Despite deepening confusion over the rationale driving State Government plans to cut essential services to some remote communities, West Australian Premier Colin Barnett is digging in for a long fight.
Two leaked documents showing extensive research to classify and categorise unsustainable communities have contrasted sharply with government claims it still has no framework to decide which communities will close.
The Premier said the state could not afford to maintain unviable small communities, less than 24 hours after the Nationals leader told Parliament the issue was not about money, and the loss of $30 million in annual federal funding was “a pittance”.
And after using gonorrhoea statistics for Aboriginal children in the Kimberley to justify his claim that closing some communities was necessary for child safety, the Premier conceded he did not know if any of the 39 cases he cited were in remote communities.
The conflicting public statements and acrimonious political has done little to ease the uncertainty for people in remote communities, waiting for some indication of whether their community will end up on a hit list for closure.
“It could be seen as a bit confusing as to where the government’s priorities lie,” political analyst Peter Kennedy said.
“But I certainly got the impression that Mr Barnett has indicated that the status quo won’t be satisfactory, although he and the Government won’t be rushing into make changes.”
The Premier tried to make that point last week, as he was howled down addressing a 1,000-strong protest rally on the steps of Parliament.
Just hours later, he was shouted down inside Parliament as he used child sexually transmitted disease rates to justify closing some indigenous communities.
Reports identified communities to be closed
This week, the debate flared again as two leaked reports appeared to contradict emphatic statements from Aboriginal Affairs Minister Peter Collier that the Government could not consult with indigenous communities, because it did not yet have a framework for assessing viability.
The first report, prepared by a federal agency in 2010 and provided to the WA Department of Aboriginal Affairs in 2011, showed 192 remote communities had been categorised as unsustainable.
The second, from WA’s Department of Housing, showed that a detailed 15-element criteria had been developed in 2013, and had identified 128 communities as as receiving limited or no funding in the future.
The Government sought to stabilise the issue midweek, as Opposition Aboriginal Affairs spokesman Ben Wyatt moved a motion in the Legislative Assembly asking the Government to explain on what basis it was planning to cut funding to communities.
In a wide-ranging speech, Mr Wyatt told the Parliament severely criticised the use and credibility of the Premier’s comments on sexually transmitted infections in Aboriginal children.
Mr Wyatt said the Premier was using the doubtful figures to justify the closure of remote communities.
“Were all those cases in remotes?” Mr Wyatt asked.
According to an answer provided to him from the Legislative Council, it is impossible to tell.
Why would we hide statistics on sexually transmitted diseases to Aboriginal kids?
That’s not good government, that’s not an open communityWA Premier Colin Barnett
The response said: “There is difficulty distinguishing cases residing in remote communities versus townships in remote regions.”
Mr Wyatt seized on the response.
“That answer means, friends, that the Premier has no idea how many of those 39 cases of gonorrhoea reported in 2013 for the 10 to 14 year age group in the Kimberly came from remote communities,” he said.
During a media conference the following day, Mr Barnett was again questioned on the validity of using those statistics in the debate about remote communities funding and services.
“They are statistics relating to the Kimberley. There are other similar statistics elsewhere in the state,” he said.
“Were they in remote communities, were they in the outskirts – I don’t think that makes a great deal of difference,” he said.
Premier reiterates strong stance
He made no apology for using the issue of sexually transmitted disease in an already highly sensitive debate.
“Why would we hide statistics on sexually transmitted diseases to Aboriginal kids?
“I mean it’s a confronting thing to talk about. But we shouldn’t hide it. That’s not good government that’s not an open community,” he said.
During the Parliamentary debate, Mr Wyatt said the Premier’s statements had so damaged his credibility with indigenous people, that the success of any change the Government may initiate was in serious doubt.
Nationals leader Terry Redman said he intended to engage with Aboriginal leaders to improve outcomes for indigenous people, but warned the current debate would hinder progress.
“I think there is a risk that a level of public commentary, misinformation and misunderstanding could lead to the issue being hijacked,” he said.
He appeared to distance himself from the Premier’s statements.
“The Premier will be accountable for his commentary, and I will be accountable for mine,” Mr Redman said.
Speaking to reporters the following day, the Premier showed no signs of stepping back from his hardline stance.
“For too long, for too long politicians of either political persuasion have just said the nice things. And they have not dealt with it,” he said.
“And here we are, 30, 40 years on since these debates started in the 1960s and the condition of Aboriginal people has little improved,” he said.
“So I don’t apologise for that.”