A NEW engagement with Aboriginal people should be one of the hallmarks of an incoming Coalition government.
From Tony Abbott Federal Opposition Leader
While our forefathers created a country we can be proud of – perhaps the most magnificent country on earth – there is no escaping the fact that the dispossession and marginalisation of Aboriginal people is by far the most troubling feature of our national story so far. News Limited is right to revisit this essential national issue.
As Paul Keating put it so eloquently over two decades ago, chronic indigenous disadvantage constitutes a stain on our nation’s soul. Until the first Australians can fully participate in the life of our country, we are diminished as a nation and as a people.
Of course, progress has occurred, but there is still much to do. There is a new spirit in this land that reaches out to embrace the indigenous people of our country, so different from the prejudice that prevailed when I was young. Still goodwill hardly matters, if adults aren’t going to work and children aren’t going to school.
Of course, the knowledge, understanding and identification of culture is a rich foundation for the emotional and spiritual growth of indigenous children but equally, if it’s not accompanied by a decent education in English and a secure home life then their growth and emergence as strong, well adjusted and healthy young adults will not occur.
There can’t be one standard for the Australian community at large and a different one for Aboriginal people. Adults have to go to work (or work programs) and kids have to go to school.
That is not to say there is a single mechanism or structure that will suit every community. As Ken Wyatt, the House of Representative’s first indigenous member has cautioned, there are no “one size fits all” solutions here.
In this area, more than most, policy makers’ over-riding instinct should be: “first, do no harm”. Nevertheless, if elected, a Coalition government will co-operatively work with the states and territories, and offer the communities ready to try it, a different, less prescriptive type of governance structure.
To give an example of how it could work, as part of welfare reform in Cape York, the Family Responsibilities Commission, which is guided by magistrates, local elders and community leaders, has been working with local and national agencies to help deal with family dysfunction.
The success of this model has seen dramatic improvements in school attendance rates and some improvement in the “tone” of several Cape York communities. There may be other regions that would benefit from their own fit-for-purpose arrangements.
Idleness and boredom in any community leads to dysfunction, that’s why getting adults to work and kids to school is so important.
Idleness is never healthy and, inevitably, eats away at self-esteem. It harms the soul. Idleness, substance abuse and a breakdown in social norms are inevitably linked.
That’s why we’ll work in the Northern Territory and elsewhere with local authorities and communities to best determine how we can create safer communities and help local people access jobs and education opportunities – because education and jobs are antidotes to idleness.
Making indigenous communities safer and stronger has to start at the top of government. That’s why, if elected, a Coalition government will see indigenous affairs handled within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. This means that along with Nigel Scullion as minister, there will be, in effect, a Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.
It’s also why I have pledged, should I become prime minister, to spend at least a week every year in a remote indigenous community. If these places are good enough for Australians to live in they should be good enough for a prime minister and senior officials to stay on.
I do however want to add a few words of caution. It would be presumptuous, even arrogant to thank that any incoming government could swiftly overcome two centuries of comparative failure.
If elected, it would be equally complacent, even neglectful, for a new government not to commit from day one, to redressing the most intractable difficulty our country has ever faced.
A flurry of activity from any new government lapsing into business-more-or-less-as-usual won’t be good enough. A new cycle of enthusiasm-turning-into cynicism will not do.
We must steadfastly address this urgent national challenge, so that indigenous Australians fully share in the bounty of being part of one of the most free, fair, and prosperous countries on earth.
Tony Abbott is Federal Opposition Leader