Closing the Gap: urgent infrastructure & services investment

Aboriginal flag on a flagpole

The Opportunity

Clean State recognises that to be fully effective in our work on economic transformation compatible with a safe climate we need to learn from and work alongside First Nations people.

This section of our package reflects consultation with First Nations leaders to provide ideas for stimulus measures that would benefit and empower WA’s First Nation communities and enterprises.

Clean State also acknowledges and is guided by the work of Lidia Thorpe and Anica Niepraschk ‘Respecting Nature Through First Law’ in the development of this package.

Clean State also acknowledges the need for meaningful action in Closing the Gap, addressing systemic discrimination and preventing deaths in custody, and the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement.

We also recognise that we must do more to support and stand with Western Australia’s First People as they determine their future and to, together, win cultural, economic and conservation outcomes.

The Proposal

Clean State is advocating for the state government to commit to a process that places First Nation peoples and communities at the heart of WA’s stimulus and recovery package, and recommend:

  1. Consulting with, empowering, and providing funding for First Nation peoples to establish groups across all communities and regions to identify gaps in infrastructure and services, including clean water, clean energy adequate housing, and climate resilience with the commitment to funding these gaps within three years.
  2. Link the program of infrastructure upgrades to Social reinvestment programs. Social reinvestment diverts funding from ineffective and dangerous detention and prison systems to community-led initiatives that provide support, training and employment opportunities.
  3. Provide funding to connect remote communities with community-run First Nations media services, which provide culturally and linguistically appropriate access to educational programs, traditional practices, and emergency information.

Closing the urgent gaps in Infrastructure and Services

Identifying and fully funding health and community services provided to First Nations communities, and prioritizing clean water, clean energy, and housing must be the first step in any construction-focused stimulus package.

The Coalition of Peaks, a group of over 50 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled peak and member groups have worked with the Australian Government in creating the Closing the Gaps framework which identifies four priority areas for reform. These are to reduce inequality in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s life expectancy, children’s mortality, education, and employment. Improving infrastructure and services would directly impact these goals. Establishing community-led training and employment programs for those engaged in the justice system in a state-wide rollout of upgrading energy, water and housing infrastructure would provide a powerful Closing the Gap initiative.

Any successful project in remote communities must be based on the approval and ownership of those communities, to integrate local context and livelihoods.

WA’s 274 remote communities are home to about 12,000 people. Only 165 of these communities receive some form of direct service provision from government, and many lack basic infrastructure, with a lack of clean water, clean energy, and adequate housing well documented and inadequately addressed to date.

Clean water
Few remote communities in Western Australia have access to treated drinking water.  In 2015 an Auditor General report identified major systemic issues with the delivery of the state-run essential services in WA’s remote communities, finding 80% of the 84 surveyed Aboriginal communities failed national water standard safety tests, with the majority failing multiple times. Most remote communities rely on raw groundwater to supply domestic water, often without treatment. A 2018 study found a possible causal relationship between the occurrence of Chronic kidney disease remote in Aboriginal communities and the presence of contaminants in drinking water, particularly uranium and nitrates found in the local groundwater. Access to adequate hygiene facilities is also a major concern. Cost-effective water treatment systems are needed to provide communities access to clean and safe potable water at the local scale.

A severe lack of investment in Indigenous housing is a major cause of overcrowding, which affects 13% of Indigenous adults in major cities, 20% in regional areas, and 48% in remote areas[i]. In Mowanjum, in the Kimberly region, about 350 people share 42 houses. Overcrowding has been noted by the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing in reports from 2017 and 2007.

Clean energy
Clean State acknowledges the efforts of the McGowan government to aid the transition to clean energy in remote communities with $11.6 million in funding dedicated to solar installation and storage in six Kimberley communities. However, more must be done to ensure a full transition from fossil fuels across all remote communities. Renewable power through solar PV and batteries on all remote communities should be installed with a staged phase out of costly, noisy and polluting diesel-powered generators.

Jobs and Benefits

  • The potential savings on primary incarceration, custody and community supervision costs amounts to $1 billion in ten years, not including broader savings across courts and social welfare systems, or the widespread social and economic benefits former offenders could contribute to society if effectively rehabilitated.
  • Investment in First Nations broadcasting generates $2.87 of cultural, social and economic value for every dollar invested. Local media outlets also ensure the communication of emergency information relating to health and weather conditions in relevant languages.
  • State-wide consultation and delivery of an emergency infrastructure program would create up to 500 new jobs in community engagement, project management, construction, engineering, operations and maintenance. Social Reinvestment programs would employ at least 30 full-time staff. A new Media service designed to serve the remote areas of South WA would employ up to 6-20 people each at 6 new radio stations in Albany, Esperance, Denmark, and Bunbury and in two other south-west locations thus employing 36 to 120 people, and potentially hundreds of additional traineeships.

Case Study: Punmu bed frames assembled for elders

The WA Indigenous Storybook shares an initiative coordinated by the Puntukurnu Aboriginal Medical Service and Punmu Aboriginal Community to address the issue of elders sleeping on a mattress on the floor, a prevalent health issue. One volunteer welder taught to weld and assemble bed frames. After two weeks all elders were provided with a bed frame and the remaining frames were available free to anyone who purchased a mattress from the community store. This story shows how addressing community-identified issues can be done in a way to instil the necessary skills within a community.

What would it cost?

At least $2.4 million to fund the ‘9 Calls to Action’ proposed by peak body First Nations Media in WA

The investment in infrastructure and services, as well as meaningful engagement and consultation with communities to identify their needs, and linking this to Social Reinvestment programs, would be in the vicinity of $500m.

Case Study: Smart Justice Projects in WA

Olabud Doogethu, an Aboriginal community-designed Justice Reinvestment project in Halls Creek is considered the most advanced Justice Reinvestment project in WA, and provides culturally secure end to end support for at-risk individuals and families, guaranteed 12 month paid traineeships for every high school graduate in the Halls Creek region, intensive case management work, establishing a Youth Hub centre open from 3pm-8pm, and free entry into the Halls Creek Swimming pool,  has been credited with a 46% reduction in burglary offences and an observable reduction in anti-social behaviour.

 The Fairbridge Bindjareb Project provides Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in custody with mining industry training and ‘real guaranteed jobs’. It also includes an ‘intensive lifestyle development program’ and focuses on reconnection to and respect of Aboriginal culture. A preliminary review found only 18% of participants returned to prison within two years of being released (compared to 40% for the general prison population recidivism rates), and 73% of participants had successfully gained and retained full-time employment 7 months post conclusion of the program. Independent analysis found the cost savings to the government for the first five intakes of the project was approximately $2.9 million.

Case Study: Coolgardie teenager invents a water treatment system

18-year old Uriah Daisybell, a student at the Coolgardie Christian Aboriginal Parent-Directed School (CAPS) used mussel shells and sugar to start engineering a solution to contaminated water in his community. He began experimenting with his ‘deadly heavy metals’ filter while living in the Kimberley, a region that has faced numerous water quality concerns, particularly high levels of nitrates in remote areas.

“In my community, the water tastes really bitter. I thought the filter could benefit communities like mine and others further out from major towns.”

His award-winning prototype uses charcoal, neodymium magnets and carbon-coated mussel shells – all materials that are easy to obtain locally – to filter contaminants from water. 

“Mussel shells are easy to come by … the real challenge was carbonising the sugar. I had to go outside and make a little fire and cook them … [In the filter] they’re really tightly compacted so they stop dirt and other things in the water from going through.”

Daisybell was a finalist for the 2019 Australian Stockholm Junior Water Prize and the 2019 BHP Foundation Science and Engineering Awards. In his submission, he said the project could benefit communities all over the world, and if water can be cleaned with his filter, it could mean clean water is widely available.

Combining these efforts with Social Reinvestment programs

Indigenous people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. WA has the highest rate in all of Australia of First Nations people in detention, the highest rate of Indigenous young people under supervision,  and the highest number of deaths in custody of all states. The rate of incarceration has advanced 12 times faster for Aboriginal people than non-Aboriginal people since 1989, yet there’s been an almost complete absence of rehabilitation programs for Aboriginal children despite the urgent need for them.

Imprisonment is costly and ineffective. It costs $100 per day to supervise one juvenile on a community work order, $356 per day for every adult in detention, and $1021 per day for every juvenile in detention.  The cost to detain WA’s  7000-strong prison population is $1.6 billion and set to increase. WA also has the highest recidivism rates in Australia, with 45% of people returning to prison within two years of release.

20 years ago the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody identified over-representation of the Aboriginal men, women and juveniles in the justice system was due to Aboriginal disadvantage and underlying issues including unemployment, poverty, unstable accommodation and homelessness, the inability to pay fines, poor health, lack of education, as well as police practices and judicial processes. It recognised that only through addressing these underlying causes would there be any long-term reduction in the levels of over-representation.

A 2018 review found only 64% of the 339 recommendations of the Royal Commission had been fully implemented, and the rate of imprisonment of Indigenous Australians had almost doubled in the 27 years since 2017. Between 1991 and June 2020 there have been at least 437 Indigenous deaths in custody in Australia, with 164 of these in WA – the highest number of all states and territories.

In June 2020 Attorney-General for Western Australia, John Quigley, said there was “systematic discrimination” against Indigenous people in the Western Australian justice system, and oversaw long-overdue reforms relating to jail sentences for unpaid fines. The next step is to commit to a state-wide social reinvestment program, and link this to mentoring, training and employment opportunities that would arise from a program rolling out community-identified infrastructure and services across urban, regional and remote communities.

Justice Reinvestment shifts the emphasis and funding of justice from incarceration to less costly early intervention, prevention, and rehabilitation, and targets and responds to the underlying causes of offending rather than reacting to the consequences once the damage has been done.

A Social Reinvestment approach is a transformative approach to justice issues and focuses on responding to the underlying causes of offending, reducing both crime and costs, and supporting the social and economic development of disadvantaged communities. It is supported by evidence and the collective knowledge and experiences of 25 WA non-government organisations who have formed the Social Reinvestment coalition to support this approach here in WA.

Each of these policies provides the opportunity to train and employ people and empower communities.  During the implementation of the community’s recommendations, local people could be trained to build, install, and maintain infrastructure improvements. This would also raise living conditions while simultaneously closing gaps in education and employment, especially in renewable energy, water sanitation, and health care provision.

In Western Australia, First Nation peoples suffer a mortality rate twice as high as for non-Indigenous people and a drastically higher burden of disease rate, including cardiovascular and respiratory illness, and chronic kidney disease. It is predicted that these inequalities will be intensified by climatic conditions such as heat stress, water and food-borne illnesses, vector-borne infectious diseases and air pollution effects.


Investing in community-run First Nations media services

Digital inclusion and connectivity have been acknowledged by the Australian government as a primary requirement for economic and social participation. It is also essential to meeting the goals laid out in the Closing the Gap framework. Without digital inclusion, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are further disadvantaged in business and access to essential services.

52% or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations in Australia do not receive appropriate First Nations Media services.

Article 16 of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples outlines the right to participate in First Nations-owned and controlled media services and to have access to all forms of non-Indigenous media without discrimination.

First Nations media services provide vital services. In remote communities local First Nations radio rates highly as 90 per cent audience share, and in 82 regions across the country First Nations radio is the only radio service available.

Community-based media projects can provide work experience and the opportunity to run community workshops teaching aspects of digital literacy.


Addressing broadcasting “White Spots”

In WA, especially south of Perth, there are large gaps in the provision of First Nations media services, and many communities lack access to locally run media outlets, including Albany, Esperance, Denmark, and Bunbury. This has been a growing concern over the past five years as the ABC has scaled back news and weather reporting in remote regions.

“In terms of infrastructure, there are large pockets of WA without First Nations media services. The south-west corner, south of Perth for example, has a large Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population and no dedicated media service. We would like to see these ‘white spots’ addressed to give First Nations communities all over the country access to community-controlled media services.”

– Claire Stuchbery, First Nations Media

Radio programs can educate listeners on traditional land practices, the effects of climate change, and translate health, public service and emergency information, and news connecting remote communities.

Given the profound and disproportionate impact of climate change on First Nations communities we recommend exploring funding for First Nations media organisations in all locations to produce documentaries, animations, special series, outside broadcasts, language revitalization initiatives, podcasts and multimedia productions across radio and screen content specifically relating to climate change.

Clean State also acknowledges the vital role Indigenous media played during the COVID pandemic and understand that while there was some funding provided to broadcast national-level content, none was provided for translating the content into more languages and many communities cut off at the onset of COVID-19 lacked access to health information in the appropriate language. In consultation, a greater focus on funding for translating COVID content was identified as a strong, immediate partnership the government could pursue.

The First Nations media industry provides a range of employment pathways for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people both within the sector and feeding into mainstream media and other industries and offers a culturally safe environment in which to develop ‘work ready’ skills and to continually upgrade those skills to define their own career paths. For this reason, many media workers move into communication roles in other industries, such as the mining and resources industry, politics and the public service and information technology.

However, a lack of operational funding has limited opportunities for mentoring and job shadowing to develop management and senior-level expertise, and has constrained the sector’s capacity for business development and increased dependence on government funding, rather than increased financial sustainability.

“What we don’t have is Government support for these roles. In remote areas some media workers are employed through the CDP, others work on a casual basis on different film and radio projects. What we would like is reliable support for operational expenses that would allow the industry to employ people in a manner that supports career development more strongly, rather than in bits and pieces that provides little job security and continuity.”

– Claire Stuchbery, First Nations Media

The industry has developed 9 Calls for Action which identify minimum requirements from Government to grow the capacity of the sector to deliver employment and economic returns for communities. It proposes $24 million nationally for items including operational & employment funding, live & local expansion programs, strengthened news services, expanding training & career pathways programs, and infrastructure upgrades.