During his week in the Torres Strait Islands and Cape York, Prime Minister Tony Abbott spoke about Constitutional change, attended a military ceremony, visited numerous schools and spoke about potential Australian military air strikes in Syria.
In September 2014 in north-east Arnhem Land, Tony Abbott spoke about an imminent announcement on Constitutional change, attended a military ceremony, went to a few schools and fielded questions about Australian air strikes in Iraq.
The location was new, but the visits were composed of the same topics and the same staged events. It’s fair to ask, is there now a cookie-cutter model for visiting black communities?
The circus that is a Prime Ministerial visit isn’t inherently a bad thing. It allows an opportunity to meet new constituents, hear new voices, tread new ground and learn about the unique challenges of a community. But circus is certainly the right word.
Like last year’s Arnhem Land jaunt, Tony Abbott’s trip saw him bring several government ministers, frontbenchers and departmental staff.
The media contingent consisted of nearly 20 journalists and crew. With the Prime Minister at its front, the pack of politicians, staff and journalists carved a path through Thursday Island, Mer Island, Horn Island, Injinoo and Bamaga.
Tony Abbott was part of an emotional visit to the grave of land rights champion Eddie Koiki Mabo. Many of the locals welcomed him warmly, apart from the local Jardine Hotel, which was thrown a last minute cancellation from the PM’s office that cost the hotel $50,000, according to media reports.
"Three days into his trip, commercial breakfast shows were asking Tony Abbott more about the republic debate, same-sex marriage and US gun laws than the stale and seemingly vexed Indigenous issues"
Local women told him of the steep prices at a local supermarket. He was educated in the Torres Straits’ proud military history, and he travelled the streets of Bamaga in a school bus as it took the local kids to class.
Unfortunately, within hours, the novelty had worn off. Three days into his trip, commercial breakfast shows were asking Tony Abbott more about the republic debate, same-sex marriage and US gun laws than the stale and seemingly vexed Indigenous issues.
It takes weeks, maybe months, of planning from the PM’s staff to organise a five day agenda because each public appearance needs to send the right message.
We know what the message is from this Prime Minister because he’s repeated it daily in Queensland: get the kids to school, the adults into work and make the communities safer.
The pictures beamed out from far north Queensland create the perception of a government working diligently on that agenda: Tony Abbott visiting schools, Tony Abbott taking part in building work, Tony Abbott going to a health clinic.
Statistics don’t lie
Of the classes in Bamaga, Tony Abbott told the media: “They were the best classrooms I've ever seen and most of those classrooms had very high percentage of people attending. I think the Year 2-3 class had 100 percent attendance today, a very enthusiastic participation.”
Encouraging, yes, but not supported by years of statistics.
With a Prime Minister visiting your school, it would be logical to expect nearly every student attending because they’d all been urged to come.
That’s why context is so important and context is infinitely harder to gain on the ground because the agenda is packed and the logistics aren’t usually in the media’s hands.
So, to put it in context, the latest statistics about the Commonwealth’s Remote School Attendance Strategy show that school attendance rates in Bamaga (where the PM rode the school bus) are average. From a high of 76 percent attendance in 2010, it dropped to 67 percent in 2013, before rising to 74 percent in the first semester of 2014.
Tony Abbott himself told a crowd at Bamaga that one of the main reasons for his visit was a sign of his “determination to take Indigenous issues seriously”, and he seemed very intent on statistics when speaking with the locals.
“It seems to me only fair and reasonable that the Prime Minister of Australia should spend 2 percent of his year very specifically with 3 percent of our people. [Indigenous people make up approximately 3 percent of Australia’s population].”
Well, what about the 30 percent of prisoners in Queensland who are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander? In June 2014, there were 2,243 Indigenous prisoners in Queensland jails.
"Yet, we have a Prime Minister who will not support a justice target alongside the other Close the Gap targets"
They’re appalling statistics that are generally true for every state and territory in Australia. Yet, we have a Prime Minister who will not support a justice target alongside the other Close the Gap targets, a Prime Minister who has not yet mentioned Indigenous incarceration this week on his visit to remote Indigenous communities.
The ever-present Indigenous disadvantage
In Queensland, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Indigenous men can expect to live nearly 11 years less than non-Indigenous males. For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in the state, it is nearly nine years. It’s a trend that will require years to reverse. The Prime Minister pragmatically made the solution fit the narrative he was crafting in Queensland.
“[Indigenous people] know there’s got to be more exercise in their life and one of the great things about this community development program [My Pathway] is that by getting people to work on things like building, things like community gardens, we do get people active again,” he told the media this week.
"But if every blackfella started gardening, it is highly unlikely we’d see the gap in life expectancy suddenly decrease. That’s where the rhetoric needs to be more substantial"
Great idea, but if every blackfella started gardening, it is highly unlikely we’d see the gap in life expectancy suddenly decrease. That’s where the rhetoric needs to be more substantial.
Now, to be sure, it’s not as if every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community is wholly concerned with imprisonment and life expectancy rates. However, the slim commentary on those issues from the Prime Minister on this remote visit risk creating a false balance where it appears that no Indigenous person cares.
Yes, the pictures were pretty in the Torres Strait and Cape York, fodder for an eager news cycle.
Yet, a much uglier picture lurks just beneath the surface for Indigenous Australia. Tony Abbott needs to spend a week looking at that and the media must not avert its eyes.