The Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson has blasted Tony Abbott’s comments that living in a remote community is a lifestyle choice, saying it is a “deranged debate” conducted in a “substandard manner”.
The prime minister made the remark on ABC radio in Kalgoorlie on Tuesday in response to questions about the Western Australian government’s plan to close up to 150 of the state’s 274 remote Aboriginal communities after it received a federal funding cut.
“What we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have,” Abbott said.
Pearson said the prime minister was being “disrespectful to cast fear into the community via a policy thought bubble”. He described the comments as “shameless” and a “disgraceful turn of events”.
He asked which communities would take in Indigenous people displaced from their homes, saying they would ultimately end up “living on the fringes” as an “underclass” of Australians.
“There was a time in history when they kicked us ?out of towns,” Pearson said.
Abbott has defended his track record on Indigenous affairs, despite the criticism from several high-profile community leaders. “I’m very comfortable with my credentials when it come to doing the right thing by the Aboriginal people of Australia,” he told reporters on Wednesday.
He said he was working with Indigenous leaders to end welfare dependency, which he described as “the poison of sit-down money” by getting kids into schools and adults into jobs.
Abbott’s chief adviser on Indigenous affairs, Warren Mundine, told Fairfax Media Abbott’s comments were “a complete misconception of what it is and he’s wrong in that regard.”
“It is not about a lifestyle, it is not like retiring and moving for a sea change, it is about thousands of years’ connection, their religious beliefs and the essence of who they are,” Mundine said.
The Northern Territory’s community services minister, Bess Price, said the prime minister needed to apologise for his comments. “I think Tony Abbottmight need cross-cultural training,” she said. “I’d urge him to go and visit these communities and sit down with the people who actually live on the land and find out how important it is for them to live that lifestyle they think is fit for them.”
Another member of the prime minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council, Bruce Martin, told Guardian Australia Indigenous Australians were “deeply hurt and offended” by the idea that their long-held views and beliefs amounted to a lifestyle choice.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social justice commissioner, Mick Gooda, said the prime minister’s comments would ?cause offence?. “We haven’t had a proper discussion about remote Australia for about 20 years but that involves engaging respectfully with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people right across the country,” Gooda told ABC TV.
The chairwoman of the Aboriginal Health Council of Western Australia, Michelle Nelson-Cox, said Abbott’s comments were “hugely disappointing”.
“The prime minister’s comments about Aboriginal communities place no value on the connection to country and culture that these communities provide, nor the important role they play in the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people,” she said.
“Aboriginal people are obligated to maintain a connection to country to sustain spiritual beliefs, customary activities and traditional lore. In addition to providing a home to many Aboriginal people, these communities provide a continuing sense of identity through this ongoing connection to country.”
Senior ministers have rallied around Abbott. “The prime minister is absolutely right,” Joe Hockey said. “You can’t raise the expectations that you’re going to have equality of opportunity in every part of Australia, in every corner of Australia.
“No prime minister in Australia’s history has been more engaged with Indigenous communities in remote areas than Tony Abbott. No one.”
Malcolm Turnbull echoed the treasurer’s sentiments. “He does spend a week a year living in an Aboriginal community, he’s very, very committed to it and I think he does have a very good understanding,” the communications minister said.
Christopher Pyne said: “What the PM is saying is that there comes a point where the taxpayer has to say, how much money can be spent in this community when there is no economic future in this particular community.”
The leader of the house said calls from Labor to apologise for the lifestyle comment were “a bizarre and hysterical response”.
Labor’s Indigenous affairs spokesman, Shayne Neumann, demanded Abbott apologise for the comments, which he said displayed a “pre-Mabo” mentality. “Here he is saying that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be evicted from the lands on which they’ve lived for millennia,” Neumann said.
“He really is a disgrace and he really should apologise unreservedly for these comments.”
Abbott’s comments are at odds with those of his Indigenous affairs minister, Senator Nigel Scullion, who on ABC radio in Perth on Monday criticised Western Australia for not using other funding sources to support its Aboriginal communities.
“Aboriginal people who live in the north-west and other parts of the state are deserved of your allocation, your allocation of the financial assistance grants, because we give it to West Australia to do that,” Scullion said.
“This connection is important to the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people and has been an important part of the healing process for victims of the stolen generation, many of whom were forcibly removed from country earlier in their lives.
“There is no doubt that improvements to services are needed in many of these communities. But, given their importance to the health, wellbeing and continuing culture of Aboriginal people, government should invest in these communities, rather than withdraw existing services.”
READ: The Gaurdian