Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott’s headline-grabbing habit has once again failed him, as he grapples unconvincingly to understand the chronic health problems which bedevil Indigenous Australia.
The parliamentary bovver-boy was in Alice Springs last week, where he took the opportunity to lecture the people of the bush communities about their failings. He told them that their poor choices are letting themselves – and by extension their country – down.
Mr Abbott, displaying a heretofore unrecognised expertise in nephrology, revealed on ABC radio that to avoid kidney disease, Aboriginal people needed to “exercise reasonably and eat well”. Reading between the lines, renal failure is simply a consequence of poor personal choices.
Doubtless things can get pretty tough in Minister Abbott’s own electorate, which takes in some of Sydney’s struggling northern beaches suburbs. Down there, it can be difficult to make a restaurant booking at short notice, and it’s possible that even ministers of the crown may have to wait annoying minutes while their staffers queue for coffee.
Here in the desert, the Anangu people too have their problems: poor housing infrastructure, under-funded medical facilities, epidemic rates of diabetes and limited access to fresh food are just some of them. Many babies also make a personal choice to be born prematurely, with a low-birth weight and consequent predisposition to kidney disease.
Sarah Brown, Manager of the Western Desert dialysis unit in Alice Springs, told Crikey this morning that “it’s classic victim-blaming mentality to try to explain the overrepresentation of Indigenous Australians with end-stage renal failure on bad lifestyle choices. Renal disease is the result of poverty, disadvantage, racism and disempowerment.”
In September 2005, on a visit to Darwin, Abbott spoke of a “crisis of authority” in Indigenous communities, which created the preconditions for petrol sniffing. “Why don’t communities take it in to their own hands to do what they can to stop young people engaging in this destructive behaviour?” he asked.
Presumably on that occasion, the Minister had browsed the in-flight magazine on the trip north, rather than reacquaint himself with his own department’s 2004 Comgas Evaluation report which described the “wide range of interventions” communities employed to combat the scourge of sniffing.
Abbott’s careless comments are deeply offensive to Indigenous Australians. Is the Minister really so ignorant of the reality, or is he engaging in political posturing intended for consumption in the outer suburban marginal seats of eastern-seaboard cities? Surely Cabinet Ministers don’t play fast and loose with the truth about the desperate health problems of Australia’s most disadvantaged people.