Colin Barnett pretends to pull back on community closures

Paternalistic policy on the hop
Colin Barnett

Colin Barnett is so pathetic, he thinks he will get away with putting up a new plan that takes people away from their Homelands and dumps them on the doorsteps of larger communities - away from 'country'. Now there's a recipe for disaster if we ever did see one ... if it ever happens ... and in the mean time he closes down all the small Homelands communities.

Colin Barnett pulls back on indigenous community closures

Victoria Laurie and Paige Taylor 'The Australian' 1 May 2014

Colin Barnett has stepped away from his controversial rhetoric that up to 150 remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia will be closed down, revealing plans for a "hub and orbit" strategy that will leave some communities bigger and better resourced, others reduced in services and the smallest ones abandoned.

The Premier admitted to The Australian yesterday that his declaration last November that "we are probably going to see certainly over 100, maybe 150 remote communities close" was a "bit bald".

Giving the first clear details of his government's more nuanced approach, Mr Barnett noted that a hub and orbit approach could lead to building up the larger communities while closing down the smallest and most under-resourced. "Looking somewhere into the future, I'm talking years and decades, what I would like ultimately to see and what we are trying to achieve is that some of those larger communities would become ultimately gazetted towns like any other town and operate that way," Mr Barnett told The Australian on the last day of a three-day tour of regional and remote Western Australia.

"That is going to take some time. Then there will be some remote communities which will be supported from the outside to a greater extent (than others) and that will cater for the largest portion of Aboriginal people. But the very small communities I think will lapse over time."

Aboriginal communities across the state have been fearful of closure since Mr Barnett's statement to a conference of childcare workers last November. Strident opposition has mounted in the absence of details about which places are being targeted, and on what grounds.

"Stop the Closures" banners will be displayed at May Day marches in towns and cities across Australia today, and in several overseas cities including London, New York, Berlin and Auckland.

Mr Barnett this week found himself reassuring members of the Warralong community, 190km east of Port Hedland, that it was very unlikely to close. Community leaders told him that rumours of closure had been sparked by the appearance of a ­visiting police van. It was the Premier's first visit to a remote Aboriginal community since his November comments.

Warralong has fewer than 100 residents, 11 houses, no shop and twice weekly visits from a nurse travelling from Port Hedland. Mr Barnett said he was impressed by the community's independently run school. Asked if he had done an about-face on his previous stance about closures, Mr Barnett said his comments in November had been lacking in detail. "Well, my comments were a bit bald, you know, at the time," he said.

"But what I was saying is that 274 communities is not realistic in the long term. Many younger leaders and some older ones in Aboriginal communities have been actually quite moderate on this issue. (They) recognise there are a number of communities that don't have the prospect of education, health, let alone employment and that is where we are trying to go."

Indigenous Liberal federal MP Ken Wyatt said he believed there would be far fewer closures than originally stated by Mr Barnett.

Mr Wyatt, who in the 1980s helped create 99-year Aboriginal Lands Trust leases and is a supporter of Aborigines being able to live back on their traditional country, said he had a frank discussion with the Premier on the issue. "I get the sense that it is not his intention to close down communities so much as find better solutions in how they access services," he said. "They are auditing all those communities and looking at solutions. I've had discussions with three key ministers and they don't seem to talk about closing down communities."

He said they had discussed a "hub and orbit" model and the Northern Territory offered examples of the Barnett government's mooted approach.

"At Utopia, people still live within the Utopia lands, and some of them still live traditional lives further out but they come in to access the community store, the school and the medical clinic," Mr Wyatt said.

In the past, Mr Barnett has cited lack of opportunities to educate and employ residents, and the risk of child abuse and domestic violence as reasons to close under-resourced communities. He has said reduced federal funding of only $90 million over three years will make it "impossible to provide the state's 274 remote communities with essential services as well as policing, healthcare and education".

Mr Barnett's opponents have claimed that moving people out of settlements could end up costing even more.