Abbott vows to be Australia's 'PM for Aborigines'

Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott after his meeting with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at Parliament House in Canberra on October 11, 2012. -- ST FILE PHOTO
Australian opposition leader Tony Abbott after his meeting with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at Parliament House in Canberra on October 11, 2012. -- ST FILE PHOTO

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australian conservative leader Tony Abbott pledged on Saturday to spend one week every year in a remote indigenous community if elected, saying he wanted to be the "prime minister for Aboriginal affairs".

Mr Abbott said he wanted to make Australia's most disadvantaged minority his top priority were he to win national elections on September 7, unveiling a new policy to promote private ownership of some communal Aboriginal land.

"It is all very well having the right to live on your land, having the right to walk over your land, having the right if necessary to exclude people from your land," Mr Abbott told a community meeting in Nhulunbuy, part of central Australia's Arnhem Land.

"But land has to be an economic asset as well as a spiritual asset, and I will do whatever I humanly can in government to bring this about."

Mr Abbott said he wanted to be the "prime minister for Aboriginal affairs" and described the gulf between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians as a "lack of engagement".

He pledged to spend one week of every year living in a remote community, starting with Nhulunbuy, and said he would bring responsibility for Aboriginal issues into the prime minister's department, also appointing a former heavyweight from the rival Labor party, Mr Warren Mundine, to spearhead his efforts.

"I know there will be people who say you can't do that, you're goofing off, you're not doing your job," he said of his annual plan to stay in an Aboriginal settlement.

"The fact is if these places are home to the first Australians why shouldn't they be home to the prime minister of our country?"

In an interview with The Australian newspaper ahead of his policy announcement Mr Abbott likened some impoverished Aboriginal communities to "Somalia without guns".

Mr Abbott's conservatives launched a controversial military-led intervention to tackle pornography, alcohol and child abuse in central Australia's remote Aboriginal communities when they were last in office, and resisted a national apology to the nation's original inhabitants for wrongs committed since British settlement in 1788.

Several conservative lawmakers walked out of parliament when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd went on to deliver such an apology - an historic moment in race relations in Australia - upon taking office in 2008.

Aborigines, the most disadvantaged Australians, are believed to have numbered around one million at the time of British settlement.

There are now just 470,000 out of a total population of 23 million, and they suffer disproportionate levels of disease, imprisonment and social problems as well as significantly lower education, employment and life expectancy.

Mr Rudd welcomed Mr Abbott's appointment of Mr Mundine, who he described as a personal friend, and said tacking indigenous issues ought to be above politics.

"We are judged by the rest of the world on these questions and rightly so, and we will be judged by our children as to whether we have got this right," he said.