Aboriginal activists in Western Australia are gearing up for a rally on November 12 to protect remote communities in the face of federal government attacks. It will follow a September 16 rally against state government threats to Aboriginal heritage and an October 23 rally against ongoing Black deaths in custody.
The federal government announced on September 24 that it would withdraw funding for 180 remote Aboriginal communities in WA. It will grant $90 million to the WA government for a two-year “transition period”.
Federal Aboriginal affairs minister Nigel Scullion said it was an “historic agreement”. But state minister Bill Marmion said it was “not an agreement, it was an ultimatum — we had a gun pointed at our head”.
Aboriginal activists fear the arrangement could mean communities lose basic services and be shut down.
Marmion told the West Australian it was “too early to tell” if any communities would close but that “this may well be an outcome”.
The Swan Valley Nyungar Community said on November 1: “[WA Premier Colin] Barnett's plan will inflict more suffering and death on us First People.
“By closing down communities, this state government is denying us as First People our right to live on our land the way we want to live, as a community of people, protecting our families, our culture and our sacredness in the land.”
Some communities have already been destroyed. Oombulgurri in the East Kimberley is one example that was bulldozed last month. The community was forcibly closed in 2011 after a coronial inquiry concluded it was in a state of crisis.
But according to Amnesty International, some former residents wanted to return to their homeland.
Human rights lawyer Tammy Solonec told the ABC before the demolition: “There’s 40 houses, there's a school, there's a clinic, there's a police station, a shop, water tanks, power station — it's not just a couple of houses, it’s a whole community.”
She said people who had been forced to leave and who did not have adequate housing as a result were to have their previous houses destroyed.
“People weren't afforded their free and informed consent in regards to the closure of the community, the forced evictions, or the demolition,” she said.
The Swan Valley Nyungar Community was bulldozed this year after a long struggle to reclaim access to their Lockridge site.
“Bulldozing our communities is attempted genocide,” the community said in a statement. “The damage will be felt for generations to come.”
The Greens have expressed concern over the development. MLC Robin Chapple said: “We don't go around closing small rural towns half the size of many of these communities, so why shouldn't Aboriginal communities be nurtured on their lands and in their towns?”
These attacks come on top of attempts by the state government to weaken the Aboriginal Heritage Act. The government says proposed changes will result in “greater protection” and “fairness”, but the reality is that the changes are motivated by a desire to streamline the approval process for mining and construction companies.
In particular, the proposed changes would concentrate enormous power in the hands of the CEO of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. In particular, the CEO would have authority to declare that “there is no Aboriginal site on [a particular piece of] land”.
The Law Society has also criticised the changes. Senior vice president Matthew Keogh said: “The government has spoken about the idea that the regulations that will go with this legislation will require the CEO to have regard to certain matters, such as consulting with the relevant Aboriginal communities, but it hasn't actually put that into legislation, nor has it actually required that the regulations include that.
“It's also provided in these amendments the capacity to change the criteria that the CEO is to assess against by a regulation. So it’s setting up a system which will be weaker and can be made weaker by government decision without having to go back to the parliament.”
Photos from September rally against attacks on Aboriginal Heritage Act