Latika Bourke, Sydney Morning Herald, May 11, 2015
An unrepentant Tony Abbott is refusing to apologise for saying taxpayers should not be expected to fund the “lifestyle choices” of Australians living in remote communities, despite a backlash from indigenous leaders.
The Prime Minister made the comments on Tuesday while backing a West Australian government plan to close up to 150 remote Aboriginal communities.
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert has described the comments as “unbelievably racist” and the opposition is demanding an apology.
Speaking on Sydney radio station 2GB on Wednesday, Mr Abbott told host Alan Jones he was just being “realistic” and “stating a general principle”.
“If you or I chose to live in a very remote place, to what extent is the taxpayer obliged to subsidise our services and, I think, this is a very real question,” the Prime Minister said.
“It is incredibly difficult for the kids to go to school, if there’s only half a dozen of them, and getting teachers there is all but impossible.
“Similarly, it’s very difficult for the adults to get a proper job if there’s no employment within hundreds of miles and this is where we have to be a little bit realistic,” he said.
But Mr Abbott’s own chief adviser on indigenous affairs, Warren Mundine, told Fairfax Media the Prime Minister’s comments were wrong.
“That is a complete misconception of what it is and he’s wrong in that regard,” Mr Mundine said. “It is not about a lifestyle, it is not like retiring and moving for a sea change. It is about thousands of years’ connection, their religious beliefs and the essence of who they are.”
Mr Mundine said native title laws were also an impediment to people moving out of indigenous communities because it would make it more difficult to prove their connection to the land.
He also said there were ways to overcome educational barriers, including sending children to regional boarding schools during the week.
Mr Mundine said he was frustrated by the Prime Minister’s gaffes in the area of indigenous affairs because, of all the prime ministers and politicians he had worked with, he found Mr Abbott to be the one most genuinely committed to real change for indigenous Australians.
“[Mr Abbott and John Howard] seem to be men trapped in their time but that’s not to say that [Mr Abbott’s] not one of the most generous and committed prime ministers in this area,” Mr Mundine said.
Federal opposition indigenous affairs spokesman Shayne Neumann has demanded a public apology to all Australians for the “deeply disturbing and highly offensive” comments.
“This is a Prime Minister who doesn’t understand the importance of these people to their connectivity to their land,” he told AAP.
Mr Neumann said the self-declared prime minister for indigenous affairs had form in this area, referring to Mr Abbott’s claim that Australia was unsettled before British “foreign investment”.
“He has trashed his reputation, he doesn’t deserve that title.”