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Settler Colonial Closures, by Dan Tout

‘Closure’ of WA Indigenous communities is in tune with the deep-seated logic of settler colonialism.

Western Australian premier Colin Barnett has announced plans for the forced ‘closure’ of ‘at least 100 or more’ of the 274 remote Aboriginal communities across the state. It seems that South Australia may soon follow suit, with sixty locations in that state also earmarked for ‘closure’. As with the Howard government’s Northern Territory Emergency Response (the Intervention) and its extension under the Gillard government’s perversely named Stronger Futures legislation, we are seeing what Patrick Wolfe has characterised as a persistent settler colonial ‘logic of elimination’.

There are again here, as there were with the Intervention, objections almost too numerous to mention against these actions, not least that they constitute clear breaches of Australia’s obligations under international law, as they relate to the rights of Indigenous peoples in particular, as well as to so-called universal, individual human rights. These objections are valid and important: the specific nature of these actions must be kept in mind and arguments articulated in particular rather than general terms. They are, after all, actions affecting the lives of actual people and communities. The rhetoric of rationality (the ‘closure’ of ‘unviable’ and ‘unsustainable’ communities) surrounding these decisions (and they are decisions)—which mirrors that concerning the ‘processing’ of ‘batches’ of ‘illegal maritime arrivals’—should not blind us to their targeted and deeply destructive nature.

But it is also crucial to identify the broader forces involved. Attacks and interventions against Indigenous peoples and their communities and cultures are hardly isolated or infrequent events in Australia. One important source of potential explanation derives from the underlying imperatives governing, or at the least strongly influencing, the actions of the Australian settler state as a settler state, which exhibits an overarching tendency to seek the elimination of a troublingly authentic Aboriginality that continues to persist within its territorial boundaries. An understanding of these imperatives is critical for those concerned with the modes and means of Indigenous existence as a still indigenous existence; that is, as a way of life, or ways of life, bearing some connection with and substantive claim over traditional, sovereign territories.

A number of factors are at play in these and other neo-assimilationist policies and practices of enforced ‘mainstreaming’, in most dramatic and explicit evidence since ‘practical reconciliation’ was first adopted as a policy agenda in the early years of the Howard government. Such policies are proliferating apace under Australia’s current government: the Forrest Review, for example (see Arena Magazine 132), articulates a comprehensive agenda of neoliberal assimilationism. Although, as the Gillard government’s Stronger Futures package attests (and as Gary Foley has convincingly argued), the ALP has often been equally culpable in its assimilationist and neo-assimilationist approaches to Indigenous affairs. This is telling.

In the WA case, the immediate consideration appears to have been the devolution of responsibility for municipal and essential services to Aboriginal communities from the self-anointed ‘prime minister for Aboriginal Affairs’ and his front-man (and actual minister for Indigenous Affairs) Nigel Scullion to the states, which have historically shown no interest in supporting Aboriginal cultures and communities against states’ own immediate economic interests. The WA government accepted a one-off payment of $90 million from the federal government for its assumption of responsibility for service provision, yet maintains that this amount is insufficient for it to continue to provide services for the 100–150 communities targeted for forced ‘closure’. The SA government, on the other hand, which refused to sign up to the $10 million deal it was offered, faces the withdrawal of funding from July next year nonetheless.

These decisions are, at least in part, a result of federal government buck-passing, which, in this case, is attempting to reverse the transfer of responsibility for Indigenous affairs from state to federal governments that has taken place over the past fifty years. This leaves Aboriginal people and communities even more vulnerable to state intervention, as evidenced by the Barnett government’s proposed amendments to the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act.

These decisions have of course also been made in the midst of aggressive budget cuts and neoliberal policies emphasising and prioritising individuals over and above, if not to the absolute exclusion of, collectives and communities. This overriding neoliberal economic ‘rationality’ refuses to consider any but economic considerations in deciding what rights are ‘sustainable’ and for whom, along with whose existence is excess to state requirements or external to state responsibilities. Usually, these are those (non-)members of society perceived not to be pulling their own (economic) weight, not ‘contributing’ (economically) to (settler) society.

All the same, the processes and political strategies these particular policies represent are part of still longer continuities with settler modes of governance than the radical economic approaches of governments since the 1980s. Indigenous peoples have consistently been deemed surplus or superfluous to the requirements of the settler project and the reasons for this derive from its foundations. Neoliberalism allows, in fact encourages, Colin Barnett to describe ‘150 or so’ Kimberley communities as ‘not viable and … not sustainable’. Yet settler colonial compulsions to transfer indigenous peoples out of the category ‘indigenous’—whether by massacre, removal or ‘mainstreaming’—are largely coterminous with the history of Australian settler colonialism.

Barnett has also argued that the communities in question are being targeted because of their social dysfunctionality (a term well-known to observers of the Intervention). This rhetoric deliberately ignores well-established, positive correlations between Indigenous health, other socioeconomic indicators and ties to traditional homelands. It also attempts to transfer all responsibility for the legacies of settler colonisation to the subjects of that colonisation.

As Indigenous leaders and non-Indigenous advocates and commentators have warned, it is not even likely the measures will save money over the long term, with the transfer of populations into already overburdened population centres destined to have considerable negative social and economic consequences. The 2011 ‘closure’ of the also ‘unviable’ Kimberley community Oombulgurri—in the clear absence of community consent and under familiar forms of social stigmatisation—stands as testament to this, having had significant negative impacts across the Kimberley region. Amnesty International estimates that the government intends to spend $680,000 to demolish $30 million worth of assets at the abandoned community, to which it has prevented residents from attempting to return.

Of course, the slightest diversion of mining revenue to remote Aboriginal communities (situated on the lands from which that revenue is extracted) would comfortably cover the costs of continued service provision. These policies are clearly not explicable in economic terms. They are, however, entirely understandable in other terms: as only the most recent manifestation of a consistent, continuing settler desire to rid ‘the nation’ of the troubling alterity that Aboriginality and its bearers represent. While the strategies deployed towards this aim have shifted over time, most dramatically from the literal forms of destruction manifested on the ‘frontier’ to the symbolic elimination effected through more recent approaches, the Australian settler project has consistently sought to eradicate, or at least to terminally displace, any pre-existing Indigenous presence and its sovereign connection to Australian lands.

To put it simply: in contrast to colonialism, which primarily aims to extract surplus value from peripheral territories, typically through the enforced exploitation of indigenous or imported labour, the primary objective of settler colonialism is the land itself. As a consequence, whereas under colonialism the principal relationship of exploitation is between coloniser and colonised, in settler colonialism it is between the settler and the land. This renders indigenous populations ‘surplus’ to the requirements of the settler project itself; they may be exploited in the service of that project’s interests, economic or otherwise, but the settler project’s overarching goal is replacement rather than exploitation.

Yet indigenous peoples are not simply ‘surplus’. Since the settler project seeks to establish its own, direct connection with the land in question, indigenous peoples find themselves ‘in the way’, positioned as a problem to be resolved through various literal and symbolic strategies seeking their elimination. At the same time, indigenous peoples’ specific sovereign capacity—originating in their pre-existing and persistent connection to the lands settlers seek to usurp—poses an authoritative challenge to the foundations of settler sovereignty. Indigenous peoples’ continued existence—and in particular their continued existence in continuous connection with traditional homelands—represents a specific and enduring threat to the legitimacy of the settler order.

It is important to note that within the settler colonial framework, an Aboriginality existing on the fringes of larger population centres such as Alice Springs, where many of the people forced to relocate from ‘closed’ communities will inevitably end up, is less disruptive to the coherence and legitimacy of the settler state than is an Aboriginality in touch with its lands and traditions. According to the limited constructions of Aboriginality enunciated through Australia’s native title regime in particular, territoriality is the foundation of indigeneity. It is precisely the authentic territoriality of indigeneity—‘we were here first’ (each word deserving equal emphasis)—that poses the fundamental question to the Australian settler project: ‘on what basis do you claim sovereignty over these, my lands?’

Yet territoriality cuts both ways, for the current native title regime’s insistence on continuous community connections to country and continuity of ‘traditional laws and customs’ denies the (often deliberately) disruptive history of settler colonisation. This renders indigenous claims susceptible to intervention by the settler state, to elimination by geographical intervention. Forcibly moving or removing Aboriginal populations from their traditional lands is, according to settler conceptions and according to settler law, simultaneously to remove them from the basis of their claims to Aboriginality, which otherwise threaten or undermine the legitimacy of the settler state.

Under the current native title regime, interventions by the settler state into the relationship between Indigenous peoples and their lands, laws and traditions duplicitously interrupt those peoples’ subsequent ability to claim their rights to those lands and traditions as Indigenous people. The most effectively dispossessed become the most thoroughly disenfranchised. Understood in this light, the proposed forced ‘closure’ of homeland communities can be seen as yet another attempt on the part of the Australian settler project to intervene in and thereby to undermine and eliminate the threat posed by Indigenous Australians to the legitimacy of its own existence.

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