In the Media – National Indigenous Times

Wealthy Western Australia – from the Secret Country to Forgotten Peoples

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Category: Opinion
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Western Australia has the nation’s highest median income. Per capita it is the richest State in the Commonwealth of Australia yet it has the highest homelessness rate in the nation.

Its poorest people, most of them Aboriginal, have not benefited from the mining boom. More and more West Australians are stepping up and speaking out about the stark contrast between those benefiting from mining and those the mining boom has left behind.

Critics are saying chronically impoverished Aboriginal peoples are missing out on a once in a lifetime opportunity to rise out of poverty.

Even resource companies are slamming each other claiming some give more than others and there are no cross-industry standards. Some resource companies are slamming the State and Federal Governments also for not doing enough to wipe out an abject poverty that should not belong in a first world nation.

These are little steps – talking is one thing and action is another matter. So far it has only been a handful of researchers and rights advocates who have been pointing out the bleeding obvious.

Pilbara Meta Maya Regional Aboriginal Corporation Chief Executive Officer, Rachael Denney said remote Aboriginal communities were not benefitting from the mining boom.

She said the mining boom had generated some very damaging, negative effects. For example, she argued rents are so outrageously disproportionately high they have become a crippling stressor in terms of budgets.

The high rents are wiping out support agencies, effectively shutting them down. Agencies that do struggle on with high rents have made staff redundant and are inadvertently short changing the people who depend on them.

According to the Chamber of Minerals and Energy Aboriginal peoples make up nine per cent of mining jobs and apprenticeships. But various organisations in the Pilbara including The Salvation Army, The Smith Family and Mission Australia are describing third world conditions.

The descriptions of third world conditions are not limited to remote and semi-remote communities but are also at communities within major towns like Port Hedland, Roebourne and Onslow. The descriptions of third world conditions are nothing new. The late Dr Archie Kalokerinos spent his working life in the remote with Aboriginal peoples and during the seventies described their living conditions as third world.

Dr Kalokerinos dedicated himself to reducing the prevalence of glaucoma among Aboriginal peoples. He banged his head against brick walls trying to get the Commonwealth of Australia to address the impoverishment of Aboriginal communities almost to the point that he was effectively ostracised.

In recent years the Secretary-General of Amnesty International, Shalil Shetty visited Australia and in particular the Northern Territory where he travelled to Utopia, north of Alice Springs.

He described the conditions in Utopia as third world. The UN’s Human Rights Commissioner, Navi Pillay has described the Commonwealth’s ongoing neglect of Aboriginal peoples as racism.

Ongoing third world living conditions in Australian communities were manifested from generations of apartheid, racism and hence stubborn neglect. Many who see the dire circumstances blame the victims.

They are blaming those who take their lives, those who are homeless, blaming them for the conditions they were born into. Many who have been trying to help the victims have also been blaming them.

This cannot be understated. This pernicious belief system invasively underwrote the Federal Government’s Emergency Response in the Northern Territory. The majority of the Intervention’s Government workers believed they were helping the helpless and with this type of belief system therefore end up blaming them for the situation they have been forced into.

Families are described as dysfunctional. Their stories are divested to the rest of the nation and then regurgitated.

Stories of domestic violence and of substance abuse are re-told again and again by government workers until the general public starts believing it is the case with every Aboriginal family.

Then it is told to the nation by our governments and by the news media. We hear of alcoholism, drugs and abuse of solvents such as the petrol sniffing, aerosol sniffing, chroming.

But according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics proportion to total populations less Aboriginal peoples drink alcohol and gamble than do non-Aboriginal Australians.

But the mainstream news media far too often sells stereotypes, shoving bullshit down our throats. It is like salt into the wounds of impoverished Aboriginal communities.

Many people buy the messages and the mantras. They begin to think the solving of the abject poverty of impoverished Aboriginal communities is one for the too hard basket.

The resource companies argue they are dropping millions of dollars into Aboriginal communities. Some resource companies believe they are doing the work of the State and Federal governments.

They believe it is the duty of State and Federal governments to graft into these communities the requisite infrastructure and services. It is true Governments have abysmally failed chronically impoverished Aboriginal communities. It is true many resource companies return less than one per cent of their total revenue to Aboriginal communities, a mere pittance compared to what the mining companies take out of the land.

The National Indigenous Times recently visited a number of the Pilbara’s Aboriginal communities. The Pilbara is the engine room of Australia’s mining boom and “super towns” for the fly-ins have been built out of seemingly nowhere in places such as Karratha, Port Samson, Newman and so on.

So the question begs; why not build towns like these for Aboriginal peoples and end the abject poverty? Parliamentarians know the deal out there but few of them speak up.

The Pilbara’s Aboriginal Elders accept mining companies have helped individual Aboriginal operators improve their lives and those of their families. But they also point to the fact the money from mining companies has not improved the lives of the majority of the people.

Claims by mining companies they are changing the landscape for Aboriginal peoples are scoffed at by many Elders. They say the claims are plainly rubbish and media spin.

It is also true many Aboriginal Corporations have been set up to help advance their peoples take advantage of the mining boom in Western Australia and other States and Territories in the country. Many are doing this and many are not. The inconsistency has to be addressed.

Some Aboriginal corporations have become quite wealthy while at the same time many of their peoples remain impoverished. Are some Aboriginal corporations following the model of some of the resource companies, putting the organisation first, stakeholders next and community last?

The Gumula Aboriginal Corporation is the seventh richest Aboriginal Corporation in Australia but many of their communities’ children have otitis media (glue ear). Remote communities are without mobile health clinics. Why?

There are more than 400 Aboriginal Corporations nationwide and many of them are wealthy such as Noel Pearson’s Cape York organisation, the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, Gumala and dozens more.

We have also asked some fledgling organisations, beneficiaries of Native Title compensation how they intend to invest and disburse funds. Have they learned from the mistakes of others? What will their business model be? Will they invest in people first or invest in building their organisation up and return benefits to the people by dividends? What works? What doesn’t?

The effectively fledgling Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation is a case in point. Following their Federal Court victory this organisation looks likely to now enjoy the benefits of rich mining deals with companies such as Fortescue and Rio Tinto.

But what are their plans for the tens of millions of dollars now likely to flow to them? How do they intend to use the funds to help their predominately impoverished peoples?

The Yindjibarndi have fought a long battle to maintain the legal right to represent their people and they have pretty much finally won it. They have just secured a Federal Court win which secures for them long overdue financial benefits. In the last year The National Indigenous Times travelled five times to Roebourne, where most Yindjibarndi people live and we have seen how tough many of them do it.

It is important to have a good look at everyone and every instrument and to leave no stone unturned. But nobody can achieve much if the well is empty. If the Government is not filling the well then it is the duty of the resource companies to do so, after all they are accessing Aboriginal Country in order to mine it. Therefore any watchful eye cannot leave out of its sight the resource companies.

In the meantime claims by resource companies they are providing significant benefits to Aboriginal peoples from the greatest mining boom on record are hotly disputed.

In the resource-rich Pilbara big companies like Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton, Fortescue Metals and Chevron are spinning out press releases claiming they are investing in the region’s Aboriginal communities and they are working hard to employ as many Aboriginal people as they can.

However homelessness in the Pilbara is at record levels, with more than 170 per 10,000 people homeless. Only the Kimberley region has a worse homelessness rate, ten times the national average and just about all of the homeless are Aboriginal peoples.

The Pilbara’s Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation Chief Executive, Michael Woodley said mining companies have so far not returned anything of significance in terms of infrastructure and services to local Aboriginal communities.

The Pilbara Association of Non-Government Organisations Chairman, Bob Neville said the West Australian mining boom – with the Pilbara region as the engine room – had let down the locals.

“Western Australia is in the middle of the biggest resources boom we have ever seen and locals have nothing to show for it,” Mr Neville said.

Mr Neville is calling for a parliamentary inquiry into why the mining boom has failed the local communities. Mr Neville goes as far as saying the boom has crippled many of these communities. Michael Woodley agrees.

“They say they are dropping millions into Indigenous communities but where and to whom?” Mr Woodley asked. “When they make claims of Indigenous people benefiting from the mining boom well they should show us the evidence of it.

“They should be able to say, ‘Look here, in this community we’ve just built 50 houses and a medical centre in this one and training programs we’ve funded over here’, but that’s not the case. Our people are still doing it tough despite the claims by the miners,” Mr Woodley said.

“Rio Tinto has done some good work alongside some Indigenous communities but the other mining companies have given nothing back and they are just taking everything they can from the resource-rich Pilbara.”

Pilbara Elders said the mining boom was not benefiting their people. Elders Thomas Jacobs, Middleton Cheedy, Pansy Sambo and Tootsie Daniels lamented the mining boom had bypassed their people and their youth.

Mr Jacobs said mining companies return very little to Aboriginal communities and despair had been reached in expecting these companies to fund adequate community programs and infrastructure.

“It is one thing for mining companies to say they are employing more Aboriginal people than before but that is not investing in the Pilbara’s Indigenous communities,” Mr Jacobs said.

“Just employing people who work for them to do a job for them and then making a big deal about it is not bringing on change.”

Every Elder said some pro-social employment policies were not the equivalent of Aboriginal communities benefiting from the mining boom.

“If they don’t invest in our communities soon the opportunity to help our youth and the generation to come will be a missed chance when the mining boom ultimately ends,” Mr Cheedy said.

Rio Tinto said in the 1990s less than a half a per cent of their workforce was Aboriginal however it has now become Australia’s largest employer of Aboriginal people. In Western Australia, 11 percent of its workforce is Aboriginal which equates to 1,100 Aboriginal people.

BHP Billiton employs 10,000 people in the Pilbara with nearly 1,000 Aboriginal workers. Fortescue has increased its Aboriginal workforce to 412.

Mr Woodley said employing someone should not be seen as the equivalent of investing in that person’s community. Some Aboriginal operators have benefited however the region’s Aboriginal communities as a whole continue to languish in cycles of despair, he said.

Ngarda’s Ricky Osborne said his group has employed more than 2,000 Aboriginal people from the Pilbara and from other regions of Western Australia.

“We’ve now come to a situation where there is a good deal of demand for Aboriginal employees and we’re actually finding that companies are competing for available Indigenous labour,” Mr Osborne said.

“Mr Osborne said high employment numbers of Aboriginal people “has reduced a lot of the social and health problems for a lot of Aboriginal communities.”

But the statistics do not corroborate these claims. In fact homelessness and youth unemployment rates amongst the Pilbara’s Aboriginal peoples have not dropped and poor health, especially among the Pilbara’s Aboriginal children, continues at the same rates.

WA’s Telethon Speech and Hearing Centre confirmed the prevalence of middle ear diseases with Aboriginal children was at crisis levels in Western Australia and particularly the Pilbara region.

Their screening data tragically describes more than 50 per cent of Western Australia’s Aboriginal children under the age of 12 as unable to pass a simple hearing test.

In Roebourne, at the heart of the Pilbara region, more than 80 per cent of Aboriginal children could not pass the test and had middle ear diseases.

The Telethon’s Speech and Hearing Centre spokesman Paul Higginbotham said the issue of middle ear infection “was a health disaster and it must be addressed.”

Mr Woodley said Aboriginal disadvantage cannot be addressed without funds directly invested in Aboriginal health facilities and care.

The Pilbara’s Gumala Aboriginal Corporation is Australia’s seventh wealthiest Aboriginal body due in part to commercial agreements it has with Rio Tinto.

However, aside from their investments in some mobile health clinics, overall the investment in its eastern Pilbara communities appears moderate.

Critics say the Gumala corporation is wealthy yet far too many of the communities within its care languish in abject poverty.

The State Minister for Health, Dr Kim Hames has acknowledged not enough has been returned to Aboriginal communities from the mining boom and even his Government’s $22 million investment in Aboriginal rural and regional health in particular to upgrade remote Aboriginal health clinics over the next year is only a drop in the bucket.

Mr Woodley said all mining companies have as part of their governance a social responsibility to Aboriginal peoples and this included providing jobs and training opportunities. It also required mining companies to provide equity to communities in education, health and housing.

“In the end real change for our people will occur when some of the mining operations are in the hands of our people and we manage the mining and return the dividends to our communities and not just to the mining companies, their boards and to individual operators and contractors,” Mr Woodley said.

Mr Woodley acknowledged there had been some good work done by some mining companies in directing business to scores more of Indigenous operators than in the past.

However he said this was not the equivalent to real changes for Aboriginal communities.

“That will happen when our communities have the money spent on them in terms of housing, community institutions and other developments and when money is spent on enterprises that everyone benefits from and not from which only some people benefit,” he said.

“Profit streams that go to individual operators, which is a positive in one way, does not mean they flow on to communities.

“When the statistics on the Pilbara’s homeless rates and unemployment rates change, when our children’s literacy rates improve and when the gap on health closes, when our children can hear, then the mining companies and government will have something to rightly boast about.”

Many Aboriginal peoples do live with poor nutrition and do sleep on a dirt floor despite being within close proximity to the mining boom. Yet just about everyone in State Government is not speaking about this.

Others sell the damaging messages that Aboriginal peoples are often not able to manage monies or advance themselves and then images of abject poverty and incidences of domestic violence and substance abuses are packaged with these messages and sold to the rest of the nation.

In 1983 world-renowned investigative journalist and documentary maker John Pilger produced ‘The Secret Country.’ In 1985 he said: “The secret history of Australia is a historical conspiracy of silence. Written history has long applied selectivity to what it records, largely ignoring the shameful way that the Aborigines were, and continue to be, treated.”

In 2013 we do not continue to have a Secret Country as much as we have Forgotten Peoples. This is not an imputation as much as it is an indictment of our governments.

In Port Hedland there are families sleeping under corrugated iron. There are families in homes so dilapidated they are beyond repair. It is hard to believe this is Australia.

It is not limited to Port Hedland. Kalgoorlie-Boulder’s Ninga Mia is a shocker with families there too in the most deplorable conditions. They have been there for ages, under the nose of the Department of Housing which does next to nothing.

They live under corrugated iron and cardboard, within sight of mining prosperity. Kalgoorlie’s Wongi Pastor Geoffrey Stokes could talk endlessly about the ongoing neglect of his peoples by State and Federal governments.

The tragedy is just as bad in many parts of the Goldfields. It is also the case in the Kimberley, a shocker in the otherwise much visited tourist mecca, where homelessness rates are more than ten times the national average and once again, most of the homeless are Aboriginal.

Interventionist programs and support agencies help but for the most part they are band aid responses. The money is there; Australia is the world’s thirteenth most powerful economy. Western Australia accounts for 46 per cent of the nation’s mining exports. In Port Hedland, according to the Department of Housing, 338 people (mostly Aboriginal) are on the waiting list but with an average wait of four years.

Hundreds of others are not on any waiting lists, they do it dirt-poor. Nearby Port Hedland’s abjectly poverty stricken Aboriginal communities is the Port Hedland delta, Australia’s busiest port, exporting high grade iron ore to China and the rest of the world.

This is the real world of the mining boom. It has made many people multi millions and even billions. But there has been no benefit for the Aboriginal communities whose land it is being mined for this incredible wealth. No-one in Australia should remain arguably as innocent bystanders and let this continue to be the case.

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