Australia's PM Abbott begins one-week stay with remote Aboriginal communities

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he would spend one week every year ruling the nation from a remote indigenous community when he vowed to be the "prime minister for Aboriginal affairs" in Sept 2013.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he would spend one week every year ruling the nation from a remote indigenous community when he vowed to be the "prime minister for Aboriginal affairs" in Sept 2013.PHOTO: EPA

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on Sunday 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 September 2013, and said he would spend one week every year ruling the nation from a remote indigenous community.

He will head to Thursday Island - which has a population of just over 2,600 - in the Torres Strait off Australia's northeastern tip before spending time on the mainland at nearby Cape York later in the week.

The Australian leader 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 northwestern town of Kununurra before heading to the Torres Strait.

"It really isn't too much, given that that section of our population have to a considerable extent been neglected for the last couple of hundred years.

"So, there's a sense in which Aboriginal people are finally getting the attention they deserve and that's certainly going to be the full focus - my full focus and the government's full focus - over the next week or so."

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 three million sq km with a population of over one million people and which includes the Great Barrier Reef.

The White Paper set out a development plan to 2035, with A$1.2 billion (S$1.24 billion) of initial investment in infrastructure projects, land reforms and cutting red tape.

"We all know that remote Australia - principally remote indigenous Australia - has employment issues, has health issues, has education issues, has community safety issues, but there's also so much potential," Mr Abbott added.

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.

Mr Abbott is expected to be joined by several ministers during the trip, including Indigenous Minister Nigel Scullion, Health Minister Sussan Ley and Social Services Minister Scott Morrison.

He is also reportedly due to visit the grave of Aboriginal man Eddie Mabo, who waged an ultimately successful 10-year court battle for recognition of native land rights.

The Australian leader last year spent several days in remote Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory running the government from a tent before cutting short his stay to say farewell to troops deployed to the Middle East.