Western Australia is the nation’s backwater. It is the mother of injustice and inequality in all its draconian forms. Along with the Northern Territory, this area of Australia leaves the have-nots so far behind, that for many their lot appears irreparable.

If there is a Mason-Dixon line in Australia, it runs along the borders of the Northern Territory and Western Australia, separating the State and Territory from the rest of the nation.

Western Australia has a recent history of calls for secession. If this had occurred, it would have been akin to the 13 Confederate States of America that sought to preserve racism and exploitation.

The more west we trek across this continent, the more catastrophic the scale of tragedies.

The more west we go, the higher the suicide rates, the higher the suicidality, the higher the homelessness.

The more poverty, the more acute and crushing the poverty, and a lesser likelihood of the have-nots ever becoming haves.

And of course, these rates are disproportionately higher for First Nations peoples — but also for migrants born from non-English speaking and culturally diverse backgrounds.

During the strict stretch of lockdowns nationally due to the war on COVID-19, WA lagged far behind the rest of the nation in responding to its homeless.

While New South Wales and Victoria were accommodating their homeless into hotels (thousands of street-present homeless were accommodated), the rednecks of Western Australia spruiked their social justice credentials with a reprehensible effort to accommodate a mere 20 homeless individuals in a 30-day “trial”.

While thousands of homeless people continued to be accommodated in hotels for months across the rest of the nation, the State Government came back with a clanger at the end of the 30 days — stating the trial had failed. The program was disbanded. There has been no word since.

The number of street-present homeless continues to mount, not only in Perth but across the State. The number of deaths of the homeless on Perth’s streets now exceeds 40 for this year.

This means approximately five per cent of all Perth’s street-homeless died in 2020. Their average age at death was in the 40s. Depleted half-lives. Harrowed living.

The divide between Australia’s haves and have-nots is stark.

According to the Global Wealth Report 2018, the median wealth of adult Australians was $264,903. The median wealth of the world’s adults was $5,820.

Despite COVID-19, lockdowns and the border shutdown, Western Australia still delivered a budget surplus. The divide between Western Australian haves and have-nots is one of affluence alongside grinding poverty.

Per capita gross state product (GSP) measures the resources available to a State relative to its population. By this measure, Western Australia is the wealthiest jurisdiction in the nation.

To understand Western Australia’s wealth, we must also understand that Australia is one of the world’s wealthiest nations — it has the 13th largest economy and is among the highest median wages in the world. It was ranked number one in the world in 2018 for highest median adult wealth.

Yet in Western Australia, there are currently 14,890 applications for public housing rentals, with 2,097 priority listed. The waiting list represents more than 40,000 people and the majority are children. Nearly half are First Nations.

In March 2017, the Labor Party swept in to govern in a landslide promising much. During this time, public housing declined by nearly 1,200 from 44,087 to 42,932 homes. The State’s adult median wealth was in excess of $300,000.

Finland had an adult median wealth of $45,606 but managed in almost doing away with street-homelessness in Helsinki. In the last decade, Finland has reduced homelessness by 40 per cent.

The richest state in Australia can afford to spend $9 billion to build 15,000 social housing rental homes for those waiting, of who I remind the majority are just children.

To inroad into unmet need, Victoria will spend $5.3 billion to build between 9,000 and 12,000 public houses.

By the time these Victorian houses are complete at the end of the decade — unless there is a spike — 15 to 20 per cent of their waiting list will have been reduced.

They too should spend as much as is needed to house everyone as soon as possible and not penny-pinch and deny people a roof over their heads.

But why does Western Australia lag so far behind the rest of the nation in terms of the right thing to do by people? The State’s vulnerable should not be hostage to street-present homelessness.

 

The Alabama of Australia

I once described Western Australia as this nation’s Alabama. Despite making that statement more than three decades ago, sadly it still rings true.

After the unjust death of Yindjibarndi youth John Pat in 1983, Roebourne became to Western Australia what Birmingham was to Alabama two decades earlier.

On 28 September 1983, in the Pilbara town of Roebourne, 16-year-old Yindjibarndi youth John Pat was bashed to death by an off-duty police officer.

According to witnesses, when John Pat stepped in to pull out his friend Ashley James from a brawl between four police officers and an Aboriginal police aide, the off-duty police officer beat him to death. In 1986, an all-white jury acquitted all five police.

The highest number of Australia’s unnatural police and prison custodial deaths have been in Western Australia. Of police watch house deaths in Western Australia, 100 per cent have been of First Nations people. That is racism on a plate.

I defend my argument of a Mason-Dixon line in describing Western Australia and the Northern Territory as akin to America’s Confederate states, where human beings were reduced to oppressors and the oppressed, to the lowest common denominator, to intergenerational criminality.

Western Australia, a wealthy jurisdiction in one of the world’s wealthiest nations — despite being in billions of dollars of surplus year after year — also suffers from the bastardry of those refusing to repay or compensate victims of the Stolen Wages.

The story of the Stolen Wages is well known and established. From the 1920s to the 1970s, effectively indentured First Nations people were turned into slaves, in many cases on wages less than a quarter of what their white counterparts earned.

Tens of thousands of First Nations workers had the majority of their wages withheld by State Governments thanks to these past racist policies.

One Western Australian Government after another perpetrates intergenerational criminality, denying to compensate the claimants whether it be those in their fading light or their children.

Sadly, it may take the class action that has been launched against the Western Australian Government for the State to either come to right-mindedness or be dragged kicking and screaming to finally do the right thing and pay compensation for decades of unpaid labour.

The journey for slivers of social justice is arduous.

I think of Western Australia, of its past and current cruelties to others, of its brutal public spectacles in refusing redress and repair, as akin to the ruthlessness of the US cotton fields of Georgia and Mississippi.

Let us remember that up until the 1970s in Western Australia, First Nations’ lives were effectively controlled with permissions required for all sorts of matters.

The original sin of racism is not yet over and its flame burns brightly in the west, where the sun sets. The more we know about Western Australia, the less we respect.

But the more we know, the more we can pursue change.

Western Australia’s social housing quotient is the lowest in the nation. Only three per cent of all Western Australian households are social housing. We cannot sit idly by and allow Western Australia to leper the homeless, to incarcerate people at the nation’s highest rate and to carry on as the mother of all jailers of First Nations peoples.

Not just in this nation but anywhere in the world, it is unacceptable to leave behind so many sisters and brothers, the majority of whom are children, and deny them the light and the hope that should shine in all of us.

Western Australia’s horrid cycle of intergenerational injustice must end.

By Gerry Georgatos

 

Gerry Georgatos, the son of CALD migrants, is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus. He has a Masters in Human Rights Education and a Masters in Social Justice Advocacy & Civil Rights Arbitration.