Tony Abbott’s brain snap describing the indigenous outstation movement was not only crass, unthinking and deeply offensive; it was just plain wrong, and wrong on a whole series of different levels.
The full quote revealed the width of its ignorance: “What we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if these lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have,” he told ABC radio in Kalgoorlie.
First and most obviously, the outstation movement is not a lifestyle choice in any accepted sense of the phrase. It has little to do with a leisurely move to sell up a vastly expensively inner city property and career to settle in a comfortable seaside resort, to sit by the pool with a chilled bottle of chardonnay and a few Vogue magazines beside the table.
The move to the outstations was driven not by self-indulgence but by necessity, at times by desperation; the urban ghettoes of the cities had become sinkholes of degradation and misery, for those who have been forced off their traditional lands and for those who had immigrated to them in the vain hope of employment, and more importantly for their children, whose future was being blighted by alcoholism, drugs and violence.
A return to the bush was their only recourse; it offered not a comfortable and relaxed retirement, but rescue. They were looking to regain the remnants of their culture, their country and their old ways— a lifestyle, if you like, but one steeped in many generations of tradition.
And they were not demanding endlessly subsidies, but the bare necessities – those that would expected by right by all Australians. They asked for shelter, water, some source of power and transport, communications and a modicum of welfare – in precisely the way the government is prepared to provide for remote and isolated communities throughout the land.
These communities can be increasingly unviable; economic rationalists rail at what they see at the futility of propping up farms which can no longer become profitable, mining towns which have left their use by date, settlements passed by the major production routes, and many other communities which cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be able to involve themselves in the full participation of Australian society. But the people cling to their land and governments are generally willing to help them survive, and indeed make a virtue of doing so.
An entire political party, the Nationals, is devoted – or at least was – to funding a lifestyle choice to live in rural and regional environments, however remote, inconvenient and expensive they may have becom
So those in need receive subsidised education and health care, transport and communications as a matter of course, not to mention drought and flood relief, and many other forms of assistance – the diesel fuel rebate and the super phosphate bounty to name but two. An entire political party, the Nationals, is devoted – or at least was – to funding a lifestyle choice to live in rural and regional environments, however remote, inconvenient and expensive they may have become.
But governments go much further than that; the cities are also pampered when it suits. What is middle and upper class welfare but tax-payer funded lifestyle choice? Superannuation tax concessions for the rich, rebates for private hospital care, handouts for the wealthy schools of wealthy parents – all go into the pot. Abbott’s now deferred paid parental leave bonanza is one of the few which has been seriously challenged.
And at times there is not even a pretence of justification to give greedy votes what they believe to be their due in offering to fund their lifestyle choices, especially during election times. The politicians scour the country for the opportunity to raid the pork barrel; electorates are showered with benefits. Parks and gardens, sporting facilities, performance venues, upgraded bus stops – there are no limits.
Many years ago Gough Whitlam’s staff used to joke that when they flew into a new electorate, they would look out the window: if they saw a river they would promise a dam, if they didn’t they would promise a College of Advanced Education. Only the lifestyle choices have changed.
Obviously this is particularly rife in marginal electorates, which live from triennium to triennium of the certain beneficence of taxpayers funds, but the grateful winners are not denied either: in 2013 Tony Abbott’s opulent constituency of Warringah received a handsome grant to tart up Brookvale Oval. Some of these projects can be called worthy, but many are clearly simply electoral bribes, based on what the politicians see as enhancing their own self interest in getting re-elected – funding their lifestyles, in fact.
For Abbott to single out the most needy and deprived of them, the wretched of the outstation movement, is not only unfair; it is just irrational. Funding taxpayers’ lifestyles is precisely what governments do.
So why did Abbott, who prides himself on his empathy with Aboriginal Australians, say something so silly? The cynical will say that it was a deliberate ploy: Abbott was determined to shore up his support both among the hard-line conservatives in the party room who insist that he must abandon any remaining attempt to play Mr Nice Guy, and more importantly to the populists in the electorate who have always regarded his commitment to Aborigines as a distraction, and one that he could far better spent on benefits conferred on themselves.
Well, perhaps. But there is an old and well-tested adage in politics that if you have to choose between a conspiracy theory or a stuff up, nine tomes a out often it will be the stuff up. The simplest answer is almost certainly the right one: Tony Abbott, in spite of all his protestations of reform, of consultation, of listening to the people, has reverted to the habit of a lifetime and shot his mouth off and refused to recant or apologise; he will bluff it out and to hell with the consequences, even if it means that all his plans for reconciliation and his memorial as the Prime Minister of Aboriginal Affairs who delivered the long awaited constitutional recognition for of Indigenous Australia has to be ditched.
Perhaps, in the excitement of the last few weeks, he has been just a bit punch drunk. Yes, the same old Tony Abbott.