SYDNEY • Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott yesterday kicked off a one-week stay with indigenous communities in the country's north as he sought to boost development and jobs in the sparsely populated region.
Mr Abbott vowed to be the "prime minister for Aboriginal affairs" before he was elected to power in 2013, and said he would spend one week every year running the nation from a remote indigenous community.
Last year, he spent several days in remote Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory before cutting short his stay to say farewell to troops deployed to the Middle East. He will head to Thursday Island in the Torres Strait off Australia's north-eastern tip and then move to the mainland at nearby Cape York later in the week.
Mr Abbott said he hoped the stint would help him "to become as practically familiar with the real issues in indigenous Australia as possible".
"To spend... just one week in 52 focused on indigenous issues is not too much," Mr Abbott told reporters from the far north-western town of Kununurra before heading to the Torres Strait. "It really isn't too much, given that that section of our population has, to a considerable extent, been neglected for the last couple of hundred years."
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.
They are the nation's most disadvantaged citizens and have a much shorter life expectancy than other Australians while suffering disproportionate levels of imprisonment and social problems such as unemployment.
Mr Abbott's government in June unveiled an ambitious plan to develop northern Australia - a vast area spanning more than 3 million sq km with a population of over one million people.
Among the issues set to be raised by Thursday Islanders are the high cost of living in the Torres Strait, fishing rights and economic development, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.