Words By: Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
March 19th, 2015, was dubbed Close the Gap day, when Australians nationwide took to the streets to protest the Western Australian government’s decision to cut services to more than 150 remote Aboriginal communities in the state. This decision, supported by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his comments on “subsidizing lifestyle choices”, has sparked an outrage from Indigenous elders, the anger rippling throughout the country.
Cutting funding of ongoing essential services in remote Indigenous communities in WA means refusal to provide clean water, adequate power, proper waste disposal systems and appropriate sewerage plants to these areas—services all other Australians take for granted. Without these services, the Aboriginal communities risk being displaced from their traditional lands. What Tony Abbott described as a “lifestyle choice” is a way of life. Senior Miriuwung Gajerrong woman and chairperson of the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre Merle Carter adds, “It’s the only way we know how to live—the best way.”
#SOSBlakAustralia began trending on Twitter, as part of the protest, which culminated in a rally in several cities and towns across Australia. The largest of these was understandably in Perth, where more than 1, 000 protesters marched through the Perth CBD and gathered at the Parliament House. They were met by Premier Colin Barnett and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Peter Collier.
In a speech delivered to the masses, Colin Barnett asked the crowd to put themselves in his shoes and claimed that his move to close unsustainable settlements was motivated by his concerns for child safety. The crowd responded by booing and chanting, “Shame on you.” Tensions flared and a female protester allegedly pushed the Premier, but the Premier’s Office has stated that they will not be filing a complaint.
Five hundred people rallied in South Hedland, chanting “Shame, Abbott, shame; shame, Barnett, shame” and “Always was, always will be Aboriginal land”. Elders and community elders spoke in the town square, declaring that closing the communities was “cultural genocide”. Protests were also held in Broome, Newman, Roebourne and Tom Price.
Victoria, ACT, New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory also held their own protests. Pictures were posted to Twitter under #SOSBlakAustralia, #LifestyleChoice, referring to the Prime Minister’s comments, and #NOconsent, the main slogan being “Close the gap, not the communities.”
After the WA rally, the Aboriginal Legal Service chief executive Dennis Eggington said that the rally had one purpose: “to send a strong message to Government that closing communities and moving people off their traditional land wasn’t acceptable in 1820 and it’s not acceptable now.”
He then added: “They’ve still got their chance to change their mind and reverse the decision.”