Opposition leader Tony Abbott and Ken Wyatt attend a "Welcome to Country" ceremony on the forecourt of Parliament House in Canberra September. Photo: ANDREW TAYLOR
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has come under fire for differentiating between indigenous people from urban and rural backgrounds in reference to indigenous MP Ken Wyatt.
Mr Abbott on Tuesday said it would be terrific to have an "authentic" indigenous representative of central Australia in Canberra in response to a question about the possibility of Northern Territory minister Alison Anderson switching to federal politics.
Sitting West Australian Liberal and Member for Hasluck, Ken Wyatt is the first indigenous Australian in the federal lower house. His electorate includes suburbs in Perth's east.
"I think it would be terrific if, as well as having an urban Aboriginal in our parliament, we had an Aboriginal person from central Australia, an authentic representative of the ancient cultures of central Australia in the parliament," Mr Abbott said.
Mr Wyatt's nephew Ben Wyatt, a state Labor MP, is "staggered" Mr Abbott thinks an aboriginal person who lives in the city or suburbs "is bereft of culture".
Ken Wyatt himself released a statement saying "in all indigenous Australians our culture is the essence of who we are - our geographic location is what distinguishes us".
Fellow backbencher Alex Hawke on Wednesday denied Mr Abbott was suggesting Mr Wyatt was not an authentic Aboriginal person.
"While the language may have been a tiny bit clunky, Ken Wyatt's nephew is a member of the Labor Party and what Tony Abbott is clearly saying here is that he wants more indigenous Australians in our federal parliament," Mr Hawke told Sky News.
"I don't believe anybody can find fault with that."
Mr Hawke said the opposition leader was simply saying local people from the NT would best represent the culture of the territory "where a lot of indigenous Australians are located".
But Labor backbencher Ed Husic wasn't buying that explanation.
"Tony Abbott is gone as the opposition leader," he told Sky News on Wednesday.
"He has displayed, over the last few weeks, gaffe after gaffe after gaffe."
Mr Abbott told reporters in Queensland reporting on the issue had been misleading.
"I am very proud to have Ken in my team," he said.
He said he was "absolutely determined" to do more to get more Aboriginal people into parliament.
And federal coalition frontbencher Scott Morrison said Mr Abbott's remarks were well-intentioned.
"Tony Abbott is saying we want to see more indigenous Australians in our parliament," he told reporters in Sydney on Wednesday.
"We want to see them from urban areas, we want to see them from regional areas, we want to see them from remote areas, which is particularly the point he was making about Alison Anderson."
Mr Abbott had never meant to imply Ms Anderson was a more "authentic" indigenous Australian than Ken Wyatt, Mr Morrison said, and he flatly denied Mr Abbott had ever said Mr Wyatt was not a "man of culture".
Linda Burney, who in 2003 became the first indigenous person elected to NSW parliament, on Wednesday called on Mr Abbott to apologise.
The deputy state Labor leader said in a statement that it was "incredibly insensitive and demeaning" to suggest Mr Wyatt was not an authentic indigenous representative.
"Clearly Mr Abbott has no understanding of aboriginality - and Aboriginal history, culture and society," Ms Burney said.
"Increasing the number of Aboriginal Australians in our federal and state parliaments should be a national priority - but foolish comments like these set that cause back."