SYDNEY – Prime Minister Tony Abbott governed the country from a remote region in the Northern Territory this week, seeking solutions to chronic disadvantage among indigenous populations. Indigenous communities remain cautious, however, fearing they will again be excluded from the process.
Speaking on Sept. 15 from a temporary tent camp in north-east Arnhem Land, home of the Yolngu people, Mr Abbott said he was honouring an election promise to spend a week every year in an indigenous region.
“Yes, this is a remote place, but in its own way it’s the heart of our country,” he said, adding that it was important to have a “good handle” on what was happening in remote areas as well as major centres.
Mr Abbott confirmed that he would be leaving the region on Thursday, Sept. 18 to farewell Australian air force personnel leaving for Iraq, but would be back in Yolngu country on Friday to fulfill his promise to indigenous leader Galarrwuy Yunupingu.
The Prime Minister said he was focusing on the economics of the region, and the importance of “real jobs for people”, “adults to work” and “kids to school”. To date he has met with a range of community leaders and visited schools and businesses in the area.
Recognition of Australia’s indigenous population in the Constitution was also on the agenda. Aboriginal members of parliament are keen to see a referendum on the issue before the next federal election in 2016.
Mr Abbott insisted that while “there was a lot of good will, and a firm intention” on the part of the Government and the Opposition, he would not be rushed.
“It’s important that it’s righted in ways that unite Australians, that don’t divide us needlessly, and there is a long way to go before we get this done,” he said.
While he hinted that a proposal and a timeline will be outlined in coming weeks, it is understood Mr Abbott will not seek a referendum until after the next election, according to the ABC.
Boni Robertson, a Kabi Kabi woman from South East Queensland and Professor of Indigenous Policy at Griffith University, welcomed Mr Abbott’s interest but remained cautious about outcomes. She said it was too early to pass judgement on his approach to indigenous affairs and, after many decades working to enhance the lives of indigenous peoples, warned that indigenous communities must be consulted before any directions are set.
“A good intent means nothing if the people you are intending to support or help are not part of the process,” she said in a telephone interview.
Professor Robertson is calling for a national summit for indigenous people to talk about issues like “representation, participation, engagement” and to give them a voice in the process.
“You cannot turn the tide without people, all of our people, being part of that process and one way would be to have a national summit.
“Some people might think that is old hat,” Professor Robertson added, “but at least it would give groups a way to be involved.”
PM for Aboriginal Affairs
Before his election last year, Mr Abbott declared that he wanted to be Prime Minister and “the Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs”.
He said fixing indigenous disadvantage was Australia’s greatest “national failure” and a personal priority. Mr Abbott has since moved the Department of Indigenous Affairs into the Prime Minister’s office (PMO).
Side stepping The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, the main representative body for indigenous people, Mr Abbott made permanent a temporary body, the Indigenous Advisory Council (IAC), which he selected and appointed to audit and report on indigenous spending and programs.
Former Labor Party president Warren Mundine heads the IAC and says the auditing role remains a focus.
“I am going to be strong on this: we need a proper audit, a proper process to look at all of the spending and make evidence-based decisions on what is working,” he told News Limited.
The Abbott government cut funding to Indigenous programs by $534 million in its budget, and has introduced tough new criteria that will mean many applicants miss out. Mr Mundine says a further $600 million in savings could be made.
Community inclusion essential
Professor Robertson worries that changes to welfare and the cuts have come too hard and fast, creating confusion in the community
“People don’t know what it is that is being promoted or proposed and how it is going to affect them. That is not really about inclusion that is imposing,” she said.
She welcomed the inclusion of indigenous members to the IAC and says while there are many people currently working with the PM to address ongoing disadvantages in indigenous communities, it is important to include people within the communities as key players too.
“It is really admirable that we have our own people in Canberra working with them and guiding the process but even those people, myself included, we need to remind ourselves that our people have to be an inclusive part of the process not just a recipient of the process,” she said.
Professor Robertson would like to see the The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and the IAC work together to create a national summit for all indigenous people in Australia.
“That would be one way that our people can honestly see that this country is adopting the true meaning of engagement and partnership and that we can see it being applied at the most basic level,” she said in an email.