The view from Billinudgel

Tony Abbott: from backbench rebel to backbench envoy on Indigenous affairs
This Clayton’s appointment has already come unstuck


Our new (or at least current) prime minister has a plan to solve the Tony Abbott problem: make him an envoy on Indigenous affairs.

Of course Morrison would prefer to make him an envoy to outer space, if not beyond; but politics remains the art of the possible. So the idea is to try to keep him occupied, and hope that he shuts up in the process.

The lunar right-wing rump of the Liberal Party would have wanted him back as their rightful and righteous leader. Failing that, they would have settled for a senior cabinet position, such as home affairs or defence. But rewarding three solid years of wreckage and destruction against his elected leader would have been too big a step for the majority of the party room, who may have admired Abbott’s chutzpah in proclaiming that “the era of the political assassin is over”, but were not yet inclined to take his word for it.

So the great disrupter is to be unleashed on Australia’s long-suffering First Nations citizens. Or perhaps not; this Clayton’s appointment has already come seriously unstuck, as does just about everything to do with the Mad Monk.

Scott Morrison says he wants to make the most of Abbott’s passion, and points to the former prime minister’s various excursions to remote Aboriginal communities and his claim that he wanted to be remembered as the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs.

Well, perhaps he did, but Indigenous Australians did not see him that way. At best, Abbott was regarded as a well-meaning paternalist, albeit with the authoritarian tendencies that made up so much of his political baggage.

And he confirmed that verdict when, as soon as the role of envoy was mooted, he said he intended to go hard on Aboriginal parents who did not compel their children to attend school regularly. At a time when governments, including Morrison’s, are insisting that they want to work with Indigenous Australians rather than do things to them, the Abbott formula remains prescriptive.

And this is why a large majority of Indigenous stakeholders, including Abbott’s own Liberal colleague, Indigenous Health Minister Ken Wyatt, are less than enthusiastic about his role as an envoy sent to tell them, yet again, that the government is looking after their interests.

After Malcolm Turnbull’s peremptory dismissal of the Uluru Statement From the Heart, it will take something more than sending Abbott off to persuade Indigenous Australians that the Coalition will ever be serious. As one critic pointed out, Abbott can’t even get along with his own mob, let alone a new bunch.

And of course he won’t shut up; he never does. All Morrison is offering him is a new platform to spruik his views – there is no suggestion that he will be more disciplined as a backbench envoy than as a backbench rebel.

In the same way that Gough Whitlam shunted Vincent Gair off to Dublin as a political convenience, enraging the Irish in the process, Morrison is trying the same cynical manoeuvre with Abbott – except he can’t entice Abbott out of parliament.

Only the voters of Warringah can do that. And it need hardly be said that there are very few Indigenous Australian residents in those leafy suburbs.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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