50,000 years of resort living?

I was having a bad day yesterday, and took some time out for lunch. Not a habit unfortunately. I’m an eat-at-my-desk person, but I needed space and to get off my backside.

While I was out, I browsed a shop with dumbly expensive and appealing stuff, and came out with a bottle of hand soap I really could not afford (hand soap-I mean…)to put by my kitchen sink. I use the sink as my main washing up spot, so the soap just replaced the old bottle, now nearly empty.

I forgot about it until late yesterday evening after work, and I came in from trimming three horses. The scent of this soap under the running water was the smell of my grandmother’s home.

It astounded me. I washed my hands again to catch that scent. She is long passed away, her home, off the west side of Chicago in Berwyn is thousands of miles away and sold at least twice over at least since she lived there.

But I was back in that incredibly comforting moment in time where the scent elicited memories of security and happiness.

I have written before in my essay Racism and me, that I found it difficult to connect to any culture as a white American, long removed from my own Irish roots, but perhaps an essence that triggers an emotion is a fraction of connection.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have much more than a fraction when it comes to a connection to country. I have not met folks who are living in remote or isolated communities, but I have met many Aboriginal people in my own community in northern New South Wales, and to a person, they have alluded to or spoken outright about the deep veins that run from the earth and environment to their own lives and the import of that connection.

I understand this as an American in Australia. I, as a white, middle-aged woman with a crippled sense of culture can get the fact that after so many thousands of years in one place, why would you not find your identity in the land where your predecessors have seen nearly two million sunsets?

It seems that the Prime Minster does not share my gotcha moment.

On Tuesday, PM Tony Abbott once again shown he is both incapable of speaking off script, or exposed himself as a thoroughly ignorant man.

Or maybe he fell asleep in his history class.

Any of these concepts are unacceptable.

Mr Abbott spoke yesterday in support of the Western Australian government’s decision to close down about 100-150 remote communities that about 500 Aboriginal people call home. He said those who live there have made a lifestyle choice.

Most of these communities are more remote than any American can really understand, but their desire to live in that place, I think most people can understand when you consider the alternative.

Aboriginal activists demonstrate on Heirisson Island against planned closures of North West Aboriginal communities. Picture: Bill Hatto / The West Australian
Aboriginal activists demonstrate on Heirisson Island against planned closures of North West Aboriginal communities. Picture: Bill Hatto / The West Australian

These are residents who choose to be in the bush rather than the perils of the overcrowded townships with compromised opportunities and living standards, safety being one of those ideals.

As free people in a democratic society, if Australians have the wherewithal to move to where they wish, they do. Be it a remote rural town, a hamlet of only a few, or a sprawling urban landscape, we make choices. It is always a lifestyle choice.

We choose to accept a job, or sometimes that job dictates our lifestyle choice. We choose a school for our children, a climate we prefer. An apron of lawn, condo with a balcony, a houseboat, a caravan,or a spread of a few thousand acres.

Governments even encourage us to move back to the bush to save these towns and communities that are dwindling due to lack of employment or opportunity.

The New South Wales government even has incentive packages from $7000-$10,000 to entice metro residents to make a tree change to a regional or remote area. I know. I’ve written about them.

To do all of this, these regional and remote communities must be considered when demands for child care, schools, health services, aged care facilities, job agencies, training providers, emergency services, social services, all of these things must face development or the prospect of repopulating the country will fail.

All of this is our right, but consider the rights of those whose land was swept from under their feet and they were relegated to pockets of population. In more populated Aboriginal communities, the incidents of violence, drug and alcohol abuse, overcrowding, lack of housing, mental and physical health care, and inequity in education, are well documented.

The WA Department of Indigenous Affairs reports there are about 507 people spread within 115 of the remote communities to be closed.

It just seems that 507 people is not so much. I understand the lengths that people will have to go to provide services, but surely in that wealthy, heavily mined state, mines that were once the land of Aboriginal people, just for an example, perhaps some some might be funded to ensure the sustainability of these remote places.

Maybe as states must in good conscience improve services in regional Australia to dangle that carrot of a tree-change to city-folk, so they could review the conditions in these remote communities and improve them so that they might grow and thrive.

Tony Abbott at the moment thinks otherwise. On ABC radio in Kalgoorlie yesterday, the fated words were spoken:

“It is not unreasonable for a state government to say, if the cost of providing services in a particular remote location is out of all proportion to the benefits being delivered, then fine, by all means live in a remote location,” Mr Abbott said.

“But there’s a limit to what you can expect the state to do for you if you want to live there.

“What we can’t do is endlessly subsidize lifestyle choices if those life style choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have.”

Yes, that lifestyle change. The lovely resort-style living that folks who came over here about 50,000 years back choose to preserve including country, language and culture where they can. Some do not, some are desperate, but there are enough that do.

Abbott’s Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion does not share his party leader’s views. Instead, he took umbrage with a dereliction of duty to these first Australians as reported in The Guardian:

“There is no doubt that improvements to services are needed in many of these communities. But, given their importance to the health, wellbeing and continuing culture of Aboriginal people, government should invest in these communities, rather than withdraw existing services.”

Education Minister Christopher Pyne fell in with his captain’s remarks and said, “What the PM is saying is that there comes a point where the taxpayer has to say, how much money can be spent in this community when there is no economic future in this particular community.”

I don’t know, but this just rings a little like the stolen generation. ‘You must fit our mold’ without considering the value in what is preserved if an investment, a thoughtful investment, is made. Without giving credence and respect to the concept that we are not all built the same and we reflect differing needs.

Up until now, the concept of thoughtful application of funding seems not to apply.

Apparently there has been a legacy commonwealth funding to these remote communities, mostly divvied out doubtless over a walnut boardroom table in Canberra, then parceled out to a federal employee who fed the news on down the chain until the money hit the people in question. People who are admittedly in need but as they are still in need, it calls into question the innovation in the government’s problem solving. Labor and Liberals.

Like the health services and education, the current government is disowning responsibility and passing the buck to the states who are already hard-pressed to cover costs.

The WA Premier Colin Barnett said as much last November to the ABC.

“It’s a very complex and difficult situation for the government to handle but we have no option to handle it because the commonwealth has vacated the territory.”

Joe Morrison, CEO of the Northern Lands Council was objective about the future of these remote settlements in his interview with Michael Brissenden on the ABC AM program. He reiterated what so many people are saying about the need to preserve culture, respect the value of the land for the people upon it, and consider the hefty cost of moving people off their homes into towns.

“Well, I guess there needs to be a cost-benefit analysis as to do you provide those services or do you provide the fix-up services in some of the larger communities that lead to some of the outfalls and outcomes of overcrowding in dysfunctional, slum-like conditions in some of the larger communities.

It addresses the idea that Mr Pyne raises about financial engagement. If living in a healthy community is not financially valuable, I don’t know that is.

Tamara Dean - Remote Aboriginal Communities. Bidyadanga Community, Western Australia. March 2004 Residents of the tiny remote Bidyadanga Aboriginal Community fish for salmon with a drag net in the incoming tide of an estuary on the coast 3kms from their township.
Remote Aboriginal Communities. Bidyadanga Community, Western Australia. March 2004 Residents of the tiny remote Bidyadanga Aboriginal Community fish for salmon with a drag net in the incoming tide of an estuary on the coast 3kms from their township. Photo by Tamara Dean.

Lastly, this comment from a reader was made in response to a very excellent and thorough editorial about this issue by Mr Morrison, following an article in today’s edition of The Sydney Morning Herald.

“But taking govt handouts are…. so if u want to live there fine, just expect tax payers to fund it?” -fairgo

My response.

As tax payers, we are all funding each other. I am a tax payer.

I am funding the man who needs medical care in Adelaide. He is funding a child to have breakfast in the Darwin. Her mother is funding a drug and alcohol program in Hobart. The employees are funding me to get my blood work done to see if I am ill.

There are no guidelines about where we can live to access these funds. Where I live, I need to travel 45 miles ways to get to a larger hospital but it is only a district facility, so they are limited in their offerings and staffing. Some people I know must make a 5 hour trip on a regular basis to seek medical care.

If I had children, I could opt to send them to the very small school which had only five kindergarten students this year, for example. Or I could have them bussed or drive them to a close school, 45 miles away.

I have chosen to live here. I contribute. I wish I had more, but accept that it is what it is. I also have no deep cultural ties to this country. I also have the benefit of an excellent education, relative freedom from prejudice, a roof over my head that would house an entire family, a car, a job, and a good life. I am grateful.

Maybe it is pathetic I can find a tie to my history in a handful of warm soap. For others who deserve to have their needs paid so they can live in peace and well on country as have generations of their ancestors before them, in my book, it’s a good investment.

-The featured image is from the Punmu Community of Western Australia website. Punmu is a larger community of about 180 people.

1 Comment

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Judith Koubekreply
March 12, 2015 at 12:45 am

Your article is well done. I once lived on a remote Bahamian island where most of the native people had never been off the island. It was a fascinating experience, although a bit lonely for me – a city girl. But I would never want these ” Brilanders” to have to give up their style of living to fit in with the majority.
PS. The smell that sends me back to my secure childhood is my Mom’s hand lotion.

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