What’s wrong with Tony’s ‘Lifestyle choice’ comments.

Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott has a habit of putting his foot in his mouth, but comments he made this week, while causing media uproar, threaten to distract many from a genuinely tough topic.

While in Kalgoorlie last Tuesday, a Goldfields city about 7 hours inland from Perth, Western Australia, Abbott upset a lot of people by calling the inhabitance of remote Indigenous communities a “lifestyle choice”.

He said this while putting in his two cents worth on the WA state government’s plans to ‘close’ between 100 to 150 remote Indigenous communities, his two cents being in favour of the government’s shut-down.

The state government plans to ‘close’ these communities by removing services including education, health care, and water and power provision.

WA Premier Colin Barnett has used both economic arguments and issues such as child abuse, domestic violence and poverty in these communities as the basis for the closures, while Tuesday’s comments from the PM focused on education and employment.

“…if people choose to live where there’s no jobs, obviously it’s very, very difficult to close the gap,” Abbott said during his interview with the ABC, before stating that it was “not the job of the taxpayer to subsidise lifestyle choices… it’s the job of the taxpayer… to provide high quality services in a reasonable way, and then I think it is the responsibility of our citizens to shoulder the usual duties of citizenship,”

His interview sparked a lot of controversy, with widespread backlash from political opponents and Aboriginal leaders including Warren Mundine, the head of his Indigenous Advisory Council.

Abbott’s comments have taken something which was, as a WA state issue, largely flying under the radar of the general national populace, and made it the business of any Australian paying even the slightest attention to the media. One may theorise this could be a good thing, as it has the potential to educate a large number of Australians on what really is a relevant issue in all states and territories, but here’s why it is more likely to be a bad thing:

Tony Abbott often says stupid (or at least poorly articulated and ill thought out) things, and sometimes they show little promise of getting him anywhere closer to being re-elected next time around.

This statement however, may actually gain him a good chunk of votes. Sure, he may lose a lot, but it is not hard to imagine that the majority of Australian’s who put him in power in the first place to ‘stop the boats’ and ensure Australia was ‘open for business’ will also feel that they don’t want to fund remote communities, whether that be because it’s expensive and offers them no financial return, or because they just don’t like people they have nothing in common with and may be afraid of.

  The sound of home

This latest blunder on the behalf of the PM may have the politically correct offside, but perhaps as indicated by his re-affirmation of his statements the following day, as far as the polls are concerned it may not turn out to be a blunder at all.

As has been pointed out by Aboriginal leaders and political figures since the interview, the term ‘lifestyle choice’ is simplistic and insensitive. Aboriginal people have a heritage of tens of thousands of years on this land. Sure, some may live in these communities because they want to, but their cultural responsibilities to their historic homeland cannot be dismissed, not to mention spiritual connection and sense of belonging.

But back to getting people offside, which presents a second problem with the ‘lifestyle choice’ comments.

By presenting his support for the closures in this way, Abbott’s ability to bring about an emotional response from the many citizens who feel like becoming vocal and/or depressed each time they hear him make a public statement obscures critical discussion around the issue of funding remote communities.

There are genuine discussions that the public should engage in on resource allocation, the rights and responsibilities of taxpayers, non-economic cultural benefits and Aboriginal rights to inhabit their pre-colonial homelands which could be lost in the furore around Abbott’s polarising statements. No doubt there are community leaders and MPs who are engaging with these issues in more depth, but Abbott’s comments don’t encourage the general public to discuss if, why and how remote communities should be funded and/or supported.

The PM’s comments don’t invite the public to engage with the issues facing remote Aboriginal communities, rather they invite us to side with him and the WA government, or inspire us to resent his leadership yet again.

There is no consideration that it may be worth something to our society to have these communities maintaining their connection with the land. There is no challenge for us to expect better living conditions for Aboriginal people and honour their heritage. There is only an insistence that the inhabitants of remote communities pack their bags for the cities and join Team Australia.

Jesse Roberts a photographer and the Perth based editor for crowdsource news agency Newzulu.

Check his work here: http://www.jesseroberts.com.au/

Image credit: “2012 Lake to Lagoon fun run begins”, by Bidgee. CC via Wikimedia.