Why the gap hasn’t been closed

Last year, the Federal Government withdrew funding for essential services of remote communities in Western Australia. Following this the West Australian Premier Colin Barnett announced in November 2014 a plan to cease supporting and force the closure of 150 remote indigenous communities.

The situation seems quite ambiguous: the exact reasoning for the closure has not been clearly stated and the people of the communities have not been consulted about the closures. There has been some reference regarding problems faced in these remote communities which relate to health, education, domestic violence, the abuse and neglect of children and a lack of job opportunities.

However these same problems are faced by the larger indigenous and non-indigenous townships where those from the remote communities are likely to be moved to. As of yet there have been no plans made for replacement housing to accommodate anybody who is moved.  Consequently forcing the closure of remote communities may result in any people who are moved facing the same problems.

Historically the indigenous peoples have suffered injustices resulting from being dispossessed of their lands and a generation of children stolen from their parents. This has prevented them from exercising their right to develop along with their own interests and needs. If indigenous peoples are allowed control over their land and developments, and also allowed to maintain their culture they will be able to develop economically and socially in accordance with these needs.

The current situation bears some resemblance to the misdeeds of past Australian Governments. The decision to close remote communities is the culmination of a number of economic and public policies which have systematically disempowered the Indigenous peoples of Australia. A lot of remote communities were created for cultural reasons. To attempt to have a one size fits all approach to the development of policies is the wrong way to go about it.

Regarding the problems of education in remote indigenous communities, the main reason given is that they are too far away from schools. How can this be stated when successive governments, instead of building schools in these communities, have built prisons? When they have promised to build colleges, they instead moved their construction to larger towns where there is more demand. When they have made cuts to education, the number of teachers in indigenous schools was cut by a third. And when there have been policies implemented which sought to prevent indigenous children from learning their own language. For children, learning their own language in school is an important factor for creating a school environment which they want to be a part of.

At the same time, the remote schools attendance policy  – which gets parents and guardians to encourage children to go to school – was introduced. Initially, this increased attendance to schools. But over the longer term, low teacher numbers and indigenous children not being able to learn in their native tongue meant abysmal education quality. Attendance dropped below the original level.

To address problems of health and economic wellbeing, income management was introduced in 2007 in the form of the basics card with the aim of improving the spending behaviour of individuals and families who receive a government benefit.  The card limits where 50% of income can be spent to certain stores. 90% of those on the basics card are Indigenous; its users are left vulnerable to inflated prices at the designated stores. Those in remote communities, many who live a great distance from these stores, also face high petrol costs.

To a certain degree, the basics card has also had negative effects on health. For many of the nominated stores the average price of coke is cheaper than bottled water. The rate of diabetes for Indigenous people is 3.3 times that of non-indigenous, and this pricing certainly does not aid the situation.

The implementation of the basics card program involved the bypass of the racial discrimination. This was based on the notion that it is acceptable to restrict rights of a group of people if the goal is not discriminatory. The basics card has had limited success, and hence many indigenous people on the program have felt disempowered.

The lack of commercial opportunities in remote communities is another problem which has been identified as a reason to close them. It should first be examined what can done to create new jobs and skills for employment in these communities before closing them. The major current policy is the Remote Jobs and Communities Program. This program requires unemployed job-seekers between the ages of eighteen and forty-nine to work in government designated tasks for 25 hours a week to maintain benefits. But, due to the lack of commercial opportunities, many of these tasks include community services, cleaning and ground maintenance. It is questionable whether these are of benefit in developing skills for employment or indeed lead to future employment.

This remote jobs program replaced the scrapped Community Development Employment Project. The CDEP was a voluntary program which gave the participating communities control over income support and employment creation. Participants of the program earned an average of $100 more per week than welfare recipients and were less likely to be arrested. The program had more of a focus on skills training and when job opportunities came along participants of the program were more likely to be employed. This directly contrasted the current program, which does not focus on skill development. Though the CDEP was not without problems, it demonstrated that when indigenous people are given some control over their future, they feel empowered. It allowed for some positive social and economic development.

Along with skills training, empowering women has been confirmed to help lift communities from poverty. Sadly though, Indigenous women are not thriving. Since the year 2000, the national imprisonment rate of Indigenous women has increased by 74%. An important first step in addressing all of the problems faced by remote communities is to look at investing in the women of the communities.
We as a society are forcing Indigenous Australians to assimilate into a culture foreign to them in a spirit of false benevolence. Until we can develop a relationship between cultures, efforts towards closing the gap in life expectancy between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians will stagnate. These problems in remote communities need to be directly addressed. If not, the future for Indigenous Australians will look bleak.