The Barnett Government has moved to reset the rancorous debate surrounding the future of WA’s remote Aboriginal communities by abandoning projections that 150 will close and promising to consult widely under a major new reform.
Colin Barnett admitted he had enflamed tensions with his rhetoric to date but insisted poor health, employment, domestic violence and child protection outcomes in many of WA’s 274 communities meant a “significant ” number would close.
But claims of a new level of consultation hit an immediate roadblock, with the government’s own chief indigenous adviser claiming he had been sidelined from the process in a continuation of the “top-down” approach to Aboriginal affairs.
Under the plan ‘leadership groups’ including State and local government and the non government sector will be assembled in the Pilbara and Kimberley, where 90 per cent of WA’s remote communities are.
They will take advice from ‘strategic regional advisory councils’, including Aboriginal leaders, on service delivery in the communities.
The whole process will be overseen by a ‘reform unit’ which will report to Regional Development Minister Terry Redman (responsible for making communities more sustainable) and Child Protection Minister Helen Morton (responsible for human service delivery).
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Peter Collier will have ultimate responsibility for the reform, which he said would kick off with a round of consultation “within weeks”.
“We can continue to hover along in mediocrity and continue to accept the norm,” he said.
“We’re actually doing something that is bold, something that hasn’t been done before.”
Mr Barnett said the withdrawal of Commonwealth funding for remote communities had brought the issue to a head but insisted the Aboriginal Affairs Cabinet subcommittee had been working on the reform for two years.
Michael Hayden, chairman of the WA Aboriginal Advisory Council said for Aboriginal people to be truly involved, they should have been consulted about the reform framework.
“This is imposed by Government: ‘This is how we’re going to do it’,” he said.
“The thing we need is developing an engagement mechanism and a framework that we need to go out and take to communities on a regular consultation process that’s driven by Aboriginal people from the bottom up. This is not from the bottom up, this is a cabinet subcommittee and bureaucracy imposing a structure that they believe is going to get the outcomes that they want.”
Aboriginal Health Council of WA chair Michelle Nelson-Cox said the involvement of the Child Protection Minister was a “slur on all Aboriginal people”.
“None of the fact sheets released today by Mr Barnett provide any evidence that children are at greater risk in remote Aboriginal communities.
“Our experience is that the health and wellbeing of many Aboriginal people is far better in Aboriginal communities than in cities and towns, where exposure to drugs and alcohol is higher, with associated higher levels of incarceration and youth suicide.”
Shadow Aboriginal affairs minister Ben Wyatt said consultation was something the Government should have done a year ago.
“The process that’s been created by Mr Barnett was cruelled at the very beginning when he deemed that the communities had failed and he wanted to close 150 of them,” he said.