Launch of the NAA's Reconciliation Action Plan 2014-2015

Justin Mohamed, Chief Executive Officer Reconciliation Australia

The current discussion on the closure of remote Aboriginal communities and the reference of remote living being a ‘lifestyle choice’ reflects a deep misunderstanding of Aboriginal culture. The simplistic comments demonstrate a lack of understanding of Aboriginal culture and the importance and responsibility many Aboriginal people have to live on Country.

It is not purely an economic equation.

Inferring that Aboriginal people simply choose to live in remote locations misrepresents and undermines the cultural and social accountabilities Aboriginal people often hold. There are many factors that contribute to the complexity of these decisions—Aboriginal peoples have deep responsibilities, developed over 40,000 years, to live on and care for their traditional Countries. Land connects Aboriginal peoples to their sense of self and wellbeing, and represents part of their identity that has carried through generations.

It is crucial that any policies which affect the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are only implemented as the result of deep and respectful engagement with those in communities. Only through meaningful engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, can governments fully understand the tensions Aboriginal Australians face in today’s society. Aboriginal people negotiate daily the terrain between the requirements of non-Indigenous Australia and the requirements of their own communities, cultures and laws. This is not a simple task, and requires respect and support of Australian governments to ensure a healthy and prosperous future for all Australians.

Aboriginal organisations and communities have raised strong concerns about the impact community closures will have, including social disadvantage, poverty and unemployment. These concerns are well-founded, as history has shown us that there are inherent dangers in closing remote communities, and removing people from their traditional lands. Oombulgurri community, near Wyndham in Western Australia was closed in 2011 after being deemed ‘unviable’. The government’s actions disempowered the Oombulgurri community, and many of those who were displaced suffered long-term homelessness and social disengagement. If we are to once again remove Aboriginal people from traditional lands with no consultation, we would be repeating poor policies of the past.

All Australians, including governments, must work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to create effective and sustainable outcomes regarding health, education and employment. Research and practice has shown that having a strong connection to land and culture drastically improves the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In Arnhem Land, those who took part in Indigenous Cultural and Natural Resource Management (ICNRM), exercised more frequently, had lower rates of obesity, diabetes, renal disease, cardio-vascular disease, and less psychological stress. Similarly, through encouraging a strong connection to land, the Yiriman project in Fitzroy Crossing curbs suicide, self-harm and substance abuse amongst young Aboriginal people. These are only two examples of communities that have shown how a strong connection to traditional land can ultimately lead to improved outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

While the Government has shown commitment towards closing the gaps between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous Australians, forcibly removing people from their traditional lands will not help these goals. Removal from land both near Wyndham in 2011, and throughout Australia after colonisation, resulted in severe disadvantage for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Closing communities without consultation ignores the reality that forcible removal from land is harmful. More importantly, evaluating Indigenous lifestyles through a Western lens overlooks the importance that land holds for many Aboriginal people. To pass off this significance as a simple lifestyle choice does a disservice to the centuries of culture and knowledge Aboriginal people hold—and that all Australians should be proud of.

The suggestion that Aboriginal peoplebe removed from traditional lands reflects past discriminatory policies. Closing the divide between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and non-Indigenous Australians is not easy. We have a long way to go—but we have a responsibility to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are granted the same rights and respect afforded to all other Australians. We can begin this by listening to the Aboriginal people who will be affected by community closures in Western Australia.

Photo: Angus Kendon/National Archives of Australia