Friday, November 7, 2014

Abbott and Barnett threaten Aboriginal communities, heritage

Aboriginal activists in WA are gearing up for a rally on November 12 to protect remote communities in the face of Abbott government attacks. This follows 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 was withdrawing funding for 180 remote Aboriginal communities in WA. $90 million will be granted to the WA government for a two year "transition period".

Federal minister Nigel Scullion said that this was an "historic agreement" while state minister Bill Marmion said "this was not an agreement, it was an ultimatum – we had a gun pointed at our head".

Aboriginal activists believe that this arrangement will mean that communities will lose basic services and be shut down.

Marmion told The West Australian that it is "too early to tell" if any communities will close but that "this may well be an outcome".

"Barnett's plan will inflict more suffering and death on us First People" said a representative of the Swan Valley Nyungar Community (SVNC) in a November 1 email to supporters.

"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," the statement said.

Already some communities have 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.

However, according to Amnesty International, some former residents wanted to return to their homeland.

``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,'' human rights lawyer Tammy Solonec told the ABC before the demolition.

She pointed out that people who'd been forced to leave and who don't have adequate housing now 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 also bulldozed this year after a long struggle to reclaim access to their Lockridge site.

"Bulldozing our communities is attempted genocide," the SVNC statement said. "The damage will be felt for generations to come."

The Greens have also expressed concern at the development. State parliamentarian Robin Chapple has pointed out that "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. While the government claims that proposed changes will result in "greater protection" and "fairness", 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 simply make a declaration that "there is no Aboriginal site on [a particular piece of] land".

The Law Society has also criticised the changes. According to senior vice president Matthew Keogh, "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," he said. "So its setting up a system which will be weaker and can be made weaker by government decision without having to go back to the Parliament."

[This article by Alex Bainbridge was written for Green Left Weekly #1032. Photos from September 16 rally and October 23 rally.]