The Importance of Space and Place

The theme of NAIDOC Week this year is, ‘We all Stand on Sacred Ground: Learn, Respect and Celebrate’. As we commemorate this week, Professor Peter Radoll reflects on the meaning of space and place for Indigenous people and the real impact the proposed forced closures of remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia would have. 

temporary event, such as a fire, flood or cyclone, but when you consider permanently removing people who have lived on their ancestral lands for tens of thousands of years, it really needs some consideration.

Land and the connection to country mean a lot to Aboriginal people. Connection to country is important for language, family, culture, traditional songs and ceremony. Increasingly, research is demonstrating that there are positive health outcomes when Aboriginal people live on country. I recently travelled to a remote Indigenous community in NSW. While there I visited the Aboriginal Medical Centre and wasn’t surprised to hear that the health outcomes in this community were better for the Aboriginal children living a little out of town on the mission compared with their peers living in the township. Surely if health outcomes get worse the more urban the lifestyle, then there are good reasons to keep these remote communities open.

The ABC recently reported on the impact that larger regional towns will face if the government forces the closure of remote Indigenous communities. While there is a plan to close the communities, there doesn’t seem to be a relocation plan for those being forcibly moved from these communities, and the result is likely to be quite disastrous. The ABC report showed the increase in homelessness in Broome which was attributed to people leaving remote communities. Along with the increase in homelessness, other social issues have risen. This in turn has put considerable pressure on homelessness services and already struggling charities to come to the rescue.

Finally, there are two ironies that come to mind when I think about the forced closures. The first is the Native Title Act, which came into existence in 1992 when the High Court of Australia ruled that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people resided in Australia prior to colonisation. Both sides of parliament mostly agreed that there was a need for legislation to provide clarity as to what the judgement would mean for the rest of Australia. Part of the legislation is that for a Native Title claim to be successful, individuals and communities have to prove their continuing connection to the land that they are claiming. Now if communities are closed and people are then forcibly removed, how will that impact on any future Native Title claims?

I recently articulated this to a senior colleague who replied, “Surely they are not deliberately being that Machiavellian?” My reply was, “I hope not.” But this is exactly the point. At this moment only the economics of providing essential services are being considered, with the forced closures and everything else as side issues.

The second thing that comes to mind is the 2009 Apology to the Stolen Generations. If the WA Government forcibly removes families and communities from their country and their home for the sake of economics, then I wonder what that will mean for the future, especially in the context of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which Australia endorsed in 2009. It declares, in part, that "States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for any form of forced population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of their rights."

Do we really want to create a new Stolen Generation?

Do we really want to put pressure on charities to address the issues associated with the closures? Are remote Indigenous communities not valued enough to have essential services? The information that we do know doesn’t make a lot of sense. Additionally, there are so many unanswered questions.

Professor Peter Radoll is inaugural Dean of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education and Research, and Director Academic and Research at the Wollotuka Institute at the University of Newcastle. Peter is a descendant of the Anaiwan People of northern NSW. He is currently Chief Investigator and the ICT expert on the Australian Research Council funded National Indigenous Research and Knowledges Network. He is a leading academic in the area of diffusion of ICTs in Aboriginal communities. Among other awards, Professor Radoll was the ACT National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) Scholar of the Year in 2012.

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Peter Radoll

Professor Peter Radoll is inaugural Dean of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education and Research, and Director Academic and Research at the Wollotuka Institute at the University of Newcastle.

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