Prime minister Tony Abbott is under fire this morning after describing Aboriginal people who live on remote indigenous communities as making a “lifestyle choice”.
The ALP has made the usual calls for the PM to apologise and some indigenous leaders have expressed their disappointment, but Abbott has flagged a key issue facing governments when it comes to balancing the budget and servicing regional communities.
Nationals MPs should be nervous.
Abbott’s comments are the result of a plan by the West Australian Government to close around half of the state’s 274 remote communities after the feds decided to cut funding to assist them – it previously contributed two thirds of the costs – and pass responsibility over to state governments.
WA premier Colin Barnett announced late last year that between 100 and 150 remote communities would be shut down and that his hands were tied by the Abbott government’s decision, which he labelled reprehensible.
The Premier acknowledged it would “cause great distress to Aboriginal people who will move, it will cause issues in regional towns as Aboriginal people move into them” but added that the disadvantage people deal with there “is the biggest social issue this state faces”.
Just over 12,000 people live in WA’s remote communities and 507 are in the 115 smallest ones – just 4.4 people on average per community.
Here’s what Abbott said yesterday:
“If people choose to live miles away from where there’s a school, if people choose not to access the school of the air, if people choose to live where there’s no jobs, obviously it’s very, very difficult to close the gap.”
But here’s the PM’s comment that should have every small country town without a school and other essential services wondering.
“What we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have.”
To reinforce that, in the wake of the controversy, Abbott told Alan Jones today that he was “stating a general principal”.
And he drew a line in the sand, saying: “It’s the job of the taxpayer to provide reasonable services in a reasonable way”.
Government at all levels are grappling with the issue of how to pay for the remote and regional areas. At a local level that means everything from council mergers to letting sealed roads return to dirt.
As the Australian Bureau of Statistics pointed out 10 years ago that around two-thirds of the nation’s population resides in the capitals. In New South Wales, just 0.1% of people live in “very remote” areas, but that figure jumps to nearly 25% of residents of the Northern Territory.
So the question of service delivery and its cost can vary wildly between states and territories. In WA, the figure rises to 2.4%. Colin Barnett has made an early call how how to tackle the problem as the federal government retreats from dealing with it.
But as the Intergenerational Report pointed out last week, the cost of looking after all Australians and how to pay for it is a major challenge for government, regardless of the party in charge.
This isn’t just an Aboriginal issue. Australians in regional areas all over the country are continuing to cluster around the larger towns where jobs and services can be found. Smaller towns are evaporating, left to rot. And while some lament those changes, that’s the market at work and people voting, literally, with their feet.
The question governments will face in the years ahead is do they let remote communities die lingering natural deaths over extended periods, or do they tackle the issue head on and move people to a more cost-effective location.
When the Abbott government stopped funding WA’s remote communities, the Prime Minister made his own lifestyle choice.
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