Why are we here? Pity the PM who follows Tony Abbott on Indigenous affairs

"What would Tony do?"

It was hard not to ask the question during Malcolm Turnbull's swing through remote and Indigenous communities in South Australia.

And it was sometimes hard to know why Turnbull – along with ministers Nigel Scullion and Alan Tudge and local MP Rowan Ramsey – had travelled to Ceduna​, Koonibba​, Scotdesco​ and Yalata​.

The trip went off without a hitch, largely stage-managed by swarms of staff in blue Prime Minister and Cabinet T-shirts.

But Indigenous recognition in the constitution, for example, was not publicly mentioned during the PM's first major visit to remote communities.

Ceduna was the news hook, six months into a trial of cashless debit cards that stop welfare recipients spending money on alcohol.

The Prime Minister and Tudge talked of the scheme's initial success and its potential for a national roll-out, after meeting the local mayor, a shopkeeper and a couple of carefully selected townsfolk.

The locals told a different story. Jaleen Miller, who does not receive welfare or use the card, nevertheless said it had affected her family.

"It was coming out here for those who had children in care who weren't looking after them," she said.

"Then we went to Ceduna and we were told everyone was going on the card.

"I call it the devil card."

Next on Turnbull's trip was Koonibba, followed by Scotdesco, an Indigenous community that farms saltbush and offers a warm welcome.

There was an hour-long community meeting held behind closed doors.

Monday morning, and the Eyre Highway along the Great Australian Bight brought the travelling party to Yalata, home to 220 people.

First up, the PM participated in the Remote School Attendance Strategy – that's public service speak for a Landcruiser picking up children who won't go to school.

The scheme is working. Attendance has shot up from 20 to 74 per cent, Yalata Anangu School principal Bob Sim told the Prime Minister.

Next for Turnbull were school rooms, the health centre, a community tea.

So, what had prompted the Prime Minister's trip, and what had he learnt from talking to communities like the one in Yalata?

"I have been engaging with Indigenous communities and First Australians throughout all my time in public life and before that, but particularly as Prime Minister," Turnbull said.

"The engagement and experience … is as diverse as Indigenous Australians' diversity, and it does range from the most cutting-edge, modern, 21st century digital businesses to more remote communities, more traditional lifestyles and more experiences living on community, as opposed to working in the heart of the bigger city.

"So, it's important to recognise that diversity of experience, and this is part of the joy of being Prime Minister of this great, big country with so much diversity in it."

The locals hung back, not quite believing the Prime Minister was in town, mostly unsure of what to say.

Turnbull was also hesitant.

Pity the prime minister who had to follow Tony Abbott – always ready to grab a book from a teacher and take over reading duties for a class of five-year-olds.

Turnbull, awkward and observant, was delighted to note The Gruffalo was the classroom book of choice, and he was content to play assistant and let the teacher read.

And again the question came to mind: why was the PM on this trip?

The story Why are we here? Pity the PM who follows Tony Abbott on Indigenous affairs first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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