Lifestyle choices speech presages return to brutal past

Lifestyle choices speech presages return to brutal past

What hope do Aboriginal people have if even the the Prime Minister doesn't get it.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has demonstrated his commitment to Aboriginal Australia over many years. He has declared himself the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs. Having been on country with him I have personally witnessed his easy engagement with Aboriginal people. All of this makes his "lifestyle" remarks about remote communities this week inexplicable.

Abbott has backed the West Australian government's plans to close nearly half the state's 274 remote communities, arguing it's reasonable to do so if the cost of providing services outweighs the benefits. Specifically, he said: "What we can't do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have."

If Aboriginal people, after all the Prime Minister's commitment and experience, cannot rely on him to understand their situation what hope have they?

When Premier Colin Barnett announced last November that many communities would be closed I wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister, Premier Barnett, and the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, as below. None has provided an answer. Abbott's comments in Kalgoorlie suggest that the issues I raised in my letter have not been considered.


I wrote: "The Premier has correctly identified that even reducing the number of those communities is going to be traumatic for the people involved and that it will affect regional towns and cities as people move into them. We can learn from history. What we are facing is a rerun of the 1960s when after the equal wage case people moved from the stations to the nearby towns with disastrous social impacts.

"It was the social and economic degradation of the people who had been moved off country which led the McMahon government to commence the purchase of pastoral leases to enable people to go back to their country. I cannot emphasise too much the horrific outcomes at that time which saw good people degraded, reduced to social and economic misery.

"If governments have decided that these communities have no future there is a clear obligation to chart a course which does not involve repeating the disastrous mistakes of the 1960s. It will require planning by both governments of appropriate housing, education and employment strategies which will enable people, ill prepared for town life, to live decent lives with the hope of a good future.

"This will be a massive undertaking in its own right and I see no sign that any government is prepared for the consequences of an accelerated drift to the towns. If governments simply let things rip by withdrawing services and driving people into towns without careful and comprehensive preparation the outcomes will be shameful. That shame will reflect on you and your governments and on all of us.

"There has been a lack of clarity about policy with respect to remote communities for many years. In my view policy should have been to ensure that the local economies, which are almost wholly government based, were employment rather than welfare economies and that maximum effort would be made to ensure their children were fully educated so that when and if they moved off country they were enabled to be more than fringe dwellers.

"The pathetic failures of governments with respect to Community Development Employment Projects in remote communities and its replacement with ineffective job arrangements mean that in recent years we have gone backwards rather than forwards in terms of making people work-ready.

"The recent Commonwealth program to ensure that children go to school has forced children unaccustomed to school and discipline into classrooms which often have been disrupted as a result. In all these things the lack of careful planning for a better future for the people of remote communities based on clearly articulated policies represents significant government failure.

"I implore you to approach this matter on the basis of the careful examination by all governments of the future of these communities and the part they play in remote Australia. If your governments decide they are to cease to exist we must have transition policies which will treat people with the dignity every Australian is entitled to expect."

Please Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, don't repeat the brutal mistakes of the past when people were kicked out of their remote communities and left to rot on the edge of towns.

Once again I make a plea to Abbott . Please Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, don't repeat the brutal mistakes of the past when people were kicked out of their remote communities and left to rot on the edge of towns.

Listen to the many voices including that of your chosen adviser, Warren Mundine, reminding you of what you know, that Aboriginal people have a deep relationship with country that is central to their lives. Remember that many Aboriginal families in remote communities lead healthier and more peaceful lives away from disorganised larger centres.

Please see this as more than a budget and cost-shifting exercise. Understand that threats by the Western Australian government to withdraw funding support flow from a long dispute between the State and the Commonwealth about who should pay for municipal services in remote communities. There may be a case for closing some communities and this will have a huge impact on the lives of those involved so you share the responsibility of ensuring that their lives are not destroyed.

I work with remote-dwelling Aboriginal people I admire for their fortitude in the face of unpredictable interventions by distant governments. Too often their lives are disrupted rather than supported by governments. We should be thinking of lives, not making cracks about lifestyles.

Fred Chaney was minister for Aboriginal affairs from December 1978 to November 1980. He is a former deputy president of the Australian Native Title Tribunal and was on the board of directors of Reconciliation Australia and chairman of Desert Knowledge Australia.

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