Australia

Is Tony Abbott a good fit for new Indigenous affairs envoy?

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Tony Abbott has agreed to become the prime minister's special envoy on Indigenous affairs, amid both support and criticism about his track record on the topic.

Tony Abbott once declared he was the “Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs” while he was running the country and promised to spend a week out of every year in remote Indigenous communities.

But Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s offer to make him a special envoy for Indigenous Affairs sparked criticism of the Warringah MP’s track record on the matter.

Mr Abbott accepted the role on Wednesday, saying school attendance and performance will be his major focus.

Tony Abbott, who has been offered a new special envoy role, with Scott Morrison.
Tony Abbott, who has been offered a new special envoy role, with Scott Morrison.
AAP

But while Australia already has an Indigenous Affairs portfolio, it is unknown exactly how the new envoy role would fit into it.

Mr Abbott does have prior experience, starting as Indigenous Affairs spokesman after the Coalition was relegated to opposition in 2007.

At the time he criticised his former leader and mentor John Howard, saying his government had been wrong to not offer a national apology to the Stolen Generations – something Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd would go on to do in 2008.

"It was a mistake for us not to apologise to Aboriginal people," he said.

"And I'm pleased when Kevin Rudd did decide to apologise that he was strongly supported by the Coalition."

When Mr Abbott swept to power in 2013, he promised to “continue to spend a week a year in a remote Indigenous community as I have done over the past decade".

And after being usurped by Malcolm Turnbull, Mr Abbott continued to meet with Indigenous communities and leaders, including visiting the gravesite of land rights campaigner Eddie Mabo, where he praised Mr Mabo for “having a go”.

Prime minister Tony Abbott holds the hand of a child as he visits the grave of land rights activist Eddie Mabo on Mer Island.
Prime minister Tony Abbott holds the hand of a child as he visits the grave of land rights activist Eddie Mabo on Mer Island.
AAP

While prime minister, he also championed a referendum to recognise Indigenous Australians in the constitution.

“I am prepared to sweat blood on this,” he said at the time, urging Australians to “transcend the 'them and us’” mentality.

Earlier this year Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected the Referendum Council’s recommendations for Indigenous constitutional recognition.

The council had recommended a referendum be held to change Australia’s Constitution to establish an Indigenous “Voice to Parliament”.

Mr Abbott spoke against the proposal and in a Facebook post said recognition should “come in a way that brings all of us together and this proposal, for a further level of indigenous representation, was unlikely to achieve that”.

Support for Abbott

New Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party Josh Frydenberg said finding a role for Mr Abbott would be of benefit to the Morrison government.

"[Indigenous affairs] is something that Tony's been passionate about for a long period of time. I do think he has something to bring to the table," he told 3AW radio.

Senator Mathias Cormann, a supporter of Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton in last week's leadership spill, also spoke positively about the possible role for Mr Abbott.

"The prime minister recognises that Tony Abbott has a strong contribution to make as a former prime minister in particular, and no doubt if any decisions are made in relations to these matters they will be announced in due course," the senior frontbencher told ABC radio on Monday.

Mathias Cormann is an Abbott supporter.
Mathias Cormann is an Abbott supporter.
AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Stuart Robert, who has been returned to the frontbench after a two-year absence, said Mr Abbott was "by far and away the best choice" to be the new Indigenous envoy.

"I can't think of a better person ... than Tony Abbott," he said.

Abbott's track record

Mr Abbott has been criticised by some Indigenous campaigners over slashing funding for the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, which offers programs targeting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and frequent gaffes when referring to Australia’s first people.

In 2015, Mr Abbott was roundly condemned for saying that living in a remote community was a “lifestyle choice” while announcing the closure of more than 100 Indigenous settlements in Western Australia.

Indigenous leader Noel Pearson called the comment disappointing.

Mr Abbott is also against any treaty with Indigenous Australians, saying it would “overcomplicate” matters.

Western Australian Labor Senator Patrick Dodson said on Monday Mr Abbott is not the “envoy” Indigenous Australians need.

Noel Pearson has worked closely with Mr Abbott - but also called him out.
Noel Pearson has worked closely with Mr Abbott - but also called him out.
AAP

"Labor is seriously concerned about appointing the ex-self-appointed ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous affairs’ to the role of ‘envoy,’ given his ignorant, hopeless and frankly offensive track record on Indigenous issues," he said in a statement.

WA Labor Senator Patrick Dodson.
WA Labor Senator Patrick Dodson.
AAP

"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."

Senator Dodson attacked the Abbott government's closure of 150 plus Indigenous communities and Mr Abbott's support for the Howard era Northern Territory intervention, which saw widespread changes to welfare provision and land tenure in 2007.  

National Congress of Australia’s First People’s co-chairs Dr Jackie  Huggins and Rod Little also criticised Mr Abbott’s track record on Indigenous affairs.

“We, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, have cried enough over you and other politicians responsible for devastating policies and minimising our representation,” Dr Huggins said.

“We are demanding that you abandon the cynical thought of appointing Tony Abbott as special envoy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs for the sole purpose of attempting to quell the factional divides in your party.

Dr Jackie Huggins.
Dr Jackie Huggins.
Supplied

“Let’s reflect on Mr Abbott’s history of supporting harmful, paternalistic policies relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs. This is the man who systematically dismantled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations through the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, tried to mainstream service provision, cut over $500 million from our services, attempted to silence the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples by removing its funding and handpicked his mates for the Indigenous Advisory Council.

“Mr Abbott’s sole accomplishment was robbing our people of our right to self-determination.”

On Monday, Mr Abbott addressed the new role in a speech at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney. 

"I certainly think that can and should be done here. I guess I'd like to know more of precisely what he has in mind," he said.

"I've spent a lot of time in Indigenous Australia and there is so much to be done. One of the problems though, that bedevils Indigenous policy more than just about any other area of our public life, is governance. 

"I just want to make sure that if I'm to do this, I won't be treading on the toes of people that are already there."

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