As an Aboriginal person, a leadership spill is an interesting phenomenon to observe. There is a lot of earnest frustration – this isn’t who we voted for! – and there is a feeling that important decisions are being made about your life without you being involved. This is a feeling many black people are familiar with. I know that on some cellular level there is a difference between Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull, but in effect it is just a different white face dictating your structural position.
Within days of his ascent to the prime ministership, Scott Morrison created and offered Tony Abbott the position of special envoy on Indigenous affairs. Nigel Scullion remains Indigenous affairs minister, with Ken Wyatt being made Indigenous health minister – a position that sits alongside Greg Hunt in the health portfolio. In the days between Morrison making public that he had offered Abbott this role, and the former prime minister accepting it, the choice was met with almost unanimous derision. There was, and still is, a feeling that literally anyone else would be better for the job.
Abbott demonstrably has little regard for black people and what we want for ourselves. He explicitly believes white people and colonisation were good things for black people and this country. He subscribes to the terra nullius colonial fiction, describing Australia as nothing but bush before colonisation and the country as benefiting from British investment on “then-unsettled or scarcely settled great south land”. Abbott has always seemed to regard black people with disdain. Prior to the apology, he claimed such a statement would reinforce a victim mindset. In regards to the forced closures of Aboriginal communities in Western Australia, he said he didn’t want to fund the lifestyle choices of remote Aboriginal communities.
Even if we were prepared to give Abbott a go – and by some miracle he was capable of shifting his paternalism – his statement to The Daily Telegraph demonstrates he hasn’t learnt anything in the past few years. Ideologically, he remains where he has always been. “What I expect to be asked to do is to make recommendations on how we can improve remote area education, in particular, how we can improve attendance rates and school performance, because this is the absolute key to a better future for Indigenous kids and this is the key to reconciliation,” he told the newspaper. This statement indicates that for Abbott the Aborigine is someone who lives in the bush. But today most black people live in towns and cities. We are just as black and just as proud, but we are inconvenient to the noble savage myth that Abbott projects onto people living in remote communities. It is worth noting that even his own colleague Ken Wyatt once told Abbott that his comments referring to Wyatt as an “urban Aboriginal” were unhelpful.
Outside of his evocation of the remote Aborigine, Abbott’s crude logic places the blame on black people. It is not remote education outcomes that are responsible for a lack of reconciliation in this country. This logic implies that as soon as black people have the same life outcomes as white people, our structural position in society will magically improve. This is not how racism works. Our structural position is maintained through racism and paternalism; unless we start to erode these forces no number of three-word slogans will change anything. If a health-care system is racist, it will produce worse health outcomes for black people. If an education system is racist, it will not know how to educate black children. If a criminal justice system is racist it will arrest, incarcerate and kill black people in huge numbers.
On Monday this week, a young Aboriginal boy was found in Perth’s Swan River. The next day, water police found another boy’s body. It emerged that both boys had been chased on Monday afternoon by police who were responding to calls about the teenagers “jumping fences” in the suburb of Maylands. According to police reports, the officers chased the boys on foot until the pair ran into Swan River and disappeared under the surface. “Two boys are believed to have got into difficulties in the middle of the river and succumbed to the conditions and were not seen to resurface,” Western Australia Police Commissioner Chris Dawson said. This language, much like Abbott’s language, places the responsibility of these deaths on these boys. The adult police – and the structural view of black people as deviants and a decision to pursue children near a river – are not responsible. Like reconciliation, the black children are responsible and complicit in their own deaths. Only some boys will be boys and only some boys will always be boys. The boys’ deaths will be treated as deaths in custody – another two to add to the 407 black deaths in custody since 1991, according to an investigation by Guardian Australia.
And yet, in the wake of these deaths, it seems white Australia is more interested in debating whether a nine-year-old girl who refuses to stand for the national anthem because it “completely disregards the Indigenous Australians” is a traitor to the nation. Alan Jones and Mark Latham both discussed Harper Nielsen on radio, with Latham urging her school to “kick her out”. On Today, Karl Stefanovic was “exasperated” by Nielsen, blaming her parents. Australia is obsessed with the culture wars and ideology, but far less interested in the tangible impacts of white supremacy and colonisation.
Beyond ideology, Abbott’s time in power was a perilous period for black organisations, and his actions as prime minister worked against the interests of black people. He oversaw the implementation of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, which slashed $500 million from black expenditure. A senate inquiry found that in the initial round of funding for the IAS, more than half of the funding went to non-Indigenous organisations. His message at the time was clear – black people cannot handle their own affairs. The impact of this was devastating. Community organisations that serviced members of local Aboriginal communities were gutted, while non-Indigenous non-profits without a nuanced understanding of local communities swelled with black money.
The term “envoy” is generally used in a political context by organisations, such as the United Nations, as a title for someone going into another country to run some kind of peacekeeping operation, often in a developing nation. More generally, it’s understood as a negotiator, an intermediary, an ambassador. That black Australia would need a peacekeeping negotiator ironically seems to be a small recognition that we are our own people.
Abbott cannot foreseeably do this job. Black people can and already do advocate ourselves. The most depressing part, undoubtedly, is that Scott Morrison knows all this. Abbott’s appointment sent two distinct messages. The first is that Morrison does not know much about black people. We know he knows at least one black person, Ken Wyatt, but it’s hard to believe someone who has lived a life as privileged as Morrison’s could understand or be interested in the day-to-day realities and dreams of black people.
The second message is that black votes and black lives do not matter in this country. An election will be held in the not-too-distant future. Anyone who was worried about how putting someone like Tony Abbott anywhere near Indigenous affairs would affect your numbers in black communities would not, in the interest of self-preservation, do this. A prime minister who was genuinely interested in accommodating black people would have asked black people – any black person – what they want. The resounding answer would have been: Tony Abbott is not it. Our lives matter so little that bizarre appointments such as this can be made with little regard to the people affected by it.
This appointment comes down to politics. Tony Abbott has been a pest inside the Liberal Party. It is generally accepted he was one of the cogs in the machinery forcing the leadership spill. His vendetta against Malcolm Turnbull cost Turnbull his prime ministership. This appointment was ultimately about making Abbott feel special. He is not important enough for an actual ministry but he’s too annoying and vindictive not to be rewarded. Black people are forced to suffer at his hands yet again for the sake of perceived peace in the Liberal Party. With any luck the job doesn’t mean anything, and we can all keep doing what we have been doing for the past few years, pretending he doesn’t exist.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 15, 2018 as "Abbott and the politics of envoy".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription