At their bi-annual meeting this week, Josephite leaders from around Australia expressed their dismay at the Commonwealth Government’s plan to cease funding Municipal and Essential Services (MUNS) to remote Aboriginal communities. From July 2015, the Commonwealth will hand over these major areas of responsibility – power, water, sewerage and municipal services – to the States.
‘This is a decision that we fear will cause significant hardship to some of Australia’s most disadvantaged communities’, said Josephite leader, Sr Monica Cavanagh. ‘We believe that it will exacerbate further the health, educational, and social privation being suffered by Aboriginal Australians, and further undermine the progress being made to close the gap.’
Every Australian citizen has the right to the delivery of essential services, including the supply of power and water. This determination by the Commonwealth Government could mean that remote areas, already severely deficient in these services, will be forced to close down as amenities are cut. There is no doubt that State funds will struggle to sustain the required support. The South Australian Government rejected the Commonwealth’s one-off $10 million offer as completely inadequate to cover replacement of infrastructure and supply of amenities. The Western Australian Government accepted the compensation but now has already indicated that the only choice for their citizens in remote communities will be to move to larger centres.
The inevitable result across Australia will be a further breakdown of Aboriginal life and culture. It will lead to homelessness, higher arrest and imprisonment rates, family breakdowns and suicide.
Historically, it has long been agreed on all sides of politics that Australia’s severely disadvantaged Indigenous population, because of its particular needs and history, requires a dedicated policy and service delivery response. Political and community leaders have concurred also that the cultural complexity and dispersed settlement patterns of communities, together with acknowledged health, educational, and social disadvantages being suffered by them, necessitate Commonwealth responsibility.
This change of policy flies in the face of a long-held belief and practice.
Pope Francis himself has expressed his deep concern: ‘Severing the ties of Aboriginal people from their land and thus their culture, spirituality and very foundation of their being, is unethical, immoral, un-Christian and heartless.’
In a recent address, the Prime Minister admitted that ‘Indigenous Australians continue to experience poorer health outcomes at higher rates and younger ages than non-Indigenous Australians.’ He stressed that ’the Government is committed to delivering effective and efficient health services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, through community controlled health services and health services for all Australians.’
‘This is an admirable aim’, said Sr Monica, ‘but how can it to be achieved in Aboriginal communities if Governments are unwilling or unable to work together to deliver water, power and other essential services for life and health to already severely disadvantaged Australian citizens?’