Canberra cuts funds for Aboriginal communities

Daniel Emerson

The Commonwealth has withdrawn responsibility for funding about 180 remote Aboriginal communities in a move the State says could cost $10 billion over 20 years and threaten the health of vulnerable residents.

In a new low in Canberra-WA relations, State Housing Minister Bill Marmion yesterday described the responsibility withdrawal from July 1 next year as "reprehensible" and foreshadowed the closure of "unsustainable" camps.

Of the 274 remote Aboriginal communities in WA containing 15,000 residents, the State is the major funder of 94 camps, while the Commonwealth has historically funded the remaining 180 to the tune of about $45 million a year.

Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion yesterday hailed an "historic agreement" with the Queensland, WA, Victorian and Tasmanian governments for the States to take responsibility for municipal and essential services at all their remote camps.

Under the arrangement, the Commonwealth will give $90 million to WA for a two-year transition.

Mr Marmion rejected his Federal colleague's suggestion the State agreed to the plan. He said $90 million would fund only essential services for two years and WA accepted it only because it was better than nothing.

"This was not an agreement, it was an ultimatum. We had a gun pointed at our head," he said.

Mr Marmion said providing a minimum level of municipal and essential services to all 274 WA communities would cost the State between $2 billion and $6 billion over 10 years, and between $3 billion and $10 billion over 20 years.

He said sustainable communities were those "that provide strong employment opportunities, are economically sustainable, have infrastructure capable of maintaining the community and have a strong governance structure".

"It is too early to tell whether any communities will need to close," Mr Marmion said.

"However, as a result of the Commonwealth withdrawing from its responsibilities, this may well be an outcome."

Mr Scullion said: "Providing essential and municipal services in towns and cities across Australia has always been the responsibility of State and local governments and it should be no different in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities."