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Issue #1679      April 1, 2015

Kimberley calls and the nation answers

The Kimberley called last week and the rest of the country answered.

Kimberley Aboriginal communities in the north of Western Australia declared a day of action last Thursday, March 19, against the forced closure of Aboriginal communities in their country and other remote areas.

Thousands of people around the country attended protests in cities and towns in every state and territory, while an online protest saw thousands more show solidarity under #sosblakaustralia.

Last year WA Premier Colin Barnett said the state had no option but to review the viability of 274 small Aboriginal communities, which have an estimated total population of 12,000, because the federal government had cut off essential services funding with a “parting gift” of $90 million that would last two years.

While the Premier has said the government will consult with Aboriginal people, he has yet to have any significant dialogue with WA Elders.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott unwittingly drew national and international attention to the WA government’s plan when he said on radio that “it is not the job of the taxpayer to subsidise lifestyle choices”.

Jodie Bell and Mitch Torres, who live in the Kimberley, said it was an “intrinsic fundamental human right to live in our own communities and our own country”.

“We hold significant cultural obligations to our ancestors to maintain sovereign ties to our lands,” they said.

“After successive breaches of Human Rights conventions and the forced removal of the Aboriginal community of Oombulgurri in 2014, we maintain a vote of no confidence in both the incumbent state and federal governments in their actions toward Aboriginal people.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda told the Koori Mail that the WA government’s proposal would force Aboriginal people out of their homes.

“I think what they are saying is sanitising what they intend to do, which is cut services, power, water and sewerage – the sort of services almost every Australian takes for granted – in the hopes of forcing people off their country,” he said. “It’s actually as though they’ve already predetermined the outcome. Anything after that is pretending to be proper discussion.

“The WA government needs to engage with our mob to talk about the future of remote communities across WA. Let’s talk about what people mean by ‘viability’ – are they talking financial viability, cultural aspects, custodianship responsibilities?

“Australia as a nation benefits from having people living in remote communities in all sorts of ways – security, immigration, quarantine issues – let’s articulate those values and start from that.”

More than 1,000 protesters in Perth marched to Parliament House, where MPs including Mr Barnett, Kimberley Labor MP Josie Farrer and Greens MLC Robin Chapple addressed the crowd.

“My issue is, and it’s your issue as much as it’s mine – probably more yours than mine – is how can we ensure that boys and girls go to school? How can we ensure that they are safe?” Mr Barnett asked the crowd.

“How can we reduce alcohol and drug usage? I would be failing you as the Premier of this state if I ignored those issues.”

A fortnight ago Mr Barnett said there was “appalling mistreatment of little kids” in remote communities. Kimberley Land Council chair Anthony Watson said the Premier needed to stop demonising Aboriginal people and consider the economic and social cost of closing remote communities.

“We believe that closing communities will cost Aboriginal people in terms of identity, relationship to country, health, and wellbeing,” he said.

“These costs will be passed on to the already under-resourced larger towns, service providers, local governments; housing, health, costing the state for generations to come.

“There is a better way forward. We have identified a wide range of measures that Aboriginal people and governments can take to improve efficiencies, save money, reduce waste, develop employment, and strengthen communities.

“At the same time, people can live on and care for their country, providing a valuable service to the whole state. Instead of failure, we invite government to take a stake in developing a positive future for our people and our communities.”

Protests were staged in all capital cities and many regional centres including Broome, Alice Springs, Townsville, Yarrabah, Halls Creek, Lismore and Bellingen.

Koori Mail

Next article – Murray Darling Basin people call for reform

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