News National Is Tony Abbott a pass or fail on Indigenous affairs?

Is Tony Abbott a pass or fail on Indigenous affairs?

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Tony Abbott came to power claiming he would be the Prime Minister for Indigenous people, but 18 months after winning government his work in the area has been criticised as shallow, misjudged and “hopeless”.

Search for “Abbott in remote Australia” and the first result on Google is his recent comment that living in remote Indigenous communities is a ‘lifestyle choice’.

It continues to the next page until reports of his “nothing but bush” statement take over, where he invoked terra nullius in praising British civilisation in Australia.

Backlash over Abbott’s ‘lifestyle choice’ gaffe
Abbott’s nasty nickname in the Top End

In fact, it is difficult to find details of his efforts to take the Australian government into remote Australia for a week. It seems his agenda is swallowed up by his gaffes.

Two prominent voices in the debate over the PM’s performance on Indigenous affairs agree the PM is working hard but say the outcomes are less than impressive.

Poor delivery

Fred Chaney AO campaigned to give Aboriginal people the right to vote and was a Liberal MP in Western Australia when he helped establish the Aboriginal Legal Service. He also co-chaired Reconciliation Australia since its beginning and led the National Native Title Tribunal.

Mr Abbott awarded him the senior Australian of the Year award in 2014. He is the embodiment of a leader who lives for the betterment of Aboriginal people.

Fred Chaney
Fred Chaney AO receives his senior Australian of the Year award in 2014. Photo: AAP

To Mr Chaney, the Prime Minister has good ideas but fails in his execution, or “they’re not worth a pinch of pig shit if they’re not enacted properly”.

Mr Chaney says some of the policies he considers are good, including the push to regionalise the administration of aboriginal initiatives, the Indigenous Advancement Strategy which channels grant funding into five broad areas, and developing more closely with the community. These programs Mr Chaney gave high scores.

But Mr Chaney adds that the PM has shown a gap between delivery and intentions.

Last week Mr Abbott backed the Western Australian government’s plan to pull funding from up to 150 remote townships or outstations deemed “lifestyle choices”. Mr Chaney said when the discussion trivialises the situations of Aboriginal people “they are diminished, not only in the eyes of the community, but in their own eyes too”.

Most perplexing for some Abbott watchers is that one-to-one, he is fair dealer with Aboriginal people.

Mr Chaney says he has seen him in action and wouldn’t doubt his sincerity.

“He engages with Aboriginal people in a wholehearted way,” he says, and refers to a time when they both have slept in swags out bush with a group of young people rehabilitating from crime or substance abuses.

Pearson’s view

There is no federal policy on remote community funding, as Noel Pearson points out.

In an excoriating interview with the ABC’s Louise Yaxley, Mr Pearson calls Mr Abbott’s lifestyle statement “disappointing and hopeless”.

Noel Pearson
Noel Pearson speaking at Gough Whitlam’s funeral.

Mr Pearson declined The New Daily’s request for an interview, but told the ABC: “And yet Mr Abbott has portrayed himself or says he wants to be the Prime Minister for Indigenous people.”

Like so many have done with Mr Abbott, even Mr Pearson began by giving him the benefit of the doubt.

“I don’t doubt his high-minded intensions here,” he said, “but I’ve got to say 18 months into the life of his Government I don’t see a great deal of proof of his intentions in this regard because in a sense his announcement in Western Australia (Wednesday) is in direct contradiction to what Nigel Scullion his Minister said last week, when he said that you know work for the dole program might go on for 30 years in these remote communities.

“The Minister’s saying one thing about the longevity of work for the dole program in remote areas and on the other hand the Prime Minister’s talking about closure of communities, I think we’ve just got to stop making policy on the run.

“For this debate to be conducted in such a off-the-cuff manner through policy thought bubbles is I think a disgraceful turn of events.”

It seems more people are finding holes in the story that Mr Abbott is the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs.

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