• Former prime minister Tony Abbott (left) and Australia's incoming Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (AAP)Source: AAP
There was much that Tony Abbott 'still wanted to do' for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. What will his successor's approach be?
By
Andrea Booth

15 Sep 2015 - 3:07 PM  UPDATED 15 Sep 2015 - 5:09 PM

In his final address as Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott reflected on the unrealised plans and hopes he had for his leadership. 

"Of course there's much that I had still wanted to do – constitutional recognition of Indigenous people; getting the kids to school, the adults to work, and communities safe."

"I was the first prime minister to spend a week a year in remote, Indigenous Australia, and I hope I’m not the last."

As Stan Grant, a Wiradjuri man, journalist, and host of NITV's Awaken program, writes in The Guardian, "the self-proclaimed 'prime minister for Indigenous people' leaves a legacy unfulfilled". 

"He spoke of closing the gap and redressing Indigenous disadvantage yet stripped half a billion dollars from spending on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

"He spoke of his desire to lead a referendum to recognise indigenous people in the constitution yet leaves leaders like Noel Pearson stranded somewhere between disillusion and hope."

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The question for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now is, what will be Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s aspirations and approach on Indigenous issues?

Turnbull has claimed the leadership on a platform of change, and is known to have socially progressive views. 

He has vocally supported the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the past.

"There is still a provision Section 25 that reflects the power of the states to exclude people from voting on the basis of their race. That's not the Australia we live in today"

He has also expressed in principle support for constitutional recognition. In 2013, as shadow communications minister, he made a public statement on YouTube for Recognise, a campaign that advocates recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia.

He called to recognise "the original inhabitants of this country" and to remove racial elements in Australia's founding document.

"There is still a provision Section 25 that reflects the power of the states to exclude people from voting on the basis of their race. That's not the Australia we live in today," he said.

"We have a chance now to recognise the reality of modern Australia, of just Australia, of an Australia that fairly and generously recognises and acknowledges the Indigenous history of this country and the role of its original inhabitants."

He told The Monthly that he admired former prime minister Paul Keating's landmark 'Redfern speech'. "I think he did very, very well with that. Absolutely," he told the publication at the end of 2014.

In that radical speech delivered on 10 December 1992, Paul Keating said: 

The problem starts with us, the non-Aboriginal Australians. It begins, I think, with an act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases and the alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. 

But Turnbull has made clear that he believes if a referendum on constitutional recognition fails, it would negatively impact upon efforts towards reconciliation between Indigenous and other Australians. "So it should not be put up."

When asked what he thought about former prime minister John Howard's refusal to say "sorry" to the stolen generations who were taken from their families under the federal government's assimilation policies of the 1960s, he told The Monthly:

"He painted himself into a semantic corner, in fact, where he ended up passing a motion which expressed great regret but wasn't prepared to use the word sorry. You'd have to be a rabbinical scholar of the highest rank to be able to tell me what was the difference, saying 'I have very great regret' and 'I'm sorry'."

Mr Turnbull has also backed education of Indigenous youth in the recent past. 

In 2011, he was filmed in conversation with student Nahdia Noter who received a scholarship from the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation, a non-profit organisation that works to provide Indigenous children with placements in reputed schools around the country, and its CEO Andrew Penfold.  

"Well it's fantastic work," he said in the clip that was uploaded by the foundation to YouTube on Monday. "But you need more support so, you're on the web, you're on Twitter, you're very easy to find, and people that want to support you, business or individuals, or indeed schools, should get in touch with you Andrew." 

But, there will be a real need for Malcolm Turnbull to appease conservative colleagues as he works toward a more progressive agenda. 

Turnbull threw his support behind Mr Abbott in March 2015, after the then Prime Minister Abbott remarked that Aboriginal people's decision to live in remote areas of the country was a "lifestyle choice".

Turnbull said he did not want Abbott's statement, which dominated discussion in the media for weeks following, to become a "let's-give-Tony-Abbott-a-belting occasion", as quoted by Fairfax.

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For anyone still wondering, Tony Abbott has conclusively shown he has failed on his promise to be 'Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs,' (a promise he made during his 2013 election campaign).

"My focus is I respect the [Liberal] party room. You can never consult with the party room and the members too much," he told Channel Ten during a morning walk with his wife in February in a video posted to YouTube.

"Tony [Abbott] is there, and hence I am there in my position because of them. We're there because of them."

Follow Andrea on Twitter @andreasbooth