By Anthony Dillon
Prime Minister Scott Morrison appointed Tony Abbott to the role of Indigenous envoy when he took over the leadership. (ABC News/Matt Roberts.)
It’s been good to see Tony Abbott out in the Northern Territory, continuing the work he has been doing for a long time now — listening to Aboriginal people on the ground. I expect he will be doing a lot more of this in his new envoy role.
He has a hard task ahead of him as he seeks to find ways to improve school attendance rates of Indigenous children, particularly in remote communities.
This is not a task one person can achieve alone: it requires support from many levels. If ever there was a job for all Australians to join together, this is it.
It is therefore somewhat surprising that critics have wasted no time engaging in personal attacks on Mr Abbott.
NT Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ken Vowles was reported to have said Abbott’s appointment was “politics 101”. It was further reported that he was “pretty offended and disgusted” that Abbott did not meet with him during his first trip to the NT as Indigenous affairs envoy.
Mr Abbott visited the Warruwi and Galiwin’ku communities as part of his first trip to the NT as Indigenous envoy. (Twitter: Tony Abbott)
“It’s about keeping him busy, give him some extra coin, give him a special title,” Mr Vowles said. “Get around kissing some black kids and getting some good photo opportunities, but actually doing nothing.”
I am guessing that with a tight schedule, Mr Abbott would have had to prioritise his time.
But had he met with Mr Vowles, which I imagine he will soon, he would likely have been criticised by the usual suspects for not spending time with the people at the grassroots. Damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.
Joining the chorus of criticism, WA Labor senator Patrick Dodson told SBS that Mr Abbott’s appointment was an absurdity and saying: “What an arrogant position the current Prime Minister, Mr Morrison, has taken.”
It’s fine to criticise, but some justification would be helpful. Why is the appointment absurdity? Why is Morrison’s position arrogant?
Interestingly, Mr Dodson acknowledged that he doesn’t know what Mr Abbott is going to do, but in the same breath he said: “He’s appointed himself to be the schoolmaster of Indigenous kids around Australia.”
The former prime minister visited Warruwi School in the Northern Territory. (Twitter: Tony Abbott)
He’s done the ground work
For many years, Mr Abbott has visited Aboriginal communities to sit, talk, share, and laugh with the people, and all for the right reasons — to better understand them.
Working in the academic space of Aboriginal education and psychology, I know that while education is obviously a focus to improving attendance rates, a holistic approach is needed if we are to see Aboriginal children thrive in school.
Having spoken with Mr Abbott about his new role and Aboriginal affairs in general, I know he understands the need to consider the broader contextual factors.
The job requires understanding people at the community level and being able to negotiate often rigid constraints of government bureaucracy. He does not speak with guile and is not afraid to make tough decisions when they need to be made.
Tony Abbott Tweet: Like so many remote schools, Galiwinku has its problems but the community is all pulling together
I believe Mr Abbott can do this, but it is a challenging task which requires bipartisan support.
I imagine that Mr Abbott will seek a range of views from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous stakeholders with relevant experience in Indigenous education and related fields. And before anyone objects to him consulting with non-Indigenous people, let’s not forget that Indigenous affairs is everyone’s business.
The dominating separatist paradigm embraced by many of Mr Abbott’s critics has been a massive failure, except maybe for those who have managed to build their prosperity on other people’s poverty and misery.
Mr Abbott can expect to hear a range of views, conflicting opinions, and criticism. But for the criticisms to be useful, they must be specific and contain substance; they can’t just be the sort of rhetoric that has characterised Indigenous affairs for far too long.
Time to reframe the schools debate
As someone with Indigenous ancestry who has benefited from a good education, I believe we need to reframe some of our fundamental assumptions about Indigenous education and wellbeing.
For example, do we want Indigenous kids in schools, or do we want Indigenous kids to want to be in school? Such reframing forces us to look beyond rewards and punishments, to strategies that facilitate active engagement and a love of learning. This leads us in a new direction, and a new direction is so desperately needed.
For this to happen requires skilled teachers who are passionate about their jobs and feel supported. Therefore, if we are serious about improving educational outcomes for Indigenous kids, then we need to be just as concerned about the wellbeing of the teachers who will be teaching them, as we are concerned about the kids.
The teachers’ workspace is the children’s learning space, so if the workspace is not optimal, the children suffer.
To maintain regular attendance, the children need to see adults working as being normal.
Immediately this presents a huge challenge to Mr Abbott and his team, which will require leaders working together — not attacking from the sidelines.
Perhaps most importantly, we need to stop seeing these children as “Indigenous children” and start seeing them as “Australian children” — our children.
While the hate campaigns for Mr Abbott continue, there will be little advancement in the education of Indigenous children, trapping future generations in a cycle of disadvantage.
We cannot afford a “stolen future generation” of Indigenous Australians. We can work together to make a real difference.
Anthony Dillon is a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at Australian Catholic University.