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

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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