Abbott pledges new engagement with Indigenous Australians
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is promising an overhaul of the Department of Indigenous Affairs under a Coalition government.
Speaking at the Sydney Institute yesterday, Mr Abbott said he wanted a new engagement with Indigenous Australians to be the hallmark of a Coalition government from day one.
He said he planned to move the Department of Indigenous Affairs into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, in effect creating a prime minister of Indigenous affairs.
"It's got to start at the top. It's got to have the authority of the Prime Minister," he said.
I think it was a pity that as a government we got hung up on that word, 'sorry'.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott
But Mr Abbott said the Coalition's Indigenous affairs spokesman, Nigel Scullion, would still be the minister in charge of the portfolio.
There was less detail in the speech on how Mr Abbott would tackle entrenched problems in remote communities.
But some possibilities were floated, such as employing truancy officers to fine parents when kids skip school, rather than the current welfare quarantine scheme.
He also flagged lifting incentives for teachers and health professionals to work in Indigenous communities and making it easier for Aboriginal people on missions to buy their own house.
The Opposition Leader said he was aware the Coalition's track record on Indigenous affairs would cause for suspicion for some, and distanced himself from John Howard, who he served as health minister in the last Coalition government.
"I think it was a pity that as a government we got hung up on that word, 'sorry'," he told the institute.
"John was of a generation... where perhaps Indigenous people were not valued as in different circumstances and different times."
Mr Abbott has received some unlikely support from Indigenous leader and former ATSIC deputy chairman Ray Robinson.
"The Gillard Government, especially Jenny Macklin, have done a very poor job," he said.
"They have taken the Aboriginal vote for granted. I say to the Aboriginal people out there now, let's get together and let's vote the Liberal-National party in and let's get a new direction."
A spokeswoman for Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin says the Government is focused on delivering services, not bureaucratic shuffling.
The Opposition Leader, meanwhile, is also promising to bring forward for consultation a draft amendment to the Constitution recognising Indigenous Australians within 12 months of office.
Mr Abbott says the issue is a standing reproach to what otherwise is the most free and successful society in the world.
He said an acknowledgement of Aboriginal people as the first Australians would complete the Constitution, rather than change it.
"A referendum recognising Aboriginal people as the first Australians could be a unifying and liberating moment for the nation, even surpassing the 1967 change or the national apology.
"In seeking to establish a bipartisan process, the Coalition acknowledges the difficulty of crafting an amendment that satisfies Aboriginal people while reassuring the wider community that we are not creating two classes of citizen."
The Senate this week passed unopposed a government bill to create an Act of Recognition of Indigenous people intended to pave the way for constitutional change by allowing time to build community support for a referendum.