Not a “lifestyle choice”: Christian groups say closure of Aboriginal communities is not the answer

Religious leaders from several denominations have issued statements urging the federal government to reconsider its decision to close 150 remote Aboriginal communities.

Speaking to ABC radio in Kalgoorlie last week Prime Minister Tony Abbott said, “What we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have. It is not the job of the taxpayer to subsidise lifestyle choices. It is the job of the taxpayer to provide reasonable services in a reasonable way.”

Chairman of the Catholic Bishops Commission for Relations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, Bishop Christopher Saunders asked, “Where is the lifestyle choice?”

“It is a basic human right to choose where you live but it seems that our government is giving people in Aboriginal communities the ‘choice’ to live in a community with only limited resources and services,” says Bishop Saunders.

“Communities are under-serviced and patently there is insufficient listening to the voices of people in Aboriginal communities.

“After 200 years of colonisation and dispossession, surely out of fairness we owe something to Australia’s First Nations in the way of respect and recompense. Like other Australians, they have the right to access basic municipal services.”

Chairman of the West Australian Branch of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress and member of the Whadjuck and Ballardong Nyungar people, Sealin Garlett said, “[This proposal is] devastating, not only to Aboriginal people, but also to the community as a whole.”

“There’s been a lot of work put into the journey of reconciliation and a lot of bridges that have been built, and for me this is just another slap in the face of the existence of the first people of this nation. It is them being undermined for their connection to their land.”

“The connection that Aboriginal people have to the land is much more than physical. This is a spiritual generation, a spiritual connection that goes back generation after generation,” said Garlett. 

“The real hurt is that very little communication has taken place with the first peoples of the land. If [the government] would have came [sic], and talked to the people, came and brought ideas and walked this through, this would have been a tremendous step in the right direction.”

For now, Garlett says, “A decision is pending. What this calls for now is communication, listening, identifying and being able to connect with the peoples of the land.”

The CEO of Anglicare South Australia Peter Sandeman said “The Commonwealth Government’s intention to withdraw the funding of municipal and essential services on remote and regional South Australian Aboriginal homelands represents a failure in its responsibility for the safety and future of Aboriginal Peoples from Outstations/Homelands.”

In South Australia this withdrawal of funding could mean the closure of up to 60 remote communities and the dispossession of up to 4,500 people.

Reverend Sandeman said, “We believe the intended withdrawal of funding appears to show a lack of understanding of what the forced community closures will mean to the people whose social, mental, spiritual and physical lives will be directly impacted by the decision.”

As a social service provider, AnglicareSA is also concerned about how forced migration to regional and urban areas will impact on the general provision of South Australian social services.

AnglicareSA has called on the federal government to “discuss their intended withdrawal of funding with the South Australian Government and seek alternative solutions that will enable Aboriginal communities to remain in their traditional areas and be sustained in the future.”

Featured image: Andy Mitchell, used on CC Licence from Flickr.