Many people will remember Tony Abbott as the prime minister who called living in a remote Aboriginal community a ‘lifestyle choice’. It was a statement that prompted angry backlash and led tens of thousands of people to protest proposed forced closures of Aboriginal communities.
More than just an incredibly demeaning label for the world’s oldest continuous human civilisation, Abbott’s full statement highlights his real attitude to ‘closing the gap’: “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” he said.
The legacy of the self-appointed ‘prime minister for Indigenous Affairs’ is not just in his words, but more importantly his actions. In a recent piece in The Guardian, Indigenous journalist Stan Grant wrote that Abbott had “stripped half a billion dollars from spending on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.
In trying to fashion himself as some sort of 21st century Christian missionary to Indigenous Australia, Tony Abbott managed to offend everyone while worsening the living standards of many Aboriginal people. The gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people has not improved, and in some cases, is getting wider.
If there is a lesson we can learn from the last decade it is that token gestures towards Aboriginal people change nothing.
Closing the gap requires an increase in funding of services to remote communities, and importantly, recognising genuine Aboriginal self-determination. It requires an end to oppressive policies like the Northern Territory Intervention and the forced closures of Aboriginal communities. It means addressing the ongoing crisis of Aboriginal deaths in custody. It means ending the humiliating and isolating practice of welfare quarantining.
New Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is as much a part of the problem as Abbott. He voted for the Northern Territory Intervention. He supports welfare quarantining. His newly appointed treasurer, Scott Morrison, has spoken of the need to drastically cut social spending. That Abbott’s Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, has been left in his role by Turnbull shows we can expect little change.
The main reason Turnbull won the top job is because he is seen as more capable of driving through economic reform and social spending cuts than Abbott.
Turnbull has promised to lead a government committed to “freedom, the individual and the market”. What this really means is freedom for business to exploit, blaming the individual for social problems and worshipping the rule of the market.
For Aboriginal people this means mining corporations will continue to pillage Aboriginal land, long-term poverty, unemployment and health problems will be blamed on individual choices and social spending will be cut and services privatised.
Abbott’s only positive legacy is that his arrogant contempt for Aboriginal people elicited a backlash in the form of a new movement for Aboriginal rights and self-determination. This movement has been led by a new generation of Aboriginal activists whose aspirations go far beyond the mainstream agenda of constitutional recognition.
Importantly this movement has already found active support amongst tens of thousands of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people.
The solutions to the problems facing Aboriginal people will not come from a Turnbull government. They will come from linking this new movement with the building of a broader workers movement fighting for investment in jobs, housing, education, health and services for all working class people. Ultimately only a democratically controlled economy – a socialist economy – can cede genuine autonomy to those Aboriginal communities demanding control of their own affairs.
By Mel Gregson