This week, the Prime Minister will visit a number of remote Indigenous communities in northern Australia. According to media reports, the PM’s entourage will include cabinet and junior ministers as well as senior departmental officials.
No doubt a small battalion of support staff will be there as well, if only to marshal the journalists brought along to document the PM’s annual outreach campaign.
If this year’s week in the north is anything like the last one, it will be hard to identify what benefit, if any, this travelling road show brings to the local communities that feature as backdrops for prime ministerial pic-facs.
As Fairfax journalist Michael Gordon wrote last week, there has been little progress on Indigenous issues since the PM last went bush in 2014. Instead, Indigenous Australia has experienced:
…budget cuts, a growing shift away from Indigenous to mainstream organisations for service delivery, a Closing the Gap report card showing no progress in some areas and regression in others, and some ill-chosen remarks about “lifestyle choices” that were seen as provocative and utterly ill-informed.
There is little reason to doubt the PM’s good intentions when it comes to improving the lives of Indigenous Australians; he has been an advocate for change since visiting remote Indigenous communities as health minister during the Howard years.
Abbott’s visit to the grave of Eddie Mabo this week also suggests he is determined to be more than just another white fella PM who passes through before the wet season commences.
Since the 2013 federal election, the PM and his Government have squandered a handsome electoral lead in the state, which no doubt contributed to the decision by WA MPs Luke Simpkins and, ironically, the former member for Canning, Don Randall to call the leadership spill vote against Abbott in February.
And now, at the commencement of the by-election campaign following Randall’s death, the new Liberal candidate for Canning faces a 10 per cent swing against him (or more accurately his party). If this threatened backlash persists until polling day, it could potentially wipe out Randall’s previously strong margin of 11.8 per cent. And if the Greens continue to grow their vote in the west, their preferences could even push Labor over the line, making life for PM Abbott considerably more difficult.
This makes Abbott’s decision to go north this week even more curious.
Everything the Government does in a communication sense over the next four weeks should be targeted at the voters of Canning. This is because the convergence of mainstream media paired with the adoption of social media ensures everything said and done on the east coast is transmitted to the west coast in real time.
So even if the PM thought it wise to physically stay distant from the Canning campaign (other than to appear at the launch), his advocacy of Indigenous issues this week simply muddies the campaign narrative.
Like most Australians, the voters of Canning are more interested in jobs than they are about constitutional recognition. A recent poll by the Australian National University found that 82 per cent of Australians supported removing clauses from the constitution that “discriminate on the basis of race”.
But when asked to nominate the two most important problems facing Australia today, only 1 per cent of respondents nominated Indigenous affairs. The top three issues were the economy/jobs, immigration and terrorism.
The Canning by-election is all about jobs, and Labor has wasted no time in staking out the “jobs” territory. This is somewhat ironic given “jobs and growth” is meant to be the Prime Minister’s latest mantra; at least it is according to twice-leaked Coalition talking points last week.
And it certainly seems to be the case given the numerous press conferences (read: picture opportunities) held by Abbott in past days, during which he apparently focused on jobs while variously climbing a fence, looking determinedly at cattle, surveying a shipyard, posing with cafe staff wearing pink uniforms, and looking at machinery while wearing a hard hat.
So if “jobs and growth” is the Coalition’s overarching theme at the moment, and if “jobs and growth” are so important in Canning, it is simply poor communication strategy for the Prime Minister to be on the opposite side of the country talking about Indigenous health, education and constitutional recognition.
Yes, it is important for Abbott to fulfil his commitment as the “Prime Minister for Indigenous Australians”. But given his need to do well in Canning – not to mention improve the Government’s poll standing more broadly – Abbott’s boys’ own adventure in Cape York seems like self-indulgence at a time when discipline in communication is particularly needed.