"Under an incoming Coalition government, Indigenous affairs will be handled within the department of prime minister and cabinet. There will be, in effect, a prime minister for Aboriginal affairs"
– Tony Abbott, the Sydney Institute, March 2013
The Indigenous Social Justice Association's Ray Jackson, said "He terms himself as the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs. What he is in fact is the Minister for Aboriginal Despair."
Mr Abbott's comments on Tuesday on the plight of Indigenous people in Western Australia who are facing the closure of their communities showed, at the very least, a crass ignorance of the issue. Some have gone further, calling him a racist.
About 150 remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia are facing closure, putting the approximately 12,000 Aboriginal people in those communities on notice.
The Prime Minister told a radio station in Kalgoorlie, "What we can't do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have.
"It is not the job of the taxpayer to subsidise lifestyle choices. It is the job of the taxpayer to provide reasonable services in a reasonable way."
How is it just a lifestyle choice to live on your traditional homelands? The lands of your ancestors.
How is it just a lifestyle choice to live on your traditional homelands? The lands of your ancestors. The lands you have had a continuous connection to for tens of thousands of years. The lands you have raised a family on and feel a duty to protect.
Apparently, this does not satisfy Tony Abbott's definition of "full participation" in Australian society. A society which is only just over 200 years old, compared with 60,000 years of Indigenous history.
Mr Abbott explained the very remoteness of those communities was affecting the Government's priorities in getting Indigenous children to school, adults to work and making those communities safer.
... the Federal Government effectively forced WA Premier Colin Barnett’s hand by refusing to continue essential servicing for those communities.
To be clear, Tony Abbott is backing the WA Government’s move here. But, in the first place, the Federal Government effectively forced WA Premier Colin Barnett’s hand by refusing to continue essential servicing for those communities.
In the interest of fairness, some Aboriginal people also support the moves. Notably, Kimberley leader Ian Trust supports the move.
It seems incomprehensible that a man like [Abbott], with more Indigenous experience than many other politicians, can continue to offend.
Back to yesterday, there are so many things wrong with Mr Abbott's comments. It would be easy to dismiss it if this was his first misstep. But it isn't. He has consistently adopted a bumbling and usually offensive approach to dealing with the First Nations of Australia. It seems incomprehensible that a man like himself, with more Indigenous experience than many other politicians, can continue to offend.
A history of gaffes
Last year, Mr Abbott said Australia was "scarcely settled" before the arrival of the First Fleet. Then during a visit from the British Prime Minister, Mr Abbott said convicts on the First Fleet would have seen "nothing but bush" when they first landed on Australia’s shores. To put it simply, he implied the nomadic Indigenous cultures of Australia, with complex songlines and established methods of existence, were not as legitimate as the English colonials.
Those remarks were amateurish and insulting to many Indigenous people. In 2015, with the Prime Minister promising to start "good government", how does he manage to continue putting his foot in his mouth?
If he had a scripted response, I hope it wasn’t the one he gave last night because that would be a deliberate provocation.
The Prime Minister made a choice to go to WA and surely he or his team would have expected a question on the emotive issue of community closures. If he had a scripted response, I hope it wasn't the one he gave last night because that would be a deliberate provocation. If it was a genuine, unplanned response from the Prime Minister, it does indeed show a failure to understand such basic topics as connection to country. It doesn't endear him to Indigenous people or left-leaning and moderate Australians.
It does appear to have the support of the political right. Conservative commentators Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt have thrown their support behind the Prime Minister. Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Treasurer Joe Hockey and Education Minister Christopher Pyne have also defended Tony Abbott.
Of course, it goes without saying Tony Abbott is passionate about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. He has lived on and worked in remote communities for years and, when speaking to him in person, he is genuinely committed to improving the lives of First Nations peoples.
But, he is the Prime Minister. All of that good will and best intentions mean nothing without the policy initiative and political guts to make real, positive change. Any Prime Minister, especially one who claims to work for Indigenous people, deserves to be held to a higher and harsher standard.
Yes, he's working hard to change the Constitution to positively recognise Indigenous people. What reasonable Australian doesn’t support it?
Yes, his political statements on Closing The Gap are powerful and expertly delivered.
But, these two issues are too easy. They're politically safe. Of course, many Australians support the recognition movement and the idea of Indigenous people living longer. Essentially, it's a free kick whenever Tony Abbott speaks about it because how can you argue with him?
Prime Minister Abbott must be judged on how he approaches the tougher issues.
Prime Minister Abbott must be judged on how he approaches the tougher issues like treaties, outrageous Indigenous incarceration rates, numerous funding cuts to the Indigenous sector and the genuine concern from Aboriginal people facing exile from their remote WA communities.
I believe anger is too easy at the moment. Indigenous people can't just be angry at Tony Abbott for the latest in a pattern of disrespect. Emotions should be channelled, the publicity must be used positively and the engagement must now be genuine if any resolution or compromise is to be reached.
Next year, Indigenous people will have another "lifestyle choice": whether to vote Tony Abbott back into the Prime Ministership.
*Myles Morgan is the political reporter for NITV News. These opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of NITV.