Australia’s PM runs the country from a tent

Local hero: Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott makes a new friend in Arnhem Land © PA

Tony Abbott is spending the week in a remote Aborigine community to improve his understanding of its problems. Is this a real political commitment or just an empty gesture?

A world leader with an emergency on his hands can get hold of Barack Obama in the White House or David Cameron in Downing Street. But if it is Australia’s Tony Abbott they want, this week they will have to look for him in a small tent in the remote town of Nhulunbuy.

The prime minister is fulfilling his pledge to spend one week each year governing Australia from one of its Aboriginal regions. This time it is Arnhem Land, one of the largest Aboriginal reserves in the country. Though located in the far north, Abbott says Arnhem is ‘in its own way, the heart of the country’, and he remains in constant communication with the capital, Canberra.

For him the purpose of the visit is to learn at first hand the issues facing Australia’s 700,000 Aborigines. Though known as the ‘first people’, they have suffered from discrimination since colonial times and only acquired the same legal rights as the rest of the population in 1967. This legacy has left them Australia’s most disadvantaged group, far more likely to suffer from drug abuse, alcoholism and unemployment.

Local Aborigine leaders are pressing Abbott to bring forward a promised referendum that could give them greater protection under Australia’s constitution. The prime minister says the timing is not right, and worries that without more planning, the vote might go against them. Still, the symbolism of the visit has not been lost on the Australian public.

Experts say such public gestures like this can have a powerful effect in building support for often difficult or unpopular issues. Perhaps the most famous and dramatic piece of political symbolism since World War Two was President Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972 to meet Chairman Mao Zedong. This ended decades of poor relations between the countries and became known as ‘the week that changed the world’. It has even become the subject of an opera by John Adams.

The political stage

Some say that Abbott’s stay in a tent is an empty gesture and will not change anything. Politicians are fond of being photographed on quick visits to hospitals and factories, but this is just fly-by-night PR. What really matters is policy and making hard choices about money and resources. As Abbott acknowledges regarding the referendum, real political change comes from painstakingly building a consensus on an issue.

Yet others say that politics sometimes needs to be theatrical in order to inspire a country to action. It is much easier for people to support a policy when a politician gives it dramatic personal form. Abbott’s actions demonstrate that Aborigines will no longer be on the margins of their country’s politics but play a central part in future.

You Decide

  1. Can symbolic acts like Tony Abbott’s stay in a tent make a real difference or is just empty showmanship?
  2. ‘The world would be better if politicians spent more time listening to voters and less time looking for photo ops.’ Do you agree?


  1. Form groups. You are in charge of a politician’s election campaign. Come up with five activities or photo opportunities for your politician that would persuade voters to vote for them. Compare with the class.
  2. Using the links in ‘Become an Expert’, make a short presentation for your class on the problems facing Aborigines in Australia.

Some People Say...

“Too many laws, too few examples.’Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, French revolutionary”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care about Australia’s prime minister?
Attention-grabbing acts like this are part of politics in any country and it is important to know how seriously to take them. Abbott seems genuinely to care about improving relations with Aborigines. Yet many Aboriginal groups say it would have been better for him to talk with more Aborigines across the country, not just the north.
Does PR always work for politicians?
PR efforts can go badly wrong. In 2006, during a PR campaign to present a more easygoing image of himself, Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, misheard a reporter’s question about his musical taste. It was then reported that Brown said he was a huge fan of the band Arctic Monkeys and had their songs for his morning alarm. This brought him much derision in the press.

Word Watch

The term was first used when the British started colonising Australia in 1788. Australia’s Aborigines are thought to have lived there for 50,000 years.
Aboriginal unemployment is three times the national average. The average life expectancy of Aboriginal males is ten years shorter than the national average.
The referendum is now likely to be held in 2017.
Communist China and the US had fought each other in the 1950s. However, in the 1970s, both countries wanted better relations so that they could unite against the USSR.
Chairman of the Communist Party of China and leader of China from 1949 till his death in 1976.
John Adams’s opera, Nixon in China, premiered in 1987, is regularly performed around the world.
Public relations. The term began to be used in the 20th century as professional firms appeared specialising in helping companies and governments with their image. However, propaganda for political ends has been used for centuries.

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