Abbott on the first people: just muddling through

Tony Abbott’s address to the Sydney Institute last Friday went little remarked or reported, but offered the nation a glimpse of the Coalition’s planned approach in government to the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio. This strange little wishy-washy excerpt from the speech perhaps sums things up best:

In any event, “Canberra knows best” will not be an incoming Coalition government’s approach. Change will much more often be offered than demanded. People need alternatives to sticking with a profoundly unsatisfactory status quo but, most of all, they need to be taken seriously.

Indeed, there is very little evidence from the transcript that Canberra would even bother seeking to know best on indigenous affairs if the Coalition were to start warming the government benches come September. With fairness to Abbott, the speech certainly reads quite thoughtfully, with the Opposition Leader reflecting on his experiences during the Howard years, his relationships with Neville Bonner and Noel Pearson, and his personal experiences in Aurukun. But the conclusion at the end of all of this reflection seems to be that he doesn’t really know what he can do. So what he would do, it seems, is muddle along.

The Opposition Leader offers himself up in the speech as a self-anointed “Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs” – as if this doesn’t befuddle the lines of responsibility between himself and the Shadow Minister, Nigel Scullion. Sound and noise, signifying little. He resurrects his political lodestar’s gambit of recognising Australia’s indigenous people in the Constitution, arguing that Aboriginal people “need to know that they never will be regarded as just a historical footnote to modern Australia”; even though the only weighty policy idea he offers to them here is to enshrine them in a line or two in Australia’s most antiquated document. He doffs his lid to both Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd, as if hoping that just a bit of the national emotion two of his former opponents have conjured from within them on indigenous issues might rub off on him. He mentions four times his desire to “work with the states and territories”, perhaps in the wan hope that if he does this enough, they might cough up some ideas on how his government should seek to solve some of the problems facing Aboriginal people in 21st century Australia.

When Abbott describes the plight of Australia’s first people as “the most intractable difficulty our country has ever faced”, one does get the sense that he grasps the extent of the problem. The problem is that when he uses the word “intractable”; you feel he really means it. You feel that he thinks this is a problem that can’t be solved, and that an Abbott Government’s approach to indigenous affairs would be less about change than about political damage limitation.

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