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The South Australian and Federal Governments are Playing Chicken Over Indigenous Community Closures

Up to 60 communities are at risk of having their water and power cut off due to a stalemate between state and federal government.
April 6, 2015, 10:03pm

Image via Flickr user newtown_grafitti

Much of the recent focus around the closure of remote Indigenous communities has been on Western Australia, but many areas in South Australia are also under threat. Up to 60 communities are at risk of having their water and power cut off due to federal funding cuts, while the state government has so far rejected taking over the services.

Last year the Western Australian government announced it may not be able to provide essential services to about 150 remote Indigenous communities, despite accepting a $90 million one-off payment from the Commonwealth. The federal government will stop providing funding in July, and has made similar deals with Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania. But South Australia has refused an offer of $10 million, saying the amount isn't nearly enough. The government previously provided $96 million for municipal and essential services in the state's regional and remote Aboriginal communities, but will cease to do so from July this year.

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Experts and community leaders are concerned that the government is gambling with their future, and has no plan B should the funding cuts go ahead. In a statement sent to VICE, a spokesperson for the South Australian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation Kyam Maher said he was working with his federal counterpart to find a solution for the issue. "Minister Maher has had positive discussions about this issue with Minister Scullion," he said. "Both the South Australian and federal governments are aware of the need to resolve this matter as quickly as possible."

Crisis meetings were held last weekend in Port Augusta, with Aboriginal elders coming together to discuss the possibility of the communities shutting down, and ways to prevent this happening. It's estimated over 4,000 Aboriginal Australians live in the 60 communities under threat, mainly in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands along the border of South Australia, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia.

Dean of Indigenous Scholarship, Engagement and Research at the University of South Australia Peter Buckskin told VICE the communities in question haven't been properly consulted, and are still unsure if they'll lose power and water with the funding cuts. "The trouble is that no-one has seen the criteria for a remote community," he said. "What is their definition of a viable community? Is it a community of 20 or a community of 100?"

Buckskin said the communities likely to be affected are inhabited by families that have moved away from larger towns and back to culturally significant lands decades ago. The closure of these communities would move Aboriginal people away from these sacred and historical lands where they have lived for generations. "My big concern is that it will destroy the ongoing connection of the custodians and the lands they've lived on for generations," Buckskin said.

This would also place enormous strain on larger neighbouring towns like Coober Pedy and Port Augusta, with people migrating there, Buckskin said. "There'll be pressure on the health services, on the police services, and on the school system," he continued. "It's not just closing the communities, it's how the state government is going to be able to support the councils if they have a huge influx of Aboriginal people."

Buckskin added that whatever happens come July, it's important that the government consults those that will be affected now. "It's about sitting down with people rather than flying in and flying out, and working alongside people to create a solution."

Follow Denham on Twitter: @denhamsadler