Modern Times: remote communities

The unresolved issue of remote communities and the national interest.

Investing in remote communities is in the national interest. The issue of remote communities should not be allowed to merge into a broader conversation about responsibility and fiscal austerity. If we choose not to invest, our first people will be denied a just and cherished place in our national life. Closures would be the ultimate rejection of our Indigenous peoples and an abdication of responsibility for the wrongs that have been wrought. It is important to appreciate the history of our remote communities. Many started as missionary settlements. Children were taken from families and settled in camps that evolved into remote communities. One generation was severed from the next. Populations that were once monolingual were forbidden from speaking their mother language. Children heard speaking an Aboriginal language were punished. Following resettlement into the remote communities, no generation would master their tribal language. A people were severed from their language. As former Prime Minister Paul Keating explained in his Redfern speech, “We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life … It was our ignorance and prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things done to us.” We brought the diseases and then denied them remedies because it was too expensive to service remote communities. We brought the alcohol and then told them they couldn’t drink. In the case of remote communities, inhabited by our first peoples, we have a responsibility to support whatever choice that remains theirs. As a nation, we must take responsibilities for these wrongs and understand the history, which has led to this current moment in our nation’s life. Many Australians cannot understand why those in remote communities don’t choose to leave, in search of a ‘better’ life. Jean-Paul Sartre once suggested: “In whatever circle of hell we live, I think that we are free to break it. And if people do not break it, then they stay there of their own free will. So they put themselves in hell freely.” But those with an attachment to land and community do not see a hell to escape but a heaven to which we can aspire. There is beauty in this country. The red sands on which most remote communities were built have an almost overpowering attraction, somehow more textured and meaningful than the yellow sands to which residents of the coastal cities and towns have become accustomed. The smiles are broad and the unselfconsciously tactile nature of the young people heartrending. There are problems common to most remote communities. There is a lack of industries that will bring employment opportunities and, by consequence, a chance of self-determination for the communities. Basic infrastructure such as rubbish collection is lacking and the results are predictable. Service provision to remote areas is by nature more expensive. There is no economy of scale to make such provision profitable for private interests, and the distance makes it prohibitively expensive for governments intent on austerity. A serious investment in overcoming the challenge of distance would require a government to shed the cloak of ideologically-driven economic rationalism. Such investment (or ‘subsidisation’) could be justified for other reasons. All Australians will also benefit if our Indigenous cultures are kept strong. The social solidarity evident in New Zealand derives from a conscious and agreed decision to respect and promote the cultures of the Maori peoples. Their words are part of the national anthem, represented in the national parliament and absorbed in the national symbolism. There is power in unity. Emotional and financial investment in remote communities would be rewarded by a deeper sense of shared national pride, economic opportunity and an enriched identity. It would be both immoral and irrational to allow such communities to close. More, it would be a wasted opportunity that would be impossible to recover.  @AndrewHunter__