In June this year, Tony Abbott made sense.
He was speaking to the media in Parliament House at the launch of the North Australia White Paper.
With a large Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population and their ancestral lands taking up much of the Northern Territory, the Queensland tropics and the Western Australian Kimberley region, it was only logical that Indigenous people would need to be reassured of the Commonwealth’s plans to develop Australia’s north.
“Indigenous people want to secure their economic future, as much as anything else, and that's why we've got money for significant new pilot schemes to try to ensure that Indigenous people can grasp control of their economic destiny, as well as simply maintaining their culture, maintaining their spirituality, maintaining their connectedness to land,” Mr Abbott told the media.
Hard to put it any better than that. Here was the self-declared ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs’ finally saying something logical and inoffensive to Aboriginal Australians after nearly two years at the top.
Yes, economic development is important and of course it goes hand-in-hand with cultural and spiritual growth too. It was such a logical statement that it was almost ordinary and hardly reported by the mainstream media.
Compare that to several endlessly reported and ruthlessly criticised gaffes. Lifestyle choices and Australia being nothing but bush before 1788; yes, a Prime Minister actually said those things and was seemingly unfazed by the offence it caused some Indigenous people.
Tony Abbott wasn’t so much an enigma as Prime Minister as he was erratic. Always more comfortable in a political fight, he could make perfect sense one day and then cause unbelievable controversy the next. But this isn’t about a recap more than it is a reflection on the Indigenous arena Malcolm Turnbull enters as Australia’s 29th Prime Minister.
There’s politics and then there’s political issues. Politics is theatre, photo opportunities, the 24 hour news cycle and hyperbole. Political issues are a separate beast: the nitty gritty business of legislation, policy and policy vision. If you do too much politics, political issues suffer. If political issues aren’t the priority and courageous and necessary political change isn’t implemented, then Australia’s vulnerable will suffer.
"Tony Abbott wasn’t so much an enigma as Prime Minister as he was erratic. Always more comfortable in a political fight, he could make perfect sense one day and then cause unbelievable controversy the next."
It’s a stale story now but, to put it in a nutshell, the short attention span of the media, the political softness of politicians and the impatience of Australian voters to see change are all to blame for politics becoming more important than political issues.
Add to that the intricacies, contradictions and historically loaded politics of Indigenous Affairs; that’s the world Malcolm Turnbull now enters. And, while Tony Abbott had a mandate for Indigenous people, we’ve not seen the same from Prime Minister Turnbull. Not yet.
We’re now in an awkward transitional phase, a pregnant pause. The dust must settle from Tony Abbott’s spectacular exit from the Prime Ministership, while Mr Turnbull must formulate an Indigenous agenda. He will need to decide how important Constitutional recognition is to him and the Liberal Party and whether the tentative 2017 referendum goes ahead. He will need to figure out exactly what to do with the controversial Indigenous Advancement Strategy which was visionary in theory but utterly chaotic in implementation.
Mr Turnbull will inherit the Indigenous Advisory Council and has to decide what to do with that (keeping in mind there is a democratically elected representative body already: the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples). Finally, what does he do with Northern Territory Senator and Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion? Sure, you could give a rookie politician what is (unfortunately) seen as a minor Ministry. But, do you do sacrifice Nigel Scullion’s experience and genuine commitment to the job?
By the end of this month, we’d hope for a better indication of Prime Minister Turnbull’s Indigenous priorities. Hopefully, they will include those issues which the Tony Abbott publicly overlooked: the atrocious rates of Indigenous incarceration, suicide and the harsh approach to First Nations health and legal services.
"We’re now in an awkward transitional phase, a pregnant pause. The dust must settle from Tony Abbott’s spectacular exit from the Prime Ministership, while Mr Turnbull must formulate an Indigenous agenda."
One of the truest measures of any Prime Minister will be how he or she treats the nations’ most vulnerable. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander are not only some of the most disadvantaged people in Australia, but the entire world.
Shorter life expectancies, worse health outcomes, high levels of unemployment, homelessness, suicide, incarceration and drug abuse are some of the most pressing problems for First Nations peoples.
Prime Minister Turnbull is obliged to lay out his priorities for Indigenous people and make them central to any decisions of a Turnbull Government.
He doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. He doesn’t need to promise to be the best friend Indigenous people ever had in Parliament. He just needs to be deliberate and logical in his Indigenous agenda.
Most importantly, he just needs to listen. Listen to the many intelligent and dedicated Indigenous advisors at Parliament House and, most importantly, the Aboriginal community and organisational leaders who know what works for their people.