Abbott's complex Aboriginal odyssey


Tony AbbottThe news that Tony Abbott would spend three weeks in a remote Aboriginal community came as a bit of a surprise to me and I expect to many others. But it was a somewhat pleasing surprise.

We don't often hear of politicians getting down and dirty with their constituents. It is hard to imagine those involved in political decisions regarding prisons 'doing time' in custody, or those shaping policies concerning the homeless spending time on the streets.

While we don't have to experience literally another's world in order to be open, respectful and attentive to their needs, it is always important to enter into their world as much as we can. And this involves a risk that can prove transformative, even life-changing.

The news of Tony Abbott's going to Coen encouraged me to listen to him on the ABC's Radio National. He was talking with Fran Kelly about his experiences in this small Aboriginal community north of Cairns. I then went online to read his blog. I was immediately struck by his introductory sentence: 'here are three examples of the complexity of Aboriginal life, especially in remote locations'.

Complexity is not a word one often hears from politicians.

His first example concerned an employer who came to the community seeking workers for his mobile abattoir. He arrived during a funeral and was not able to see all the men who might have been interested. He had to return again, a five-hour road trip each way.

Then there was the man who was being released from jail after serving a sentence for domestic assault. His partner and children, in fear and in order to stay away from him, felt no option but to leave the community and go to Cairns, away from their close family networks and supports.

His final example was the school and its initiative to support full attendance. It used a public noticeboard to highlight current and past rates of attendance, including the names of those whose attendance was 100 per cent in the preceding term. However, he noted, there was nothing currently on this board as there was disagreement about the meaning of 'non-attendance'.

I found Tony Abbott's use of the word complexity quite engaging and encouraging. It suggested some reflection and a desire to deepen the experience. The information he gave about each of his examples was enough to suggest that remote community life is not as predictable and simple as it sounds.

There are a range of reasons, for example, why funerals continue to play a large part in the family and social life of most Aboriginal communities. How does one resolve the tension between a child's attendance at a funeral and attendance at school?

As he suggested in his blog, there remain a number of complexities for everyone living in remote Aboriginal communities. And it would seem reasonable to hope that we might have politicians who are quite comfortable around naming and knowing them.

What then followed in the blog came as a surprise. 'It is possible to change some things quickly but substantially improving the key indicators of Aboriginal disadvantage is more likely to take a few decades than a few years. The key is getting Aboriginal people into real jobs.'

In admitting that substantial change will take time, he was also admitting that this involved some complexity in understanding the particular social and historical context. Such complexity does not suggest one 'key' but a number, and perhaps a range of quite different sized and shaped keys.

Being able to hold together the various tensions that lie beneath the complexity of this remote community would seem to offer a valuable and important way forward.

What I liked about Tony Abbott going to Coen was that he gave himself a chance to learn. He stayed for three weeks based in the local school, and ended up with the hope that 'this kind of stay could be an annual event'. I sense he has a genuine interest in the lives of the people. His reflections left me with a hope and a response.

He stated at the outset that he perceived 'complexity' in remote community Aboriginal life. I hope he continues to retain some comfort in the use of that term. For not only is there complexity within remote Aboriginal communities, but also in our urban worlds. The proposed Government suspension of parents' welfare payments if their children miss too much school would seem to be one example of this.

How encouraging it would be to hear more politicians comfortable in the use of the word complexity.

Brian McCoyDr Brian F. McCoy SJ is NHMRC Fellow for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Research at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS) at La Trobe University.

Topic tags: brian mccoy, tony abbott, remote aboriginal community, indigenous, intervention



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Existing comments

Very interesting (and hopeful) to read these comments from one who was immersed in such a community (Balgo) for, not weeks, but years.

Peter Faulkner | 04 September 2008  

In July a group of 13 Uniting Church Ministers, spent 3 days on Elcho Island, North East Arnhem Land. We were welcomed by the people of Galiwin'ku and invited into their culture and world view. The complexity of communication across language and cultural differences was staggering. We would have liked to have longer, but finances and other responsibilities made that impossible.
I am greatly encouraged by tony Abbott's willingness to engage in three weeks immersion in a remote Aboriginal community. It would be even more encouraging for other members of parliament following his lead.

Colin Bradford | 04 September 2008  

Such valuable insights and comments contribute so much to genuine empathy with Aboriginal people. The value of good preparation for an immersion experience and open-mindedness is being more and more understood. Most Australians would benefit from such a spiritual journey.

Ray O'Donoghue | 04 September 2008  

Hm! That a 'polly' does not know that Aboriginal affairs is a complex matter, amazes me, but does not surprise me! I no longer am surprised by politicians' ignorance (deliberate??), they just don't want to know, full stop. And he is a Catholic, God help us!

Nathalie | 04 September 2008  

Those who have followed Tony Abbot's career with interest, as I have, will not share Brian's surprise. There is much more to him than meets the eye of the casual observer.

And then there are those who sadly harbor a willing blindness to the goodness of many of our politicians, particularly those on the conservative side of politics, to the extent that it is even possible for them to assert that when Mr Abbot states that the situation is complex, this is somehow evidence that he does not know it is complex.

Be that as it may, Abbot has done us all a favour by pointing, gently, to the overly ambitious agenda of the Rudd Government to close the life expectancy gap within a generation. While this is a noble goal, all the evidence suggests that even with a substantial effort on the part of government and non-government agencies, this target will not be achieved. I think Abbot is right - real jobs are THE key - but Brian is also right in the sense that getting Indigenous people into real jobs involves addressing a raft of complex issues, including overcoming what Noel Pearson has powerfully and perceptively called the "pall of passivity" that has been encouraged by past government policies.

Ignatius Smyth | 05 September 2008  

I don't share your generosity as far as Tony Abbot is concerned. He is so narrow and judgmental in his beliefs I fear the only things he will 'learn' are things which confirm his current opinions. Deciding that the key to a complex problem is a simple solution "real jobs" just reinforces my skepticism.

Meg Orton | 05 September 2008  

Good on you Tony, the fight for justice has only just begun.

Robert Allen | 05 September 2008  

The thing that worries me about Tony Abbott is that he is the Prime Minister that we will have if and when our country is in a real international crisis. That's the dilemma, that we may only be blessed with the best of leaders when our country is in mortal danger.

Claude Rigney | 06 September 2008  

Making the judgement about another person that they are "judgmental" has a certain irony, and never particularly persuasive. Of course Mr Rudd has also made the decision that there are five steps involved in closing the life expectancy gap: 1)reduce child mortality rates for under 5's (b) provide access to early childhood education (c) improve literacy and numeracy rates, (d) improve Yar 12 attainment rates and (e)the logical result of the previous steps, closing the gap in employment outcomes. In other words, real jobs is the ultimate means to the desired end. So, is Mr Rudd being "judgmental" too?

Ignatius Smyth | 06 September 2008  

well surprise, surprise! Tony Abbott does have a heart in there.

Sir William Deane and his wife went to live with a variety of aboriginal communities before accepting the role fo Governor General to feel crertain for himself that he could represent all Australians.

Funerals pay a great part in the lives of aboriginal people. They are known y psychologists as the best grievers in the world.

We would be healthier if we took even some time to grieve following a death, separation, divorce rape, accident robbery, a huge number of issues etc.
we have lost this plot and expect people to returmn to wrk in 2/3 days. ime off for funerals is no longer given in the workplace. Peple come back to work expcted by dint of their role to make decisions of which they are no long capable of thinking though clearly because of the grief situation which is early on.

Bev Smith | 07 September 2008  

Irfan Yusuf wrote recently (this may surprise some) that he considered Abbott unusually respectful, among MPs, of Muslim-Australian beliefs and thought this was because Abbott himself knows what it's like to have his religious views mocked and caricatured by the secular media.

I wonder if this may also be the reason why Abbott seems to "get" why Indigenous Australians don't necessarily want to fit the economic rationalist template. That certain things - whether skipping a funeral, abandoning your ancestral land, or breeding embryos to chop up for their stem cells - are inherently wrong, even if you would make a lot more money by doing them.

Rod Blaine | 09 October 2008  

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