Dickie Bedford was born in the 1960s at a time when thousands of aboriginal people were being evicted from pastoral cattle stations. Half a century later a new generation of indigenous Australians faces a similar fate as budget cuts threaten to close hundreds of remote communities.
“They will turn us into fringe-dwellers again if they go ahead with these closures,” says Mr Bedford, executive director of the Marra Worra Worra aboriginal corporation in Western Australia.
“Withdrawing municipal services from these remote communities will force people to move into overcrowded hub towns where they are much more likely to encounter drugs, alcohol and family dysfunction,” he says.
Western Australia has warned that 150 of its 270 remote indigenous communities may have to close as the state cannot afford to pay for road, power, water or waste services. A further 60 aboriginal communities in South Australia are under threat as the federal and state government argue over who should fund basic services.
About 16,000 indigenous people live in these remote communities, which have received federal government funding for more than 50 years. Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, has decided to phase out federal funding and shift responsibility to state governments following final one-off payments of A$90m (US$73m) to Western Australia and A$10m to South Australia.
“No decision has yet been made to close any of Western Australia’s remote communities,” Colin Barnett, Western Australia’s premier, told the Financial Times in a statement. “But the reality is that WA will struggle to afford subsidies that amount to up to $85,000 per person in some unsustainable remote communities.”
The threat posed to indigenous communities comes as Australia struggles to cope with a cooling economy caused by the end of a decade-long mining investment boom and a recent slump in the price of iron ore and coal, the country’s two biggest exports.
In May, the federal government unveiled the toughest budget in two decades, which included a A$500m cut in aboriginal funding programmes, to tackle a $48.5bn budget deficit. Western Australia, which is heavily dependent on taxes from mining companies, is selling state assets and considering spending cuts.
Advocacy groups say aboriginal people, already the most marginalised group in society, are bearing the brunt of the tougher economic climate. They say the threat to close hundreds of communities harks back to an earlier era when indigenous people were forced from their land by white settlers following a court ruling that they must be paid a basic wage.
“Forcing aboriginal people to move from their communities is a form of cultural genocide,” says Tammy Solonec of Amnesty International Australia.
“The pastoralists couldn’t afford to pay the basic wage and many indigenous people were uprooted from their land. This was a disaster for communities and has led to a lot of the dysfunction — alcohol and drug abuse — that affects communities today.”
Today aboriginal people’s life expectancy is 10 years lower and unemployment rates three times higher than the rest of the Australian population.
The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, an advocacy group, has written to Mr Abbott urging him to intervene.
A federal government spokeswoman said the issue was a matter for states to settle.
South Australia’s government is resisting the federal government’s decision to withdraw services, accusing it of using “gun-toting” tactics to force states to accept “insulting” final payments from Canberra.
Western Australia has agreed a deal with the federal government but says it is insufficient to pay for services.
Mr Barnett believes many remote communities are not viable because they are so small, with about 100 containing an average of just five people. Some are plagued with social problems, he says.
“It goes beyond water and power supplies. What are the opportunities for young people? There is no work. There is no opportunity to succeed in life,” he recently told parliament.
But indigenous groups say closing communities has a devastating impact. In 2011 the small community of Oombulgurri in Western Australia was bulldozed on order of the state government, which argued it had become unviable and was beset by social problems such as domestic violence, child neglect, sexual abuse and alcoholism.
David Ryder, one of the last to leave Oombulgurri, says the situation for many former residents has deteriorated since they were moved to Wyndham, a hub town about 45km away.
“There is more access to alcohol in Wyndham and the housing is overcrowded,” he says. “Now everyone is being picked up by the police, they are drinking too much and some people have died. The same will happen again if they close these communities.”
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