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Remote indigenous towns fear trauma and dislocation as bulldozers roll in

Gone: Abandoned chair in avenue of trees in Oombulgurri. David Ryder: A former Oombulgurri resident and elder. Photo: Marieke Ceranna
Nanjing Night Net

Community gone: Abandoned buildings in Oombulgurri.

Gone: Abandoned chair in avenue of trees in Oombulgurri.

Gone: Abandoned chair in avenue of trees in Oombulgurri.

Gone: Abandoned chair in avenue of trees in Oombulgurri.

Indigenous leaders call for PM to intervene

The front line in the battle for survival of remote indigenous communities in Australia is a half-hour boat ride up the Forrest River from Wyndham in the East Kimberley.  In the community of Oombulgurri, once an Anglican mission, wild horses roam streets lined with baobab trees.

Last month, the horses were joined by a bulldozer that had arrived to demolish most of community’s houses. By the end of next week, the West Australian government expects the demolition to be complete. Some old stone structures from the mission days, a few houses and community buildings will remain to support “non-residential future use”.

Oombulgurri is not a typical remote indigenous community. It is a place with a dark history.

In 1926, it was the site of a massacre of Aboriginal people by law enforcement following the killing of a pastoralist. More recently, it has been known for child neglect, sexual abuse, domestic violence and alcohol-related harm.

The WA government took the decision to close the community in 2011 in response to a coronial inquiry into five deaths in the community, including four suicides, over a 12-month period.

The coroner concluded that “many millions of dollars had been spent in propping up and perpetuating a community which in many respects on any objective criteria was a disgrace”.

No one disputes the existence of grave social problems in Oombulgurri but views differ on whether closing down the community was the right response. And many fear the large-scale trauma and dislocation that followed Oombulgurri’s closure may soon be repeated across the nation.

For half a century, since the 1967 referendum gave the Commonwealth the power to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the federal government has funded the delivery of essential services to remote indigenous communities. This was a recognition that without private property ownership, rates could not be collected to fund local government. In recent years Labor and Coalition governments have sought unsuccessfully to have states and territories take over this responsibility. In September, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion announced a breakthrough, an “historic” deal in which West Australia, Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania would agree to deliver essential services such as power and water to indigenous communities in their states.

Earlier this month, WA Premier Colin Barnett announced  the state could not afford to service as many as 150 of the state’s 274 remote communities. These “unviable” communities would have to close. The South Australian government, which had rejected Scullion’s offer of $10 million in transitional funding, said the Commonwealth’s withdrawal of funding for remote communities placed 60 communities, home to more than 4000 Aboriginal South Australians, at risk of closure.

Speaking in Parliament, Barnett said many communities were not just unviable in a financial sense but because of social dysfunction, child abuse and neglect, poor education and a lack of opportunities.

Cissy Gore-Birch, who grew up at Oombulgurri, admits the community had very serious problems, including with mismanagement, alcohol, violence and sexual abuse.  But she insists addressing those issues did not have to mean the death of the community.

“I don’t think closing the community was the way to deal with it,” she says.

She says the Oombulgurri she lived in as a child functioned well.  She remembers a community without alcohol or police, where elders had authority, children were safe and fresh food was plentiful.

Ms Gore-Birch, the chairwoman of the Balanggarra Aboriginal Corporation, says the WA government failed to consider alternatives to closing Oombulgurri, and says relocating people to towns such as Wyndham and Kununurra without adequate support services had transferred some problems from one place to another and created new ones. While some demountable cabins were provided for transitional housing in Wyndham, and some former Oombulgurri residents moved in with family, exacerbating overcrowding, others camped on the oval at Kununurra or on the marshes on the fringe of Wyndham.  Liz O’Brien, the director of Kimberley Community Legal Services, says three years after the closure, some remain homeless. She says some residents have lost benefits because they could not receive Centrelink correspondence and the shortage of appropriate housing has meant many former Oombulgurri children are not attending school regularly.

David Ryder, a former Oombulgurri resident and elder, said many former Oombulgurri residents were drinking more due to the ready access to alcohol in town and were attracting police attention. Now sharing a house in Wyndham with family, Mr Ryder says he misses hunting goannas and catching barramundi in traps made of leaves and stakes. “It was a land of milk and honey,” he says.

Tammy Solonec, the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Manager at Amnesty International Australia, which campaigned to stop the demolition of Oombulgurri, said the community’s story was a case study in how not to close a community, because there was no effective strategy to integrate former Oombulgurri residents in their new homes, and they were not properly consulted.

“Each one of them is a human being and they all have their own story and they all have a right to be heard. That didn’t happen, they were tarred with the same brush, and punished for the actions of a few,” she said.

“When you push Aboriginal people off their homelands, it’s going to create trauma… and the trauma that it creates is not trauma that can be overcome easily. It’s trauma that becomes intergenerational, that you’re then going to have to deal with through social consequences for years later.”

WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Peter Collier said he remained convinced that thedecision to close Oombulgurri community was “the right thing to do”. Mr Collier said at the time of the closure, most residents had left voluntarily and there was an average population of fewer  than 30 people. He said the Amnesty campaign was “ill-informed and appears to have little support from those directly involved”, and the demolition works were necessary to reduce vandalism and theft and make the site safe for future non-residential use.

Ms Solonec said the Amnesty campaign had been informed by a visit to the Kimberley in September when  she met 25 community members.

“The testimonies we gathered universally tell not of voluntary departure but of forced eviction – indirectly due to the closure of essential health, education and police services, or to follow children removed by government agencies, and directly when the last remaining residents were forcibly evicted by the WA government,” she said.

Barnett has said his government will consult communities before deciding which to cut services to. He says just 507 people live in the state’s smallest 115 communities and, in one community, the cost of providing essential services runs to $85,000 per person per year. Indigenous leader Pat Dodson has called for creative solutions to service isolated communities, such as making greater use of solar power and the School of the Air.

Scullion said the threat of community closures was a matter for Western Australia and South Australia and had nothing to do with the Commonwealth’s decision to transition responsibility for essential services delivery to the states. He said Western Australia had for many years been discussing the closure of remote indigenous communities.

“Any state suggesting municipal and essential services arrangements are behind closures is simply looking for an excuse and a distraction,” he said.

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This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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