The decline of remote Aboriginal communities could leave vast tracks of Australia unpopulated and a security threat, one of Australia’s leading authorities on remote communities has said.
Professor Jon Altman, of Deakin University in Melbourne, said while Australia’s Indigenous population was growing overall, some remote communities were shrinking—and the results could be disastrous for the nation.
Professor Altman is among more than 200 prominent Australians and NT Indigenous leaders who have called on the Federal and Northern Territory governments to abandon Indigenous intervention in the Top End. He said in a decade it had devastated the communities it purports to help.
Aboriginal elder Dr D. Gondarra, whose full name can’t currently be used for cultural reasons, said NT Aboriginal leaders wanted an apology from five former Prime Ministers dating back to John Howard.
But a spokesman for Federal Indigenous Affairs minister Nigel Scullion said they did not know of any remote communities in the NT in danger of closing because of a declining population. They also did not have plans to dismantle measures put in place to protect children in the NT.
Professor Altman said the 2016 Census showed Australia was failing to close gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia and, in some cases, they were widening.
“One of the things the 2016 Census shows us is that some of these remote communities are actually losing population,” Professor Altman said.
“So, while the Aboriginal population nationally is growing rapidly, some of these remote places are losing population and what that’s going to result in is possible further decline in these places to the point—and one would hope this is not the government strategy—but one could see these places eliminated and the elimination of remote Indigenous communities in remote Australia would result in large swathes of the Australian continent being emptied of people.
“That’s not a result we want.”
Professor Altman said big tracts of unpopulated land could present risks for Australia.
“I think it is a potential strategic security threat,” he said.
“It’s a biodiversity threat. You could see disease coming from feral animals and issues like that, but also the whole management of these remote lands is being undertaken by Indigenous people living in these remote communities.
“They are providing a national service and they should be recognised and properly rewarded for the work they do. These are communities that are of strategic, economic and environmental value to the nation and we should support them and not demean them.”
Professor Altman said the Australian and NT government neglected remote communities, which were important centres for Indigenous language and culture.
He said a decade of federal government intervention in NT Aboriginal communities had resulted in the most entrenched poverty in the nation.
The intervention, or Northern Territory National Emergency Response, was a package of changes—affecting everything from welfare to law enforcement and land tenure—introduced by John Howard’s government.
It was aimed at addressing what it described as a national emergency confronting the welfare of Aboriginal children and family violence.
Mr Howard was not available to comment on Altman’s claims at the time of nit.com.au going to press.
But Professor Altman said the current government needed to stop measures that were failing communities such as the remote employment and community and development service, the Community Development Program, which is currently the subject of a Senate inquiry.
Professor Altman said the program was modern slavery.
“The community development program is basically impoverishing people in remote Indigenous communities, but especially in the NT because there are 15,000 people on that program there,” he said.
“We’ve got census data showing that people are getting less weekly income and we’ve got government figures that show since the program started a few years ago there have been 300,000 no pay fines levied on jobless people….
“Similarly, the BasicsCard program which is very costly, for which there is no evidence of success, needs to stop and there needs to be a fundamental re-negotiation with communities on communities taking control again.”
More than 200 prominent Australians have called on the federal government to heed the pleas of Indigenous elders and end discriminatory policies of the 2007 NT Intervention and the legislation that followed.
They include former President of the Australian Human Rights Commission Professor Gillian Triggs, former jurists Elizabeth Evatt, Alastair Nicholson, Frank Vincent, Robyn Layton and Paul Guest and top barristers, lawyers and law professors, including Julian Burnside and Greg McIntyre.
Dr Gondarra, a spokesperson for the Yolgnu Nations Assembly, said they wanted an apology from Mr Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.
They also wanted talks with the current federal government to find a better way.
He said if the government was not prepared to listen then they would take the issues to the United Nations.
Dr Gondarra said there were more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in jail, health issues continued to afflict communities, children were still being taken from their homes in a new Stolen Generation and children were being mistreated in detention centres.
He said many families did not have houses and bilingual education had been denied.
“Now we are calling on Malcolm Turnbull to fix the damage,” Dr Gondarra said. “The point is not to go around and talk to the individual people or at a forum like Garma, it’s not a political arena—go and talk with the leaders.
“These are the people who the Prime Minister or leader of Opposition need to talk and establish what I call diplomatic dialogue.
“What the leaders are now saying, if there is a further 10 years or five years then we are prepared to take this government and their ways of behaviour towards our people to the highest international court.”
A spokesperson for Indigenous Affairs minister Nigel Scullion said the NT Emergency Response was decisive action on the part of the Howard government to the findings of the NT government’s Little Children are Sacred Report.
He said the actions taken in 2007, and continued when Labor won office that same year, were motivated by the need to provide safety and wellbeing for Australian children.
The legislation provided significant funding to improve health, education, restriction of alcohol and increase policing in remote communities to help address safety concerns, he said.
More than $580 million was delivered through different measures and $1.7 billion invested in housing in the NT.
“We are committed to working with Indigenous Australians and our approach is delivering better partnerships and engagement across Australia,” he said. “The Commonwealth has no plans to dismantle the successful policies we are currently implementing and which are delivering strong outcomes.”
The spokesperson said the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population in the NT had not declined in recent years and they were not aware of any remote Indigenous communities at risk of closing because of a declining population.
The government had made an unprecedented investment in Australia’s biosecurity, particularly in the north. In the four years to June 2019, $12.4 million had been committed to Indigenous ranger groups, he said.