Looming Australian government cut backs mean hundreds of Aboriginal communities will be cut off from services or forced to close down, creating concern and anger among indigenous and non-indigenous people alike.
Meanwhile, the country's senate has called on Prime Minister Tony Abbott to apologize for describing Aboriginal Australians who live in remote communities as having made a "lifestyle choice."
Federal funding for water, electricity, sewage, and other services in indigenous communities across Western Australia will end on July 1, 2015. The state government will have to pick up the tab, but has already said it doesn't have the funds to support the residents in the long term.
Now, 274 communities are being assessed by the state to determine if they are "viable" and state officials have said that at least 150 will need to be permanently cut off, effectively forcing them to close down.
Then, on a visit to the West Australian Goldfields region last week, Abbott said that Australia could not "endlessly subsidize lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society."
The next day he stood by his remarks, and attempted to clarify them. "If you or I chose to live in a very remote place to what extent is the taxpayer obliged to subsidize our services and, I think, this is a very real question," the prime minister said in a Sydney radio interview.
On Tuesday, the senate passed a motion, without the need for a formal vote, stating that Abbott should apologize for his comments.
Brian Wyatt, chairman of the National Native Title Council, told VICE News that Abbott's position doesn't take into account why Aboriginal people in remote communities live there.
"The cultural DNA of our people is connected to their land, [so] forcing them off it, to assimilate, amounts to cultural genocide," he said.
Aboriginal Australians have been cited as having one of the longest continuous cultural histories on earth and have existed as a distinct cultural group for 50,000-65,000 years.
After European colonization from 1788, which decimated the aboriginal population and ended their traditional way of living, many remote indigenous people found themselves living on ranches where they worked for food and shelter.
"In 1968 a legal ruling meant that indigenous ranch workers had to receive a proper wage, [and] pastoralists couldn't afford to pay it, so people had to leave and go to the regional centers," Wyatt explained. "But by the 1970s, the ravages of substance abuse, alcohol, drugs, [and] petty crime made a lot of people want to go back home to the land".
Remote communities were established, sustained with welfare for work schemes and government assistance, and they have existed under indigenous leadership ever since.
On Wednesday, Abbott's own Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion contradicted the prime minister when he said in a radio interview with ABC: "We've all made mistakes like this in the past and we can't continue to make them."
Asked whether Abbott's comments made his job of consulting with indigenous communities more difficult, Scullion replied: "Of course it does."
It isn't only indigenous residents who are worried about the closures, however. Many small towns have indigenous satellite communities and the closures could flood them with displaced people.
"We don't want people moving into town, camping under trees," Patrick Hill, president of the Shire of Laverton in Western Australia, told VICE News. "It brings big problems, housing wise and health wise. We had a big influx of people from the desert in January for awhile and it caused huge problems in town; we had grog [alcohol] problems, as well as petrol sniffing, and all the other issues that come with that."
"Some of them [Aboriginal people] are no problem; we've got no problem with a lot of them. But then you'll get a group… there are kids who will do everything possible to get what they want," he said. "If that happens again, we want extra police."
Hill explained his shire council, responsible for a town of 300 people, was still in the dark about whether any of the three nearby Aboriginal communities would be cut off.
"The communities that do stay open are being handed over to local government, for us to provide municipal services," he said. "But we can't charge rates to the people there, because they're on Aboriginal land, and we have no idea if there's any funding to help us with it. If we knew what was going on, we'd at least be able to prepare ourselves."
Wyatt knows Laverton well, and explained: "You may look at these remote communities and the government says they're not viable but small towns like Laverton aren't equipped to deal with an influx of people moving in off the land.
"The towns don't have resources to improve people's situation. So maybe the communities aren't viable in a vacuum, but Laverton isn't a viable town if they're closed and all the people move in, so the remote communities are viable, in the broader context."
Aboriginal stakeholders have asked for politicians to meet them to discuss the closures, proposing a summit. Nolan Hunter, CEO of the Kimberley Land Council (KLC), told VICE News: "We want to see the decisions over which communities will be cut off being made against some kind of transparent criteria."
Hunter said he hoped the invitation from his and other councils would be accepted, "if nothing else out of pure courtesy to the communities, and the people whose lives are being turned over at the drop of a hat."
KLC says it has heard no responses from the government to their continued requests. West Australian Premier Colin Barnett has publicly refused the invitation to a summit, and responded to criticism by turning the tables on Aboriginal communities.
"We want to see Aboriginal people succeed, we want to see their children have a safe life and a fair chance at life through a good education," Barnett told News Corporation. "That cannot happen in remote tiny communities, it cannot."
Barnett went on to allege that his government's review into the viability of remote communities would find cases of child abuse. "I will probably get criticized, but there will be evidence [about] appalling mistreatment of little kids. I as Premier cannot sit by and let that happen."
Hunter, however, saw the allegation as a political ploy, rather than a credible allegation.
"This was initially supposed to be about a lack of a capacity to look after these communities," he said. "Now he's saying no, it's about protecting children — it's not what he said in first instance — you've got to wonder if he's now looking for a kind of rationale to justify it."
Nolan said he felt most disheartened by Abbott's comparison of aboriginal communities to the lifestyle choices of average Australians.
"It shouldn't just be Aboriginal people reacting to this," said Nolan. "His comments remove the status of a people. In this day and age, just when we think progress is being made on the recognition of different peoples, to hear a statement being made by the head of the Australian government that totally undermines and belittles and disenfranchises a whole lot of good work and intentions.
"We've seen in history what removing the status of a people has done," he concluded.
Follow Scott Mitchell on Twitter: @s_mitchell
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