14 Jul 2016

Plans for remote Aboriginal communities revealed

11:12 am on 14 July 2016

The Western Australia government has laid out its plan for the future of Aboriginal communities

Balgo community, Western Australia

The Aboriginal community of Balgo, one of 274 of the communities in Western Australia. Photo: Berkeley Fitzhardinge / cc-by-sa-2.0

Funding of services for the state's 274 Aboriginal communities has been reviewed by a unit set up eight months ago.

It comes four years after Premier Colin Barnett's controversial comments that the state government could no longer afford to keep funding all the communities and some would have to close.

The unit's report sets out how funding and support would be focused on larger communities and minor services delivered to more than 100 small outstations would be withdrawn.

However Regional Development Minister Terry Redman said no-one would be forced to leave the smaller bush out-stations, even though small government contributions, such as fuel subsidies, will be withdrawn.

"One of the not-negotiables in the work we did, was that we're not going to remove, or force Aboriginal people to be removed from land, and access to their culture and heritage, access to their kin," he said.

"So what's imperative in this, is if someone wants to stay living on the land, living where they've always lived, they can do so."

The 120 communities that have fewer than 10 residents, or which are only occupied occasionally, will therefore be required to be self-sufficient, while resources are focused on larger centres.

"By the end of the year, we'll identify 10 of the larger communities and sequentially start coordinating investment into key municipal infrastructure, to give them much better service delivery around water, power, sewerage and the like going forward," Mr Redman said.

"It may even be some of the bigger centres, where there is access to employment and good quality education, that they could get transitioned into a town."

Marchers in Perth supporting a global call to action to stop the closure of closure of remote Aboriginal communities, November 2015.

Marchers in Perth in November 2015 supporting a global call to action to stop the closure of closure of remote Aboriginal communities. Photo: AFP / Citizenside

The Premier's comments in December 2012 prompted a widespread backlash, with protests held in capital cities across the country to emphasise the rights of Aboriginal people to remain living on their traditional country.

But Aboriginal leaders who helped develop the remote reform roadmap being released today have urged communities to come on board with the process.

Putijurra woman Kate George, who has been providing feedback from communities in the Pilbara, said the proposed changes are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Aboriginal people.

"I'm optimistic, because the principles in the roadmap document are the things we've been advocating for a long time," she told the ABC.

"So here is an opportunity, but we've actually got to go for it. And for me as an Aboriginal woman, I'm saying to the Aboriginal leadership we actually have to grab this, because I don't think the sushi train's going to come along too often.

"When you look at our culture and our communities, and the way we've lived in the past, there have always been rules. We've just been caught up in chaos for the last 55-plus years, and I think everyone wants some order.

"There will have to be some tough decisions made, but ultimately we need to get back to a situation of peace and prosperity."

Communities 'struggling'

Those sitting outside the process appeared far more ambivalent about the reform process that will change their lives over the next few years.

The ABC this week visited the community of Pandanus Park, 60 kilometres south of Derby and home to about 100 people.

Local woman Patricia Riley, who runs the community office, said neither she nor the other local families knew anything about the remote reform process.

"I don't know if it will benefit our community, not just our community but the remote communities," she said.

"We'd love to have more funding allocated back to our remote communities, and have employment for a proper CEO.

"I'm doing my best trying to get childcare funding up and running, a telecentre to have literacy and numeracy programmes, and have the internet services running properly.

"Because now, the majority of people are on Centrelink, and we'd like to get them off Centrelink and get proper employment for them."

Pandanus Park's size and location means it will continue to receive funding, as it sits just off the region's main highway and is only half an hour's drive from the town of Derby.

But Ms Riley said many people had already started leaving small bush communities in the area as Government funding dried up. "It makes me feel sad, heartbroken," she said.

"The majority of people have moved out through lack of funding and communication, no support, so they've moved because they have to look for a job, so they move into towns or a bigger community that's got jobs and they leave the little places which is their home.

"We are all struggling, especially the smaller ones. All the service providers that are supposed to be out here helping us, I don't know what they're there for, probably just window-dressers.

"The bigger communities, they've got the majority of people who got educated and got all these skills, but some of us are still left in the Stone Age.

"We're still trying to pick things up and trying to keep the community going with whatever knowledge or education we got."

- ABC

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