Tony Abbott has stirred a new level of outrage in the Indigenous community and reconciliation supporters with his comments this week that remote Indigenous communities in Western Australia should be closed because living there is a “lifestyle choice”.
Imagine if he’d made similar comments about the people of Greece, for example, that there should be no IMF bail-out because, hey, being Greek is a “lifestyle choice” and they should simply move countries.
What the PM fails to understand is that Aboriginal people belonged to multiple nations, each associated with a specific part of the country. That landscape and people have been part of one another for more millennia than science can agree on.
Organisations including the Public Health Association of Australia have been speaking out in support of Indigenous organisations like the Native Title Institute and the Lowitja Institute, while community leaders including Senator Nova Peris and the PM’s own Indigenous advisors, Warren Mundine and Noel Pearson, have led the Aboriginal backlash.
Ms Peris tweeted that the PM’s new moniker among the community is “GammonMan”, gammon being lingo for liar, scammer or fraudster.
“The impact that past policies of dispossession have had on the health and wellbeing of Indigenous people in Australia is indisputable. It’s unthinkable that governments would again support the forced removal of Aboriginal people from their lands,” Vanessa Lee, vice president of PHAA said in a media statement.
“PHAA is extremely disappointed by the Prime Minister’s comments, especially given his previous assertion that he would be the Prime Minister for Indigenous Australians. Aboriginal people have a close and real connection to their traditional lands and consider themselves to be the custodians of these lands. To sever this connection is to cut people off from the source of meaning and purpose in their lives – have governments learned nothing from the experience of the Stolen Generations?” asked Ms Lee.
“If governments are seeking to save money by closing remote communities they are wrong. The legacy of ill-health and social problems will be vastly more expensive to deal with than the current costs of providing vital services,” said Michael Moore, chief executive of PHAA. “If the Prime Minister is concerned about the lack of employment opportunities in remote Indigenous communities, he needs to work with and invest in those communities to do something about it.”
Instead of disparaging remote communities, the Prime Minister would be better off supporting job-creating investments made by bodies such as the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (a body he wants to axe), which in August 2014 announced $4.6 million for an $11.9 million renewable energy project for a remote Aboriginal community in north-western Queensland to progress energy self-sufficiency.
The Ergon Energy project involves a one megawatt expansion of the Doomadgee Solar Farm. The expansion will enable the community to meet 100 per cent of its electricity needs – displacing an estimated 528,000 litres of diesel a year, which also means a hefty cut to emissions reductions.
Then there’s the total ignore being given to the role remote communities can play in carbon mitigation, through projects like those instigated by the Black Carbon Fund. These kinds of projects create economic opportunities and employment opportunities that are culturally appropriate, and leverage the thousands of years of traditional knowledge of land care in a way that actually benefits the entire country.
The real “lifestyle choice” the PM seems to be endorsing is the same-old colonialist approach that exploits the landscape, disregards sovereignty and perpetuates disadvantage – because when people are turfed out of their homes, that’s generally the start of a major downward spiral.
He is also continuing to endorse the “lifestyle choice” of the coal industry while ignoring opportunities to mitigate carbon emissions through soil and vegetation based approaches to carbon sequestration like Courtney White explored in the recently reviewed Grass, Soil, Hope.