IT’S been a busy week for Australian politics. After the infighting and backstabbing of the last months, you wouldn’t expect the appointment of a special envoy on Indigenous affairs to send too many ripples through the political chaos that is the Australian government. Unless of course that special envoy is Tony Abbott.
The former prime minister accepted the offer on Tuesday and drew quick condemnation from an Aboriginal community who has been dealt a second blow in less than a week – the first being the appointment of neo-colonialist Scott Morrison as prime minister.
“Haven’t we been punished enough in Indigenous affairs? How long can we put up with a paternalistic government who does not choose to engage or to talk to us?,” said Jackie Huggins, the co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.
“Tony Abbott has a track record in terms of denying Aboriginal people their rights to social justice, but also to self-determination.”
MEDIA RELEASE: Our message to the new PM @ScottMorrisonMP
— National Congress (@congressmob) August 27, 2018
And she’s right; the self-proclaimed “prime minister for Aboriginal affairs” has arguably done more damage than good for Indigenous Australia.
Abbott’s back catalogue is riddled with derogatory or just tone-deaf statements that rightly worry observers. While PM, he claimed the continent was “unsettled” prior to the British invasion in 1788, ignoring established communities and the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people.
He also called the invasion the “defining moment in the history of this continent,” reiterating his point a second time for anyone who missed it in the back.
But Abbott’s disrespect for Indigenous Australia goes beyond just ill-advised comments. During his tenure, he also did tangible damage with bad policy that continues its legacy of pain to this day.
In 2015, Abbott backed a plan to close more than 100 remote communities in Western Australia and move more than 1,000 people away from their homes. His reason being the Aussie taxpayer shouldn’t be expected to “endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices” of the community.
When challenged on his choice of words, Abbott doubled-down, defending his use of the term and saying he was “making a pretty obvious point.”
Dear Interim PM, I don’t want Tony Abbott as an envoy. I don’t condone his lifestyle choice of division, deceit & disfunction. His record includes devastating funding cuts to services, & rejecting our call for a Voice. Envoy Abbott?: The Australian people would never support it.
— Thomas Mayor (@tommayor11) August 27, 2018
The protests that followed all linked back to his harsh budget and the much-derided Indigenous advancement strategy that stripped over AU$500 million (US$365 million) in funding from essential services. An audit of the policy later found the strategy to be rushed, confused and failing to meet required standards.
Another US$105 million was lost when Abbott decided to shift the Indigenous affairs portfolio into the office of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
His efforts to help the community have clearly not landed well as still today Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are lagging far behind their non-Indigenous counterparts in social wellbeing.
According to Oxfam, they are 64 times more likely to have rheumatic heart disease; 95 percent of them are affected by suicide, and they are 60 percent more likely to die from cancer than non-Indigenous.
And yet there is only one doctor for 5,360 Aboriginal people. Compare that to just 1:372 for non-Indigenous Australians. The loss of US$33 million on healthcare under Abbott’s government didn’t help the matter.
Aboriginal Australians are also 15 times more likely to be imprisoned with one in seven Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander having been jailed. Nearly 100 percent of incarcerated Aboriginals are people who live below the poverty line.
Indigenous women are 32 times more likely to be hospitalised for family violence than non-Indigenous. And about a quarter of Indigenous Australians aged above 15 report being victims of physical or threatened violence – twice the rate for non-Indigenous.
The suggestion that Tony Abbott could act as some kind of messenger or representative for First Nations people is condescending and a serious worry for First Nations people. https://t.co/HvUr4D5P63
— Patrick Dodson (@SenatorDodson) August 27, 2018
The prospect of more Abbott-conceived policies is understandably not a welcome one for many in this still vulnerable community.
The failure to place an Indigenous MP in the role has dumbfounded many and left Aboriginal people once again feeling they don’t have a voice in the important discussions affecting their lives.
During his prime ministership, Australia witnessed a “move away from involving Aboriginal people in decisions that affect the lives of Aboriginal people,” Indigenous Labor MP Linda Burney told ABC Radio.
“The last thing Indigenous affairs needs is Tony Abbott blundering around in that space.”