WHEN Tony Abbott, a month out from the 2013 election, decided to ‘riff it freestyle’ during a speech at the annual Garma Festival, it’s reasonable to assume that the hearts of his advisers were in their mouths, writes CHRIS GRAHAM*.
“Tony… stick to your notes…. stay on message Tony…. TONY…”
Alas, it was not to be.
The warm heat of the Top End Dry got the better of the Opposition Leader, and he decided to let it all hang out, figuratively and literally.
After a warm and generous introduction by host Galarrwuy Yunupingu, Abbott propped himself in front of the microphone: “I do have a prepared speech and I’m wondering whether I shouldn’t just dispense with the prepared speech and just talk to you from my heart because ah… (applause from the audience)… Galarrwuy has spoken from his heart to me and the least I can do is do my best to reciprocate.”
Abbott was right. It was the least he could do. It also happened to be much more than he should have done.
A few minutes into his riffing, things went south.
“My pledge should I become prime minister is that I will not neglect spending a week a year in an Indigenous place so I can sit down with people and talk to them in their country, not simply in my office building and in my parliament house; that I can learn from my own experience what it is like to live in a remote Aboriginal place; that I can sense something of the heart and soul of people who live in places like this and who still have the beating heart of tradition, who still have everything that makes up the oldest living cultures in our world, in our universe.”
OK. That’s official Liberal policy. No harm done there. Phew.
But then, he kept going.
“That’s what I want to do. That’s what I want to do, Galarrwuy. And ah… why not, if you will permit me, ah, why shouldn’t I, if you will permit me, ah spend ah, my first week, ah, as Prime Minister, should that happen, ah, on this, on your country.”
Queue more applause… and millions of synapses of Abbott’s advisers all misfiring at the same time. How, exactly, is a new Prime Minister supposed to swear in a cabinet and then jet off for a week in a remote community?
The good folk at Garma looked both very pleased, and very un-phased at the mechanics of it all, which explains why, a few days later, they issued a media statement welcoming his unexpected pledge.
“He committed to people in Canberra being better informed on Indigenous issues. As an example of maintaining connection with Aboriginal people, he undertook to spend the first week after he is elected in the Yolngu community if that would be acceptable to the community.”
At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, Abbott’s first week has well and truly come and gone.
There was no sign of him in Arnhem Land. At the time of press, he’d barely even made it out of Canberra.
Fact is, he was never going to spend his first week as Prime Minister anywhere near an Aboriginal community, and I sincerely doubt that’s what he intended to promise.
Indeed, if you ask Abbott’s office, he never actually did.
He was simply “misquoted”.
Except, of course, he wasn’t.
The ‘deny deny’ strategy might have worked if (a) 400-plus people – the guests at Garma – hadn’t witnessed it, and (b) some unhelpful bastard hadn’t uploaded the speech to Youtube. Search the phrase ‘Tony Abbott Garma speech’ and watch it for yourself to see whether Abbott was “misquoted”.
The relevant bit starts at 21:20 mins.
In hindsight, it’s pretty clear Abbott meant to refer not to his ‘first week as Prime Minister’ but his ‘first week in an Aboriginal community as Prime Minister’.
But that’s not what he said, and having made such a generous and explicit promise in the dying days of an election campaign, you might think that reneging on it would land Abbott in the sh*t with a mainstream media obsessed with political point scoring.
No suck luck, because fortunately for Abbott, he has at least three ‘outs’, one of those exclusively his.
His first ‘out’ is that when it comes to Aboriginal affairs, the mainstream media is bone lazy.
Abbott had a better chance of spending his first week in an igloo in Greenland with ‘Gordon F**king Ramsay’ as his personal chef than he did of being dragged over the coals by media for being so loose with Aboriginal people and promises.
The second ‘out’ is that Abbott’s not the first leader – and he won’t be the last – to make outlandish promises to blackfellas, only to quietly retreat. Indeed, that is what we call ‘standard operating procedure’ in Aboriginal affairs.
His predecessor, Kevin Rudd was the king of it.
The official ALP party platform that Rudd took to the 2007 election included a promise to move Australia Day to a more inclusive date. When challenged as PM as to why it hadn’t happened, Rudd said emphatically that it never would, and then had the ALP’s National Platform rewritten with the promise removed.
The mainstream media barely batted an eyelid.
Rudd, like Abbott, also suffered a rush of blood and strayed from his notes during a speech in London to a prestigious economic forum.
There, he promised that while-ever he was Prime Minister, the first parliamentary sitting day of the year would be marked by a Prime Ministerial report card on the government’s progress in ‘Closing the Gap’.
It’s never happened, not once. When Rudd was later asked why he missed his own self-imposed deadline, he claimed the tragic Victorian bushfires had taken precedence… even though the fires occurred almost a week AFTER the first sitting day of parliament.
Nothing like exploiting the deaths of 173 people for political gain… and no mainstream media coverage of that either.
Anyway, back to Abbott. The third reason Abbott has an ‘out’ – one that no other politician in the history of the universe has – is because he’s already ‘innoculated’ himself from being held totally accountable for the silly things he says.
Cue his sensational appearance on the 7.30 report in May 2010, when he told a stunned Kerry O’Brien: “I know politicians are going to be judged on everything they say but sometimes in the heat of discussion you go a little bit further than you would if it was an absolutely calm, considered, prepared, scripted remark. Which is one of the reasons why the statements that need to be taken absolutely as gospel truth [are] those carefully prepared, scripted remarks.”
His Garma pledge, presumably, was not of the ‘gospel truth’ variety.
So, where to from here?
Do we crucify Abbott – the new ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs’ – for breaking his first promise to blackfellas within a week of taking office?
In my view, no. Abbott clearly made an error. He got excited, and waxed a little too lyrical. But it’s not a hanging offence.
Importantly, if you cut through the crap, a lot of what Abbott had to say at Garma was actually very, very good. Indeed it’s precisely the sort of stuff that you generally can only ever HOPE an aspirational Prime Minister would say.
There was this: “Too often, Indigenous policy has been whitefellas turning up in black places and dispensing their wisdom and announcing their decisions.”
And this: “[We require] a new engagement between black and white people such that we can walk into the future arm in arm together as brothers and sisters.”
Even his offer to come to Yolngu land – ‘with your permission’ – shows a deeper respect and understanding of protocol than most Australians, let alone most Australian politicians.
So Abbott is saying the right things, if not a little off track.
The problem he will face in his quest for a ‘new engagement’ is that Aboriginal people in particular just don’t believe him, because his past is all too present.
Personally, I think Abbott probably has had an epiphany about the treatment of our First Peoples, but it’s come within the confines of a conservative Catholic mind.
That’s a tough place to start, although it’s worth acknowledging that it’s a world away from where Abbott’s mentor, John Howard, started.
Howard didn’t even wait to be elected Prime Minister before he set out to offend as many Aboriginal people as he possibly could, and play to as wide a redneck sentiment as he could find.
Lumping Abbott in that category is not only unfair, it’s plain wrong.
That said, I’m obviously not suggesting Abbott has it all right either. Ask the punter in the street and he’ll tell you, ‘Abbott is passionate about Indigenous affairs’.
Sure, and Hitler was passionate about eugenics.
Sensible policy – particularly in an area dealing with the nation’s most vulnerable, oppressed and harmed people – requires a great deal more than passion.
It actually requires good policy, and on that front the Liberals, so far at least, have none.
They have some good words, and maybe some good intentions, but the road to Aboriginal affairs is paved with the corpses of a 1,000 politicians and officials filled with good intent.
And let’s not forget that Abbott also used his Garma speech to announce THE major Indigenous affairs policy for the Coalition – the appointment of Warren Mundine to head a new Indigenous advisory body, with the support of Noel Pearson.
What that shows is that (a) Abbott is fresh out of ideas (it was the same major policy announced by the Liberals at the 2004 election, which went nowhere and did nothing) and (b) the only thing Abbott has learned from his relationship with Mundine and Cape Yorker Noel Pearson is missionary zeal, which is all-too-frequently mistaken in broader Australia – particularly in the media – as ‘a passion for Indigenous affairs’.
Not all that surprising from a one-time aspiring Catholic priest, but not all that encouraging either, because as history clearly shows, despite all the dangers faced by Aboriginal people over the years, there’s nothing quite so destructive as a white man (or a Macklin) with means on a mission.
Two days after Garma, Abbott told media that no-one, no matter how smart, was the “suppository of all wisdom”.
A day later, he pointed to the “sex appeal” of one his Liberal candidates as a reason why people should vote for her, and a day after that described the push for gay marriage as “the fashion of the moment”. He then went on to suggest that if people wanted to remember who to vote for, he was the one with the “not bad looking daughters”.
This is clearly a guy who shouldn’t depart from the script. At least not the ‘carefully prepared’ script when he’s talking in public.
But there is a script which Abbott does need to tear up – the one followed by almost every Australian political leader before him, conservative or progressive.
That’s the script which has them thinking they know what’s best for blackfellas, better than blackfellas themselves.
It’s also the script that has convinced countless white politicians that they should hand-pick an Aboriginal leadership, as though democracy only works for the whites.
In Abbott, there lies a window of opportunity, albeit a bloody small one.
If we can get him to tear up that uniquely Australian script – and I acknowledge it’s a mighty task – he might just come to understand one simple truth: you can’t just listen to the blackfellas who tell you what you want to hear.
7Noel Pearson may be a giant intellect, but as Abbott himself might say, he’s not the ‘suppository of all knowledge’, nor does he hold the key to the advancement of Australia’s First Peoples.
Pearson has a perspective. That is all.
So does Mundine.
The worst thing Abbott can do is proceed with his new ‘National Indigenous Council’.
The second worst thing he can do is stack it with the ‘usual suspects’.
And the best thing he can do? Spend time with Aboriginal people beyond Cape York.
Abbott needs to go to Central Australia and sit down with people like Rosie Kunoth-Monks and Doris Stewart, or in the Top End with , Marion Scrymgour or Olga Havnen.
He needs to sit down in WA with Denis Eggington, Marianne Mackay and Michael Woodley. In Tasmania with Michael and Nala Mansell, Heather Sculthorpe and Rodney Dillon.
In Queensland with Tiga Bayles, Gina Castelain, Alf Lacey, Les Malezer, Dave Claudie and Murandoo Yanner.
In NSW with Larissa Behrendt, Bev Manton, Kirstie Parker, Stephen Ryan, Jack Beetson and any one of the 119 democratically-elected Local Aboriginal Land Councils.
He needs to spend time in South Australia with Klynton Wanganeen and Yami Lester.
In Victoria with Celeste Liddle, Gary Foley, Vivian Malo and Robbie Thorpe.
In the ACT with John Paul Janke and the Bell, House or Williams families.
And the list goes on and on.
In those places, Abbott will also find Aboriginal leaders ready and willing to engage, but with two distinct differences.
The first is that these people largely hold the views most in step with the Aboriginal populace.
The second is that they’ll provide him with a wholly different perspective than the script he’s currently working from.
* Chris Graham is the former managing editor of Tracker magazine, now a freelance journalist based in Glebe, Sydney. He writes a monthly column for Tracker called At Large. This column appeared in the October 2013 edition.