By Yesim Yaprak Yildiz, University of Cambridge
The Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra sent a delegation to the Australian Parliament to deliver a message to Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull. The day was 27th November 2015; a global day of action against the threatened closure of Aboriginal communities in Western Australia and other regions due to funding cuts by the federal government. There were protests in Australia and around the world. I was among the group that marched to Parliament House in Canberra, accompanying a small delegation carrying sacred objects including a message stick to be delivered to Mr Turnbull’s office.
Our faces painted in ochre, we waited by the sacred fire lit on the lawn in front of the new Parliament House as the delegation proceeded into the building to deliver the message. Although the Prime Minister’s Office had been informed of the visit in advance and our arrival was communicated to them by security, not a single representative from the PM’s Office came out to receive the message and to hear what the delegation had to say. The spear that the Gomerei warrior broke and tossed to the ground became a powerful symbol not only of a broken dialogue but also of the continued denial by the Australian government of Aboriginal people’s very existence.
Judging by the standards of countries where an action in front of Parliament challenging a government policy would face a heavy-handed police response, the Australian Government’s response might be described as non-violent. But this would be untrue. What we encountered that day was a form of violence that Aboriginal people experience in their everyday lives as disregard and denial of their subjectivity and political agency. It is a dehumanising violence, aiming to keep the colonised “at a respectful distance”, behind the dividing line between the space of the Sovereign “built to last, all stone and steel” and the space of the oppressed, which is defined by exclusion.
Colonial oppression of Aboriginal communities was organised not only socially and economically but also spatially through segregation in reserves and missions or forced displacement and relocation in larger settlements and towns. As Lefebvre and Foucault argue, right and power over space, and control over a population and its movement, emerged as a defining aspect of state sovereignty. By way of inclusion and exclusion, the state defines its power in terms of its territory and determines how people use and access that territory. Displacement and resettlement of certain populations are, in this sense, powerful tools by which a state reorganises and homogenises its territory. As Havemann argues, Australia’s existence as a sovereign state is built on denying the place based culture of Aboriginal people and their physical estate – ‘terra aboriginalis’. Through the application of the terra nullius principle, Aboriginal people were rendered placeless. From the 1850s onwards, the British and then the Australian governments have been spatially organising the Aboriginal population both through excluding them in remote areas and including them in urban areas through assimilation. Forced closure of homelands and removal of Aboriginal communities continue to be part of this spatial control and assimilation policy, attempting to destroy Aboriginal people’s belonging to the land and their political and economic agency.
Last year, the federal government announced that $534 million would be cut from Indigenous programs over the five years to 2020. Its Municipal and Essential Services program had been terminated on 30 June 2014, with responsibility for the delivery of municipal and essential services to remote Aboriginal communities delegated to state governments. Following the governments of Queensland, Victoria, and Tasmania, the Western Australia government had agreed to assume responsibility from the 1st of July 2015. As part of these transition agreements, the federal government committed $90 million to the Western Australia government: enough to support remote communities until 2017. Even so, the Western Australian Premier said he expected a significant number of remote communities to close.
The policy of forcibly removing and concentrating Aboriginal people in larger settlements and towns dates from the 1930s. Goodall argues that following the failure of ‘dispersal’ policies at the end of the 1880s and early 1900s, a new policy was formulated to remove Aboriginal people from town camps and smaller reserves and stations to centrally located and tightly controlled stations. The argument was no different than today’s – that is, efficiency in using limited funds. But the authorities were aware of Aboriginal people’s strong connection to and identification with their land and kin: their spatial policies were designed to destroy these links.
Despite the long history of Aboriginal people’s strong resistance to forced removals and closure of their homelands, and despite the social, economic and health problems associated with removals, the Australian government has continued to implement similar spatial policies, rehearsing the same old arguments. Amnesty International has documented how, from 2006 onwards, Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory were effectively forced to abandon their homelands and move into larger towns due to the withdrawal of financial support for new housing, and very limited support for housing maintenance or the delivery of services. Again, in 2011, the Oombulgurri community in the eastern Kimberley, with a population of 107, was evicted after the community was deemed ‘unviable.’ Despite the community’s refusal to leave their land, the federal government closed down services including a health clinic, school, and police station, and shut off the town’s power and water, forcing residents to move to Wyndham. A leaked 2010 federal government document titled ‘Priority Investment Communities – WA’ categorises 192 of 287 remote communities as unsustainable, hence suitable for limited investment which would support existing assets and services rather than further growth.
Regarding the current funding cuts, Western Australia’s Premier Colin Barnett stated that ‘a hub and orbit approach’ will be followed which will ‘lead to building up the larger communities while closing down the smallest and most under-resourced’. This is a re-visitation of policies that have a long history. As the Kimberley Land Council said in its submission to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues,
History shows us that these policies have resulted in the gradual disintegration of cultural standards and governance; it has resulted in fringe communities in urban areas, in alcoholism and youth suicides, and in disempowerment… And now the Australian government is allowing it to happen again.
The news of the latest community closures has caused worry in other Aboriginal communities. As a Pintupi elder, Lindsay Corby, who lives in Kintore told the Guardian in May,
[People] can’t move from Kiwirrkurra or another community because there’s a lot of graveyards there and they can’t leave the graveyard behind. It’s a homeland…They want to live there and go hunting, and keep sacred sites.
What Linsay Corby defines as a homeland is, however, only a ‘lifestyle choice’ for former Australian PM Tony Abbott. In support of Mr Barnett’s statements, Mr Abbott said:
What we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have…
If people choose to live miles away from where there’s a school, if people choose not to access the school of the air, if people choose to live where there’s no jobs, obviously it’s very, very difficult to close the gap.
Mr Abbott’s comments reiterate the official stance. Back in 2005, the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Amanda Vanstone referred to Aboriginal homelands as ‘cultural museums that are too small to warrant government support’. Such statements cannot be interpreted merely as a lack of understanding of Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal people’s connection to their land. Rather, they represent an entrenched policy of discrimination and assimilation. As the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz said, this ‘smacks of racism’.
Dispossession from ancestral lands and destruction of cultural practices, forced relocations to missions, reserves or stations, removal of children, and closure of communities have all been features of the Australian government’s policy of spatial control and surveillance of Aboriginal people. Uprooting communities from their lands and leaving them ‘out of place’, is a way of denying the colonised political and economic agency. Control over space is not, however, absolute. Against essentialist approaches, I would like to emphasize that space is not only a sphere of domination but also a sphere of resistance and struggle.
States’ attempts to appropriate and configure particular lands are challenged by opposing forces that seek to re-appropriate them and to create alternative counter spaces. One of the most powerful examples of this is the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which was erected in front of Parliament in 1972 to represent a displaced nation. As Howell and Schaap argue, the very existence of the Embassy demonstrates that Aboriginal people are denied their space and self-determination and treated as ‘aliens in their own land’. It is also, however, ‘a public platform [on] which they control…the terms [of their interaction] with representatives of the settler society’. The erection of the tent embassy has been a radical re-appropriation of sovereign space. It has been an active counter-space bringing Aboriginal people from different Nations together, as well as supporters from all around the country. Similarly, remote homelands facing closure today are not just spaces of continued colonial violence, but also spaces of resistance and struggle against assimilation and dispossession.
 See Sartre’s Preface and Fanon’s ‘On Violence’ in Fanon, F. (2004), Wretched of the Earth. Translated from the French by Richard Philcox with commentary by Jean-Paul Sartre and Homi K Bhabha, New York: Grove Press.
 Lefebvre, (1991), The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing; Foucault, M. (1980), Power/Knowledge, London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
 Havemann, P. (2005), ‘Denial, Modernity and Exclusion: Indigenous Placelessness in Australia’, Macquarie Law Journal, 5: 57-80, p.63.
 Goodall, H. (2008), Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales 1770-1972. Sydney University Press, pp. 231-232.
 Ibid. pp.239.
 See Lefebvre, 1991 and Foucault, 1980.
 Howell, E. and Schaap, A. (2014), ‘The Aboriginal Tent Embassy and Australian Citizenship’. In The Routledge Handbook of Global Citizenship Studies, Neyers P, Isin E (eds), London: Routledge.