By Amy McQuire, October 20, 2013, Tracker Magazine.
NATIONAL: Prime Minister Tony Abbott did not spend his first week in the top job in Arnhem Land, as publicly promised, but it’s still likely he’ll make Yirrkala his first visit if Traditional Owners invite him.
That’s despite calls for the Prime Minister to visit a New South Wales Aboriginal community.
Mr Abbott made the promise to spend his first week in an Aboriginal community at the Garma Festival during the election campaign.
“My pledge should I become prime minister is that I will not neglect spending a week a year in an Indigenous place so I can sit down with people and talk to them in their country, not simply in my office building and in my parliament house; that I can learn from my own experience what it is like to live in a remote Aboriginal place; that I can sense something of the heart and soul of people who live in places like this and who still have the beating heart of tradition, who still have everything that makes up the oldest living cultures in our world, in our universe.”
“That’s what I want to do. That’s what I want to do, Galarrwuy (Yunupingu) And ah… why not, if you will permit me, ah, why shouldn’t I, if you will permit me, ah spend ah, my first week, ah, as Prime Minister, should that happen, ah, on this, on your country?”
Mr Abbott spent his first week in Canberra, but his office knocked back suggestions it was a broken promise.
“On my recent trip to the Garma Festival in Arnhem Land, I asked the community if they’d permit me to make the first of these trips as Prime Minister to their country. If they extend that invitation it would be a tremendous honour,” Mr Abbott said.
As shadow spokesperson for Indigenous affairs Mr Abbott spent time working as a teacher’s aide in Coen – which is one of the trial communities of the Cape York Welfare Reform trials.
He has also spent time in Aurukun, also in Cape York, as Opposition Leader.
But his focus on the top of Australia has lead to accusations he will not truly be a “Prime Minister for Aboriginal Australia” – neglecting areas like New South Wales, which has the largest Aboriginal population in the country.
Kevin Rudd made Walgett in north-west New South Wales his first visit to an Aboriginal community, even missing a parliamentary sitting to make the trip.
At the time,then Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson knocked back an invitation to join the trip, prompting Mr Abbott to question whether Mr Rudd was “fair dinkum” about building a bipartisan approach to Indigenous policy.
Questions about whether Mr Abbott will commit to visit a NSW Aboriginal community went unanswered by the time of press.
Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion told Tracker the Prime Minister had already committed to spending a week in the Northern Territory.
He said he understood the criticism.
“In terms of spending time in communities from the Coalition’s perspective, I already spend my life in Aboriginal communities. I have to acknowledge
I need to spend more time in urban communities to get a better handle on things,” Senator Scullion told Tracker.
“I do spend a fair bit of time in Aboriginal communities and I’ll be encouraging all my colleagues to try and engage at an electorate level – if you have constituents you have to develop a close working relationship with those communities. I’ll be saying to all my colleagues to develop a good quality working relationship (with Aboriginal people)”.
Senator Scullion said Mr Abbott would speak to Aboriginal people within his electorate in Sydney.
“… I take the point that there is criticism of Tony and others, including myself, that we are too focused on regional and remote Australia. Well I’d have to respond to that we are focused on those areas that have the biggest challenges and the biggest disconnections and clearly if you look at any of the gaps as a measure … we will be putting energy and priorities into areas of most need.”
But the nation’s largest member-based Aboriginal organisation – the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council* has called on the new Abbott government to ensure there is a focus on New South Wales.
“New South Wales has the largest Aboriginal population in the country, and yet our issues are often overlooked federally, despite our people in regional and urban NSW facing similar struggles,” NSWALC Chair Stephen Ryan said.
Chairman Ryan also called on Mr Abbott to consider visiting an Aboriginal community in NSW as his first visit as Prime Minister.
“Mr Abbott’s home state is in NSW and yet to my knowledge he has not visited a single NSW Aboriginal community as Opposition leader.”
*Tracker is published by the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council.