Indigenous communities closure: West Australian Premier Colin Barnett says 'no person will be forced from their land'

Indigenous communities closure: West Australian Premier Colin Barnett says 'no person will be forced from their land'

Indigenous communities closure: West Australian Premier Colin Barnett says 'no person will be forced from their land'

Updated 1 May 2015, 21:15 AEST

The West Australian Government softens its language about its plan to shut down scores of remote Aboriginal communities, saying none will be forced to close.

The West Australian Government has softened its language about its plan to close scores of remote Aboriginal communities.

Last November, Premier Colin Barnett caused dismay when he said that between 100 and 150 communities would be forced to close.

Today, he would not say how many communities would close but said he expected there would be "significantly less Aboriginal communities" in the years ahead.

"No person will be forced from their land. No person will be forced from their community but the state will not be able to provide services across that many communities," he said.

This comes as towns like Derby, in the state's far north, heed warnings about the possible impact of closing remote Aboriginal communities.

With a population of fewer than 5,000, this former gateway for the cattle industry fears being swamped by a new influx of people.

"We are not ready for it," says Vicki O'Donnell, chief executive of the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Service.

"We don't have the services, or the capability to take on an influx of people moving into the town."

Uncertainty surrounds government's plans

She condemned Mr Barnett's original announcement in November that the Government was seeking to close up to 150 outstations.

While the West Australian Government has now pulled back from closing as many communities as it first flagged, uncertainty remains.

"Why not be frank and come out and name the communities that he's talking about?" Ms O'Donnell said.

She said closing outstations or cutting basic services could increase health problems.

"People can live with water, people can live without electricity," she said.

"If there is no access to water, clean water, so that people can keep clean, drink, there is certainly an issue with health."

The Emama Nguda Aboriginal Corporation, which helps provide jobs and housing, has also sounded a warning about more people coming into Derby.

"I guess the biggest fear is that we're not going [to cope] with an influx of people coming into town," Emama Nguda's chief executive Maureen O'Meara said.

"We're struggling now. Public housing can't meet the current demand."

Ms O'Meara said the Government seemed to not understand people's ties to their country.

"The communities are there for different reasons as to why towns are here," she said.

"Our remote communities were established for cultural reasons ... so to move people from that into town, it's catastrophic."

'You are going to have people sleeping outside'

It is on the "back streets" of Derby, where some people could end up.

The "back streets" got their name when public housing was built on Derby's outskirts to house the influx of Aboriginal people moving off pastoral leases in the late 1960s.

Local resident Rowena Riley claims there will be only one outcome if the Government moves to close communities.

"It's going to mean more families are going to have more overcrowded houses," she said.

"You are going to have people sleeping outside of their yards. You are going to have people sleeping in the bush. You're going to cause more problems."

Derby is not alone. In other Kimberley centres such as Fitzroy Crossing, Aboriginal leaders are trying to work out what will come next.

Dicky Bedford is the chief executive of the Kimberley's biggest Aboriginal corporation.

He said the West Australian Government's failure to clearly state its intentions is causing distress in the region.

"One week we hear it's all about child abuse, the next week we hear it's about funding issues and then the conversation changes to 'we're not really talking about closing communities out there'," Mr Bedford said.

"I guess all we want is some clarity on that. And we want to participate in providing the solutions for our community and our people."

While many might welcome the WA Government's partial backdown, the announcement will not dispel all the anxiety being felt across the Kimberley.