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Reconciliation: fact or fiction?

Clinton Wolf -

The Kimberley region of Western Australia is often referred to as a pristine wilderness untouched by human hands. This is factually incorrect, because for at least sixty thousand years Traditional Owners shaped, controlled and had responsibility for vast tracts of land and waters to provide for themselves, their families and their tribes.

This is also exactly what happened in all other parts of Australia, which was conquered by the Bible and the gun with the implicit approval and participation by servants of the British Crown and parliament.

The Kimberley's fertile soils and plentiful rainfall make it ideal cattle country and it wasn't long before colonists came to the Kimberley's to establish massive cattle stations on land that was forcibly torn from Traditional Owners with brutal lethal force.

Any resistance by Traditional Owners was ruthlessly suppressed. They were arrested, chained and many were sent to Rottnest Island, where significant numbers still remain today in unmarked graves.

The pastoral station owners quickly realised that not only did they have superb country for cattle. They also had an amazing workforce by claiming ownership and complete control of the tribes and using them as slave labour to run, grow and manage their enterprises.

In the Kimberley, right up until the 1970s Traditional Owners lived in servitude on various pastoral stations and effectively were slaves for pastoralists working for rations, clothing, blankets and tobacco. All while being powerless to stop their children being forcibly taken away by government agencies for reeducation, leaving families shattered for generations to come.

When the government eventually agreed that Indigenous stockmen should be paid the same as non-Indigenous stockmen, the Indigenous stockmen and their families were forcibly removed from their country by the pastoral station owners and many were relocated to Fitzroy Crossing. With no job, no hope and no future, a proud but exploited people no longer slaves had instead become exiles from their Traditional Country and homeless to boot.

Over the years these same dispossessed people and their descendants have fought for their rights, winning and losing battles on a path towards self-determination and wanting to be treated with respect and equality by having access to services and infrastructure that many other Australians take for granted.

In the main however this has not occurred. When there are 20 to 30 people living in a 50 year old three-bedroom one-bathroom house because there is no other accommodation available it is inevitable that negative outcomes far outweigh the positive outcomes. This is especially so when you overlay these types of issues with grinding poverty.

The consequences are that a lot of people are in very poor health, the levels of incarceration, particularly among young males, is through the roof, and it turns into inter generational trauma that will never be fixed if the resources required to fix these problems is not prioritised.

What has all this got to do with reconciliation, you might ask.

In January 2023 a once in a century flood decimated Fitzroy Crossing and surrounding communities leaving thousands of people homeless, their homes and hopes were literally washed away. This has resulted in people living in houses that are even more overcrowded because their own houses have been damaged beyond repair.

The federal and state governments now have a decision to make. Are they truly interested in real reconciliation? Because if they are they will, in a respectful and meaningful manner, talk to the people and tell them that 20 people living in a two-bedroom house in grinding poverty is simply unacceptable.

They will acknowledge that young children who have no safe place to sleep need somewhere safe to sleep. They will acknowledge that all children deserve to be fed, clothed and cherished.

They will acknowledge that in the main children as a direct consequence of being raised in an environment of grinding poverty end up being involved in the justice system, which regularly results in children being sent to Banksia Hill where they are terrorised by the system and permanently damaged.

They will acknowledge that in spite of the best efforts of the government workers and NGOs on the ground the problems are getting worse, not better.

If they acknowledge all of this and more and actually do something about it. Then that will be an indication that there really is hope for reconciliation.

Unfortunately in a government under Mark McGowan there is little to no chance of this happening. This Western Australian government is big on speeches and small on action. The riots at Banksia Hill are but a symptom of a cynical Premier and government who pays lip service and cares little about righting wrongs.

So is reconciliation real in Western Australia when it comes to the State Government? Unfortunately the facts say no.

Clinton Wolf is the Managing Director of National Indigenous Times

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