Abbott says he supports plan to close 100 remote Aboriginal communities if essential services cannot be provided
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott holds his fighting boomerang while talking to an Aboriginal performer at the opening of the 44th Parliament in Canberra in 2013 (AFP Photo/Mark Graham)
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott faced a wave of criticism Wednesday, including that he was unfit to be leader, after describing living in remote Aboriginal communities as a "lifestyle choice".
The country's indigenous people are the nation's most disadvantaged, with a much shorter life expectancy than other Australians while suffering disproportionate levels of imprisonment and social problems such as unemployment.
Abbott said late Tuesday he supported a plan to close more than 100 remote Aboriginal communities across the vast Western Australia state if essential services could not be provided.
"It's the job of the taxpayer to provide reasonable services in a reasonable way, indeed to provide high quality services in a reasonable way," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
"What we can't do is endlessly subsidize lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have."
Aborigines have lived in Australia for at least 40,000 years and the comments drew stinging criticism, with Abbott's key indigenous advisor Warren Mundine saying Aborigines had a cultural connection to their land, and it was not simply a matter of going to "live in the bush".
"These 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," he said.
"It's about their life, it's about their very essence, it's about their very culture."
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda said the comments were "baffling" and would cause offence in the indigenous community.
"We're going to make a situation that's pretty bad already in those places even worse," he said.
Abbott, a passionate supporter of recognition for first Australians in the nation's constitution, last year spent almost a week running the government from a remote Aboriginal community and will do the same this year.
But Rolf de Heer, an acclaimed filmmaker who has made indigenous movies including "Ten Canoes", said the comments were "so inappropriate that it's laughable".
"It shows such ignorance that he has no right to be the prime minister of Australia," the Sydney Morning Herald quoted him as saying.
Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson, who has heavily influenced conservative thought on indigenous policy, added that it was a "hopeless statement by the prime minister".
"He has got no plan for the future of these communities in the event that they close down," he said.
Abbott defended the remarks on Wednesday, saying he was being realistic.
"If you or I chose to live in a very remote place, to what extent is the taxpayer obliged to subsidize our services?" he said.
"It is incredibly difficult for the kids to go to school if there's only half a dozen of them and getting teachers there is all but impossible.
"Similarly it's very difficult for adults to get a proper job if there's no employment within hundreds of miles. And this is where we have to be a little bit realistic."
But opposition leader Bill Shorten said Abbott should apologize.
"Tony Abbott is a prime minister stuck in the 1950s," he told reporters, echoing comments he made in January when Abbott made Britain's Prince Philip a knight in a move met with ridicule.
"He says he's the prime minister for indigenous Australians but he just wants to move them off their land."
Aborigines are believed to have numbered around one million at the time of British settlement in 1788, but there are now just 470,000 out of a total population of 23 million. AFP
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