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Prime Minister's Hollow Words Hurt Indigenous Australians

Labor will not allow this Prime Minister’s betrayal of Aboriginal Australians to go unnoticed says Bill Shorten. Read his piece below.

In February I travelled to Nhulunbuy on the Gove Peninsula, in East Arnhem Land.

Nhulunbuy is a good community with good people, but right now they are under immense pressure.

The local bauxite refinery is shutting down next month, and it is devastating the community. It is the region’s biggest employer and the lifeblood for small businesses. The Yolgnu people, local workers and businesses fear what this will mean for their region.

Tony Abbott has walked on this ground too. He has met with the same people who spoke to me.

He was in East Arnhem just before the last election, promising to be a prime minister for Aboriginal affairs.

But in the 10 months since then, as jobs have gone and people have left with them, and as the future for Aboriginal people in East Arnhem gets bleaker, they’ve had nothing but stony silence from their Prime Minister.

Australians have heard a lot about Tony Abbott’s broken promises — but even I didn’t think the Prime Minister would breach faith with indigenous Australians so shamelessly and so brazenly. 

Aboriginal Australians welcomed Abbott into their ­communities.

They shared their problems with him, and their aspirations. 

They tried to help him understand their way of life and the challenges they face.

In this budget, their trust has been betrayed and their openness has been punished — a brutal and heartless cut of more than $500 million from indigenous health, education, support for families and children and employment programs. 

These cold and callous cuts put the hard-earned trust and hard-won progress of recent years in jeopardy. 

And from the “Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs’’, it is a ­particularly mean-spirited act of betrayal.

Take just one example of the Prime Minister’s cuts: this budget means 38 children and family centres for Aboriginal families now face an uncertain future. These centres are one-stop-shops for health and education services, and help Aboriginal kids get the best possible start in life. 

Abandoning these centres will devastate efforts to close the gap in indigenous disadvantage in remote communities, regional towns and our cities. 

The families who rely on these centres are shattered, and the ­devoted staff who provide these essential services are astounded. 

Last year, Abbott said if he were to become prime minister, Aboriginal people would be “at the heart” of his government, “in word and deed”.

They were fine words then, but they ring hollow today.

Yes, Abbott has paid generous tribute to the National Apology.

Yes, he has declared support for according indigenous Aus­tralians a place of honour in our Constitution.

But no amount of unifying sentiment can mask the division and destruction of this Prime Minister’s budget. 

It will take more than a speech or a photo opportunity to make up for the havoc this budget causes Aboriginal Australians. 

As long as this Prime Minister cuts funding from essential programs and ignores expert advice, he will never close the gap between his words and his deeds.

The Prime Minister’s cuts are not a saving, as some like to call them — they are an act of political theft, which will rob the next generation of indigenous kids of a fair future. 

For Labor, the Apology was always about more than symbolism — it was a declaration of intent.

If the Apology wasn’t met with an unprecedented, long-term funding commitment, the words would never have lived up to their potential.

Labor supports Closing the Gap because we believe that our country owes the First Australians more than words.

We set six ambitious targets — lower infant mortality, access to pre-school, improving reading and writing, graduating from high school, finding work and life ­expectancy.

All of them were aimed at our fundamental goal: allowing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to live long, healthy lives full of quality and meaning.

And ensuring our First Aus­tralians got the same chance to an ordinary life as all other Australians do. 

In government, Jenny Macklin put aside the ideology and rhetoric and listened to the people who live with indigenous disadvantage every day. 

She authored an effective, empowering policy that is making a real difference.

Labor ended decades of chronic under-investment and genuinely involved Aboriginal people in the design and delivery of programs.

We invested in health, education, housing, welfare reform, recognition and advocacy.

Make no mistake, the gap is closing, and Australia now knows it can be closed, but success is not inevitable.

The way forward depends on trust, on working together.

There are always those who say that reconciliation should be above politics. 

But bipartisanship works only if there is genuine consensus — and both parties deal in good faith.

Labor will not allow this Prime Minister’s betrayal of Aboriginal Australians to go unnoticed. 

We won’t let our country slip back to that well-worn, shoulder-shrugging acceptance of indigenous policy failures.

We will not allow Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people to be marginalised, or shouted down by those who would prefer to talk about indigenous disadvantage only when it suits them.

We won’t stay quiet. 

Labor will not neglect the duty we all owe to our first Australians, even if this Prime Minister has moved on.

This opinion piece was first published in The Australian on Monday, June 16 2014.