Budget Blues and what’s not in the news

May 16, 2021

This week we had Budget night, with the anticipated cash splurge which is expected to set the Government up for re-election in the next 12-months. The last budget was in October 2020, with special emergency budgeting required to manage Covid-19 over the last 12 months. Just 7 months later, and despite the much improved economic and budget position, I could just as easily have copied and pasted my comments from October last year as the analysis for what we saw announced last night.

But before we break down what the Morrison Government’s Budget does, or doesn’t do to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, I wanted to preface with a few thoughts from things I heard recently…

Last week I attended the Responsible Investment Association of Australia to hear one of the keynote speakers, Ngalia man leader and anthropologist from the Western Deserts, Kado Muir. Speaking to an audience of investors, Kado talked about ‘customary capital’, the capital value inherent in their cultural heritage over time, and the abuse of the colonising capitalism that has been exploiting and extracting from the customary capital of this continent for 233 years without any compensation to the owners of that customary capital.

We know well the cost of that exploitation is now measured in decades-wide gaps in life expectancy, much poorer health outcomes, atrocious incarceration rates and chronic mental health, suicide and system racism issues.

In reference to the news that investors at Rio Tinto had voted down the proposed executive bonuses after the utter failure in destroying the Juukan Caves last year, Kado Muir said:

“Capital, the investors, are starting to ask questions… how is their money being used, what is the good that it is being put to… the investors are speaking and they are telling the company that doing bad is not an option.“

The next speaker at the RIAA was a US investigative journalist called Anand Giriharadas who has looked deeply into the hypocrisy of corporations ‘investing’ in social capital and creating philanthropic programs whilst continuing to exploit, cheat and undermine the society they claim to serve. Giraharadas said a few things that stood out to me, firstly that “generosity has come to function as the wingman of injustice” and “All investment should be responsible, why do we delineate between normal investment and responsible investment?”. A tough critique but undeniable in 2021.

Which brings me back to the 2021 Federal Budget that was announced by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg this week. The Budget, more than just a balance sheet of income and expenditure for the years ahead, is a statement of values. What do we value as a people, as a nation? How will the Government honour and support the values of the electorate? How will the Budget be an expression of our responsible investment in each other?

Picking up on Kado’s comments last week, if the Government is the corporation, we are all the stakeholders and investors, and it is up to us to insist that ‘doing bad is not an option’.

These days, ‘doing bad’ is just as much the doing of nothing… the active underinvestment in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities perpetuates the problems we have been fighting to address for decades.

In a speech that ran to over 3860 words, the Treasurer only mentioned ‘Indigenous’ three times, a passing reference linked to limited programs or initiatives that also mentioned other marginal groups in our society with no dollars specifically quarantined for First Nations needs. The Minister for Indigenous Australians, the Hon Ken Wyatt’ media release on the Budget impact for First Nations peoples talked a big game but the figures don’t really add up to much. A focus on ‘Indigenous-specific employment programs’ paid out of the contentious Indigenous Advancement Strategy, more support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls to participate in girls’ academies around Australia and some funding to help support Prescribed Body Corporates in managing their Native Title were all positive but hardly equate to real reform.

As in past years, I’ve looked through the relevant Budget papers (so you don’t have to) and the following is what I can glean so far:

Closing the Gap

When the original Closing the Gap Strategy was created back in 2008, $4.6 billion was committed by COAG (with Federal dollars) to deliver the Strategy, with $1.6 billion set aside for health investment alone.

Leaving aside the ‘crisis’ Budget in October last year, the first regular budget after the signing of the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap doesn’t go anywhere near the levels of commitment that were made in the original Closing the Gap Strategy 13 years ago.

The Government suggest that they are:

‘…investing more than $700 million in this Budget to improve health and ageing outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

This includes better mental health services including culturally appropriate after care and 24/7 crisis support, strengthened primary health care for Indigenous Australians and improved access to quality aged care services.’

 

That money includes:

  • $630.2 million to improve access to quality aged care services for consumers in regional, rural and remote areas including those with Indigenous backgrounds and special needs groups (How much will actually trickle down to First Nations Peoples is anyone’s guess);

  • $11.2 million to continue the remote response to COVID‑19 to support regional and remote Indigenous communities throughout Australia;

  • $22.6 million to redesign the Practice Incentives Program – Indigenous Health Incentive; and

  • $7.5 million in 2021‑22 (and $1.5 million per year ongoing) to support the continued operation of the National Cancer Screening Register, including additional service provider costs and data integration, and facilitating alternative delivery pathways for bowel cancer screening kits to Indigenous populations.

Additionally, there is some funding for mental health, suicide prevention work of nearly $80 million – much needed of course, but a long way short of what is needed.

There are great swathes of plans, programs, initiatives, targets and priorities that have been committed to in the new National Agreement to Closing the Gap.

The Coalition of Peaks response to the Budget has been reasonably neutral so far, probably in the hope that the Government delivers more directly later this year in line with the first round of reporting from Federal and State governments against their commitments to the new Closing the Gap Agreement. Pat Turner, CEO of the National Aboriginal and Community Controlled Health Organisation and Lead Convenor of the Coalition of Peaks said:

“Given the massive new investments seen in this Budget, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a legitimate expectation that there will be a significant boost in funding in all areas of Closing the Gap — including implementation of the Priority Reforms in the National Agreement that we believe will accelerate the closing of gaps,”

 

“We look forward to an announcement of funding in the Closing the Gap measures to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in the Justice Policy Partnership in particular and all policy and place-based partnerships to be established under the National Agreement”.

For a more comprehensive response to the Closing the Gap priority areas, I guess we wait to see what Wyatt and Frydenberg announce in July-August when they provide more detail on how the Agreement will be achieved. Hopefully proper funding for Closing the Gap will come from the $9.7billion allocated in the Budget to items that are not yet announced?

 

Cashless Debit Card

 

As expected, the Government continues to be wedded to their much maligned and highly criticised Cashless Debit Card. The Budget noted that it would continue to fund the extension of the ‘pilot’ program over next few years despite failing to pass legislation that would have cemented the program in.

 

ANTaR has produced some background information and collated resources on the Cashless Debit Card to keep people informed on its implementation. The CDC is part of the suite of ‘punching down’ policies (including the illegal Robo-debt and continuing poverty level social security payments) that punish the most vulnerable, at risk communities in Australia.

Justice

There is funding of $57.6 million for targeted measures to address violence against Indigenous women and children. Including funding for legal services, a dedicated survey and improving the quality, capability and cultural safety of family violence services.

Again, this is a bare bones offering when we consider that in the 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody we continue to see an industrial scale of incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with deaths in custody also occurring at alarming rates. As the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services Chair, Priscilla Atkins said:

“Given the alarming rates of over-incarceration and Aboriginal deaths in custody, it is more important than ever for ATSILS to be properly resourced and accessible across Australia. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services are already suffering from a demand we cannot meet due to substantial delays and understaffing. More funding and job-creation for ATSILS means that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can access culturally safe legal support when and where they need it, which supports our communities and reduces the over-incarceration of our people.”

The Change the Record Campaign has been quick to directly condemn the Budget as failing to live up to its own rhetoric of ‘closing the gap’.

 

Heritage Protection

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at this one, but the Budget did provide an ‘enormous’ (sarcasm) ’$0.5 million over two years for improved Indigenous heritage protection and Indigenous involvement in Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 decision‑making processes.’

How $500k spread out over two years will be spent effectively to help stop travesties like the destruction of Juukan Caves last year, is anyone’s guess. Last night the Treasurer said regarding the Government:

“We’re very focused on protecting the wonderful legacy and history of the First Australians so this budget is not the first or the last word on that matter,”

I guess we wait to see what he means by the budget not being the first or last word on this issue, but the announcement last night is a joke and shows just how much they value the legacy and history.

There was another ‘$11.6 million over four years… to expand and create new Indigenous Protected Areas that provide greater coverage of Sea Country, protect marine biodiversity and create additional employment opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.’ Again, a drop in the ocean of what is needed but it is a start.

And there was also $36.7 million over four years ‘to supplement funding for the Prescribed Body Corporate Capacity Building program, which will support recent reforms to the Native Title Act 1993’, a good but limited first step of proper funding, as National Native Title Council CEO, Jamie Lowe noted:

“While we welcome more funding for PBCs, which is desperately needed, we urge the Government to move beyond the drip-feed, business-as-usual project funding approach, which requires Government approval on what PBCs can and cannot do, to move to a nation-building model. A nation-building policy approach allows community-driven, long-term, sustainable development and autonomy.”

Other stuff spread out over the next 4-5 years

 

While the core social justice issues around health, justice, child protection and housing remain underfunded with big question marks, there were some other more positive Budget measures provided for last night (Budget Paper 2) including:

 

  • $16.6 million in 2021‑22 to assist boarding providers with a high proportion of Indigenous students to remain financially sustainable during the COVID‑19 recovery period

  • $13.9 million over four years from 2021‑22 to establish an Early-Stage Social Enterprise Foundation focused on providing capacity building and financial support for early stage social enterprises that improve the safety and economic security of Indigenous women

  • $5.0 million in 2021‑22 to Basketball Australia to deliver the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup 2022, and to establish programs to accredit more women as coaches and officials and to encourage more Indigenous women to get involved in basketball

  • The Government will provide $28.1 million over five years from 2020‑21 (and $6.0 million per year ongoing) to deliver the Government’s Indigenous Visual Arts Industry Action Plan, to provide additional funding for the Indigenous Visual Arts Industry Support program and to support Indigenous arts centres and fairs through the impacts of COVID‑19.

In the name of ‘jobs jobs jobs’, the Budget also announced $243.6 million over five years from 2020‑21 to improve economic, social and education outcomes for Indigenous Australians. Funding includes:

  • $128.4 million over three years for a new Indigenous Skills and Employment Program, which will replace existing programs, including the Employment Parity Initiative, Vocational Training and Employment Centres, and Tailored Assistance Employment Grants

  • $63.5 million over four years from 2020‑21 to support an additional 2700 places in Indigenous girls academies. These placements will provide culturally appropriate support to girls and young women to graduate Year 12

  • $10 million over two years from 2021‑22 for Indigenous enterprises and community organisations to improve their access to off‑grid solar power systems, stockyards, greenhouses and water security equipment

  • $5 million in 2021‑22 for grants to improve the food security of remote Indigenous communities.

Finally, the Government will ‘provide $4.7 million in 2021‑22 to fund the development of a detailed business case exploring options for the establishment of the Ngurra Cultural Precinct in Canberra, which will include a National Resting Place for the respectful holding of repatriated ancestral remains.’ This is certainly a worthy initiative if it is supported by First Nations communities and may form part of a broader list of necessary work towards a national Truth-Telling program. However, by way of comparison, when we have a National War Memorial refurb that runs to half a billion dollars, a national cultural precinct can’t be the poor cousin.

My last observation from last night is that our media must do a much better job at scrutinising the Budget regarding its implications for First Nations communities. As I said back in October last year, the lens of ‘Winners & Losers’ is already a problematic way of analysing and assessing the efficacy of the Federal Budget. Sadly, First Nations Peoples don’t rate a consideration in the Winners or Losers assessment (even ‘Small Brewers’ get a mention over First Nations!) and the struggle to have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs taken seriously by the Government is made harder by our media’s indifference.

As was noted extensively last night, it was a generous budget with money for all the constituencies that the Government wants to sure-up votes for in the next election. Shamefully and unsurprisingly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not considered an important enough group to share such generosity with.

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