MAC: Mines and Communities

Frontier politics in Australia's Wild West

Published by MAC on 2015-03-25
Source: Guardian, Vice

During 2014, Australian  federal government funding of vital services to Aboriginal communities in Western Australia was transferred to the state government. Last month, WA's premier announced he planned to cut off such assistance to between 100 and 150 of these 274 so-called "remote" communities.

Meanwhile, the federal prime minister, Tony Abbott, endorsed the state government's action, saying it could not be expected to "endlessly endorse lifestyle choices" which aren't conducive "to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have".

Abott has a habit of putting his foot in his mouth but, in this instance, a lot of people would undoubtedly agree with him. Not long ago, such a view was encapsulated in  a government policy called "Assimilation". Nowadays,  that's a dirty term of course. But, scratch the surface, and such a precept quickly raises its ugly head. 

Whose "lifestyle choices"  really threaten Australia today? Those of the most impovershed section of society, trying to eke a living out of a largely unforgiving environment? Or the likes of Gina Rhinehart, the mega miner who's gross expanism is more and more endangering sustainable resources? 

Savage irony, indeed, when those who've been the true custodians of Western Australian land, water and minerals, are unceremoniously shown the exit - just  when they are striving to preserve and benefit from the little that's now left of these.

The following article outlines the broad parameters of how the Western Australian government now proposes to solve "the Aboriginal problem". The connection to mining isn't spelt out sufficiently, but there's references to the legacy of Rio Tinto's Argyle diamond mine; and to the social disaster that has been Oombulguri (Anglo-de Beers), where the people are still at risk [see also:].

Readers might also like to see what Jan Roberts said about the plight of the community there in Glitter and Greed.

The article raises a number of crucial issues, and paints a somewhat confusing picture. But that's the nature of the dilemma that's been thrust upon remote Aboriginal communities over a long number of years.

Although theymay  initially reject mining, they largely don't succeed in doing so. But they can't get work in the mines, while their ability to conduct traditional "life styles" has largely been compromised. At that point, the only choice for many people is to move to the townships, resulting in social dislocation, impoverishment, and internecine violence. This seems inevitable under the current policy of both federal and WA governments.

Ironically, even the apartheid regime in South Africa didn't seek to destroy rural economies (debased and degraded though they undoubtedly were) in imposing the ignominious "bantustans solution!

For counter-views from Australia on this issue, see:]

Of three remote communities here, why are only the two Aboriginal ones under threat?

Tony Abbott says living in remote communities is a ‘lifestyle choice’. For the thousands of Indigenous people who actually live in them, it’s a matter of life and death. A special report from Guardian Australia’s Perth correspondent

Words and photographs by Calla Wahlquist in the Kimberley

Guardian (for article with photographs by the author go to:-

11 March 2015

There are three small communities within 30km of each other in the Kimberley, the isolated north-western corner of Australia.

Because of a new funding deal struck between Australia’s state and federal governments, two of those communities could be closed.

Two of the communities are Aboriginal. The third is not. It will not be closed.

It has been six months since the federal government signed over funding responsibility for providing municipal and essential services to Western Australia’s 274 remote Indigenous communities to the state government and four since the WA premier, Colin Barnett, said between 100 and 150 of those communities faced “closure” because they were “not viable”.

On Tuesday, Tony Abbott further inflamed the situation by saying his government could not be expected to “endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have”.

In Western Australia, Indigenous people still don’t know which communities are going to be closed, what criteria they will be judged by and what they can do to stop it. All they know is that the government is trying to push them off their land, once again.


The road to Jarlmadangah is flat and dusty. It’s the end of the wet season and the tall grass is reaching its peak, forming a modesty screen for the rest of the landscape. The only structures are termite mounds, which rise up every few metres. There are no fences. Cattle, roaming in vast pastoral leases that stretch on either side of the highway, meander in slow groups across the bitumen. Anthony Watson, the chairman of the Kimberley Land Council, beeps his horn wearily but it doesn’t do much good. We wait while they amble away.

Jarlmadangah is Watson’s home community. He’s a Nyikina-Mangala man and a traditional owner of this country, about 225km inland from Broome and 86km south of Derby.

Watson and his father, John Watson, founded the community in 1987 under a policy introduced by the Gough Whitlam government in 1974 to allow Aboriginal people to move back on to their homelands.

At last census there were 22 dwellings and 69 residents in Jarlmadangah, though Watson says that figure’s dropped a bit now. The residents run a cattle station, a tourism business, camel trekking tours, a community school and a health clinic. It is considered a success.

If Jarlmadangah is shut down, one local tells me, no remote Aboriginal community is safe.

But since Barnett said in November that the $90m provided by the federal government – equivalent to three years’ municipal services funding – was not sufficient to keep all 274 communities open, there has been no information about which communities will go and only the barest of details about the funding criteria.

About 12,000 people live in those communities, 221 of which are in the Kimberley. Their future is now uncertain.

Fourteen kilometres from the highway is the turnoff to Jarlmadangah. If you continued straight on, you’d reach Camballin, a non-Aboriginal community of about 300 people founded by the WA government to support rice growing in the Camballin irrigation scheme. Now it houses teachers and other non-Indigenous people who work in Aboriginal communities.

Next to Camballin is Looma, one of the first officially recognised Aboriginal communities in WA. It was supposed to be a new model, a labour source for the irrigation scheme. That didn’t last. At the 2006 census Looma had a population of 373 people spread across 76 houses.

Like Jarlmadangah, Looma will be weighed and measured by the government to see if it’s worth sustaining. Camballin will not.

This is a pattern is repeated across remote WA. Indigenous people do not want communities like Camballin closed. But they find the presumption that it and other small non-Aboriginal communities are sustainable and Aboriginal communities are not to be deeply unfair.

Even the federal Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion, the man blamed for creating this situation, is critical of WA’s response. Scullion met separately with Barnett and the WA Aboriginal affairs minister, Peter Collier, in Perth on Monday.

He told ABC radio in Perth that saying communities would be closed was “irresponsible”. “What you need, and I think it’s self-evident, is you need a plan,” he said.

“You can’t just say ‘we’re going to go and do this’ and then sort of leave it in the open. These are very vulnerable people and they need to know what’s happening.”

He went on: “Why is it that at one end of the road … [states] should say, well, we’ll empty the garbage bins there, because they’re white people, and at the other end they’re black people, we won’t empty bins there.

“It brings up that R-word. Ridiculous. It’s just silly.”

Barnett told reporters on Tuesday that he and Scullion had not discussed remote communities “to any great extent”.

“The [federal government] has made its decision,” he said. “I think it was the wrong decision … but that’s it, so we will just get on with it as a state and progressively deal with the issue with the local communities.”

Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania also agreed to the new funding arrangement. It’s already in operation in New South Wales. But those states have not threatened to shut off services to remote communities.

The WA housing minister, Bill Marmion, said the deal was less an agreement than an ultimatum: “We had a gun pointed at our head.”

Elsia Archer is the president of Derby-West Kimberley shire, which covers Camballin, Looma and Jarlmadangah, though it only services the first community.

Local government in the Kimberley has been talking about the federal government dropping funding for remote communities for eight years, but says it can’t afford to take it on. A study commissioned by the nearby shire of Broome found it would cost $120m to upgrade infrastructure in that shire’s 84 remote Aboriginal communities to a “reasonable standard”, plus between $20m and $30m a year for service delivery.

Archer says it would be sensible for local government to take over the provision of services to remote Aboriginal services but that would require more funding . “We don’t have enough money – our rates don’t even cover our wages,” she says. “It’s quite a difficult situation.”


The main street of Jarlmadangah takes you past the store, the diesel generator, and the school, before looping around past the health clinic and a large water tank. The bore, powered by the generator, was one of the main reasons for choosing this town site. The streets, like all surrounding roads, are red dirt. A pack of dogs that don’t appear to belong to anyone in particular trail after three young girls who are walking around the school. One of them is Watson’s youngest daughter. He asks if she’ll come with us to visit her grandfather. She says no, they have “girls’ club”. It cannot be missed.

Most of the community members have already left, headed for an important meeting at Pandanus Park, a Nykinia community about 75km to the west. The Nykinia-Mangala won their native title claim last year, after a 16-year fight, and are now deciding how to respond to a mining development.

At an asbestos-clad house opposite the water tank we find John Watson, who goes by his Nykinia name, Darraga. Darraga was born on Mount Anderson station some years before 1940, although that’s the date on his driver’s licence. Like many Aboriginal people of his generation he was asked to nominate a birthday when it came time to get registered with the government, and picked a date he remembered. There’s a lot of January 1 birthdays in the Nyikina mob, Watson says.

Darraga is the oldest person left in Jarlmadangah and a senior law boss. The other bosses are at the cemetery. There’s another funeral next month.

“I’m not an old man,” he says. “There’s a lot of old man that have gone before me. Some of them are buried down there, my bosses, that taught me about my culture, my rights.”

Darraga left the station in 1959 and moved into Derby, a decade before a long-fought decision on equal wages in the cattle industry came into force and triggered the mass banishment of Indigenous people by white station owners. He washed the taxis driven by his brothers until he got a job loading trains, then another working with a local builder. The way he tells it, he built half the town and a few other towns besides, working his way across the continent to Queensland before deciding to come home and settle down. He had a reputation as a hard worker and got on well with the bosses.

Life in Derby was hard, particularly when equal wages came in and station dwellers began filling up reserves on the outskirts of town. For those who lived through that time, talk of closing communities sounds like history repeating.

“It’s very sad to hear the government of the day saying there’s a hundred, two hundred, outstation people going to be moved into town,” Darraga says. “We had that experience, we had that experience when the basic wages started and all the station people pushed us off.

“My people all moved into town. And there’s big trouble, big trouble. Young boys, young girls, they got mixed up in bad things.”

The “bad things” were mainly connected to alcohol. Darraga’s generation was the first to be able to legally access alcohol, Watson’s the first to be raised with it. Watson, now in his 40s, has seen a lot of his peers die. As his elders pass on, he’s worried there won’t be enough people coming up to carry their culture.

“We lost a generation with the wages reform,” Watson says. “It was an age of losing people that had the freedom to drunk and couldn’t control their habits.”

That’s why Jarlmadangah is a dry community. “It’s a place for our people to sober up,” Watson says.

In 1984, when the Payne family sold up Mount Anderson, Darraga and his brother Harry Watson applied for a grant to purchase the 94,000 hectare station.

They moved their families out and excised part of the pastoral lease to be the Jarlmadangah townsite, giving it the Nyikina name for Mount Anderson.

“There’s a lot of stories on top of that hill about what I tell my young people, Anthony and my daughters, and grandsons and granddaughters,” Darraga says. “You call it Dreamtime.”

The Jarlmadangah Burru Aboriginal Corporation was founded in 1987, the first house built in 1988. Watson, then just a teenager, was its first chairman, a job he held for 13 years. That position is now held by his sister, Leela, who also runs the Jarlmadangah Burru community school. His 27-year-old daughter, Annika, is on the council.

Under the now-defunct community development employment program, the council employed community members under a work-for-welfare arrangement. When that went, so did most of the jobs – they don’t make enough from either the cattle station or the tourism business to be self-sufficient.

Lack of employment opportunities is the most oft-quoted measure in the government’s description of some communities as “not viable”. According to a 2013 report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 43.8% of Aboriginal people in the West Kimberley region were employed and the workforce participation rate was just 48.2%. Non-Indigenous employment in the region was similarly grim; 48.8% of people were employed and the participation rate was 49.7%.

There aren’t many jobs in the Kimberley and competition is fierce. During the height of the mining boom, one in 10 members of the Aboriginal communities on the Dampier worked fly-in, fly-out in the Pilbara, about 700km south. Communities near Derby organised busses to drive up to the Argyle diamond mine at Kununurra.

“I come from a family of good workers,” Watson says. “Not everyone’s like that. But a lot of Aboriginal people, we want to work.”

These days Darraga works in a different fashion, teaching law and culture to the boys brought to Jarlmadangah as part of the Yiriman project, a program started in the Kimberley to use cultural structures to support troubled young people. Watson laughs talking about the wide eyes of some of the Yiriman boys who come to Jarlmadangah from rougher communities. “See those windows there? There’s glass in them. It’s not all smashed out!”

Darraga also makes artefacts – about 200 boomerangs a year – to be sold to tourists at the Jarlmadangah store. But tourism in the Kimberley has dried up. Boomerang sales will not keep them in diesel.

Diesel, Watson says, is all most of these communities need. Jarlmadangah relies on federal funding for diesel subsidies, administration costs for its council and support for its school. It is supposed to cover contracts for other municipal services such as rubbish collection and road grading throughout the Kimberley, but many communities have never had them. Most houses are owned outright by the communities themselves, funded by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission which was disbanded in 2005. They don’t all have health clinics. They don’t all have schools. In many communities, there are no services to take away.

“We followed the government dream when they gave us all these promises about living back on country,” Watson says. “It was promises that never went far, but to have these services be cut, to have people removed again, it just takes us back to all of those problems. Families would rather live out in the bush with no power than go into town.”


Watson doesn’t know what services, if any, will be cut. He doesn’t know what communities will be targeted, what it means when the government says they must be “sustainable”, or what the criteria will be. Will they just close the smallest 100, or close the 69 seasonal communities first and leave more permanent communities open? Will it be based on isolation, the cost of delivering services, or the distance to employment?
Nationals MP Jacqui Boydell and WA’s regional development minister, Terry Redman, address the land council meeting in Broome

WA’s regional land councils, the peak bodies representing Aboriginal communities and traditional owners, hoped to resolve some of those questions at a two-day meeting in Broome last week. But Barnett didn’t turn up and those who represented the government were unable to provide firm answers.

That made it particularly galling when the land councils learned that at the time he might have been addressing them in Broome, Barnett was in Perth speaking to a newspaper about his plan. He told PerthNow in his “Coffee with Colin” interview, a monthly segment for which readers vote on questions for the premier, that he would take a “comprehensive view” of remote communities and that “there will be evidence come out about appalling mistreatment of little kids”.

He said the review of remote communities was already under way and would involve people “going through all those communities very carefully and seeing exactly what’s going on”.

“People aren’t going to like that, they’re going to be shocked by it and I’m sure I’ll be accused of all sorts of things, but it is my responsibility to care for every single West Australian, Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal,” Barnett said.

“Now I do not want to demonise the Aboriginal community because there are some great communities doing great work, but there’s a lot that aren’t.”

He said closure “wasn’t the right word”, then clarified: “The services will cease. I would say therefore the communities will close.”

Asked if the government would produce a report of its findings, Barnett said: “I’m not that into reports.”

Guardian Australia contacted Barnett’s office to ask if the Aboriginal communities would be able to see the “evidence” collated about their communities. He declined to comment.

Watson says Barnett’s comments are cheap, shallow and tarnished all Aboriginal communities. “At exactly the same time that Aboriginal people from across the state were meeting in Broome, our premier was drinking coffee in Perth, and saying a review of remote communities would find abuse of children,” he says. “Western Australians deserve better from their premier.”

He says Barnett appears to be trying to extend the reasoning from Oombulgari, the east Kimberley community that was demolished last year after a coronial inquest found high rates of family violence, suicide, child sex abuse and alcoholism. Many Aboriginal people believe demolishing the community was a mistake – instead of resolving those issues, it’s pushed them into nearby the towns of Wyndham and Kununurra.

“We don’t want another Oombulgari,” Watson says.

And there’s another, more serious, concern. To be granted native title Aboriginal people must maintain connection to country. That’s the whisper behind concern in the Kimberley – “Is this another attempt to take our land?”

Barnett’s comments undermined the efforts of the regional development minister, Terry Redman, who did make it to the Broome meeting. Redman is the leader of the National party, the minor partner in the WA’s Coalition government. He grew up in the Kimberley and has the respect of many Aboriginal leaders.

A number of sources within Indigenous groups have told Guardian Australia that Redman has privately expressed frustration at the way the premier has handled the issue. He dodged the question when asked at a press conference on Thursday if he and the premier saw eye-to-eye.

Redman, who is in charge of the $1bn Royalties for Regions slush fund, said the government would consider using it “to invest in anything that moves toward reform”.

The government has distributed $6.5bn in Royalties for Regions funding since 2008. Almost every regional community, including Camballin, has a sign proudly advertising its spending. Except, of course, for Aboriginal communities.


Annie Milgin is already in Pandanus Park for the big meeting. Tents have been set up on the oval, under trees, anywhere that promises to be dry. One house has about a dozen two-man tents set up in the yard. Five hundred people are expected to attend the meeting, some driving all day to get here. One woman booked accommodation at the Willare roadhouse, just across the highway, six months ago. It’s the first big test for the newly minted native title holders. They need jobs and investment on their land if their communities are going to be sustainable. It’s a balance between heritage and survival.

Milgin says that’s true – there aren’t enough jobs. But there are fewer jobs and more competition in the towns, as well as a higher prevalence of social problems such as drug and alcohol addiction and crime.

“What’s going to happen if we go into town, are they going to have a job for them, for our young people?” she says. “When we are in the community we are healthy, our young ones are healthy. But what’s going to happen in the towns?”

Milgin runs the health clinic at Jarlmadangah. She’s a Nyikina woman, born on Paradise station, and has been a nurse for 35 years. Now she’s a senior Aboriginal health worker and runs bush medicine clinics for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike, as well as running women’s programs to teach young women about things like safe sex, pregnancy and motherhood. She sees suicide, mental health issues, and drug and alcohol addiction on a regular basis. The communities aren’t without their problems, she says, but it’s better than in towns such as Derby, Fitzroy Crossing, Halls Creek and, to a lesser extent, Broome.

“Along the street [in Derby] the people fight,” she said. “They drink, fight, all night, and our young people, their kids, they’re going to stand up all night and watching them.

“And I don’t want to see that happen to my kids, my grandkids. I want to keep my grandkids how I be and how I’ve been, in culture.”

Moving into town isn’t a viable option for a lot of Aboriginal families, even if they wanted to go. The official waiting list for state housing in the west Kimberley is just shy of four years, but Watson said in Broome the reality is more like 10.

Josie Farrer is the Labor MP for the Kimberley. Speaking to Guardian Australia in Broome, she says the impact of shutting services will be seen in the local parks in the town, where a significant population of homeless Aboriginal people already make camp. Farrer is a Lunga Kitja woman and lives in Halls Creek, 684km east of Broome. She says the town does not have the resources to support a larger Indigenous population.

“Us as people – we’re homeless,” she said. “We’ve always been homeless.”

“I’m probably one of the lucky ones, I bought my house, it’s an old state housing home. But even so, every other member of my family is homeless.”

Milgin says living on country, with elders, makes Aboriginal people “strong”. That’s backed up by a 2011 report on Aboriginal homelands by Amnesty International that found that living on homelands was connected to better health outcomes and drug rehabilitation.

“I don’t want to see my grandkids [experience] what’s happening in town,” Milgin said. “Otherwise they end up dead. I don’t want to be like those people. It’s the biggest worry. For me, it is the biggest worry.”


Back at Jarlmadangah, Darraga is staying put.

“I’m not going to leave this place,” he says. “All the government people can say things about closing down communities. If people want to go they can go. But I will still be here.”

Are Mining Interests Behind Western Australian Remote Aboriginal Community Closures?

By Paul Gregoire


20 March 2015

Yesterday, 18,000 people turned out at rallies across Australia in protest of the Western Australian government's proposal to close up to 150 remote Aboriginal communities. The move will see municipal and essential services provided by the government cut. Premier Colin Barnett announced the closures in November last year, claiming many of these communities are economically unviable.

On March 1, the Matagarup Aboriginal Refugee Camp was set up on Heirisson Island in Perth, anticipating the looming refugee crisis that will be caused by the remote community closures. Indigenous groups estimate that 15,000-20,000 people could potentially be affected by the closures and some see the proposals as more of a land grab than a measure against any real financial concerns.

Figures from the WA Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) detail 274 remote communities across the state, with 12,113 Aboriginal people currently living within them.

Over past decades, it's been the federal government that's provided funding for 180 of these communities. However last September, federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion announced that the responsibility to provide services to these communities would be handed over to the state government on July 1 this year, along with $90 million in funding to cover a two year transitional period.

Last week the City of Perth issued the camp an ultimatum to dismantle all permanent structures at the site by 12 pm on March 13.

Last week, Prime Minister Tony Abbott defended the WA government's decision to close communities down stating on ABC radio, "what we can't do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices." This remark outraged many in the Indigenous community, as they regard people living in remote communities as carrying on the cultural and spiritual obligations to the land they inherited at birth.

On March 5, Barnett announced that an official investigation was underway into which remote communities would be closed and suggested that this would uncover incidents of child abuse. This is reminiscent of the Northern Territory Intervention, when in 2007 troops were sent in to close down remote NT communities on the pretext that paedophile rings were in operation. These claims were subsequently proven false.

WA Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Ben Wyatt, told VICE that the premier's suggestion he will produce evidence of child abuse is an attempt to demonise Aboriginal people to justify his decision.

"Mr Barnett has shown no understanding of the history of the remote communities nor the likely impact if you shut 150 communities," said Wyatt, himself a Yamatji man. "The larger centres currently do not have the capacity to provide services to their current populations, let alone an influx of people moving in from the remote communities."

Mitch Torres is an organiser of Stop the Forced Closure of Aboriginal Communities, which mobilised yesterday's national day of action in centres around the nation. A Djugun and Gooniyandi woman from the Kimberley region, Torres said the protests drew attention to the lack of consultation the government has undertaken with the remote Aboriginal communities and the pending homelessness crisis that could eventuate. She said there are grave fears the closures are a repeat of past removal policies, giving no consideration to future social impacts.

"This is about taking people off their sovereign domicile, where they want to live, which took them years to get back because of being moved off country because of stations, the pastoral leases and the stolen generation, which has had an intergenerational effect," Torres said. "In the last 50 years people have fought to go back to their country and get established. Then we get told we don't want that experiment anymore. It's like pulling people off country and putting them into the missions."

Ghillar Michael Anderson, leader of the Euahlayi people and ambassador of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, wrote an open letter to the United Nations on March 3, in which he states that the proposed closures of remote communities are to open up the land for mining.

"For the Western Australian government to now dispossess and displace the peoples of these homelands is designed to facilitate an expeditious expansion of mining interests and other developments," he wrote.

Anderson points out that the proposed closures are a continuation of others in the past. The Swan Valley Nyoongar community in Lockridge, Perth was closed in 2003 and Oombulgurri in the Kimberley in 2011. Both were bulldozed last year.

Organiser Marianne MacKaysaid the camp is designed, "to show the world that we feel like refugees in our country."

The announcement of the closures coincides with the introduction of the Aboriginal Heritage Amendment Bill by the Barnett government last November. The bill, which is about to be debated in state parliament, proposes changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972. These simplify the process of gaining permission to develop Aboriginal sites, as the chief executive of the DAA will have sole discretion over whether to deem heritage protection. This would continue a DAA trend over recent years of site assessment which is beneficial to industry.

Marianne MacKay is an organiser of the refugee camp at Matagarup, which is part of the Nyoongar Tent Embassy. The Yoorgabilya woman from the Nyoongar nation said the camp is designed, "to show the world that we feel like refugees in our country." And she questions whether the government has any plans to resettle the people who will be forced off their land.

"Our people are being pushed off communities and having water, electricity and essential services cut off, so they'll move and then when they do they're considered to be abandoning their lands and mining leases go up and exploration leases," MacKay explained. "Services are still going to be needed, just somewhere else. So it's not like they're going to be making extra money. They're going to be kicking people off their homelands to steal that land for big business and mining."

Last week, the camp was issued with an ultimatum by the City of Perth to dismantle all permanent structures at the site by 12 pm on March 13. When this was not adhered to around 50 police moved in with horses and dogs. They began dismantling the embassy, seizing mattresses, chairs and a marquee, which they loaded into trucks. MacKay downplayed the police confiscations, stating they'd already packed most of the camp away, so it couldn't be taken.

"We stood in a circle because our mission was to protect the sacred fire. They weren't putting it out and we didn't let them," MacKay said, as the Matagarup camp defiantly continues.

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