Abbott's lifestyle choice jibe — no gaffe

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To call Prime Minister Tony Abbott's "lifestyle choice" comment another gaffe ignores the operating system under which his Government runs, writes Dr Laurie Keim.

EVERY WORD is scrutinized and every word counts. It is the great privilege of being Prime Minister — everybody takes you seriously, even when you are joking. It is an enormous responsibility and a role that is at the pinnacle of leadership, ethically and politically. To fail at this is to fail your nation.

To call Prime Minister Abbott’s statement last week on the closure of Indigenous settlements in Western Australia another gaffe ignores the operating system under which his government runs. It doesn’t matter how cruel the comment might have been, how silly and how devoid of policy but it was not a gaffe or even a joke but a remark meant to stagger the unbeliever and lift the spirits of his core constituency.

What does Mr Abbott mean when he refers to lifestyle choices?

It is a phrase with a specific and very loaded contemporary meaning:

1. a set of attitudes, habits, or possessions associated with a particular person or group

2. such attitudes, etc, regarded as fashionable or desirable

3. a. a luxurious semirural manner of living

b. (as modifier): a lifestyle property.

Already, you can see how the offence has been framed. Fashionable, desirable, luxurious, not the adjectives that would jump to mind when describing what I’ve seen in remote Australia. Mr Abbott is implying that those people facing resettlement in the 100 or so locations in Western Australia have the luxury of unlimited choices.

Chair of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council Warren Mundine told ABC Radio National that the

"... people are actually living on their homelands and it affects a lot of things; it affects their cultural activities; it affects their native title; it affects a number of areas.”

The people who face and fear resettlement haven’t suddenly received a superannuation lump sum and can plan to settle somewhere on the coast, buy an apartment or a semirural property, or set off to Europe — this is the mischief Mr Abbott tries to convey. Many have faced a lifetime without adequate government services and now face the final obliteration of the profound spiritual and cultural ties to the land they live on.

Mr Abbott’s constituency has little patience with the policy of Closing the Gap. Perhaps that is why he had to crank it up a bit. A lifestyle choice, as it was instigated in a number of health issues such as smoking, tries to mitigate social conditions as primary cause and place the emphasis on the individual, who is usually the victim of appalling disadvantage.

Yet in his Closing the Gap speech in February, Mr Abbott said:

“Until Indigenous people fully participate in the life of our country all of us are diminished.”

Free marketeers loathe government funding – although they are usually very happy recipients of it when the opportunity arises – and consider Aboriginal advocacy for improved services for Indigenous people as wasteful and ineffective. They call on Indigenous people to "participate in the life of our country" without once acknowledging the cultural and spiritual dimension of country. The only value placed by free marketeers upon this unique understanding of lifestyle and land, the environment and how it relates to Indigenous identity is one of shallow tokenism.

To put it in its right perspective, Australian Aboriginal culture is 11 times older than the Egyptian. Its linguistic basis has been ravaged and many of its spiritual understandings forgotten. Premier Barnett’s resettlement program is akin to Isis’s destruction of antiquities in the Mosul Museum. Instead of every Australian celebrating and supporting those Indigenous communities that continue to make meaning in our remotest locales, he wants to destroy their independence and will. Like Isis, that uses vandalism as a smokescreen to ferry away antiquities worth millions, so Barnett believes he has found a clever way to bypass the ongoing irritation of native-title in advance the next resources boom; come what may. So much for free marketeers.

In keeping with Mr Abbott’s suspicions that Islamic leaders don’t really seek peace or want to be part of any peaceful solution, he offers again an aggressive choice: if you’re not with us, you’re against us. It assumes that a pluralistic society is an abject one.

The political meaning of Mr Abbott’s lifestyle choice statement is this. Many Indigenous people in remote areas deliberately ignore or resist the intention of government. They think the services they receive are some sort of luxury. In future, they shall have only one choice. If you don’t do as we ask, you won’t get a cent towards any of it.

So much for closing the gap. In other words Mr Abbott and Mr Barnett have advanced their own scorched earth policy.

The groundswell of opposition to Mr Abbott’s statement is a type of referendum whether Australia has anything to do with being Australian or are we, just another market.

You can read more by Dr Laurence Keim at lauriekeim.com.

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