Auditing Indigenous Poverty

In today’s post, leading up to the election, Professor Jon Altman analyses what the three major political parties are doing to address Indigenous poverty in Australia. Looking beyond campaign rhetoric he scores the parties’ commitment to ameliorating Indigenous poverty on a scale of 0–4 where 0 = very low confidence and 4 = very high confidence. His overall scorecard strongly favours the Greens and throws the shortcomings of the Coalition and the ALP in this arena into sharp relief.

This post is extracted from the 2016 Australian Poverty Audit prepared by ASAP Oceania. Academics Stand Against Poverty (ASAP) is an international network helping scholars, teachers and students enhance their impact on global poverty.

Auditing Indigenous Poverty

Current policies and challenges

A major challenge all political parties face is that Indigenous poverty is deeply embedded and structural and will take a long time, innovative policy and major investments to address. The diversity of Indigenous circumstances means that a diversity of approaches will be required, but the major parties are committed to mainstreaming or normalisation options. It is only the Greens that are serious about the recognition of difference and the need for approaches that emphasise social justice.

In 1987 the progressive Hawke government committed to eliminate disparities in income status between Indigenous and other Australians by the year 2000. It failed. Today no party will commit to either eliminate Indigenous poverty or reduce it to levels commensurate with levels in the general community. There is no Closing the Gap target for poverty.

Assessing policies for the 2016 election

My assessment of each political party is partly subjective but also based on evidence-based research over many years. Political parties like to wipe the slate clean when campaigning for office. But they always have track record and performance form which is a sound basis for predicting future action rather than electioneering rhetoric.

(i)                  Overall scoring

(ii) Policies and explanations of the scores

On equity the Coalition scores 0 because it cut the Indigenous specific budget in 2014 by $530 million for no rational reason. It also amended the Community Development Program (previously the Remote Jobs and Communities Program) requiring 36,000 jobless (84% Indigenous) in remote Australia to work 25 hours a week, 5 hours a day, all year. This has seen skyrocketing rates of breaching and social security penalties.  In the last two quarters of 2015, 50,807 penalties were applied to CDP participants, double the number of penalties applied in the first six months of 2015. Labor opposed the budget cuts and has increasingly opposed CDP reform that has further disempowered and impoverished Indigenous people. It is only the Greens who have developed a comprehensive policy to respond to Indigenous priorities including to reside on their country.

On transparency the Coalition scores 0 for its opaqueness and inefficiency in managing the Indigenous Advancement Strategy tendering process, criticised in a recent Senate Inquiry. During its time in office Labor was more transparent, while the Greens negotiated the establishment of the Parliamentary Budget Office.

On resource allocation the Coalition scores 0 because of its cut-backs, including to crucial areas like legal services, family violence and prevention services and community based service delivery. In government the ALP did commit to multi-year National Partnership Agreements, but impoverished people with the Gillard government’s reform of the Sole Parent’s Payments Scheme that saw payments reduced by $100 a week. The Greens have committed to a dedicated resource strategy to accompany the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan and to restore the budget cuts of 2014.

On estimated impact the Coalition has presided over a sharp increase in poverty associated with escalating breaching and scores 0. Both the ALP and the Greens are trenchant critics of CDP reform and both have committed to continue the Working on Country Program for rangers and to double total numbers. The Coalition proposes to increase employment by 20,000 through what it describes as the ‘successful’ Employment Parity initiative, but the basis for the numbers is unclear and this prediction is at odds with analysis by the Productivity Commission.

On quality of flourishing the Coalition is committed to altering the norms and values of Indigenous Australians using costly instruments like income management that have been shown to be ineffective and have shown no commitment to support diverse Indigenous aspirations. The ALP has been similarly reluctant to abolish either income management or the new Cashless Debit Card trials. Only the Greens are committed to getting rid of paternalistic income management and the trials.

On sustainability the Greens support reform of the Native Title Act to provide commercially valuable property rights to land holders and to support Treaty-making that could generate financial resources for Indigenous priorities. The Coalition plans to maintain its flawed Indigenous Advancement Strategy. Labor is looking to commit extra funds ($100 million) to schooling and $200 million to rangers, so scores slightly higher.

The overall scorecard strongly favours the Greens because they have an overall strategy that looks to empower Indigenous communities at the grassroots level, they have consistently opposed reforms that have more deeply impoverished Indigenous people since 2013 , and they support progressive recognition processes including the strengthening of native title and commercial property rights. The ALP when last in government shared a broad consensus with the Coalition, but differences are starting to emerge between the Turnbull government and Shorten opposition during the election campaign. In particular the ALP now opposes CDP reform and paternalistic measures that are likely to further impoverish in the name of improvement. The Coalition proposes to extend its ‘jobs and growth’ approach to Indigenous Australia hoping that Indigenous business success will result in trickle down benefit to Indigenous people irrespective of the fact that many live remote from employment or business opportunity.

In terms of the audit’s core framework concept of ability to achieve lifeway desires neither the Coalition nor ALP appears willing to adopt broader outcome frameworks beyond statistical indicators that exclude poverty-reduction as an explicit target. And yet many of the social determinants to Closing the Gap are linked to existing high levels of poverty that greatly limit capacities for choice. It is essential is to hear Indigenous aspirations in all their diversity but this will not happen without proper representation.

In the immediate term there is an urgent need to restore funding to community-based organisations, to rejig the CDP to properly replicate the Community Development Employment Projects scheme that enjoyed some success in ameliorating poverty, and to provide resources for those who choose to live differently on their ancestral lands pursuing forms of mixed livelihood that will allow them to flourish in ways that they hold dear.

Jon Altman is a research professor at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University, Melbourne and an emeritus professor of the Australian National University (ANU). He is also an adjunct professorial fellow at the Research Institute for Environment and Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, Darwin. Trained in economics and anthropology, from 1990–2010 he was the foundation director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at ANU.