The peak representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia says if new special envoy Tony Abbott wants their advice on Indigenous affairs he can pay for it.
But the National Congress of Australia’s First People’s co-chair Rod Little said Tuesday he didn’t think Mr Abbott even knew Congress existed.
“If Tony Abbott wants our advice he can pay for it and engage us as consultants,” Mr Little said.
Mr Little said he didn’t see the purpose or value in having the former Prime Minister as a special envoy.
“It’s disrespectful to First Peoples and it’s also disrespectful to the Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion and any Indigenous politicians who are in the coalition, namely Ken Wyatt,” Mr Little said.
“There is also an Indigenous caucus in the Parliament.”
Mr Little said Congress — which doesn’t receive government funding and relies on fee-for-service project work — hadn’t had much contact with Mr Abbott since he ceased being Prime Minister in 2015.
“We haven’t had much to do with him lately,” Mr Little said. “He’s been on the backbench, and still is.”
Meanwhile, as Mr Abbott prepares to take up the new role in the face of strong criticism from some sectors, Indigenous political figure and businessman Warren Mundine has urged him to listen to the communities.
Mr Abbott could not be reached for comment by the National Indigenous Timesthis week, but has reportedly said he wants to focus on remote area education — a move supported by Mr Mundine.
“I’ve had conversations with him,” Mr Mundine said Tuesday.
“In fact, I’m going to have lunch with him next week to keep him focused on getting some outcomes, real outcomes, by listening and taking the concerns of those communities — in regards to the education of their kids — back to the federal government.”
“I think he needs to be focused on the education area. He wants to do that.”
“He sees that as a lasting legacy, in that, if he can resolve the issues within the education portfolio for Indigenous people, by working with Indigenous educators and people on the ground, like parents and communities, and then taking that to the government, that will be good.”
“It’s a continuation of the role he did well before he was a minister or shadow minister, so going back quite a number of years. It’s keeping that passion going. We want it to be constructive.”
Mr Mundine, former chairman of the federal government’s Indigenous Advisory Council and a former ALP national president, said one of the failings of the Abbott government was that it didn’t talk to Aboriginal bodies such as the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.
“My advice was to do that, talk to all the leadership, talk to everyone,” he said. “Hopefully these things will happen.”
Mr Mundine said Mr Abbott’s appointment as a special envoy was clearly political, but it was about making it work for Indigenous Australia.
“It was done for a political reason and that is with the change of Prime Minister they needed to settle down the conservatives and the moderates in the party and that’s why this appointment and Barnaby Joyce’s appointment (as special drought envoy) were political appointments,” Mr Mundine said.
“The question: is what does that mean for Indigenous peoples. What do we get out of it?”
“The appointment’s going to go ahead so we may as well make the best of it.”
Labor MP Linda Burney, the first Aboriginal woman elected to federal parliament, said Mr Abbott’s track record in Indigenous education was “a dismal failure”.
“I have absolutely no doubt that Tony Abbott is passionate about Aboriginal affairs,” Ms Burney said.
“What I do doubt is his approach and the fact that when he was Prime Minister we lost half a billion dollars out of the Aboriginal affairs budget, we saw a move towards paternalism and his efforts in getting Aboriginal people to participate in the education system have been a dismal failure.”
Ms Burney said she expected Mr Abbott’s appointment as envoy to lead to confusion in the government. His role also remained unclear,” she said.
“I do think there will be a huge stumbling over one another between the envoy, whatever that is and whatever it means, we have no idea, there’s been no explanation from anyone,” she said.
“Even Tony Abbott didn’t know what it meant when it was offered to him. Does it have a budget, does it have staff, is there a policy role, we do not know and how that position works with the Minister Nigel Scullion, that’s incredibly unclear.”
“So I think that confusion will continue and what it will mean, what I’m afraid of, is that there will be a confused policy response when it comes to Aboriginal people.”
Labor Senator Pat Dodson, the Opposition spokesman on Indigenous affairs, said Mr Abbott’s history in Indigenous affairs was “ignorant, hopeless and frankly offensive”.
Senator Dodson cited Mr Abbott’s 2015 comments that people living in remote communities without adequate services were making a lifestyle choice and his support of Malcolm Turnbull’s rejection of the Uluru statement.
“The suggestion that Tony Abbott could act as some kind of messenger or representative for First Nations people is condescending to the overwhelming number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who support the calls for a Voice to Parliament and a Makarrata Commission to oversee truth-telling and agreement-making – both of which Mr Abbott has not supported,” Senator Dodson said.
Uluru Statement Working Group chair Suzanne Thompson said they were staying focused on harnessing grassroots support among everyday Australians for change, despite the political changes.
“We’re not going to be distracted by it,” Ms Thompson said.
Mr Abbott was quoted in the Daily Telegraph as saying he wanted to make recommendations on how remote area education could be improved, in particular school attendance rates and performance.
By Wendy Caccetta