Abbott’s tour of himself

Amid the chaos that was parliament’s final sitting day for the year, Tony Abbott got to his feet and cleared his throat.

“Back when prime minister,” he said, introducing himself with a descriptor as unnecessary as it was telling of what was to come, “I used to observe that to live in Australia is to have won the lottery of life – and that’s true, unless you happen to be one of those whose ancestors have been here for tens of thousands of years.”

Over the next 20 minutes, tabling to a near-empty chamber the findings of his six-month sojourn as Indigenous envoy, the former prime minister continued down his curious path of optimism and condescension. He spoke of the “Australian paradox”, of how “vast numbers of people from all around the world would literally risk death to be here, yet the First Australians often live in the conditions that people come to Australia to escape.

“We are the very best of countries, except for the people who were here first.”

None of the insights Abbott brought back from his “most recent swing through remote schools” are new. These figures of disadvantage are long known. And, for the most part, his recommendations co-opt ideas that First Nations Australians have been putting to unreceptive governments for decades – higher pay for teachers in remote communities, more assistance for high-achieving students hoping to attend university.

That Abbott believes these to be his revelations alone shows he has not been listening. He is willing to contort the desires of community to suit his own ideological agenda – in the same breath condemning the jailing of people over paltry fines for school non-attendance and suggesting fines should be deducted instead from welfare payments.

Abbott has taken his special envoy role and used it as an opportunity to vindicate his failed tenure of leadership. “It was gratifying to see that the Opal fuel, which I introduced as health minister, has all but eliminated petrol-sniffing in remote Australia,” he said. “The larger communities of the APY Lands, with just one exception, now have what they all lacked a decade ago,” he continued, “the permanent police presence that I tried to achieve as the relevant federal minister.”

This report is only further evidence Abbott sees his relationship with Indigenous Australia solely as a means to further his political career. It makes no mention of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, no mention of a First Nations Voice to Parliament. Instead, this has all just been a branding exercise for the self-proclaimed “prime minister for Indigenous affairs”.

But the prospect of being able to effect meaningful change in people’s lives has never been the game of politics for Abbott. This is a man who is jostling for a seat on a frontbench the polls indicate will likely find itself a shadow cabinet within six months. Rather than fighting for something he believes in, he’ll scrap for a title until the bitter end.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 8, 2018 as "Abbott’s tour of himself".

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