The Politics    Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Lifestyle choice

By Russell Marks

The community of Balgo, WA, population circa 460.
Tony Abbott obliterates international law – and 227 years of Australian history – with one phrase

In September last year, the Abbott government struck deals with four states which meant that those states would assume responsibility for the direct provision of services to Indigenous outstation communities. For many Aboriginal people, the outstation movement was (and is) a conscious rejection of the missions and town fringes to which they’d been forced by assimilationist governments for the previous half-century. The September deal was a dramatic reversal of federal government policy, which since 1973 had supported remote communities – and often defended them from development-addicted states – as a partial acknowledgement of the role governments had had in moving people off their traditional lands in the first place. In November, WA Premier Colin Barnett announced that 150 of that state’s communities would lose their funding and would close.

Tony Abbott yesterday expressed support for the planned closures, describing the outstation communities as a “lifestyle choice”. It's a phrase that obliterates the 227-year history of Australian race relations and re-casts the desire to live on traditional lands as a matter of individual choice. To Abbott’s political base, the fact that this denial of self-determination is inconsistent with the international law regarding Indigenous peoples is irrelevant: it’s simply unfair and patently ridiculous for anyone to expect the state to fund their “choice” to live remotely. And as Abbott has spoken more and more directly to his base in the right of the Liberal Party, the slide in his unpopularity as measured in opinion polls appears to have been at least temporarily arrested. But the reaction to “lifestyle choice”, including by Noel Pearson, has the potential to set off a new round of leadership instability.

To engender support for his planned closures, Barnett has linked remote communities to the signs of social collapse – child abuse and neglect, alcohol dependency, suicides – that are now indelibly associated with communities in the imagination of certain sections of the Australian public. Yet much of that human tragedy has taken place in the larger townships – Broome, Kununurra, Fitzroy Crossing – into which people would inevitably drift after their communities are de-funded. But Barnett and Abbott aren’t listening to the workers and Aboriginal leaders who say the communities provide important alternatives to what is often the hopelessness of life on the fringes of larger centres. Instead, Abbott’s approach to Indigenous affairs has largely involved cutting Indigenous-specific services that were already chronically underfunded. For that reason, John Paterson, the chief executive of a peak Aboriginal health body in the NT, yesterday called on the self-styled “prime minister for Aboriginal affairs” to give up direct responsibility for that portfolio.

In other news:

Superannuation for house deposits: Joe Hockey’s “thought bubble” has attracted negative comment from Ross Gittins (Fairfax), Paul Keating (Fairfax), Michelle Grattan (The Conversation) and Peter Costello (reported at The New Daily). Also: “Tony Abbott suggested young Australians should dip into superannuation in the early ’90s” (Gareth Hutchens, Fairfax).

Car industry assistance: Katharine Murphy reports at Guardian Australia on Ian McFarlane’s announcement yesterday – that the government is reversing its planned cuts to industry assistance – and also reflects on how “the Coalition’s big news day on automotive industry assistance ended in a car crash”. Lenore Taylor, also at the Guardian, links this barnacle-scraping with all the other barnacle-scraping and wonders just what remains of the government’s policies.

Joe Hockey’s defamation trial: “Treasurer Joe Hockey said he had ‘no control’ over the North Sydney Forum and did not instruct the Liberal party fundraising group to return a donation from Australian Water Holdings, the Federal Court has heard.” (Marianna Papadakis, AFR)

Indonesian executions: “Comments by a senior Indonesian minister that a tsunami of 10,000 asylum seekers could be unleashed on Australia in revenge for complaints about the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran are a new low in a deteriorating diplomatic battle.” (Paul Toohey, News Corp)

Productivity and automation: “Alas, too often, people who should know better have tended to make ‘productivity’ synonymous with longer hours and less job security.” (Andrew Leigh, Business Spectator)

UN torture report on asylum seekers: “Mr Abbott is a bully.  He knows he cannot contradict the contents of Professor Triggs’ report or the UN report, so instead of denying the message, he attacks the messenger.” (Julian Burnside, Fairfax)

Researchers blackmailed: “The vice-chancellors of Australia’s most prestigious universities have taken out advertisements blasting the Abbott government’s ‘dumb’ decision to axe funding for world-renowned research facilities if the Senate does not pass fee deregulation.” (Matthew Knott, Fairfax)

Submarines: “Buying a Japanese submarine has more to do with the US alliance and protecting Japan from China than jobs or capability, according to two former Japanese admirals.” (Ian McPhedran, News Corp)

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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