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Will Tony Abbott be a ‘prime minister for Aboriginal affairs’?

Recently, Australian Indigenous policy has been characterised by an unambitious bipartisanship. After one too many dramatic and unsuccessful initiatives, there is a sense of lowered expectations. New prime…

Tony Abbott has promised to be a ‘prime minister for Indigenous affairs’. But what this actually means in terms of policy remains thus far unclear. AAP/Alan Porritt

Recently, Australian Indigenous policy has been characterised by an unambitious bipartisanship. After one too many dramatic and unsuccessful initiatives, there is a sense of lowered expectations.

New prime minister Tony Abbott stands out in this environment, exhibiting a deep commitment to Indigenous engagement and reform. This sits somewhat strangely with his generally conservative social policy positions. Abbott aims to personally take charge of this area, declaring that:

It is my hope that I could be, not just a prime minister, but a prime minister for Aboriginal Affairs. The first I imagine that we have ever had.

Just what this means in practice remains to be seen. At this stage, his agenda remains vague and his engagement selective.

Policy plans

Abbott subscribes to the current consensus position on Closing the Gap in Indigenous disadvantage – emphasising individualism, mainstream economic participation and asset accumulation. Plans that have been released so far focus on employment and do not mention social policy crisis areas such as housing and incarceration rates.

In fact, just prior to the election the Coalition announced a A$45 million cut to Aboriginal legal aid services. It claimed that this will not affect frontline services. Community organisations have strongly criticised the move, arguing that a cut of this size will significantly affect the quality of legal representation for a group that are 15 times more likely to be jailed.

Abbott does not seem as ideologically wedded to continuing the Northern Territory intervention as previous leaders, but he supports income management and proposes to extend its reach. However, this top-heavy policy approach costs at least A$4,400 per person per year to administer and may sit awkwardly with his commitment to streamline services.

Abbott’s major policy reform announced to date involves bureaucratic reshuffling. The Indigenous Affairs portfolio will be moved out of the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA), and into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) where Abbott can directly oversee it. This has already been tried: during the Howard years the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination was set up within DPMC, but later moved back to join the remainder of the portfolio in FaHCSIA.

Like Howard, Abbott also plans to set up a hand-picked Indigenous advisory board rather than working with existing bodies such as the National Congress. There are suggestions that Howard-era DPMC head Peter Shergold will be on this body, indicating that it may include non-Indigenous individuals.

The Abbott/Mundine ‘bromance’

This new panel will be chaired by former ALP president and Aboriginal leader Warren Mundine. He shares Abbott’s Catholic faith and belief in the importance of economic participation for Indigenous people. Abbott has described Mundine as a “kindred spirit” who is taking him “on a journey”. Already an influential voice in mainstream policy discussion, Mundine looks set to move even closer to the centre of decision making.

Prominent Indigenous leader Warren Mundine will be a key adviser to new prime minister Tony Abbott on Aboriginal affairs. AAP/Alan Porritt

Cape York leader Noel Pearson will be also be invited onto the panel, along with academic Marcia Langton. Together, Mundine, Pearson and Langton already occupy a central place in public debate on Indigenous issues. It is not clear if alternative Indigenous perspectives will be given equal space.

One genuinely new aspect of Abbott’s approach is his promise to continue to spend one week a year in remote Indigenous communities. This “hands-on” approach will be strengthened by the likely appointment of long-serving NT senator Nigel Scullion as Minister of Indigenous Affairs, a job to which he brings extensive relationships and experience.

Architect of the NT intervention and former indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough - who is likely to return to parliament as the MP in Fisher - may also join in. But again, this involves particular kinds of engagements with remote Indigenous communities rather than a broader coming to terms with diverse Indigenous perspectives (as his infamous comments on “authentic Aborigines” demonstrates).

New engagement?

Even those who are brought into the fold may not be heeded on all issues. There is extensive precedent when it comes to setting up Indigenous consultative mechanisms and then ignoring them altogether. It will be interesting to see how Abbott responds to challenges by Mundine and Pearson.

Recently, Pearson has pushed back more on issues of Indigenous rights (while maintaining his strong commitment to responsibility). Abbott recently flagged differences of opinion:

Yes, as my friend Noel Pearson was saying yesterday here, we need to empower communities, but we can’t really empower communities without also empowering the individuals, the people, the families that make them up.

The first cracks have also shown between Abbott and Mundine, with the latter criticising the pre-election decision to cut legal aid funding without consultation:

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t happy about such a large reduction.

However, he said that he would include legal services (and presumably this funding cut) in his comprehensive Indigenous policy review.

So, to what extent will Abbott listen to Indigenous views when they do not align with his own perspective? Will he take into account the diverse aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?

A renewed focus on political relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia is positive, as is Abbott’s more modest tone on Indigenous issues. But the rest remains to be seen.

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29 Comments sorted by

  1. Darin Ritchie

    logged in via Twitter

    I think it is worth noting that Abbott will bring the greatest personal commitment to Indigenous policy of any Prime Minister in Australia's history. He does not need to be convinced of its importance; he doesn't have to learn and negotiate the terrain or come to terms with the complex issues; and he does not need to be brought up to speed on the current state of Aboriginal communities.

    Abbott will certainly not be a 'fly-in, fly-out' politician that shows up in a community with journalists and camera crews in toe to make an announcement and then return to 'civilisation'. And he won't try to pretend that symbolic statements will be a sufficient substitute for real action on the ground.

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    1. John Crest

      logged in via email @live.com.au

      In reply to Darin Ritchie

      It''ll be interesting to see what response your post gets from the main swamp of luvvies around here.

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    2. Darin Ritchie

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to John Crest

      Agreed. I also have to say I found the original article a little disappointing, particularly as I don't quite follow how being conservative is a an antithesis to Indigenous engagement. But I am sure, as you say, there will be others who will point it out for me.

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    3. John Crest

      logged in via email @live.com.au

      In reply to Darin Ritchie

      Well, they'll attempt to: poorly and unsuccessfully of course.

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  2. Dufa Wira

    pensioner

    More window dressing? LNP Aboriginal policy is like LNP environment and climate change policy - a smokescreen unless it meets the good for business test. Abbott's first action on Aboriginal policy - even the Murdock media knows: "The Coalition has announced a cut of $42 million to the Indigenous Policy Reform Program, which provides funding to the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services across Australia." A cut of this level has the potential to destroy already marginalised and limited legal services to the most disadavantaged and most commonly imprisoned sector of the Australian population.

    Still, pigs might fly. Perhaps the AG elect will write them all a 'get out of jail card free' letter as he did for the LNP staffer found guilty of drunken driving? Wouldn't that do for wonders for state prison budgets.?

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Dufa Wira

      There's a certain amount of bitterness on your statement Dufa re Peta Credlin who was treated as any clean record driver with a low level alcohol account is.
      I am sure that the likes of Noel Pearson or Warrine Mundine would not be backward in coming forward to give a referral for someone they knew closely and who was in similar circumstances.
      There is much more that needs to be done within indigenous communities before matters get to a stage where legal representation is necessary and most people having dealings with solicitors would likely tell you that is an experience they would rather forego, those tropical vines with sharp hooked edges not called Lawyer Vines for no small reason.

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  3. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    So when Indigenous Australians own property and have financial independence - rather than having commbn property managed for them - it's dismissed as 'asset accumulation'?

    Here's an idea. Rather than urban academics or 'community organisations' deciding what's good for a whole group of people, can we let individuals decide what they want to do? You know, like every other adult in Australia?

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    1. R. Ambrose Raven

      none

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Silly comment. They do. With the customary results.

      Any effective programme will have to be highly interventionist, just as curing a broken leg is highly interventionist. After all, locking them up is also highly interventionist, with no potential whatever for improvement.

      Denialists expect blackfellas living ten to a house to buy their own home on a mortgage when the median whitefella mainstream family that they supposedly seek to emulate, can’t. Denialists also deny that migration to more “mainstream” areas would have large personal, social and economic costs for many Aborigines.

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    2. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to R. Ambrose Raven

      Sorry RAR, what programme do you mean? And who are the denialists - what do they believe?

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    3. Decortes Fleur

      Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

      In reply to R. Ambrose Raven

      The High Court put paid to terra nulls and in so doing identified the rights of Aborigines to 'live' on their lands. Only real estate mad shale oil Murdoch wants to 'round people' up and force them into 'missions' again. I would just point out that the Civil and Political Liberties Covenant allows for the right to subsistence
      living and traditional hunting grounds, bush foods and ceremonial connect to the land in very traditional homelands The 'gap' in policy if it is examined with a micro lens…

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  4. R. Ambrose Raven

    none

    No, Abbott is not. “great personal commitment to Indigenous policy”? But what policy?

    As a rule, remedies for Aboriginal dysfunction generally make positive noises about Aboriginal uniqueness while in practice deeming Aboriginal culture to be just another curiosity to be replaced by materialism and consumerism through the application of sufficient doses of money plus victim-blaming.

    Note the moneybags' focus on conformity (expressed through the public service as an arm of government) with…

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  5. Lee Emmett

    Guest House Manager

    And has Tony Abbott opened his home for a week to indigenous people, to see how he lives?

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    1. Lorraine Muller

      PhD - eternal student

      In reply to Lee Emmett

      Tony only flies in overnight, at taxpayers great expense, to Aboriginal communities. He makes out he volunteers, but his visits are a sham.

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  6. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    Tony by example of involvement over a number of years and through his expression of ministering indigenous affairs during the campaign offers some hope and as PM with a busy schedule he obviously will have limited time personally so his Indigenous Advisory Board is a reasonable approach and will only be as good as what its function and MO is.
    Noel Pearson is on record with the view that indigenous people need to be more responsible for themselves than just relying on welfare and that is a view I…

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  7. Alice Gorman

    Lecturer at Flinders University

    The best thing Tony Abbott could do is read the 'Black Deaths in Custody' and 'Bringing Them Home' reports. Then he might have a few clues, and a few policy directions that were meaningful.

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  8. Revelly Robinson

    Lawyer

    Hmm...a bit rich for Abbott to claim to be the Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs when his party held out on giving an apology to the stolen generation for so many years. I think everyone is viewing the PM's stance on Indigenous affairs with a bit of skepticism considering how Howard neglected this portfolio, until the heavy handed and patriarchal intervention that is.

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Revelly Robinson

      If you consider the legalities amongst other issues with the intervention, there have been reports of various problems affecting indigenous peoples for many years, a major problem being that other than the NT it is a state responsibility and the states having been under Labor government for many years did nothing.
      As politically motivated it may have been, there was also a level of frustration that brought on the NT intervention, a program that was also supported by the Labor government.

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    2. Decortes Fleur

      Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

      In reply to Revelly Robinson

      A double dissolution over the carbon tax now seems a possibility.
      Mundine, Pearson, Langton are 'superpowers' - for some.
      But have no popular consensus.
      An Aboriginal Parliament in Canberra, as a third house of parliament, with dynamic speakers, languages spoken, truth spoken, would bring about needed change - and quality debate.

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  9. Paul Prociv

    ex medical academic; botanical engineer

    Here in Australia we have a growing population of people who have migrated from distant, dysfunctional societies, having decided to take on the stresses and responsibilities of adapting to a new, perhaps alien culture, in order to improve their own lives and those of their children. For some reason, the indigenous inhabitants of remote, dysfunctional communities in our own country are not supposed to be offered similar opportunities; any suggestions in this direction are instantly met with cries…

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    1. Doug Fraser

      policy analyst

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      Paul,

      To describe Mundine, Pearson or Langton as "outstanding" is accurate only if you apply the term in the meaning of "outliers". I have yet to see any real evidence that any of them is truly representative of the people for whom they purport to speak, not that I think this would worry the Coalition a great deal. And I might add that characterising Marcia Langton (a good contender for the title of the rudest person in Australia) as "urbane" truly is gilding the stinkwort. As for Mal Brough being…

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    2. Paul Prociv

      ex medical academic; botanical engineer

      In reply to Decortes Fleur

      Wow, you've blown me away completely, Decortes! Please enlighten me, for I was writing purely from personal experience. What exactly was the propaganda? And, just for the record, I have never in my life voted for the LNP.

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  10. Doug Fraser

    policy analyst

    I note in passing that not a word has been said in this discussion about Torres Strait Islanders. The whole reason the word "indigenous" became standard usage in policy circles about 20 years ago was a realisation that Torres Strait Islanders had been overlooked, or simply absorbed into a single category with Aborigines, when it came to discussing policy on Australia's original owners, and policymakers needed to be more aware that they were dealing with two very different (groups of) cultures whose…

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    1. Paul Prociv

      ex medical academic; botanical engineer

      In reply to Doug Fraser

      Doug, you really have touched upon an important yet very sensitive issue. I agree fully about Aborigines (and how that is a non-specific term, although we know its meaning in our local context) and TS Islanders as being very different groups of people. In fact, Islanders I've known have been very resentful to be mistaken for, or be lumped together with, Aborigines, whom they consider to be inferior (just another manifestation of tribalism). For starters, TSI people come from a culture closely…

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    2. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Doug Fraser

      Doug, "Indigenous" is whitefella bureaucrat creation. Actual Aboriginal people tend to get very shirty if you call them "Indigenous."

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    3. R. Ambrose Raven

      none

      In reply to Doug Fraser

      An extremely reasonable point, which I certainly breach. At least we should be aware of such differences, even if we choose not to formally adopt them.

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  11. Decortes Fleur

    Writer Researcher Producer at creative industry

    More than evident but not touched on - by the author - is a Nationals plan to 'UNLOCK THE NORTH' in tandem with plans to cut green tape and cut red tape and given the 'issues' are greater than social welfare, there really should be an Aboriginal Parliament to administer Australia's Aboriginal Affairs Portfolio.
    Tony Abbott may benefit from the introduction of a third house of parliament, recognising the great big wide northern homelands, the skills, languages and aspirations of tomorrow's people. A big investment bank, a gold desk, a shipping company and a supreme council of women, to start the ball rolling.

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  12. Shamini Subramaniam

    Student

    Whilst it is reassuring that the Coalition government has acknowledged the importance of engaging with indigenous people to inform and shape indigenous affairs, one wonders how much can be accomplished if engagement equates to recommendations and feedback from an “expert” panel. We do not have to look far to see how such attempts have failed in the past. The ATSIC and NIC were advisory bodies appointed by previous governments and they failed to make any significant impacts on indigenous policy…

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