The Budget: record spending, but very little for First Nations peoples

So unless you’ve been off the grid or in a bunker since January, the 2020 Budget has been offered up by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg last night (5 months late) with the historic backdrop being the cold, hard economic reality of living with a global pandemic.

In May last year, the Treasurer guaranteed a surplus… now we are looking at nudging up over $1 trillion in public debt over the next few years.

Our Budget analysis last year was underwhelmed (to say the least) with the Government’s response to the ongoing, significant needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – with their 2019-20 budget continuing the austerity-lite measures that saw their friends in business, mining and construction looked after, and not a lot for the most vulnerable people in society.

Well… we’re all Keynesians now, and the enormous, record shattering spending in this year’s Budget is designed to ‘hopefully’ help the Australian economy recover as quickly as possible from pandemic induced recession.

With the hundreds of billions of dollars being spent over the next few years, you’d be forgiven for thinking there must be some reasonable funding commitments made towards the pressing needs of Australia’s First Nations communities. But alas, like last year’s much rosier Budget, the largess is mostly reserved for business and middle-high income taxpayers, pensioners and industry.

As has become the standard habit of analysing the Budget each year, the media quickly looks to identify the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and nearly always leads its commentary with calculators that help individuals identify what is in it for them. A depressingly selfish lens to look at our national Budget through. Indicative of how sparse this Budget is for First Nations peoples, this policy space doesn’t rate a mention at all in the Winners and Losers list and there seems to be radio silence from the Minister with none of the usual Ministerial Statements or Media Releases to point us to their funded plans.

It is disappointing how little focus the media gives to the Budget ramifications for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It is frustrating that it isn’t given the attention it deserves. Here are some our quick observations about the 2020-21 Federal Budget:

NOTHING MUCH FOR CLOSING THE GAP

It was only a little over two months ago that the Prime Minister was trumpeting the signing of the new National Closing the Gap Agreement that committed the Federal and State governments to a decades long program of work (after negotiating with the Coalition of Peaks) to finally start making inroads into the huge disparities in life expectancy, health outcomes, incarceration, education and employment between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians.

We all welcomed the new Agreement but were suspicious of the absence of any detail of how the new Closing the Gap plan would be resourced and funded.

Maybe the funding details would be in the Budget we thought…? Nope.

It is mind boggling trying to understand how the Government can announce such a commitment and yet not provide any means to enact it. How the economic situation we find ourselves in has given the green light for the Government to spend, spend, spend in epic proportions and still not find any money for their flagship Indigenous Affairs policy?

In February this year (feels like a lifetime ago now), the Prime Minister gave his annual Closing the Gap report that once again stated our collective failure to close anything… First Nations peoples die younger and sicker, have disproportionate numbers incarcerated and are left behind in most education and employment measures. If not now, what would it take to get this Government to actually fund its stated solutions?

There were some scraps for Community Controlled Health, but nothing for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services. Most of the little bits mentioned were rehashed announcements of old monies already committed in previous years.

Ironically, the Government ‘will provide $10.1 million over four years from 2020-21 (and $2.6 million per year ongoing) to the Productivity Commission to deliver an annual progress report and an improved dashboard to measure progress towards Closing the Gap targets, as well as a three-yearly review.’ So it looks like there will be money to report on progress, but no money to see the work undertaken necessary for the long hoped for progress…

WHAT WAS ANNOUNCED?

Not much.

If you could be bothered looking through the limited details, its best to trawl your way through Budget Paper Nb 2 (Budget Measures) which lists the program spending for the different portfolios. But we’ve saved you the trouble if you read on…

In his Budget speech, the Treasurer did announce that the Government would be

‘investing $150 million in the Indigenous Home Ownership Program to construct new homes in regional areas, creating more jobs and helping hundreds of indigenous families buy their own home.’

This of course is a welcome inclusion but a drop in the ocean of what is actually needed for the housing shortfall across Australia. In the lead up to the Budget, a survey of leading economists suggested that the majority believed that a significant boost in social housing would have been the most effective stimulus measure that could be taken. Apparently there are 160,000 Australian families currently waiting for public housing, many of them Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and many waiting for many years.

It is so much harder to address the social determinants of health that underline the state of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health statistics without people being in safe and adequate housing.

There was some money for:

· the Clontarf mentoring program, with funding for an additional 2000 places;

· ‘$4.2 million over two years to engage Indigenous River Rangers to increase First Nations peoples’ access to water for economic and social purposes, and embedding First Nations’ participation in delivery of the Basin Plan’;

· $10.1 million over four years ‘to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) to facilitate the return of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage material held in overseas collections to Traditional Owners and custodians.’; and

· a measly ‘$2.2 million over four years from 2020-21 to reduce the backlog of applications and support the timely administration of new applications under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 ‘

Good and worthy measures but hardly going to change the world.

There are some additional measures relating to Covid-19 specific support that account for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities but that is about it. Obviously the jobkeeper and jobseeker stimulus have helped this year but they are winding up over the next 6 months with job seekers returning to the days of needing to skip meals to survive on $40 a day.

Nothing for Closing the Gap, nothing for Constitutional reform, nothing for truth and reconciliation.

The Treasurer rightly stated last night that “So many Australians, through no fault of their own, are doing it tough.” The most vulnerable communities in Australia are doing it the toughest and this Budget fails to help them at this desperate time.

They must do better.

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Paul Wright is the National Director, Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation. He has nearly 2 decades of experience working in both Government and non-government sectors – covering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, health, immigration and social services.

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