Across remote Australia, small communities of indigenous people face the possibility of eviction from their homes. These communities, some of which are comprised of as few as five people, were formed in the 1960s when Aboriginal workers won the right to increased wages. Because they were now more expensive to employ, many of them were put out of work. They moved from pastoral properties into small towns like Fitzroy Crossing. These towns struggled to cope with the influx of residents. Housing and healthcare resources were strained.

In the 1970s, there was a movement of people relocating from towns to live in communities on their traditional homelands. In 1975, the Commonwealth government ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. As part of this, the federal government took over the responsibility of paying for utilities like running water and power to the newly established small communities.

At the end of September this year, the state governments in Western Australia, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania agreed to take over responsibility for these services. New South Wales does not receive support from the Commonwealth for the maintenance of small communities. The Northern Territory has a different agreement and will receive $206 million over the course of 10 years from the federal government. South Australia did not agree to the new arrangement, saying that the federal government wasn’t offering enough compensation for SA to take on the new responsibilities. WA received $90 million to cover the costs, while SA was being offered $10 million.

In mid-November, WA Premier Colin Barnett announced that his state would not be able to provide municipal and essential services to all indigenous communities and said the compensation from the Commonwealth was insufficient to cover the expense. As a result, between 100 and 150 communities might have to close. Although the WA government hasn’t disclosed which communities will close, the ABC says about 1300 people live in WA’s smallest 174 communities.

Why  are communities being closed?

Barnett says the cost of providing essential services to communities like these can be as high as $85,000 per person per year. The Australian has backed Barnett’s statement that the Commonwealth’s “parting gift” is insufficient to cover the cost of maintaining roads, airport strips and waste management in the long term.

In addition to monetary costs, the Barnett government also cites difficulty accessing education, alcohol abuse and domestic violence as reasons for closing the communities. But indigenous leaders and Amnesty International say that the closures will create more social problems in slightly larger townships.

Is there any precedent?

It’s not the first time the Western Australian government has closed one of these communities. In 2011, the WA government turned off the utilities in Oombulgurri and evicted residents. Amnesty International says that there were breaches on international law in that case.

The police station, health clinic and local shop were closed and power and water were turned off. Amnesty International’s Tammy Solonec says that the residents of Oombulgurri were not properly consulted before they left their homes. Many of the residents moved to Wyndham, but not necessarily into housing. The ABC reported at least one resident was living in a tent and that two former Oombulgurri residents had committed suicide after the evictions.

Buildings in Oombulgurri are now being demolished and according to Solonec, residents’ belongings are still inside. 

Is it legal to close these communities?

Solonec says it depends on how the WA government carries out the closures.

There are two relevant pieces of international law. The first is the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Solonec says is binding. The second is the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which is not.

For the closures to be legal, residents need to give prior and informed consent before leaving. Solonec emphasises that this means providing residents with access to legal advice and interpreting services during the consultation process. Residents would also have to be compensated.

She says individuals need to be consulted to give informed consent. “Often what happens is the government appoints a council and they get people who will nod their heads,” she said.

As well as obligations under international law, WA must also follow protocols on obtaining the wishes of Aboriginal residents. These protocols say that there must be three community meetings before an agreement is reached.

The WA government has indicated that there will be consultations with the communities.

What are the consequences of closing the communities?

People living in these communities will be forced to find new places to live. On a practical level, this means moving into nearby towns like Broome or Fitzroy Crossing, though there’s concern as to whether these towns will be able to cope with so many new residents.

The communities in this area released a statement outlining their concerns about the impact closing the communities would have on larger towns. They say that the closures could take Fitzroy Crossing back to the 1960s, when indigenous people were evicted from pastoral stations. The town struggled to cope with the swell in population and was compared to a refugee camp.

Solonec points to more recent examples. She has been working with the Oombulgurri community since it closed and says that when the residents moved, it caused a strain on resources in the new area.

“My grandmother was on a waiting list for a house in Wyndham, but when the people from Oombulgurri came she was bumped off.”

A Men’s Shed also had to make way for counselling services for the evictees.

What are these communities like?

There’s no uniform answer to this question. Solonec is from the town of Derby and has spent time in communities in the Fitzroy Valley area. She has also worked with communities outside of that area.

She says that there’s a lot of difference between some of the communities. She called the area around Fitzroy Crossing “a beacon of success,” in terms of what can be achieved.

She acknowledges that some communities “aren’t that great” but says “we can learn a lot from the ones that are doing well”.

Amnesty International’s website acknowledges that, prior to its closure, Oombulgurri was one of the “not so great” communities.  In 2008, a coronial inquiry found the community had a problem with alcohol abuse. The coroner’s report also said that 10 men had been charged with sex offences.

But the leaders of Fitzroy Valley group’s statement supports Solonec’s claim that not all the communities are like this.

“We acknowledge that there are serious social and health issues in our communities. But we also assert on the basis of evidence and our direct knowledge that, on balance, the people in the smaller bush communities are healthier and happier.”

Are there alternatives to closure?

The leaders of Fitzroy Valley are asking the WA government to talk to them about solutions. Their statement says that “terrifying announcements like this should be a thing of the past”.

In terms of addressing the cost, Solonec suggests looking at sustainable technologies to deliver utilities to communities. She compared them to pastoral stations, which use solar panels and pumps to access power and water.

The criticism that children can’t access an education while living on country is misleading. The community of Oombulgurri had a school before it closed, and it wasn’t alone. Solonec also points out that it’s possible to receive an education via correspondence, as many children in remote and rural areas do.  

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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