Desert: forcing Aborigines off their land

Pretty soon the remote areas of Australia will be uninhabited. Drought and high fuel prices are forcing farmers and graziers off their land. And these, together with Government policies, are forcing Aborigines off their land. Along with the departure of the people will go their languages and societies. Gary Johns writes in The Australian (11/10/06):
“The Government has begun to stop supporting a recreational lifestyle in the name of preserving a culture.”
Apparently Aborigines are to be ‘refugees’ or ‘migrants’ (Johns’ words) in fringe camps around bigger towns. He thinks this is a Good Idea.

The Federal government claims that, if Aborigines move from smaller communities to bigger towns, this will help them get jobs, improve their health, improve social functioning, increase their children’s access to education and make them part of mainstream Australia. This despite the fact that the Government has been pointing to social breakfown in the fringe camps of Aborigines around the bigger towns. And despite a recent good news story that people living on the Alyawarr Aboriginal outstations on the old Utopia cattle station are much healthier than other Indigenous people in the Northern Territory.
Forcing Aboriginal people off their land has been helped by the high fuel prices which mean people can’t afford to drive so much, and by the drought, which means that there’s less bush food around. But the Government is doing its best to hurry the process up. Here’s how:
Tighten up Centrelink (welfare) payments and stop CDEP (work-for-the-dole plus a bit) payments after a year
So able-bodied people will have to leave the small communities, or, more likely in the short term, live off their pensioner relations. It will encourage girls to have more babies, because the Government gives a large baby bonus.
Cut infra-structure support for small communities
There will be no council or medical or school jobs for the people who stay. And pensioner relations won’t be able to stay because of their need for medical treatment.
Abolish permits for Aboriginal lands
So the only way Aborigines can stop people (e.g. grog-runners or shonky salesmen) coming onto their property is by the cumbersome and expensive process of suing trespassers.
Cut funding for Land Councils
So there will be no advocates for the people in the small communities, no one to help them sue trespassers or cheats, let alone negotiate with the Government or with mining companies.
Kill the light aircraft transport business
High fuel prices contribute to this – but the Government’s made it much worse, first through privatising the airports (so the landing fees are colossal), and then by making the airlines and pilots pay for extraordinary anti-terrorist security measures – gates, fences, security clearance cards, cameras – (even in villages with 2 scheduled flights a week). Aboriginal Airservices has gone broke, and so most of the Western Desert and the north of South Australia are now without regular public transport. This makes medical evacuations harder. And since it takes a LONG time to drive to many of the remote communities that Aboriginal Airservices flew to, fewer visitors and service providers will go to those communities. Yet another reason for people to move to the fringe camps.
It’s clear that Indigenous Australians are suffering, both in smaller communities and in fringe camps. The coroner’s report (thanks Françoise) on the death of D. Granites makes grim reading. After a mastectomy, DG returned home to Yuendumu – a town of 1100 people – and died a few days later. The coroner writes:

she had radiation burns and a large amount of medication that needed to be sorted out. She should have been attended to, at home if necessary, on the day she returned by plane. Counsel for the Department of Health has told me that given the resources at a remote clinic it is unrealistic for me to expect this to have taken place.

The fact that it’s unrealistic to expect follow-up nursing care in a town of 1100 people shows the lack of services in remote areas. And no question that there are too few jobs in remote areas for young and energetic people. And no question that some small communities have bad social problems. But not all.
What’s in place to help people move to bigger towns? This is what Johns writes:

The extent to which Aborigines from remote regions will be more akin to refugees than migrants will be a measure of the difficulty of their adjustment to new circumstances. Fortunately, Australia has vast experience in catering for both.

Catering for asylum-seekers? He cannot be referring to the concentration camps for asylum-seekers at Baxter and Port Hedland. He cannot want Aborigines to suffer the same kind of physical and mental harm that the inmates of these camps have been enduring.
A few months ago ago, Alice Springs residents were amazed to see a convoy of trucks coming from the south. They were carrying 40 or so huts from the abandoned asylum-seeker concentration camp at Woomera. No consultation with Aborigines or other Alice Springs residents. But work’s going ahead on plonking them down in Alice Springs to form new camps for Aborigines.
So the Minister thinks that conditions in Alice Springs town camps are so bad that he needs to set up new camps? And yet he wants the people in small communities to move off their land and into the town camps? He SAYS they ‘ll have better opportunities and fit into mainstream Australia better. Why, they’ll have free access to alcohol, and better access to drugs!
The Government doesn’t seem to have thought ahead about what awaits Aborigines who move to fringe camps around bigger cities. Where ARE the jobs for unskilled and often illiterate people? Where’s the extra money for health or education or training? Where’s the community development for the social problems that will develop with a big influx of people into already overcrowded camps? Oh I forgot, they’re allowed to ask for money for a day patrol to stop anti-social behaviour.
Why does the Government want Aborigines off Aboriginal land? Some probably believe the story that moving to town will make Aborigines ‘fit in’ better with other Australians. But it’s hard to forget that once Aborigines are off their own land, it will be much easier for others to get access to the land. Develop it, mine it, bulldoze it, oh whatever. And the royalties the Aborigines receive will go to pay for patching up the fringe camp societies.
Yes, Aborigines will be refugees. And they’ll be treated the same way that refugees are treated in Australia. With one exception. We can’t deport them.

5 thoughts on “Desert: forcing Aborigines off their land”

  1. Very sad and frustrating. Can we please elect and understanding and intelligent government?
    There are plenty of ‘success stories’ out there (like the Utopia story) which involve empowering Aboriginal people and harnessing what they already have. It’s not that hard!
    Jane, do you have any ideas of what more we can do to stop the rot??

  2. Us linguists? All I can think to do is to keep pointing out the likely bad consequences of social engineering on this scale, and to hope that this helps the social engineers to think long and hard about how to avoid them.

  3. There’s nothing new in this, sadly – a colonial response that is at least 5 centuries old. The general thrust of (non-Jesuit) ‘Indian’ policy in the Spanish colonies, trying to collect the far-flung people into more manageable communities, could be seen as a responsible one (to give the benighted savages some services, but above all the Gospel!) but served immediately to aggravate the spread of diseases. We’d need a major re-orientation of Western thinking to get a change here: after all, ‘civilization’ (that’s what we do) is historically about cities. (The German tribes – who according to Tacitus, felt crowded if they could see another family’s smoke stack, ultimately moved in from the cold to enjoy the benefits of Roman cities.) But perhaps, now at last, the penetration of broadcasting, GPS and the internet will allow these ‘civilized’ things to be spread (as optional extras) for people who live far away.

  4. A move away from the current outstation life is probably inevitable. Some capable people are choosing to live elsewhere or educate their children elsewhere right now, and they’re leading the way. But ‘regime change’ is almost always more effective when people change it themselves, and it is less damaging when people plan it carefully. A friend who grew up at a time when the Soviet Union was into regime change said that they used to sing a song “we will only stop when the earth is all covered in red blossoms”. Well, they created many blood-red blossoms, but in the end changed no regimes.

  5. The use of “refugee” and “migrants” is a very telling bit of terminology. In the US this language has been used strategically by the Bush administration to make clear the threat from “within”–and align Mexican immigrants (even those legally in the US) with “the terrorists.”
    It seems that in Australia a similar narrative strategy is in play….make Aboriginal people into “migrants” and refugees” then they can be lumped in with the other would be “terrorists” and “queue jumpers” and dealt with systematically as both unwilling to change/assimilate culturally AND as threats to the nation’s (supposed) unity and security. Then if any justification is needed for removing Aboriginal people from their land and dismantling land rights it can be justified along with the (ever-expanding) war on terror.

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