Recent comments from Prime Minister Tony Abbott about the ‘lifestyle choices’ of Indigenous Australians have drawn fire from all quarters. The storm can be seen on social media sites with the hash tag #lifestylechoices. It has created discussion, debate and derision about what constitutes a valid ‘lifestyle choice’ in Australia, and what doesn’t; what Australians choose to fund with taxpayer dollars; and what we don’t.
Defenders of Tony Abbott have argued that his intentions are valid, but it was just his choice of words that were bad. However the movement behind his words, and the policy implications of his words, is offensive and charged. Closing down remote communities is a racially and politically motivated policy that doesn’t stack up financially over the long term. Some argue the significant subtext behind closing down remote communities, especially in Western Australia, is to do with breaking connections to country, for the benefit of mining and exploration leases. It is much harder to object to and challenge mining development if there are no nearby communities who have had an ongoing and meaningful relationship to the same land.
The opportunity to forcibly close remote Indigenous communities is the result of cost shifting from the Commonwealth government to the Western Australian government. The Commonwealth refused to continue to provide the funding for services to remote communities in Western Australia. The Western Australian government assumed responsibility for the remote communities and were given a one off payment of $90 million dollars for ongoing service provision. In response, Premier Colin Barnett refused to provide ongoing essential services to some remote Indigenous communities in Western Australia. Supporting Colin Barnett’s decision, Tony Abbott let out his now infamous statement about ‘lifestyle choices’ to media when quizzed about the issue on tour in Western Australia. But he must have known this was going to be the inevitable outcome from a state government who is constantly at war with, and having lost many battles against, the Indigenous community.
Colin Barnett has a checkered and colourful past when it comes to Indigenous communities, human rights and on country decision making. In 2010, he threatened to compulsorily acquire land for the James Price Point gas hub development near Broome. He received a bloody nose when the development fell over and his pride took a massive hit. Before announcing his removal of support to remote Indigenous communities, his government began planning changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act. There is evidence to suggest changes would see sacred sites de-registered and make it harder for traditional owners to challenge developments impacting sacred sites. It would also remove protections for existing sacred sites. And so, the latest iteration is not a ‘one off’ policy gaffe, or miscalculation. It is a systematic policy shift with true intentions hidden in the shadows. It is completely contrary to efforts to close the gap with Indigenous Australians, and is contrary to the spirit of reconciliation that should be, or is at least superficially, a bi-partisan policy position.
On the other hand, it could also be argued that Colin Barnett is not targeting Indigenous Western Australians. Instead he’s just not very good when it comes to policy and planning. Complex, detailed, long term planning is not his forte, and his political record is one of blunder to blunder in the policy arena. Who could forget his ‘Far Canal Colin’ plan which was the reason he didn’t ascend to the Premiership much earlier. And although his policy and planning decisions have been less grandiose since, they’ve been no less disastrous. The process of selecting the site for Perth Arena, the Ellenbrook Train Line, or the Max Light Rail proposals, are just some examples of his policy and planning butchery in Western Australia.
What it has allowed though, is an overly narrow debate of the remote community closures, without consideration of broader aspects of the political context. Politicians and some commentators argue that supporting remote communities is too expensive. On the other end of the spectrum, many academics have a romanticised vision of Indigenous remote communities, which is removed from the realities of people living in them. The argument is much more fundamental than that. All that people expect in remote communities is the provision of basic services that any other citizen regards as a basic right. What is rarely presented is that rather than expenditure to the taxpayer, providing basic services to remote Indigenous communities provides the taxpayer a saving over the long term.
The perception is that those living in remote communities are suffering and struggling and would be better of moving to a larger centre. In the mind’s eye the larger centres have better education, health and employment opportunities. My argument is that people will move to centres such as Broome, Kununurra, Fitzroy Crossing, and Geraldton and maybe even Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. Yet it is these communities that are most likely to be dysfunctional, contribute to disadvantage, be racked by poverty and poor health outcomes. It is these communities that people have in mind when they are thinking of closing down ‘remote communities’. But it is not these communities that are being closed down. And the perception of negative outcomes is likely to become exacerbated, and the cycle will continue, impacting communities that do have good outcomes for the people living within them. Moreover, communities that have distinct, pressing and real problems are likely to have added pressures and increasingly negative outcomes.
Surveys have suggested that far from being advantaged by moving to larger centres, the outcomes for Indigenous Australians living in larger centres can be worse than those living closer to their own country, their homelands. Several social and emotional well-being studies have shown this. There are multiple possible reasons for improved outcomes when living on country: many are likely to eat better, including traditional food sources; in many remote communities, there is less exposure to alcohol, and when it is available, it is likely to be more expensive, reducing the potential consumption. Contact with intoxicated people is also likely to be much less, reducing the flow on impacts such as alcohol fuelled violence. People are likely to feel a greater sense of purpose, and have stronger family and social links. Community problems may be dealt with internally, without involvement with the judiciary. Alice Springs and many other larger communities are a prime example of what can happen when the systems interact, or when one or both is in complete breakdown.
On top of the social benefits for some inhabitants, there are also potential economic and environmental benefits. Environmental and land management has become a key service provided by some remote communities. Although this has not been a focus in Western Australia, the potential for fire management and carbon sequestration, has been demonstrated in similar environments and ecosystems in the Northern Territory. Marine ranger programs reducing, removing and tracking drift and ‘ghost’ nets, from our waters, also provide massive long term benefits to our fisheries and marine environments. These services are provided at a massive discount to what would cost the taxpayer typically, because of the remoteness of the activities, and the availability and willingness of Indigenous Australians to involve themselves in such activities.
No-one is suggesting that health outcomes of those living in remote communities are peachy. Babies are distinctly worse off. They are often born underweight and with an incredibly high chance of developing ear infections. Their start to life is less than ideal. But without understanding the reasons why those living in remote communities prefer to do so, and who report better outcomes for themselves personally, this policy is likely doomed. It will be an example of a repeating policy position sometime in the future, with rhetoric that is likely to be rehashed. Indigenous Australians deserve better treatment, and deserve different approaches to the status quo. Continued antagonism and counterproductive policies are not the answer.