Even clueless middle-class whiteys would have noticed the current country-wide furore surrounding the planned forced closure of over 150 remote Aboriginal communities in Western and South Australia. The national conversation has partly been a response to Tony Abbott’s latest round of internationally-televised idiocy, in which he derided Aboriginal people’s decision to live on country as a “lifestyle choice” and compared Indigenous communities’ conviction to honouring over 60,000 years of custodial connection to their land to something like the choice of ageing hippies to move up the coast.
Of course, the problem runs much deeper than Tony just shooting his dickhead mouth off again. Despite all the ‘Closing the Gap’ rhetoric, despite decades of discussion about reconciliation and despite bipartisan support for recognition of Australia’s First Nations in the constitution, governments at all levels in this country continue to be fundamentally ignorant of the interests of Black Australia. Indeed, many argue that the situation is even worse than this – the white-dominated political mainstream continues to perpetuate the violence of colonialism, albeit disguised through their political spin. Aboriginal voices in politics are only tolerated to the extent that they tell white leaders what they want to hear, and communities that stick up for themselves continue to get punished.
Although conservative politicians say the closures are about tightening budgets, the truth is that they could easily afford to keep the communities open if they wanted to. 90 million bucks doesn’t seem like so much money when you consider that the government spent over 300 million on the ANZAC celebrations the other weekend. It isn’t a question of the government’s ability to pay – it’s about priorities. Closure of tiny white towns in the middle of nowhere where kids move away to work or study as soon as they’re old enough (most never returning) is never dreamed of, so how is it fair to impose such discussions on Aboriginal communities?
The proposed closures are especially upsetting because the communities in question have provided a wealth of advice on how remote Aboriginal communities should be managed. These communities were founded as part of the ‘Homelands’ movement, which started in the late 60s. Aboriginal people all over the country (especially in the remote West and North) started to move in small groups back onto their ancestral country after being forced onto missions, reserves and cattle stations since 1788.
Aboriginal people in remote areas have said time and time again that they need to be able to live on country to have healthy communities, and a growing academic and policy literature has come to agree with them. Living on country helps to preserve culture and has a positive influence on health and education outcomes compared with the extreme poverty and deprivation of life in fringe camps and slums in remote mining towns. It also restores a sense of agency and purpose to communities that had their control over their lives stolen along with their land. The movement started as a grassroots initiative – an attempt to seize that control back. Of course, the homelands communities have not been perfect and are not a total solution to all of the problems between Black and white Australia. They have generally relied on government funding to be viable, leaving them vulnerable to the kind of political interference which is happening now. But with respectful support, the potential is there to develop cultural industries like art and tourism and for education and training programs which equip Aboriginal communities to once again manage the lands they have lived on for far longer than any human has been in Europe.
White conservationists are increasingly realising that the unique biodiversity of this continent will be lost without collaboration and consultation with Aboriginal communities, and Indigenous ranger programs all over the country are helping to put this into practice. It strikes me that there’s been well enough talk about lots of this, but not enough action. There’s a lot to be upset about, but no cause for despair. Aboriginal people have been fighting for this country for 227 years and aren’t giving up any time soon. Although the homelands communities are threatened, people have been coming out all over the country and even internationally to stand in solidarity with them and demand that the government do the right thing. The movement is growing stronger – over 100 protests were held on May 1st in Australia and around the world. Support poured in from Berlin, Detroit, London, San Francisco, Ottawa and various cities around Aotearoa via social media, with the hashtag #SOSBLAKAUSTRALIA trending at number one nationally. The Brisbane rally was especially dramatic, with over 300 people occupying the City Hall for more than three hours, while over 10,000 people turned up in Melbourne.
At the Sydney contingent, 2000 people clad in red, black and yellow filled Belmore Park and marched to the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy. The date of the march marked the 69th anniversary of the Pilbara strike in WA, a watershed event in the struggle for fair wages and basic human rights. Remembering the crucial gains made in the past is a reminder both of the efficacy of direct action and community organising, but also of the dangerously regressive nature of contemporary politics. Ernie Dingo, John Pilger, Aunty Jenny Munro, Gwenda Stanley, Ken Canning and women from the Redfern Community Centre spoke passionately about the importance of homeland communities, noting the imperative to bring the debate to an international scale to shine light on the atrocities of the Australian government. Although Australian corporate media continues to brand opposition as a ‘selfish rabble,’ this issue is rightfully finally gaining traction on the global stage as an indefensible violation of fundamental human rights.
If you are angry about the closures in WA and SA, get involved: go down to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Redfern, just across from the station, and listen and learn about what you can do to support communities closer to home who are fighting the same battle.
The third National Day of Action will be held over the weekend of 26th – 28th June.