We now know what Tony Abbott meant when he promised before the 2013 election to be the first “Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs”. When the Western Australian government confirmed it was closing 150 remote Indigenous communities yesterday, the self-declared Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs backed the move, saying the “taxpayer should not have to fund people’s ‘lifestyle choices’”.
WA premier, Colin Barnett, said the closure of the communities was because commonwealth funding for them would soon run out, and support for them would fall on the states.
Tony Abbott said:
“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. In order to get kids to school and adults to work, you’ve got to have a school.”
“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.”
The critical response condemning Abbott was swift:
Labor’s Indigenous Affairs spokesman Shayne Neumann said Abbott should apologise:
“Here he is saying that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be evicted from the lands on which they’ve lived for millennia. He really is a disgrace and he really should apologise unreservedly for these comments.”
West Australian Labor frontbencher and Indigenous MP Ben Wyatt said:
“Mr Abbott has sought to portray the ancient cultural practices of Aboriginal Australians as nothing more than a sea change move, the equivalent of painting landscapes on one’s veranda.”
The chairman of WA’s Kimberley community of Djarindjin, Brian Lee said:
“We are obliged to look after our country and that’s why a lot of us are out here on country. Unless you live out here, you really can’t make any judgement on that. For our people, it’s an obligation to your ancestors to look after your country and you have to be on your country to look after it.”
Director Rolf de Heer said:
“It’s so inappropriate that it’s laughable. It shows such ignorance that he has no right to be the prime minister of Australia. It’s hypocritical that our Prime Minister pretends to be the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and has so little understanding of what it is to be on country … There are no jobs so they earn nothing. So they get welfare and they pay twice as much for their food as we do. Welfare is not enough here, let alone there. So they have a choice to move somewhere else?”
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert, spokesperson on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Issues said:
“This is just another example of gross deep-seated racism by the Prime Minister, who is completely out of touch with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community in both Western Australia and nationally. The cultures that exist within these communities are thousands of years old and stretch far beyond the Prime Minister’s bizarre idea of a ‘lifestyle choice’.”
The PM’s comments come only days after Abbott, the Minister for Women, showed just how out of touch he was with another important demographic, when he defended an International Women’s Day lunch at a men-only club in Brisbane.
We seem to have a Prime Minister whose world-view is so topsy turvy that he now thinks an ancient culture’s connection to a land is a lifestyle choice. We wonder whether some of his other decisions, such as federal government funding of school counsellors being limited only to church-based “chaplains”, should now be described as taxpayers funding Abbott’s own “lifestyle choices”?
Image: The PM’s residence, Kirribilli House
What do you think of the PM’s comments? Have you been able to make a “lifestyle choice” in your choice of home?