With his throwaway “lifestyle choice” comment about those who live in remote communities Tony Abbott has angered indigenous Australia. The prime minister’s recent track record on gaffes may well be laughable, but in this case things are a little more complicated.
Tony Abbott said when he took office he wanted to be “a prime minister for Aboriginal Affairs. The first I imagine that we have ever had.” Really? Tony Abbott, Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs? The same Abbott who knighted Prince Philip and wanted to repeal parts of the Racial Discrimination Act? Yes. But at the time it wasn’t the joke it seems now.
Academic-journalism website The Conversation wrote in 2013, “New prime minister Tony Abbott stands out in this environment (of social conservatism), exhibiting a deep commitment to Indigenous engagement and reform.” It wasn’t Kevin Rudd apologizing for the Stolen Generations, but it was better than many had hoped and Abbott picked his Indigenous advisers well. Those same advisers are now publicly distancing themselves from this recent salvo.
The issue is federal funding of 150 very remote Indigenous communities. Right now they receive much federal and some state funding, but it may soon fall to the state of Western Australia, where Premier Colin Barnett says he will shut them down once the federal assistance runs out. In a radio interview during a visit to the old mining town of Kalgoorlie, Abbott said, “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.”
“It is not unreasonable for the state government to say if the cost of providing services in a particular remote location is out of all proportion to the benefits being delivered. Fine, by all means live in a remote location, but there’s a limit to what you can expect the state to do for you if you want to live there.”
From a purely rational sense with no other information, this standpoint may make sense: it is hard for the government to provide good services to very remote areas and these communities in Western Australia are some of the most remote – the capital Perth is the most isolated large city in the world – but for the “first” prime minister for Aboriginal Australia they display a comprehensive lack of understanding. His own Indigenous adviser, Warren Mundine, said, “It is not a lifestyle choice. They are living there because this is their country, this is the essence of who they are. People can live anywhere they want all over Australia: the issue is how do we then set up a system for that. The Prime Minister does not help in that process by using such words as ‘lifestyle’.”
Given deep Indigenous connections to the land, something even many Australian schoolchildren are taught (your correspondent was), Abbott’s remarks were evidence of a rather surprising lack of understanding, especially given that he has himself stayed in an Indigenous community for a week so as to learn more. This is apart from the fact that leaving their land in what would amount to a forced resettlement jeopardizes native title claims. Alison Anderson, an Indigenous member of parliament from the Northern Territory, said, “We are part of a group of people that belong to our country,” she said. “Data shows that our health improves when we live on country.” Anderson was born in a remote community.
In February, the Australian government released the Closing the Gap report. The report focused on efforts to close the gap in Indigenous health, employment and education. Some of the key findings were that there have been only minor gains in life expectancy and low progress on infant mortality. Employment has not improved. On the upside, the Year 12 attainment goal is on track. Though disappointed, Abbott said to parliament at the time, “As far as I am concerned, there is no more important cause than ensuring that Indigenous people enter fully into their rightful heritage as the first and as first-class citizens of this country. We must strive and strive again to ensure that the first Australians never again feel like outcasts in their own country.”
How that squares with “lifestyle choices” is something it seems only the prime minister understands.