It’s been a time of change and instability in Australian politics. At the end of the upheaval we stand with a new Prime Minister leading us, and too many unknowns as to the future. As Australia holds it’s breath to see how Malcolm Turnbull will take off as the new leader, National and International down under, we’re more interested as to his direction in relation to the still unresolved Indigenous agenda.
Tony Abbott proclaimed himself the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, but we have to admit we were never sold on the idea. As a Prime Minister, he wasn’t so much an unknown when it came to his opinions as he was chaotic in sharing them. During his time at the top Abbott’s opinions bounced around as much as his approval rating. In June of this year, while launching the North Australian White Paper, Abbott rightly said:
“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.”
A smart statement, and superficially a strong one. Yet within the same year period he also went on to quite publicly, and without any indication that he believed he was wrong, say that Aboriginal people living on communities was a “lifestyle choice” and that Australia was “nothing but bush” prior to the arrival of settlers, and that colonisation by Britain was Australia’s “defining moment”. Never mind that it led to thousands of Indigenous Australian deaths, much of which we as a country still do not acknowledge. His behaviour also didn’t do much to inspire our confidence in his abilities to make positive change in Aboriginal Australia. He might have been the first Prime Minister to spend a week in remote Indigenous Australia, but despite his talk about ‘closing the gap’ and evening the playing field of Indigenous disadvantage, he took half a billion dollars in spending off the people he seemed so eager to help. These are not the statements and actions of a man in the know, and for that perhaps we are glad of a new opportunity for effective leadership.
So, will Turnbull go the way of Abbott in his misguided opinions? After the media frenzy that Abbott’s “lifestyle choice” statements brought about, Turnbull threw his support behind him. It’s a worrying thought for anyone hoping that Turnbull will be able to turn a new leaf in Indigenous affairs in Australia.
There are so many things that Turnbull could choose to focus on in his time as Prime Minister of Australia, things that could make a valuable difference to the lives of Indigenous Australians. Here are some of the things that we’d like to see.
The average Australian may not be aware of this, but Indigenous Australians do not warrant a mention in Australia’s current constitutional documents. Obviously, this is not something that should be happening in modern Australia. Being recognised in the constitution is a key step in the engagement and integration of Aboriginal people into the mainstream social fabric of Australia. In recent years it has become something of a political football, but certainly it’s something we think Turnbull should be turning his mind towards, and soon.
Revisit The Indigenous Advancement Strategy
Widely known on the ground as the ‘Indigenous Annihilation Strategy’, something has gone seriously wrong with the program that is supposed to be improving Aboriginal engagement. Although the government maintains that the strategy aims to get kids to school, get adults to work, and build safe communities, it has instead seen massive budget cuts, job losses, and negative feedback on the ground. No strategy can work if people feel so strongly against it, and for a program as important as this, something needs to be done soon.
Acknowledge The Internal Aid Program
One of the key things that Turnbull needs to deal with is Australia’s internal aid program. Over the last few decades, Australia has unintentionally created an internal aid program aimed at Aboriginal people under the pretence of helping them live their lives. What has actually happened is that Indigenous people (and as a result the service organisations) have come to rely on the aid to such an extent that Indigenous people are not empowered to address their disadvantage and find the solutions that work for them. Acknowledging this situation is the first step in figuring out how to best empower Aboriginal people to get more involved in their own futures, and the futures of their children and communities.
Malcolm Turnbull might have stepped into his new role as Australia’s Prime Minister with ease, but for now it remains to be seen how much of a positive difference he can really make to Indigenous Australians. Only time will tell.