Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been slammed as a “disgrace” and a “racist” for describing remote indigenous communities as a ‘lifestyle choice’ that should be stripped of taxpayer funding.
Mr Abbott did not retreat from his comments during an interview with 2GB’s Alan Jones on Wednesday morning.
“If you or I chose to live in a very remote place, then to what extent is the taxpayer obliged to subsidise our services?” he said.
“I think this is a very real question”.
On Tuesday, Mr Abbott said those who choose to live to live in areas where there are no schools and jobs could not expect the state to provide for them.
“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,” he told. ABC Radio.
“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.”
Up to 150 remote indigenous communities face closure, despite the accepted wisdom that Aboriginal people have a better quality of life and connectedness to their culture when they live on their ancestral lands.
— Rikki Andrews (@rikkitweets) March 10, 2015
The Prime Minister has been told to apologise in an angry response from the Opposition’s Indigenous Affairs spokesman Shayne Neumann. “He really is a disgrace and he really should apologise unreservedly for these comments,” Mr Neumann said. “Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have had more than 200 years of dispossession, dislocation and disadvantage and the Prime Minister wants to perpetuate this.”
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert has also criticised Mr Abbott, calling his comments “unbelievably racist and completely out of touch with reality”.
“There are massive social and economic costs in closing communities,” Ms Siewert said.
“We don’t go around closing small rural towns half the size of many of these communities, this short term cut and will have huge short and long term consequences.”
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner Mick Gooda told Sky News that Aboriginal people “don’t have the privilege of making lifestyle choices”, as they are the poorest, most disadvantaged people in the country.
He said the proposal, which could mean turning off government services such as water or health services as has been done in the past, was “coercive”.
“Let’s work out a sensible solution without this coercive forcing of people to do what they don’t want,” Mr Gooda said.
“I think the lack of thought out announcements about this is causing panic.
“You can’t just pick people up and frogmarch them to another part of the state just because you’ve made a decision to do that.
“We’ve tried moving them once, are we going to move them again? They don’t have the privilege to make lifestyle choices,” he said, referencing the large movements of Aboriginal people into remote communities in the past.”
The government mobilised its junior MPs to clarify the Prime Minister’s position.
Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister Alan Tudge said on Sky News on Wednesday that remote Aboriginal people who lack a good education do not have a reasonable choice in their lifestyle.
He said maintaining a connection to ancestral lands is important but “a good education is also very important”.
“The problem with those very remote locations is you can’t give a good education,” he said.
“It’s hard to maintain a strong culture if people are not educated.
“The reason they don’t have a reasonable choice is that they don’t have a good education.”