Depopulating remote Australia

In 2006 shifts in government policy caused me to write a a post about the likely effect on remote communities. It ended:

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.

Today, thanks to Bob Durnan, I read an article (paywall alert!) which shows the desire of the Western Australian government to hasten the depopulation of remote Western Australia, supported by Senator Nigel Scullion. Reason? Costs too much to support them there. No comparison is given with the costs of supporting people to live in fringe camp societies. How do you justify encouraging people to move from dry communities into grog-sodden fringe camps?

Are the WA Government and Federal Government preparing for the likely costs of this removal to the people in the fringe camps, newcomers and old-timers? We don’t know, according to Fred Chaney, senior Australian of the Year for 2014, and longterm advocate for Indigenous people, in an open letter quoted in the article. And so often ‘we don’t know’ means – worst case – ‘someone doesn’t want us to know’, or – best case – ‘no one has thought it worth thinking about’.


  1. Wamut says:

    Thanks Jane. I read about this too today (ABC have also reported on it, if you want a non-paywalled version of the story:

    Very concerning! Although I don’t know enough about the issue. It sounds a bit like they’re talking about closing what would be called ‘outstations’ or ‘homelands’ in the NT and that’s been going on in the NT for a long time now. I wonder if the places the WA Govt are talking of closing down are the same as what NT people would call ‘communities’?

    Not that this distinction makes any decision that essentially forces Aboriginal people off their land more palatable…

  2. Bob Durnan says:

    Jane, Wamut – I found this newer version today. I think they are making it up as they go along, as it now includes Balgo, which has over 300 people.
    “Outback shame blamed for threatened remote communities closures in outback WA; by SONIA KOHLBACHER PATRICIA KARVELAS The Australian p7:
    WEST Australian Premier Colin Barnett has cited child neglect and abuse and violence that he characterises as “civil war” in a strident defence of his plan to close more than half the state’s 274 remote Aboriginal communities.
    “They cannot provide education, they cannot provide health, they cannot provide employment,” Mr Barnett said in parliament.
    “They are not viable and the social outcomes and the abuse and neglect of young children is a disgrace for this state.”
    Mr Barnett has previously indicated the smallest communities were least viable but yesterday he singled out the Kimberley community of Balgo, which has about 460 people, for violence that has led police to send reinforcements and to plead with elders to negotiate.
    “There has virtually been civil war in Balgo for the last three months — 150 Aboriginal people fighting; that is not acceptable,’’ he said. The Barnett government intends to begin closing up to 150 sites over the next two years. It has released figures claiming that in the smallest communities, the average population is just 7.5 people.
    The proposal prompted Fraser government indigenous affairs minister Fred Chaney to write to Tony Abbott and Mr Barnett warning of a rerun of the disastrous social impacts in the 1960s when Aborigines moved off stations and into towns in the wake of the equal wage case.
    The deputy of the Prime Minister’s indigenous council, Aboriginal doctor Ngiare Brown, yesterday expressed her outrage that the WA government planned to close the remote communities.
    “Let’s be clear, I believe that the love, safety, good health and quality education of our children should be placed at the heart of all determinations affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and all communities,’’ she said.
    “If communities are unsafe or unviable, then governments have the responsibility to understand the historical and contemporary contexts of those communities and the failure of systems which placed them at risk, and then negotiate the best possible options so as to minimise negative impacts and maximise opportunities and positive outcomes.
    “I am struggling with what I see increasingly as a predetermined, assimilationist agenda that privileges only economic rationalisation, without consideration of more inclusive and innovative approaches that recognise our strengths and contributions.
    “The forced, non negotiable removal and relocation of communities and entire cultural groups is not in the best interests of achieving the equality governments claim to be prioritising, and will serve only further marginalise families and communities and add to the burden of poor health and social justice outcomes.”
    Mr Barnett said the close of so many communities would be one of the most difficult social issues the state had faced. About 12,000 people live in WA remote communities.
    “It was previous commonwealth governments that created this issue of encouraging Aboriginal people to go back onto lands and helped establish these small and remote communities,’’ he said.
    “We don’t want this issue. We’d much rather it wasn’t happening but it is happening. This will be a process of transition.’’
    The issue of the future of remote communities is building tension between the Barnett and federal government following a deal in September to hand responsibility to the states for essential and municipal services in remote communities.
    The Barnett government, which accepted a $90 million oneoff payment, claims it was forced in an “ultimatum” to accept the task of running the communities.”
    Bob D

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