The Stringer’s interview with Tony Abbott – his “must-do” list for Aboriginal Australia
Tony Abbott meeting with Aboriginal Elders, Northern Territory, April 2011
The Leader of the Coalition, Tony Abbott has drawn up a “must do list” he said he would implement from the first day he became Prime Minister to deliver Aboriginal peoples from abject poverty.
Mr Abbott, the Leader of the Federal Coalition Opposition and a red hot favourite to win the September Federal election, spoke with The Stringer about what he intends to do to assist the hopes and aspirations of Aboriginal peoples in the event he is elected as the next Prime Minister of Australia.
Mr Abbott was approached for an interview and consented without any conditions which The Stringer respects. Next week we bring you Senator Christine Milne, the Leader of the Australian Greens. We hope to bring you the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard but can only try our best. Over the coming months we will pose one question after another from our readers to our nation’s leading political figures. We have a list of questions – single parenting payments, mental health, poverty, homelessness, Native Title Act, Justice Reinvestment, the list is long but we will ensure the questions are asked.
Mr Abbott spoke on a number of issues including the Northern Territory Intervention. On others, such as the Native Title Act, he reserved the right to speak to proposed changes closer to the election date. Mr Abbott said he had a must do list he believed must be completed if Aboriginal peoples are to rise out of abject poverty. He said he would begin on this list from his first day in office.
He has committed to take personal responsibility to lead the way in setting and achieving targets to “effectively close the gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.”
Mr Abbott said the level of importance he placed on improving the lot of Aboriginal peoples was demonstrated by his decision to include Indigenous affairs in the Office of Prime Minister. He said he would include in his suite of portfolios the title and department of Prime Minister of Indigenous Affairs.
He said Senator Nigel Scullion would be the Minister for Indigenous Affairs and they would work alongside each other in implementing programs to address the issues confronting Indigenous Australia.
“Indigenous affairs will be a whole-of-government priority and I intend to be, amongst other things, a Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs with Senator Nigel Scullion as the Minister for Indigenous Affairs,” Mr Abbott said.
He said the foundation of his goals on Aboriginal affairs was providing the resources to ensure Aboriginal communities had appropriate access to health, education and employment.
“A high standard of life for impoverished Aboriginal communities cannot be achieved without the local population enjoying a high level of health, quality education and high levels of employment,” Mr Abbott said.
“Communities will only rise out of poverty when they have developed an economic base to build up their towns. Governments do not build towns, the people do.”
“Most towns are built by the people and one of the reasons why it’s important over time to ensure communities have an economic base is because then it will be the people who are building them, not simply the Government,” Mr Abbott said.
“That said, obviously where the Government is building it’s got to be done to an appropriate standard and it’s got to be good value for taxpayers.”
Mr Abbott would not at this time declare anything he may have in mind about anything to do with the Native Title Act although it appeared he does have a plan in mind, forthcoming – a proposal of changes.
A variety of sources to The Stringer have said there is a push from resource companies, multinationals and some of Australia’s richest citizens, from certain Aboriginal Corporations and some people from within the Office of the Registrar of Aboriginal Corporations and the National Native Title Tribunal for changes to the Native Title Act relating to the negotiation process, compensation entitlements to Native Title holders and in terms of oversight of compensation paid and its disbursement and investment. When asked what his plans were Mr Abbott said he would prefer to outline his plans regarding Native Title closer to the election but confirmed he did intend to propose changes.
“The Coalition will have more to say about this nearer the election,” Mr Abbott said when he was asked about the Native Title Act.
He said he believed the landscape was changing for Aboriginal peoples and “within a couple of generations it ought to be possible to make very substantial changes.”
Mr Abbott said he has long maintained a regard and respect for Aboriginal Australia and declared a determination to “make a difference” by creating circumstances which will allow Indigenous Australians an improved quality of life through employment and education.
In a political landscape in which Aboriginal voices continue to rise Mr Abbott promised if the Coalition becomes Government it will put forward for consultation, within their first 12 months in office, draft Constitutional amendments that will recognise Aboriginal peoples. Mr Abbott said he would undertake an inclusive bipartisan approach to enhance the prospects of the amendments to the Constitution.
Mr Abbott said he wants more than symbolic reconciliation – he wants to move forward in leaps and bounds to “practical” reconciliation and which will have tangible outcomes.
He has quite a job to eliminate abject poverty in many Aboriginal communities which have been for far too long neglected.
For far too long Aboriginal communities have been denied the full of suite of funding and to the entitlement of every layer of community infrastructure and services.
Aboriginal youth suicides are to Australia’s shame, now at world record levels.
Aboriginal peoples throughout Australia, and particularly in the Northern Territory and Western Australia endure the world’s highest incarceration rates for a particular peoples.
Recently, in a speech at the Sydney Institute, Mr Abbott said: “I want a new engagement with Aboriginal people to be one of the hallmarks of an incoming Coalition Government.”
He said he would ensure this new level of engagement occurs at every level of society, and that it would be a “must-do requirement.”
And he said this must continue “at least until Aboriginal people are properly honoured for their contribution to our country, at least until they have more or less comparable educational, employment, housing and health outcomes as the community-at-large.”
Mr Abbott told The Stringer he would keep the promise that in the event he became Prime Minister he and some of his senior decision makers would spend a week each year living and working within a remote Aboriginal community.
He said this is a “must-do so as to inform his deliberations and to ensure fair dinkum grassroots consultation.”
By consulting in this manner, living within the community, he said he would be living alongside every generation of Aboriginal people and be able to listen to the needs and aspirations of all of them.
Mr Abbott said the reality would be that within a week in such a community every member of the community would have had a chance at a say and at an illustrative depiction of life and first-hand portrayal of what needs to be done to tangibly improve access to the myriad opportunities and to the general wellbeing other Australians enjoy.
Last month, the United Nations ranked Australia second behind Norway in its annual Human Development Index for public health, social wealth, education, even happiness. But if Aboriginal peoples go stand-alone in the Human Development Index they would not be part of that 2nd rating they would be 122nd.
The United Nations Human Development Index is a measure of the quality of life across 187 nations. In the interviews we will have during the next couple of months with Australia’s political leaders we want them to answer why this division continues to exist between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australia when evidently, targeted funding and a suite of effective opportunities can easily eliminate chronic abject poverty.
Aboriginal peoples in various parts of Australia continue to languish in third-world conditions despite Australia powering on as the world’s thirteenth largest economy.
The Northern Territory is the worst for Aboriginal peoples but Western Australia’s Kimberley, Western Deserts and the Goldfields and South Australia’s APY Lands are not far behind and similarly with a number of regions in Queensland, especially Cape York, for instance Aurukun, and New South Wales, for example in Toomelah.
A snapshot of Aboriginal Australia includes the tragedy of youth suicide which is endemic throughout Australia. Last year a Northern Territory Select Committee on Youth Suicides tabled its report into youth suicide and found the obvious; that there are significantly higher rates of Aboriginal suicides when compared to the national average.
Between 2001 and 2006, the Northern Territory suicide rate for those aged 15 to 24 was 3.5 times that in the rest of the nation. The report highlighted the young ages at which Aboriginal youth were committing suicide and the rise of young Aboriginal women suiciding.
Inspection of Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Programme work in Santa Teresa, Northern Territory, April 2011. Tony Abbott and Alison Anderson listen to what Nigel Scullion has to say.
“The suicide rate for Indigenous Territorians is particularly disturbing, with 75 per cent of suicides of children from 2007 to 2011 in the Territory being Aboriginal,” the report said.
“For too many of our youth there is not enough hope to protect them from the impulse to end their lives.”
The suicide rate doubled for youth between ages 10 and 17 – up from 18.8 per cent to 30.1 per cent per 100,000 – in contrast to non-Aboriginal youth suicides which dropped from 4.1 per cent to 2.6 per cent. A few years ago, Western Australia’s Balgo endured a youth suicide rate 89 times the State average. The 2011 Coronial inquest into the string of deaths in Balgo heard 43 per cent of children in the town missed school during 2010.
Solvent abuse and alcohol abuse were found as contributing stressors and factors and linked to domestic, sexual and public violence. Treatment centres for solvent abuse did not exist in some of these communities. Alcohol bans have been suggested as solutions. Since 1979, more than 100 Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory have banned or restricted the consumption and proliferation of alcohol in their communities.
Despite the alcohol dry communities most of them still continue impoverished and without adequate local job prospects and with low expectation values. State Coroner Alastair Hope got it right as he ripped into government agencies and the lack of provisions to disadvantaged communities.
The Stringer hopes to key in our parliamentarians into the reality of low expectation values in communities which are denied the full suite of services, health, education and social wealth opportunities which are not similarly denied to the rest of Australia.
Mr Abbott said in the event he becomes Prime Minister he will undertake personal responsibility to improve the lives of impoverished Aboriginal peoples while assisting Nigel Scullion in the event he becomes the Minister for Indigenous Affairs and therefore we will put all the questions as they arise to Mr Abbott and to Mr Scullion.
Mr Abbott believes that an acknowledgement of Aboriginal peoples as the first Australians in the Constitution will empower more opportunities for Aboriginal peoples.
“Aboriginal people need to know that they will never be regarded as just a historical footnote to modern Australia. Done well, such an amendment could be a unifying and liberating moment even surpassing the 1967 change or the Apology – so it is worth making the effort,” Mr Abbott said.
Mr Abbott said he wants equality for all Australians and not “two classes of citizens.”
“We should be prepared to work on the amendment until we get it right because such an amendment is too important to go forward, yet fail. Australians’ hearts are in this now in a way we’ve never been before, hence my confidence it can finally be done.”
In February, Parliament passed an Act of Recognition for the First Australians but postponed any chance for the referendum for at least four years with an argument there needs to be a build-up of community awareness.
Our first feature length interview with Mr Abbott was an opportunity to engage with him on Aboriginal Australia. Deeper discussions and tougher questions will surface in future interviews with Mr Abbott and with other political leaders and will be brought to our readers in the weeks and months ahead.
THE QUESTIONS and TONY ABBOTT’S ANSWERS:
The questions and Mr Abbott’s answers are published in full:
The STRINGER: Mr Abbott, according to the polls, if an election were held today, in all likelihood you would be the next Prime Minister of Australia. In the event you become Prime Minister will you keep your promise to spend a week each year of your tenure living within an Aboriginal community?
TONY ABBOTT: Yes, I certainly will spend a week each year as a volunteer in a remote Aboriginal community. I have been doing this for some time now and I am determined to continue should I become Prime Minister.
Obviously, the community has got to be one where I could be useful for a week and it has to be one where a number of people could be accommodated without undue disruption.
I’ll decide nearer the time which one it should be in any particular year.
The STRINGER: When you would have been in primary and high school what you would have been taught about Aboriginal Australia – in historical terms – would have been limited. Where, when and how did you first begin to learn about the real history of Aboriginal Australia?
TONY ABBOTT: You’re right, there was very little explicit teaching about Australia’s Indigenous history when I was at school.
Geoffrey Blainey’s histories of Australia were part of my education in this area, as was my friendship with Neville Bonner arising from our shared commitment to Australians for Constitutional Monarchy. Since then I have tried to read reasonably widely.
There was much in Henry Reynolds’ writing which I questioned but nevertheless he has also been a significant author when it comes to alerting people to the treatment of Aboriginal people since 1788.
The STRINGER: What was your first experience of remote Aboriginal Australia? How did it impact upon you?
TONY ABBOTT: In 1994 and 1995, in my first two years as a Member of Parliament I made two trips to Central Australia and while based in Alice Springs spent a few days touring the communities within a relatively easy drive such as Hermannsburg.
It was also on these visits that I first met and got to know Charlie Perkins, who was a significant early influence on my thinking on these subjects.
The STRINGER: How does the Coalition draw its knowledge of Aboriginal Australia? From which people, what agencies, literature, experiences?
TONY ABBOTT: Obviously, different members of the Coalition draw on different experiences and different people. I certainly draw on my own experiences but our Shadow Minister, Nigel Scullion has had a very lengthy experience as a Territorian living and working with Aboriginal people.
Obviously, the first Indigenous member of the House of Representatives, Ken Wyatt is also an important source of knowledge for us.
The STRINGER: Why is it that at the Federal level the Liberal Party has led the way with Aboriginal parliamentarians but in this area the Labor Party has lagged?
TONY ABBOTT: (Mr Abbott has often described his pride in the fact that the Liberal Party has led the way with Aboriginal peoples represented at the Federal Level.)
It’s not really my job to speculate on the problems of the Labor Party.
The STRINGER: Do you have any comments regarding another first for the Liberal Party with Adam Giles reaching the top job in the Northern Territory?
TONY ABBOTT: Simply that I’m proud of the fact that the Coalition has now produced the first Indigenous member of the National Parliament in Neville Bonner, the first Indigenous member of the House of Representatives in Ken Wyatt and now the first Indigenous head of Government in Australia in Adam Giles.
The STRINGER: Adam Giles has dropped the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio for the Northern Territory. Will you continue on with the portfolio if in the event you are Prime Minister?
TONY ABBOTT: Yes, but as I made clear in my recent address to the Sydney Institute that Indigenous affairs will be a whole-of-government priority and I intend to be, amongst other things, a Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs with Senator Nigel Scullion as the Minister for Indigenous Affairs.
The STRINGER: Will there be any changes you would make to improve the portfolio of Aboriginal Affairs?
TONY ABBOTT: As I made clear in my Sydney Institute speech, to reinforce the whole-of-government orientation, the Office of Aboriginal Affairs will be within the portfolio of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Inspection of Strategic Indigenous Housing and Infrastructure Programme work in Santa Teresa, Northern Territory, April 2011. Tony Abbott with Adam Giles, Alison Anderson and Nigel Scullion.
The STRINGER: By many counts the Intervention/Stronger Futures is struggling in the Northern Territory in trying to exact positive changes. Poverty is entrenched, incarceration rates are high, 84 per cent of the Northern Territory prison population are comprised of Aboriginal peoples, youth suicide rates among the highest in the nation, homelessness rates nearly 20 times the national rate. Why is this so? What more can be done to garner better outcomes?
- (Journalist, Gerry Georgatos declares an impartiality conflict of interest as a staunch critic of the Northern Territory Intervention and of the Labor Government’s Stronger Futures policy)
TONY ABBOTT: Well, of course more can be done, especially to prevent such tragic outcomes.
We need to ensure that the kids are going to school, the adults are going to work and the ordinary law of the land is being observed and enforced. That’s why we have got to publish school attendance rates for each school on a regular basis.
This is why we have got to publish work program attendance rates on a regular basis.
That’s why we have got to have resident police in all of the major remote communities.
The STRINGER: Do you believe any negatives have come out of the implementation of the Emergency Response/Intervention?
TONY ABBOTT: One of the problems with the Intervention was its “top-down” nature.
It was announced without prior consultation with Aboriginal people. It was an emergency response and inevitably in an emergency some things have to be done very swiftly and with the wisdom of hindsight they may have been done better but given the circumstances I think it was overwhelmingly a positive development at the time.
The STRINGER: The Government is committing $4 million to Utopia in the Northern Territory but why is not more being injected to fully build up Utopia and ensure the full suite of services, just like most other regions of Australia?
- (The Northern Territory community of Utopia, 350 km northeast of Alice Springs, is an example of Government neglect. It is third world and most of its 1,200 Alyawarra and Anmatjirra peoples languish in dilapidated homes and without the suite of public services that most other Australians enjoy. The United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, Navi Pillay condemned the deplorable conditions and described the neglect as racism. Amnesty International’s Shalil Shetty described Utopia as third world. Last month the Australian Government finally meted out $4 million to Utopia for housing refurbishments and facilities. This is peanuts and let us hope that most of the $4 million is not eaten up by bureaucracy and contractor fees.- Gerry Georgatos).
TONY ABBOTT: Look, I want to get better briefed on Utopia before I respond.
The STRINGER: Why is not the Australian Government building towns and communities for Aboriginal peoples equivalent to what non-Aboriginal regions get in respect to communities and towns?
TONY ABBOTT: Well, if I may say so, most towns are not built by the Government.
Most towns are built by the people and one of the reasons why it’s important over time to ensure that communities have an economic base is because then it will be the people who are building them, not simply the Government.
That said, obviously where the Government is building it’s got to be done to an appropriate standard and it’s got to be good value for taxpayers.
The STRINGER: What more should be done to actually Close the Gap rather than the piecemeal funding approach that exists?
TONY ABBOTT: Well, we will never close the health gap if we don’t also close the employment gap, the education gap, the housing gap and so on. That means we need more Indigenous kids at school. We need more Indigenous adults at work, particularly working in the real economy and that’s why the work of people like Twiggy Forrest and Warren Mundine is so important.
The STRINGER: Can the Native Title Act be improved?
TONY ABBOTT: Well, the Coalition will have more to say about this nearer the election.
The STRINGER: Should there be a standard prescribed into the Native Title Act that takes the onus off resource companies and Aboriginal Corporations in negotiating land access agreements and compensation outcomes and in having to deal with the presumption of good faith?
TONY ABBOTT: Again, more to say about that later.
The STRINGER: Some Aboriginal Corporations have not adequately disbursed wealth back into their communities. Some of these Corporations have become very wealthy while the communities languish, or they do less for their communities when compared with other Aboriginal Corporations. Do you agree?
What should be done to improve acquittal or funding and of their operations? Should the Office of the Registrar of Aboriginal Corporations and the National Native Title Tribunal be improved in terms of balance and check?
TONY ABBOTT: Again, more to say about that later.
January 26, 2012, The Lobby restaurant incident with Aboriginal Tent Embassy supporters and the news media outside – Journalist, Gerry Georgatos is wearing the red cap and red and black shirt, and is standing next to the Prime Minister’s minders – Photo, Geoff Bagnall, National Indigenous Times
The STRINGER: Last year on January 26 during the Lobby Restaurant incident, you and the Prime Minister were inside while some of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy folk were outside and eventually they started protesting. Days later I broke the story through The National Indigenous Times and that was picked up by various media that the Prime Minister’s parliamentary staffer Tony Hodges did not act alone. For the record, he did not act alone and two credible sources have confirmed this. I have asked the Prime Minister’s Office on a number of occasions to account and indeed to apologise to Aboriginal Tent Embassy, to Aboriginal Australians and to all Australians for the aspersions cast upon Aboriginal Tent Embassy peoples that she has in good part generated by hiding behind the actions of Tony Hodges.
In The Stringer’s opinion all this goes to the integrity of the highest office in the nation. Should the Prime Minister tell the truth on this matter? Should the Prime Minister apologise to Aboriginal Australia? Or should we let it go and we all just move on?
TONY ABBOTT: Look, to the extent that the Prime Minister’s story does not reflect the truth I would urge for the publication of the full story. To the extent the Prime Minister and her office have not been straight with the Australian people, the full truth should now be told.
I would urge (you) to get on with telling it.
- (I did on a number of occasions tell the story – published in The National Indigenous Times and other news media. Some of these stories were picked up and retold by The Australian newspaper and AAP and other news media. The Australian Federal Police also contacted us. The Prime Minister’s Office has responded to my questions with the line that Tony Hodges acted alone. The ALP’s former Attorney-General, Robert McClelland has gone public with a statement that it could not have been possible that Tony Hodges acted alone. The Coalition had called for an inquiry into the allegations.)
The STRINGER: Where do you see the state of the nation in reference to Aboriginal Australia in 2020? And by 2030?
TONY ABBOTT: Well by 2020, I’d like to think that the Indigenous people will be recognised in the Constitution. That Indigenous school attendance is approaching that of the rest of the community and that Indigenous employment outcomes are much better than they are now and in particular that the percentage of Indigenous people employed in the real economy is much higher than it is now. And I’d like this to be even more the case in 2030.
The STRINGER: Do you believe that we are only a generation or two away from ending chronic and acute Aboriginal poverty?
TONY ABBOTT: I think within a couple of generations it ought to be possible to make very substantial changes.
The STRINGER: What do you think of National Indigenous Television (NITV)?
TONY ABBOTT: I’m pleased that the Howard Government established National Indigenous Television. I’ve done quite a few interviews on it lately and I think it’s good and getting better.
The STRINGER: If you get the opportunity, what will you do on your first day as Prime Minister of Australia?
TONY ABBOTT: I’m not getting ahead of myself. I suspect I would go to many meetings and make lots of important decisions. First act will be to begin the Carbon repeal process.
The second act will be to talk to the Navy about new instructions for our naval forces in the seas to our north.
The third act will be the establishment of the Commission of Audit but I would not want the day to end without serious discussions on Indigenous issues and in particular on ways to advance the recognition referendum.
- Mr Abbott said that on his last day in the Office of Prime Minister he would like to reflect “on commitments kept.”