The recent ructions over the closure of remote communities in Western Australia left me yearning for the counsel of the late development economist Helen Hughes. The professor and development economist was a great friend of the remote communities of this country. As a fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, she dedicated the last part of her life to helping the most vulnerable Australians forge a way out of poverty and social misery.
Premier Colin Barnett strikes me as a similar kind of character to Hughes. A strong amalgam of liberal and conservative predilections, and an apparently hard-nosed exterior belying an underlying decency. Hughes was always fearless in her intellectual guidance to my own thinking, while harbouring a great sympathy for our mob.
Barnett has now made clear his government’s intentions, to undertake a process of consultation with remote communities and their leaders and to create a road map that uncompromisingly puts the safety and wellbeing of children and families at the forefront. This will mean rationalisation of service arrangements and closure of unviable locations.
It will also mean the West Australian government’s responsibility for good education and health services, child protection and family support, transport and infrastructure is available in these communities. It will mean access to jobs will need to be maximised in order for these communities to be truly viable.
I shared the anxiety of indigenous leaders when the possibility of wide-scale closures of communities was raised. The fear was community closure was the only option. Apart from being a great injustice, wide-scale closure would just relocate remote problems into the fringes of urban centres.
It is very good that Barnett has announced the roadmap forward. Many indigenous leaders in Western Australia share Barnett’s conviction that reform is imperative for these communities.
Leaders such as June Oscar at Fitzroy Crossing, who has led the campaign for alcohol restrictions and attention to fetal alcohol syndrome, have come to national prominence because of their courageous advocacy.
Ian Trust of Kununurra has been at the forefront of developing a reform agenda for his people in the East Kimberley.
The head of the Kimberley Land Council, Nolan Hunter, as well as being at the forefront of economic development in the region for the benefit of indigenous communities, has also been defending them against closure.
Barnett can work with these leaders to forge a new partnership for the future.
Ten years ago Helen Hughes worked with me at the Cape York Institute assessing the social and economic viability of remote communities. She joined our research team with economists from Queensland and the commonwealth Treasury departments. We looked at the communities of - Aurukun, Coen, Hope Vale and Mossman Gorge in Cape York Peninsula. The framework that was developed did not just look at the question of economic viability but also asked whether these communities were socially viable.
Viability cannot just be an economic measure. There must be consideration of social and cultural viability. The framework developed by this team is not just applicable to indigenous communities but any remote location dependent on government support.
The results of this study showed none of the four communities, each located in quite different circumstances, met our viability benchmark. We then asked: what needs to happen in order for these communities to become viable?
The answer was education for children born in these communities. Without solving the poor levels of educational achievement in these communities, their viability could not be assured. The conclusion was obvious but nevertheless still salutary. Another conclusion was these communities needed to encourage their young people to become mobile in pursuit of jobs. In no scenario was viability possible without a significant number of people pursuing jobs in the local district, the local region and in other further-flung places.
A paradox coming out of this work was that the viability of these communities demanded a significant proportion of its members to become mobile in pursuit of careers and job opportunities away from home. The project underscored the experience of families from the Torres Strait, who have shown over the past five decades a propensity to leave the islands in search of mainland jobs while returning asset-rich and with the skills and wherewithal to contribute to the sustainability of their home islands. I have heeded these lessons from so many successful Torres Strait Islanders.
Indigenous leaders from the Kimberley, led by Nolan Hunter and Ian Trust, have worked with me on a framework for ensuring the future viability of our communities. Our Empowered Communities policy, now submitted to the Abbott government, provides a blueprint for how governments should partner a reform program that is respectful to indigenous connection to country while at the same time being hard-headed about what is required to make these communities economically and socially viable.
The West Australian government’s announcement this week really provides the circuit-breaker to this important debate.
The road map that has been announced is full of great promise for both the indigenous community of that state and a government that has confirmed that its intentions in respect of these communities are decent and well-motivated.
All Australians of good will should wish the Premier and the indigenous leaders of these communities all succour to finally get this policy right.