Elders of Noonkanbah, in Western Australia’s remote Kimberley region, received recognition of their native title on Friday. With a host of dusty white LandCruisers surrounding the sweating white bureaucrats and gathered black community members, this could be the Third World.

During a singular outdoor session of The Federal Court, the judge explained the limits of title: withholding rights to mine and offering nothing to frustrate those planning a dam on the Fitzroy River, 200km upstream of this community. Counsel for the community, Ernie Bridge, followed the session with a song, then introduced speakers. A representative apologised, on behalf of the state Government, for the use of force to drill for oil on sacred land, almost 30 years ago, and apologised, too, for the delay in recognising traditional ownership. Another whitefella entreated us to remember those who joined the struggle,but did not live to see this historic day. Indeed.

The average age at time of death in the Fitzroy Valley is currently 47 and falling. The new local hospital, being built 150km away in Fitzroy Crossing, is planned to cope with less than existing demand, despite the fact that the long-predicted exponential rise in illness is now occurring. Part of the rationale for providing fewer beds is the anticipation that more patients will be transferred to other hospitals or will be managed in the community.

The “regional” hospital, 250km away in Derby, has been rebuilt; reduced to two-thirds of its previous bed numbers, it has lost regional status. A downgrade of the paediatric ward from fourteen beds to eight, with loss of the “level 2” nursery, means that more sick children will either have to travel to Perth or, more frequently, be managed by generalist staff in the struggling local hospitals. Broome hospital, 400km away, has not increased its capacity and clinicians there are reluctant to acknowledge de facto regional status on the basis that they lack beds at existing demand levels. The Royal Flying Doctor Service is not adequately funded to deal with the effects of moving the regional hospital beyond the range regarded as appropriate for road transfer.

The nurse who visits Noonkanbah is one of three generalists responsible for the 40-odd communities of the Fitzroy Valley. Specialist community nurses face even more daunting challenges. Two mental health professionals, based in Derby, are responsible for most of the Kimberley; they manage to visit the Fitzroy Valley for one or two days a fortnight. Last year, twelve of the Valley’s population committed suicide: approximately four suicides per one thousand people. Medical is help inaccessible for many vulnerable adults and children at their time of need. Some suggest that the needs of remote communities make them “unsustainable”: people should move elsewhere.

Noonkanbah’s determination of native title was a hard-won victory and acknowledged many inexcusable wrongs. The sense of history was palpable: some of us whitefellas were moved to tears. The mood of indigenous elders seemed more reflective, even solemn: perhaps, some see the hard road more vividly than this happy waypoint.

One may wonder whether a government will one day wish to apologise for the inadequate provision of services for remote Australian populations; if they wait 30 years, there may well be no one in Noonkanbah to hear their words.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey