• Prime Minister Tony Abbott kisses two-month-old Marshall Baurr as he meets with Gumatj employees at Dharpa Djarmma Furniture Studio in Gunyangara on the Gove Peninsula, Northern Territory. (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)
Spending a week with the Prime Minister can make for an interesting time - Myles Morgan, NITV's political correspondent details the scheduling, showmanship and what it's like to share a beer with Tony Abbott.
Myles Morgan

19 Sep 2014 - 1:23 PM  UPDATED 11 Mar 2015 - 10:02 AM

The Prime Minister looked directly at the television cameramen recording his every move.

"Okay, ready?",

And then, he planted a delicate kiss on the head of a Yolngu baby being held by its mother in a nursery in Gunyangara. 

It was a presidential moment. What the networks didn't show was what happened next. 

"Was I allowed to do that?", he laughed nervously. 

Tony Abbott, the self-declared Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, didn't know whether it was culturally appropriate to kiss a Yolngu baby on the head. For the record, the Yolngu people don't  mind and there's nothing culturally inappropriate about it.

But it does show that even he, who has more experience than many other politicians with Indigenous people, still has a lot to learn.

Promises made, promises kept

The Prime Minister has just spent a week living and working in an Indigenous community, fulfilling a pre-election promise. He brought with him senior cabinet ministers and politicians like Nigel Scullion, Christopher Pyne, Mathias Cormann, and Alan Tudge.

One senior politician said he looked at some of the teenage students who only had a basic grasp of English and thought sadly that they "didn't stand a chance".

He spruiked the trip as a chance for Indigenous people to have his full and undivided attention. So one week on, is there meaningful change for Indigenous Australians?

The Prime Minister delayed his promised midday arrival in Nhulunbuy by a few hours last Sunday in order to give a press conference in Darwin where he committed more troops to the Middle East. So, to the promise of giving his undivided attention to Indigenous people, let's call that for what it was; political rhetoric. Only the most idealistic could expect the Prime Minister to do that. He couldn't. He's the Prime Minister.

Developments in the Middle East, an apparent threat to Australia's security and an unresolved Budget. That's only a fraction of what's on Tony Abbott's plate. The PM couldn't ignore those issues without looking foolish. Luckily, Indigenous people view any promise from a politician with healthy scepticism.

Indigenous people still suffer. Woefully high rates of violence, incarceration, suicide and drug abuse. Shorter lives, worse educational outcomes, stale stereotypes and casual forms of racism. 

For the Prime Minister it's a jaded issue and one he wouldn't be able to solve unless he was in the top job for a decade. Even then, he could probably only make a dent in a problem that's been forming for the last two hundred years. A week in Armhem Land was a baby step in the right direction.

Much will be made of the fact he came late and left 24 hours early. But, as someone close to him said, "we've seen everyone we needed to see and no one should feel short-changed".  

Little room for spontaneity

Frankly and unsurprisingly, the visit was highly choreographed, at least from the media's point of view. To give an idea of scale, there were more than a dozen journalists, cameramen and photographers following the PM.We needed a convoy of our own (of course with Departmental staff the drivers) to follow him around. Much of the time, we were told where to go, where to stand and when to leave.

You wouldn't expect the Prime Minister to visit Western Sydney, Melbourne or Darwin and then claim to know the problems facing every Australian.

It's a fine line the media walks when tagging along for a Prime Ministerial trip: relying on his staff for travel arrangement and timings while still trying to maintain journalstic integrity by getting balanced coverage. Did any Yolngu people really fire up at the Prime Minister? Call him out on his Budget cuts, job losses in the area, views on the Racial Discrimination Act or Constitutional Recognition? Maybe. If they did, the media wasn't there and the locals revealed little. 

Drills, trees and flowers

In terms of pictures, it couldn't look better from the Prime Minister's point of view.

An ancient culture, a stunning landscape and the frontier feel of the work around Nhulunbuy. Tony Abbott helped collect samples of the earth through drilling, operated a menacingly large saw at a timber mill, planted flowers with the local mob and walked the streets of Yirrkala with Indigenous School Attendance Officers to rouse kids out of bed and into school. It all looked great.

Let's keep in mind the media and the pictures we require are considered when organising this stuff. It was all scripted so well you'd think Aboriginal people in Arnhem Land were just a small step away from changing their fortunes permanently. 

If we dwell on these media moments though, the sheen can wear off. The drilling operation was great and it could result in a new mine in the area, but a white man had to operate it while the blackfellas just bagged the dirt it pulled from the Earth.

Eight Yolgnu men are employed at the timber mill but it's two white men who are in charge.

The PM walking the streets of Yirrkala to get the kids into school looked amazing. It actually boosted the school attendance rate by 30 per cent that day. But Tony Abbott didn't go into any of the homes there and see the massive overcrowding and meet with some of the families who still treat school as a choice.

One senior politician told me that he was encouraged by the school attendance strategy, but he looked at some of the teenage students who only had a basic grasp of English and thought sadly that they "didn't stand a chance". 

It's then you learn they're funny and welcoming people; honoured to have Tony Abbott in town

Operating out of a tent city in Gulkala, just outside the main hub of Nhulunbuy, it's hard to say what he was exposed to for the many hours the media wasn't around. He was hosted by Galarrwuy and Djawa Yunupingu, two very influential and well respected Indigenous leaders who call Arnhem Land home. They're  intelligent and savvy enough to have gotten the Prime Minister's ear for a week, so you'd think there would have been some frank discussions with the PM and the bureaucrats he brought with him.  

The big questions

The news cycle is vicious and constant. While trying to grasp with local issues, the Prime Minister was trying to paint a bigger picture. One issue he kept getting pushed on was Constitutional recognition or acknowledgement of Indigenous people. It's an important issue. It certainly will be a defining moment for our people.

But, as one man told me at the timber mill, much of the mob in Arnhem Land wakes up and worries about things like their job or their house or their welfare payments. Changing our founding document seems to be a matter for the local elders, the politicians, the Indigenous elite and the romantics. 

You wouldn't expect the Prime Minister to visit Western Sydney, Melbourne or Darwin and then claim to know the problems facing every Australian. Similarly, spending a week working with farmers, firefighters, nurses or Muslim people wouldn't mean the Prime Minister could speak on their behalf. So, Tony Abbott got an idea of the challenges facing Yolngu people living in and around Nhulunbuy.

It would be foolish to say the Prime Minister has failed or better served indigenous people based on this visit. In fact, the majority of Indigenous people live in urban areas, not out bush. Like any community, the challenges in Nhulunbuy can be intensely parochial. So the Prime Minister can now claim to have a better idea (compared to many politicians) of the problems facing indigenous people in Nhulunbuy, not Indigenous people per se. 

The view from the ground

What did the locals think as this circus came to town? Unfortunately, it's hard for the media to really explain. Not least of all because we're one of the most obvious acts in the circus.  The print journalists, who are naturally less intrusive with their notepads and slim tape recorders probably had it easier. But for television crews, it was extremely challenging. 

Channel Nine, Seven and myself were setting up for pieces to camera at the beach on Yirrkala on Sunday. We'd asked some locals nearby if it was alright to film and they said yes. Little did we know, we'd asked the wrong locals.

As we set up, an old Aunty came out from a nearby house onto her overlooking balcony and, in a mixture of Yolngu and English, made us feel very unwelcome indeed. She thought we were trying to film her house (which was actually beautiful). That's just how it is with the mob out bush. TV cameras are seen as bad juju and the journalists are vultures trying to make them look like savages. 

There's no real strictly adhered to concept of time for the Yolngu people, especially out on country. There's no rush to say things and usually no need to say it in English. That makes some of the most interesting Yolngu people a television nightmare.

Usually, the best way to really talk and connect with them was over a cigarette and giving the appearance of having all the time in the world. It's then you learn they're funny and welcoming people; honoured to have Tony Abbott in town and they truly do feel an education and a job are as important as keeping culture strong. 

Tony Abbott came to have a few drinks with the media on Tuesday night at their hotel, the Walkabout Lodge in Nhulunbuy. He came to the bar with no fanfare, asked for a XXXX beer and then introduced himself to everyone in the media contingent, seeing old faces and meeting new people.

It'd be unfair of me to reveal too much of what he said when he'd let his guard down (there are rules if you want it stay in the game) but it is apparent he truly, genuinely, wants to change things for the better here and he's even a little impatient to see it happen sooner. 

Fly in, fly out

Could Tony Abbott change the lives of millions of indigenous people by spending a week in Yolngu country? Impossible. Really, how could he?

But the experience has proved invaluable to him and the people, if only to ensure they are a blip on a very big radar.