The debate about the future of up to 100 remote Aboriginal communities in WA has focused on a poor choice of words from the Prime Minister and a political blame game about who is responsible for funding cuts.
But the people whose homes are in these communities are in limbo with the State Government threatening to stop providing services. There has been no consultation and no indication of a plan as to what these people are expected to do next.
The Federal Government has stopped annual funding of $30 million to supplement the WA Government’s spending in these areas. The State has refused to fill the gap, with Premier Colin Barnett saying he had no choice but to reconsider the future of the 274 remote communities. He said as many as 100 of them might have to close.
Despite Federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion’s denials, the foreshadowed closures are clearly linked to the end of Federal funding. Without this $30 million a year, the State says it can’t afford to provide essential services such as schools, health services, power and water supplies.
Tony Abbott’s dismissive comment that people lived in these communities as a “lifestyle choice” has quite rightly earned condemnation, including from indigenous leaders closest to him. The comment fails to recognise the long history and acknowledged connection of Aboriginal people to their lands. It is not a lifestyle choice to wish to continue a tradition which for some stretches back tens of thousands of years.
Governments subsidise all manner of “lifestyle choices”, mostly in cities, including education, health and sports facilities, libraries, arts activities and public transport.
The WA community needs a considered discussion about how to manage remote communities. Supplying services to a small number of people in isolated locations is costly and difficult. But the debate needs to go further than simple economics. There is also a cost to removing people from these areas if, as Mr Abbott’s indigenous adviser Warren Mundine points out, many people are displaced to urban fringes where there is a risk of them ending up unemployed and involved in alcohol, drugs or crime.
Mr Barnett has tried to extend the debate to include concerns about social dysfunction. This is certainly a worry, just as it is in some country towns and suburbs in Perth. But if there is child abuse in specific communities, this must be tackled by police, not used as a justification for pulling services from all remote communities.
Farewell Mr Telethon
Stuart Wagstaff was a giant of Australian television from the 1960s to the 1980s, but in Perth he will be best remembered for his contribution to Telethon. Wagstaff, who died on Tuesday aged 90, was there for the first Telethon in 1968 and gave his time and energy to support the event 35 times — an extraordinary record. Wagstaff’s legacy will live on and the children of WA who have benefited in so many ways from Telethon’s work will be for ever grateful for his commitment to the cause.