One step forward, two steps back? The re-entry of Tony Abbott into Indigenous Affairs

What might we expect from former Prime Minister Tony Abbott as Indigenous envoy? Dr Prue Brown of the University of Queensland analyses the discourse in his Closing the Gap speeches to Parliament, compared with those of Rudd and Turnbull.

In 2017, Professor Ian Anderson joined the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to coordinate a ‘refresh’ of the ‘Closing the Gap’ targets, originally agreed in 2008 by COAG. As the most senior Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander official in the Australian Government, he is quietly forging new ground.

Anderson has overseen an inclusive process with unprecedented, in my experience at least, involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices in policy development. The proposed refreshed Closing the Gap framework puts culture at the heart of a wellbeing framework – in stark comparison to the existing deficit focus, which is recognised to be harmful to wellbeing. As Professor Anderson said, “If the outcomes of the refresh resonate with the priorities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, we will go a long way towards eliminating Indigenous disadvantage.”

So far, this significant shift in emphasis in Indigenous policy has largely flown under the radar. It reflects a quiet shift in direction under the Turnbull government towards a greater emphasis on partnerships and engagement. How much of this new approach is likely to survive the appointment of the new Indigenous envoy, former Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs Tony Abbott? Maybe the fact that the first priority that the new envoy announced was to reintroduce the failed penalties for school attendance answers this question for us.

Nonetheless, I’d like to revisit my analysis of the Closing the Gap addresses to parliament by three former Prime Ministers. I still maintain that these addresses provide us with important insights into the emphasis that will be given within this policy framework, which is more of a set of performance indicators that a strategic direction. The speeches are an opportunity for the Prime Minister to set the tone for their government’s engagement in the area. So, the words chosen, and those not chosen, allow us to see differences in how the responsible Minister will approach the same framework.

In that analysis, I compared the speeches of Rudd (2009), Abbott (2014) and Turnbull (2016). While not statistically rigorous, the comparison was not entirely subjective either, as it involved comparing the top one hundred words used by each Prime Minister. The analysis revealed some interesting differences which I think reinforce the impression already voiced by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, that there is much to be concerned about in the re-entry of former Prime Minister Abbott into the fray.

For example, Abbott’s speech was much less likely to include the word “Australians” than Turnbull, suggesting a perspective that views Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as ‘others’. This impression is strengthened by the observation that three of the words most frequently used by Turnbull were entirely absent in the top 100 words used by Abbott. These words were “opportunity”, “cultures” and “respect”. I think this leads us to a very valid expectation that there will be move away from any commitment to “doing things with” back to “doing things to”.

All this does not augur well for any hope of Envoy Abbott embracing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander difference and introducing inclusive approaches. Past performance certainly points to a return to aggressively paternalistic policies, aimed at introducing, as Jon Altman so eloquently put it, “draconian state measures … to get them [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people] off welfare and into late capitalist nirvana—Aboriginal problem solved, gaps closed, nation reconciled”. It also does not augur well for the Closing the Gap refresh, but, sadly, it won’t be the first time that moves in Indigenous Affairs are stopped before they had a chance to really get started.