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Race baiters don't deserve the high ground on Indigenous policy

By John Slater - posted Monday, 20 April 2015


There is perhaps no area of public policy as desperately in need of fresh ideas and honest debate than the disadvantage faced by Indigenous people. Yet it is difficult to think of a topic more hamstrung by political correctness and woolly-minded clichés than the plight of the first Australians.

The public reaction to Tony Abbott's recent description of living in remote indigenous communities as a 'lifestyle choice' which taxpayers should not be required to endlessly subsidise is a case in point. Admittedly, the descriptor of 'lifestyle choice' was ill chosen and unbecoming of a Prime Minister. However, Abbott's broader point: "that if people choose to live miles away from where there's a school… if people choose to live where there's no jobs, obviously it's very, very difficult to close the gap," is one that deserves to be discussed frankly and openly.

Unfortunately, any hope that Abbott's critics would offer a reasoned reply to the substance of his argument – that remote living places serious constraints on remedying indigenous disadvantage – were soon dashed.

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Greens Senator Rachel Siewert labelled Abbott "unbelievably racist and completely out of touch."

West Australian Labor frontbencher Ben Wyatt, went further, accusing Abbott of "portraying the ancient cultural practices of Aboriginal Australians as nothing more than a sea change move, the equivalent of painting landscapes on one's veranda."

Author Guy Rundle suggested that Abbott's comments were fuelled by cultural contempt for indigenous people, claiming "the destruction of remote Aboriginal communities has long been on the deep conservative agenda."

Thanks to this puerile mix of personal attacks and race baiting, the substantive issue of the sustainability of indigenous communities living in virtual isolation was successfully framed as being simply about cold-hearted conservatives forcing indigenous people off their land. Tainted by the politics of race and division, the matter was rendered unsavoury for discussion in polite circles.

Although silencing your opponent by way of public character assassination seems to be an effective way of winning an argument on any number of indigenous issues, it contributes nothing to solving the far-reaching disadvantage suffered by aboriginal people. And even if the sustainability of indigenous people living in very remote areas is a conversation politically correct elites would prefer stayed closed, the issues faced by those living in these communities remain real.

It is wholly unrealistic to expect that communities with fewer than 100 or in some cases even 50 people would ever be able to enjoy anywhere near the same standard of living as those in towns and cities. Ever greater sums of public funds in the areas of health and education have failed time after time to produce outcomes within even striking range of even semi-regional areas.

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For children growing up in these communities, this isolation places undeniable constraints on their future life prospects, particularly their chances of achieving fulfilling careers and becoming self-sufficient members of society.

Abbott is equally right to point out that taxpayer support cannot be unlimited. It will instinctively strike many as cruel to even talk about cutting funds from a disadvantaged group like indigenous communities. However, the fact is that every cent spent subsidizing communities that are unlikely to ever be self-sufficient is done so at the direct expense of other areas of public need. At a time of ever increasing demands on public money, it is both reasonable and necessary to draw limits on how far resources can be redistributed to regions that are irremovably wedded to government life-support. Of course, where such limits should be drawn is the province of reasonable debate and disagreement. The point, however, is that with some communities housing as few as six people, the discussion is worth having.

None of this is to deny that Aboriginal people living in these communities have a close and abiding connection with their land. Rather, it is to expose the naivety of those happy to accept that the existence of indigenous cultural affinity with the outback is enough to end the argument before it has even begun. If we want 'closing the gap' to mean more than a tokenistic catch-phrase, the realistic prospects of improving the lives of those in the bush is a topic that cannot continue to be skirted for fear of causing offence.

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About the Author

John Slater is the Executive Director of the H R Nicholls Society.

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