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Issue #1690      June 24, 2015

Racist land grab

Stand against forced closures of Aboriginal communities!

The Abbott Liberal-National government wants to shut down 150 Indigenous communities in remote Australia. Its actions threaten to leave some of Australia’s most vulnerable people without water, electricity or basic services.

The remote or homeland communities that are under threat allow Aboriginal people to live on their traditional country, where they can sustain their language, their spiritual connection to land and their culture.

They are among the more than 1,200 small, discrete Indigenous communities in regional and remote Australia, which present policies place under threat of eventual closure and forced eviction.

As long as there are adequate services people experience better health and wellbeing in their homeland communities than when living in larger townships, where social dysfunction and disadvantage are often prevalent.

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights, such communities are also effective as part of substance abuse and other programs for at-risk Aboriginal youth living in more populated or urban centres.

Federal and state governments are ignoring this, in their determination to be rid of remote indigenous communities. The Land Rights Act of 1976 returned large areas of remote country to Aboriginal people. At that time much of the land was regarded as marginal and not commercially useful.

By the time of the Native Title Act of 1993, which recognised traditional ownership of land, pastoral, mining and tourism interests were already in furious opposition to the return of ownership to Indigenous communities. Conservatives were promising these interests “extinguishment in spades” when they returned to government in 1996.

Now Aboriginal people in those communities are accused of violating the laws of neo-liberal economics, leading an existence and drawing on services in a way that is not economically efficient or sustainable, even though they have lived on these lands for tens of thousands of years.

“Lifestyle choices”

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has thrust the issue of remote Indigenous settlements into the spotlight with his infamous comment that Aboriginal people living in this way are making “lifestyle choices” which his government had no intention of endlessly subsidising.

However, conservative governments have made a persistent and calculated effort since 1996 to erode the gains made by Aboriginal Australians in Australia over the preceding decades and to “mainstream” Aboriginal society, that is, to reintroduce the policies of assimilation and deny the unique position of Indigenous Australians as the first people of this land.

None of these setbacks for Aboriginal people was recovered by the Rudd/Gillard governments, despite Kevin Rudd’s lip service apology to the Stolen Generations.

The Howard government (1996-2007) made significant changes to native title and land rights during its term in office, culminating in the 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response legislation (extended largely intact for a further 10 years in 2012 by the Gillard government).

This legislation, referred to as the Intervention, is the primary reason small remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and elsewhere are now so weak and vulnerable to closure.

As well as giving the government powers of compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal land it increased the police presence in Aboriginal communities so they are now virtually under occupation.

This close policing has led to Aboriginal incarceration doubling, to its highest level in Australia’s history. The number of women in prison has also skyrocketed.

It has also led to an unprecedented increase in forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families by “Child Protection” agencies across Australia to its highest level at any time in history – 15,000 children since 2007.

These outcomes of close policing are tied directly to the policy of closing remote communities. Western Australian child protection minister, Helen Morton, who also sits on the WA government’s panel to determine which communities get shut down, has claimed that “unsafe” communities will not be supported, because the government intends to do “whatever is necessary to protect the wellbeing of children and young people.”

The Abbott Liberal-National government has moved this policy of forced removal to the next stage. It openly declares it is “not possible” to support remote communities and intends to close them down and move their populations to “hub” towns where services and infrastructure can be provided more efficiently.

While money can be spent on increasing policing and prisons, it cannot be spent on establishing viable electricity, water and waste systems or health and community services – even though these services are arguably much cheaper to provide, and be supported off-grid with a strong self-management focus.

Cuts provide trigger

Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett has announced the state will close 100 to 150 of the 274 remote communities in WA, because his government will not pick up the shortfall once federal funding ends in July 2015.

The argument for the same purpose in 2010 claimed the WA government was going to close remote communities because the federal government was unrealistically promoting remote communities when there were no jobs there!

Abbott has ensured there are no jobs by removing the Community Development Employment Project (CDEP) from Aboriginal communities, effectively lowering local incomes further, and removing asset bases associated with the program. It is being replaced by a compulsory work-for-the-dole scheme at a lower rate of pay, which, rather than fund work within the local community, will mostly replace higher paid jobs that would otherwise be available through local government and parks authorities.

Combined with the introduction of “income management” Aboriginal people will once again be reduced to working for rations!

Remote communities vital

The racist and neo-liberal mindset that drives the present and previous governments’ policies on land rights and remote, self managed communities does not recognise any culture or society that may be based on community or collective principles, or practises ecological land management, developed for this environment over tens of thousands years.

The UN State of the Indigenous Peoples Report (2009) observed that free-market economies have devastated Indigenous peoples worldwide.

An International Land Coalition Report (2012) calculates that 203 million hectares of land worldwide was acquired between 2000-2011, through deals brokered by foreign governments or transnational corporations from local communities. Most of these for commercial or industrial purposes, such as agricultural, mining, logging or tourism: with limited (if any) consultation, limited (if any) compensation, and a lack of regard for environmental sustainability and equitable access to, or control over, natural resources.

What is going on with the forced closure of Indigenous communities and the driving of Aboriginal people from their traditional lands has all the hallmarks of a land grab – rolling back the hard won recognition of land rights and native title in Australia.

Australia’s First Nations peoples and their supporters are coming together in unprecedented numbers to fight back against community closures and policies that foster cultural genocide and disempowerment.

Next article – Editorial – From budgie smuggler to people smuggler

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