He made the comments when backing a West Australian Government plan to close up to 150 remote Aboriginal communities.
The Aboriginal Health Council of Western Australia called for politicians to recognise communities as an asset, in this statement:
Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s support for the withdrawal of government services from Western Australia’s Aboriginal communities is hugely disappointing, according to the Aboriginal Health Council of WA (AHCWA).
AHCWA is the peak body representing 20 Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services across Western Australia at a state and national level.
The Prime Minister was reported today as having labelled life in Aboriginal communities a “lifestyle choice”, saying it was not the responsibility of taxpayers to fund these communities.
AHCWA Chairperson said the comments revealed the Prime Minister didn’t appreciate the importance of the communities to the continuing culture of Aboriginal people.
“The Prime Minister’s comments about Aboriginal communities place no value on the connection to country and culture that these communities provide, nor the important role they play in the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people,” she said.
“Aboriginal people are obligated to maintain a connection to country to sustain spiritual beliefs, customary activities and traditional lore. In addition to providing a home to many Aboriginal people, these communities provide a continuing sense of identity through this ongoing connection to country.
“This connection is important to the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people, and has been an important part of the healing process for victims of the stolen generation, many of whom were forcibly removed from country earlier in their lives.
“There is no doubt that improvements to services are needed in many of these communities. But, given their importance to the health, wellbeing and continuing culture of Aboriginal people, government should invest in these communities, rather than withdraw existing services.”
Ms Nelson-Cox said both the Prime Minister and WA Premier Colin Barnett needed to recognise Aboriginal communities as an asset.
“The debate about Aboriginal communities is too often framed in the negative, treating communities as a problem to be solved, rather than the national cultural asset they are,” she said.
“As the peak body for Aboriginal health services in WA, AHCWA sees the important role these communities play in the health and wellbeing of many of our people, and it is a real shame our political leaders can’t see this.”
ANTaR has called on the Government to close the “respect gap” with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, in this statement:
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights advocacy organisation ANTaR today called on government to engage more and listen to First Peoples to develop a better understanding of culture, connection to land, and health and wellbeing.
The call comes following the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday about plans to close more than 150 communities in Western Australia where he said that government could not fund ‘lifestyle choices’.
National Director Andrew Meehan said the Prime Minister’s comments showed enormous disrespect and a complete lack of understanding of connection to land, the importance of culture, and the positive impact of both on health and wellbeing.
“The refusal to fund municipal and essential services for over 150 Aboriginal communities in WA is an extraordinary decision, and one that needs to be reversed,” Mr Meehan said.
“No other small community in the country would put up with government refusing to fund municipal and essential services – that’s a basic obligation of government to its citizens,” he said.
“If government meets this obligation in other communities, why wouldn’t it show the same respect to Aboriginal communities in Western Australia?” he asked.
Mr Meehan also said that there was ample evidence of the health and wellbeing benefits of living in homelands, particularly in relation to maintaining culture and connection to country.
He said that breaking Aboriginal connection to land and culture, and forcing people to move to regional towns will just increase exposure to drugs, alcohol, and crime, with no guarantees of adequate housing or employment.
“Government should be looking to work in partnership with Aboriginal people on sustainable development initiatives and maximising health and wellbeing gains from living on homelands,” he said.
For those seeking to understand the health ramifications of the Prime Minister’s statement and the WA Government’s actions, check out this text, “Working Together”, which was part-funded by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and is freely available online.
Proposed closure of Western Australian remote communities: Statement by the Lowitja Institute:
The Lowitja Institute has grave concerns about the Prime Minister’s decision to back the plan in Western Australia to close remote communities and remove people from their lands.
If Australia is to Close the Gap in life expectancy and health outcomes, our leaders must fully appreciate the Aboriginal understanding of health:
The Aboriginal concept of health is holistic, encompassing mental health and physical, cultural and spiritual health. Land is central to wellbeing. This holistic concept does not merely refer to the ‘whole body’ but in fact is steeped in the harmonised inter-relations which culturally constitute wellbeing. These inter-relating factors can be categorised largely as spiritual, environmental, ideological, political, social, economic, mental and physical. Crucially it must be understood that when the harmony of these inter-relations is disrupted, Aboriginal ill-health will persist1
As this definition of Aboriginal health states, being on country is more than a lifestyle choice. It is the essence of life itself.
There is a strong body of evidence in Australia that supports the link between land, culture and wellbeing. For example, evidence tells us that the effects of colonisation have limited Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from having agency over their lives which is vital for health and wellbeing. The continuation of cultural practice, including land management is known to be protective of good health and social and emotional wellbeing. This brings into question the wisdom of removing people from land.
The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan 2013–2023, developed following extensive consultations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and endorsed by this Government, identifies the centrality of culture and wellbeing in the health of our people. If we are to accept this notion, we must understand that culture, land, community and identity are intrinsically linked.
Finally, we must heed the lessons of history. The 1997 Bringing Them Home report into the Stolen Generations was a momentous lesson in the danger of removing people from their land and culture.
As Australia’s Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health, the Lowitja Institute would strongly caution any government against such action. We would urge all Australian political leaders to genuinely listen to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and reflect on the failure of past polices and the current health status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
1. Ways Forward: National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health policy national consultancy report, Swan and Raphael, 1995
NACCHO Press Release : Closure of WA Aboriginal communities repeats historic failures
“Now we are seeing these poor policies from the past continue in Western Australia today with the closure of regional communities. It’s time to learn from the mistakes of past policies, listen to Aboriginal people and reverse this decision. It seems we are a long way off reconciliation if even our Prime Minister doesn’t know that Aboriginal people living on Country is not a ‘lifestyle choice’ but an integral part of identity and culture.” – Matthew Cooke, NACCHO Chair
The peak Aboriginal health organisation today joined the chorus of concern about the closure of remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia and subsequent comments made by the Prime Minister in relation to ‘lifestyle choices’.
National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) Chairperson Matthew Cooke said the physical, emotional and spiritual health of Aboriginal people is tied to their connection to Country. Dispossession is one of the key reasons we have for the existing health gap between Aboriginal and other Australians.
“Time and again we see evidence showing that when you remove Aboriginal people from their land, they lose their sense of identity which has profound impacts on their health and wellbeing.
“Aboriginal people are suiciding at alarming rates, almost a third of Australia’s jail population is Aboriginal and as a People we can expect to die 10-17 years younger than other Australians.
“This is primarily due to the historic dispossession of Aboriginal people from their land, generations of racism and entrenched poverty and disadvantage.
“Now we are seeing these poor policies from the past continue in Western Australia today with the closure of regional communities.
“It’s time to learn from the mistakes of past policies, listen to Aboriginal people and reverse this decision.”
Mr Cooke said he was astonished that the Federal government could talk about reconciliation and promote constitutional recognition for Aboriginal people whilst closing remote communities.
“It is extremely disappointing that the Prime Minister has displayed so little understanding about Aboriginal culture and the importance of connection to Country today.
“It seems we are a long way off reconciliation if even our Prime Minister doesn’t know that Aboriginal people living on Country is not a ‘lifestyle choice’ but an integral part of identity and culture.”
Public Health Association of Australia: Cultural identity is not a ‘lifestyle choice’ Prime Minister
The Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) supports calls from key Indigenous organisations and community leaders for the Prime Minister to apologise for his claim that living in remote Indigenous communities is a ‘lifestyle choice’.
The National Native Title Council and the Lowitja Institute are among the organisations expressing grave concerns about the Prime Minister’s decision to back the plan in Western Australia to close remote communities and remove people from their lands. “The impact that past policies of dispossession have had on the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people in Australia is indisputable. It’s unthinkable that governments would again support the forced removal of Aboriginal people from their lands,” said Vanessa Lee, Vice President of PHAA.
“PHAA is extremely disappointed by the Prime Minister’s comments, especially given his previous assertion that he would be the Prime Minister for Indigenous Australians. Aboriginal people have a close and real connection to their traditional lands and consider themselves to be the custodians of these lands. To sever this connection is to cut people off from the source of meaning and purpose in their lives – have governments learned nothing from the experience of the Stolen Generations?” asked Ms Lee.
“If governments are seeking to save money by closing remote communities they are wrong. The legacy of ill-health and social problems will be vastly more expensive to deal with than the current costs of providing vital services,” said Michael Moore, Chief Executive Officer of PHAA. “If the Prime Minister is concerned about the lack of employment opportunities in remote Indigenous communities, he needs to work with and invest in those communities to do something about it.
“PHAA has been calling for the development a National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Determinants of Health Policy as a key strategy in closing the gap and overcoming Indigenous disadvantage. Such a policy, based on research and evidence, should focus on social inclusion and support the provision of real opportunities in education, employment and health status, with funding tied to delivery of outcomes,” said Mr Moore.
Ms Lee added: “Governments need to acknowledge the complexity of these issues and the range of factors impacting the social and emotional wellbeing of Indigenous Australians. Throwing people off their land will only lead to greater ill-health and more expense in the long run. We call on the Prime Minister to commit to engaging in conversation with Indigenous Australians, especially those in remote communities, to develop a way forward on this issue.
“These off-the-cuff comments will also be making a lot of people wonder whether the Prime Minister is now also seeking to deny the legitimacy of Native Title in Australia. It’s important that he clarifies his position on forced removals and Native Title urgently. Communities need to be reassured that the Australian Government has learned from the mistakes of the past. How can we have a national discussion on Constitutional recognition with the Australian Government’s position on these critical issues now in doubt? Cultural identity is the birthright of Aboriginal Australians, not a ‘lifestyle choice’, Prime Minister,” said Ms Lee.