Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is reeling from comments he made this week calling the lives of largely indigenous people in the country’s remote Outback a “lifestyle choice” that keeps them from being productive members of society and contributing to the economy. His comments related to plans to discontinue government support for 150 of 274 of Australia’s indigenous communities in the state of Western Australia.
“What we can’t do is endlessly subsidize lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have,” Abbott said on Tuesday. “If people choose to live miles away from where there’s a school, if people choose not to access the (radio broadcast) school of the air, if people choose to live where there’s no jobs, obviously it’s very, very difficult to close the gap.”
His suggestion that residents should move from their often small, isolated communities in order to make it easier and cheaper for the government to support them has drawn scorn from indigenous rights’ advocates.
Even Nyunggai Warren Mundine, the chairman of the Prime Minister’s own Indigenous Advisory Council, had harsh words for Abbott’s comments.
“Indigenous Australians in remote communities haven’t made a sea change, uprooting from the city and going bush. They’re continuing to live on their own lands, where their ancestors have lived for thousands of years,” he wrote in an in an op-ed for The Australian. “Talk of closing communities terrifies indigenous people living on country, invoking past instances where people were removed forcibly or driven off their land. It sends a shiver down my spine, even though I know it is not what’s happening.”
He further added that the “lifestyle” of indigenous communities in Australia is a consequence of state policy since native land laws require indigenous people to maintain continuous connections to their land in order to maintain a claim to it — though private home ownership is illegal on indigenous lands in Australia. According to Mundine, that’s why indigenous people continue to live in government-funded “community” housing: because current policies it make it hard for them to freely choose where they live.
Mundine said that he exchanged “a few choice words” with the Prime Minister about his remarks on indigenous people.
Abbott said that while people could “quibble” about his choice of words, he stated, “I’m very comfortable with my credentials when it comes to doing the right thing by the aboriginal people of Australia.”
But some lawmakers have said that’s not enough to overlook what many believe to be inappropriate implications of his remarks on Tuesday.
On the same day as Abbott made his comments, one legislator put forward a motion calling on him to apologize for what she called his “insensitive” remarks. Senator Rachel Siewert also called on the federal government to reinstate the funding it cut for communities in Western Australia.
Thousands across the country protested the proposed closure of 150 communities this week, calling on government officials to “close the gap, not communities.”
About 12,000 people live in the 274 indigenous communities in Western Australia. Indigenous Australians are more likely to live in poverty than non-indigenous Australians. A 2008 study showed they make only 65 percent of what is earned by non-indigenous households. Twenty percent of respondents to a recent survey said that they feel that it’s ok to discriminate against indigenous Australians.