CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Wednesday he plans to spend a week in an Outback Aboriginal settlement to focus national attention on the bleak plight of indigenous people.
Abbott announced his trip to remote East Arnhem Land, set for later this year, in a speech to Parliament when he delivered the government’s annual update on the state of Aboriginal affairs. He said Australia was not on track to achieve important targets in closing the gap between the living standards of Aborigines and the rest of Australia.
He said his visit to the sparsely populated Northern Territory would make it “the focus of our national government.”
“After 226 years of intermittent interest at most, why shouldn’t Aboriginal people finally have the prime minister’s undivided attention for seven days?” Abbott asked Parliament.
Abbott’s office did not immediately say where the prime minister would stay among the tiny Aboriginal communities scattered through the crocodile-infested tropical wilds of East Arnhem Land.
The local Yolngu people there maintain their strong traditional culture and many struggle with the English language.
The impoverished circumstances of many Aborigines, who live in Third World conditions within one of the world’s wealthiest countries, is widely regarded as Australia’s greatest blight.
Abbott repeated the words of former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating in 1992 that Australia’s failures toward its first people were “a stain on our soul.”
Annual reports to Parliament on progress in closing the gap between Aborigines and other Australians in a range of welfare measures were initiated by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008 when he made an historic apology on behalf of the Parliament for past wrongs suffered by indigenous people since European settlement in 1788.
Wednesday’s report was Abbott’s first since his conservative coalition defeated Rudd’s center-left Labor Party government in elections in September.
It found that progress was too slow to achieve a target of closing the gap in life expectancy between indigenous and nonindigenous Australians by 2031.
Indigenous men continued to die 10.6 years earlier than other Australian men, and indigenous women died 9.5 years before nonindigenous women. Those results marked a 10-month improvement for men and less than a month for women over the past five years.
The goal of halving the gap in jobless rates in the decade from 2008 failed to make any progress. The employment rate for Aborigines fell to 53.8 percent in 2008 to 47.8 percent last year, while for other Australians it increased to 75.6 percent from 75 percent in 2008.
But Australia was on track to halve the gap in child mortality by 2018. The mortality rate in 2008 was three times higher among Aboriginal children than the wider community under five years old.
Aborigines are a minority of 600,000 in Australia’s population of 23 million. They are the poorest ethnic group in Australia, suffer poor health and lag behind in education. They are also incarcerated far more often that other Australians.