The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples has written an open letter to the Prime Minister calling on the Federal Government to show leadership and protect the future of remote communities (the letter is published in full at the bottom of this post).
In a media statement, Congress says recent action by the Western Australian and South Australian state governments to close down communities has opened a floodgate of concern amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Congress Co-Chair Kirstie Parker said the targeting of Indigenous communities by states and territories was racially discriminatory and the Commonwealth must urgently intervene. “While jurisdictions quibble about who is responsible for what – our peoples are vulnerable, under threat and in distress,” she said.
Meanwhile, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health practitioners who would like to support an advocacy campaign are urged to get in touch – as soon as possible – with Dr Melissa Stoneham, deputy director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute WA.
Melissa Stoneham writes:
There has been quite a lot written on the proposed closure of “at least 100 or more” remote Aboriginal communities in response to the Federal Government shifting away from providing essential services, such as power and water. WA Premier, Colin Barnett recently told Parliament that smaller communities were not only “not viable” but dangerous.
Many WA professionals are concerned about the ramifications of such a policy decision and are currently planning an advocacy campaign, led by the Public Health Advocacy Institute of WA (affiliated with Curtin University).
A series of letters has been developed outlining a variety of concerns with the proposed closure of these communities – but all have a common call for action.
The letters, each signed by at least 100 professionals and interested parties, call for increased transparency and urge the Barnett government to indicate the proposed communities that are ear marked to close, an indication of the consultation process to be used and a description of how and when the closure is likely to proceed.
There is very recent precedent for closing remote Aboriginal communities in WA. In 2011, around 100 people were evicted from the Oombulgurri community in the eastern Kimberley after the State Government deemed it “unviable”. There was no consultation, no plan, when they decided to do it, they just did it.
The following extract from a recent article sums up the pain and suffering these forced removals generate:
“The trauma felt by the people is evident. One of the last men to leave Oombulgurri took his own life in Wyndham. One of the last Elder women to leave still cries every day. Nearly everyone we spoke to expressed sorrow, disbelief and hopelessness. Many still can’t understand why it happened and yearn for their homeland.”
PHAIWA is keen to generate one more letter from at least 100 Australian Aboriginal practitioners or leaders to complete this advocacy campaign.
If you are interested in signing this letter please contact Dr Melissa Stoneham at PHAIWA on m.stonehamATcurtin.edu.au to access a copy of the draft letter. A copy of your signature (scanned/electronic), your name and region you live or work will be the only requirements.
There is a sense of urgency around this issue and we look forward to talking with you.
Dear Prime Minister,
The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples has noted that the Western Australian and South Australian governments have threatened to shut down services to small and remote townships of the Aboriginal Peoples. We bring this matter to your government for urgent attention to Australian policy regarding the rights of First Peoples.
The First Peoples of Australia had, and will always have, inherent rights to exist on and develop our lands and territories. These rights derive from the continuing and ancient title to these lands and territories, and according to our collective rights to self-determination as Peoples.
By circumstances of Australia’s colonial and post-colonial history, and particularly in the absence of a consent agreement for acquisition and distribution of the wealth from our lands, territories and resources, our Peoples hold as a very minimum the right to enjoy equal outcomes from social and economic advancements benefitting all Australians. This must be clearly understood and respected by all governments in Australia.
The WA government apparently intends to target Aboriginal Peoples on the one hand, whilst continuing to provide high standards of municipal services to non-Indigenous citizens on the other. We cannot accept the WA and SA governments have legitimate authority under Australian or international law to racially discriminate to disrupt or destroy the livelihoods, accommodations or habitat of the First Peoples of Australia.
Congress must also take into account that other States may be contemplating reduction or withdrawal of services to our Peoples in the same way as Western Australia and South Australia.
Constitutionally, the Australian Government has the highest authority in the nation in order to promote and protect the rights of the First Peoples of Australia.
It is part of the international responsibilities and it is a responsibility that should not and cannot be discarded or devolved to other levels of government.
Congress brings to your attention that your government essentially reaffirmed its obligations to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples a few months ago at the United Nations General Assembly, during the high-level plenary session known as the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.
The national government holds ultimate responsibility to promote and respect equality and non-discrimination in the nation and, in that context, also to ensure our Peoples are correctly acknowledged as rights holders as Indigenous Peoples.
These standards to which we refer are enshrined in the human rights treaties that Australia has signed and ratified, along with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Congress requests your government immediately affirm to the states and territories that rights of the First Peoples are paramount in any fiscal arrangements to address social and economic development.
We consider it appropriate that this matter also be discussed at the next Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting.
Congress also requests an urgent meeting with you to further discuss this important matter.
Kirstie Parker and Les Malezer, Congress Co-Chairs
Previously at Croakey