Budget 2018/19 - Indigenous women have few wins and more than their share of losses in the Federal budget


Recently the National Foundation for Australian Women (@NFAWomen) released their annual Gender Lens on the Budget document. This comprehensive and highly collaborate effort includes analyses of how the Federal budget falls for women, identifying the winners and losers for a range of policy positions including social services, education and training, employment, health, and elimination of violence against women. It also provides an overview of how the Budget will shape the lives of women, including young women, older women, Indigenous women, migrant and refugee women, and women with disabilities. For Reconciliation Week, today's post summarises the analysis authored by Policy Whisperer Lesley Russell (@LRussellWolpe) on budgetary impacts for Indigenous women. Her analysis indicates that Indigenous women will continue to struggle under this Budget that includes continuation of the Cashless Debit Card trial and punitive measures relating to welfare income, but has no  meaningful response to high levels of incarceration and the lack of effective supports for women experience domestic and family violence. The Federal Budget papers can be accessed here.


  •  Rangers, many of whom are women, who will have job security for the next three years.
  • Those students and their schools who will benefit under ABSTUDY reforms.
  • Older Indigenous women who can access the newly provided aged care places and reforms.


  • The 18% of Indigenous households living in houses of an unacceptable standard, particularly those located outside of the Northern Territory.
  • Indigenous women unable to escape domestic violence because there is no safe housing available.
  • Already disadvantaged Indigenous women who lose welfare income as a result of punitive Government measures.
  • Indigenous women who are at risk of incarceration and need access to affordable legal services.
  •  Indigenous women who will need to continue on the Cashless Debit Card trial.

The link between strong culture and wellbeing is well understood in Indigenous communities and women play a key role in building this link. Within their communities, women are the primary nurturers and caregivers and they hold important cultural and leadership roles. Understanding the specific impacts of government policies and programs (and the lack thereof) on Indigenous women is a key consideration in efforts to close the gap on Indigenous disadvantage, especially as impacts on women also affect their children.

At a time when the Australian Government’s Closing the Gap efforts are seen to be faltering, there is little in this budget to change that. Indigenous leadership has been scathing in response, stating that

“the Federal Budget has once again failed to significantly address many of the key concerns of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, organisations, and peoples. First Peoples have come last. The Government’s priority for First Australians focuses primarily on economic prosperity. While many would welcome this outcome, the Government’s roadmap to accomplishing this prosperity is fanciful, incoherent and sorely lacking in the detail necessary for success” (National Congress, 2018).

In particular, there are concerns that the Government’s “callous disregard” for Indigenous peoples’ basic human rights to equality and quality health, education, housing and employment will exacerbate current problems including high rates of incarceration and removal of children from their families.

Perhaps most disheartening is the Budget evidence that, yet again, the Government has failed to engage in serious consultation and to listen to the voices and expertise of Indigenous peoples.

The Prime Minister’s 2018 Report on Closing the Gap states the obvious: “There is a shared view among governments, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the wider community that we need to do better.”

Four of the existing Closing the Gap targets expire in 2018. Efforts are currently underway to “refresh” the Closing the Gap agenda: we can only hope that these inject new vigour and commitment into the Government’s efforts.

At the same time, changes must be made to the way that Indigenous funding is distributed and evaluated. The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has yet to respond effectively to strong criticism about the establishment and implementation of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, and very recently a report for the Lowitja Institute has called for sweeping reforms to evaluation of Indigenous programs to better meet the needs of communities and follow the principles of ethical research.

One of the 'wins' in this budget is the continuation of the Indigenous Rangers program, which provides meaningful employment for Indigenous women.  Photo credit NACC.

One of the 'wins' in this budget is the continuation of the Indigenous Rangers program, which provides meaningful employment for Indigenous women. Photo credit NACC.

The Budget

Housing: What’s in

The National Partnership on Remote Housing which was negotiated with the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia in 2016 concluded in June 2018. This has been replaced with a new National Partnership ($550 million / 5 years) that applies only to the Northern Territory.  

Overall, since 2008, some $5 billion has been invested in remote housing. A recent review found that this funding has delivered over 11,500 more livable homes in remote Australia (around 4,000 new houses and 7,500 refurbishments) and assisted with Indigenous employment but that, with population growth, an additional 5,500 homes are required by 2028 to reduce levels of overcrowding in remote areas to acceptable levels. Half of the additional need is in the Northern Territory.

Housing: What’s missing

These findings only partly explain why the National Partnership has been replaced in this budget with a single agreement to the Northern Territory. This has the effect of cutting $1.5 billion from remote Indigenous housing funding. It is particularly concerning that the Government is backing away from its commitments to address the critical shortfalls in remote housing during the current Closing the Gap Strategy refresh process.

The situation is aggravated for the states that now miss out on remote Indigenous housing funding and for those Indigenous populations who live in non-remote areas because the Government has failed to secure agreements with the states and territories on a new NP for housing and homelessness, announced in the 2017-18 Budget.

Indigenous people comprised 25% of the people accessing homeless services in 2016–17 and 61% of these people were women.  Yet there is nothing in this budget to address housing issues for Indigenous families who live outside of the Northern Territory. In particular, poor and crowded housing is an issue for Indigenous people living outside of rural and remote areas. 

The lack of availability of housing in remote areas is a key factor for women trying to leave domestic violence (Terzon, 2016). Women in remote communities are moving hundreds of kilometres away from their homes and support networks to ­escape abusive partners because of a lack of safe houses for domestic violence victims.  There is no new funding in this budget to help Indigenous women experiencing family violence or for the Family Violence Prevention Legal Services, despite the growing unmet need.

Although the budget papers contain the new National Housing and Homelessness Agreement, with federal funding of $6.25 billion over 4 years, no agreements have yet been reached with the states and territories (Budget Paper No. 3, 2018-19, pp. 41-42).

Education: What’s in

The Government will provide $38.1 million / 5 years for reforms to ABSTUDY for secondary school students. The changes include:

  • Providing the Boarding Allowance to all ABSTUDY recipients under 16 years of age receiving the Living Allowance;
  •  Implementing safer and more flexible travel arrangements for ABSTUDY secondary students studying away from home, including more supervised trips for students and more family or community member visits;
  • Applying the Maintenance Income Test more fairly to ABSTUDY payments;
  • Simplified criteria for the approval of secondary school scholarships under ABSTUDY, allowing students to access a wider range of schools; and
  • Making more frequent payments to boarding providers, linked to student attendance.

The budget changes will go some way towards addressing shortcomings in ABSTUDY that were identified in the DPMC’s Study Away Review from 2017.  

It is worth noting that the Budget includes $96.1 million over 4 years to implement the Government’s response to the Independent Review into Regional, Rural and Remote Education (Budget paper No. 2, 2018-19, p. 94). This funding will support young people from regional, rural and remote communities to transition to further education, training and employment. However the needs of Indigenous students were not part of the terms of reference for this report and they are nowhere mentioned in the report.

Education: What’s missing

It is estimated that the Federal Government spends $162 million / year to support the participation of young Indigenous people in education programs, but young girls get only 33% of this. They also receive significantly fewer opportunities to be mentored and supported in their schooling and life aspirations (ALP, 2018). Disengagement from the educational system and the opportunities it offers is thus a real risk for Indigenous girls.

There are some small improvements in funding for education in this budget but nothing to address the funding disparities.

Health and Aged Care: What’s in

The funding for the Indigenous Australians Health Program (IAHP) is 3.8 million / 4 years, a small increase ($200 million) over funds previously provided. This is not specifically stated in the Budget but must be inferred from Health subfunctions tables in Budget Paper No 1.  Indigenous leaders have welcomed this continued funding commitment but have noted that that the provision of culturally safe and appropriate healthcare must also be integrated into the mainstream health system. The new funding to aged care is also appreciated, but the point is made that unless the large gap in life expectancy is resolved, many Indigenous peoples may not enjoy the longevity to benefit from these services.

Health and Aged Care: What’s missing

Indigenous women have poorer health outcomes compared to non-Aboriginal women in Australia: their life expectancy is 73.7 years, compared to 83.1 for non-Indigenous women. The maternal and perinatal outcomes of Indigenous mothers and their babies are markedly poorer than those of non-Indigenous women and their babies. Indigenous women also have a significantly higher (x 2.3) burden of preventable chronic disease (AIHW 2018). Indigenous people face a number of barriers to accessing health services including cost, cultural appropriateness and distance from health services.  While there have been some significant improvements in Indigenous health in recent times, the gap has not narrowed because the pace of these improvements has not matched that in the broader community. In part this can be blamed on a failure to address the broader social determinants of health and to ensure cultural safety and respect within mainstream services. There is nothing in this budget to address these issues.

Indigenous women are 32 times more likely to be hospitalised for violent assault and twice as likely to die from violence. It is estimated that the national annual cost of violence against Indigenous women and children will reach $2.2 billion by 2021–22 (AIHW 2018).

Social Services and Support: What’s in

This budget initiative is described as ’redirecting funding of $1.1. billion / 4 years … to better meet the unique needs of job seekers in remote Australia and to aid their transition into paid employment.’  It is not possible to tell from the budget papers exactly what funding changes have been made.

Under these new arrangements, Community Development Program (CDP) job seekers will be subject to the Jobseeker Compliance Framework introduced in the 2017-18 Budget. Eligible employers will be able to apply for a two-year wage subsidy of up to $21,034 for employing CDP job seekers in an approved job, with additional bonus payments based on job seeker retention. Once fully rolled out, up to 6,000 wage subsidy positions will be available.

In a move that has been labelled “draconian”, CDP recipients can now be handed harsher penalties for failing to meet requirements that could see them lose all income for up to four weeks. It is not clear how the 6000 wage subsidy positions will be allocated and whether all of these will go to Indigenous people (about 83% of the 35,000 participants in CDP are Indigenous).

The discriminatory provision that requires remote jobseekers to work more than double the hours of non-remote jobseekers for the same income remains. Participants earn, on average, about $11 an hour for up to 20 (reduced from 25) hours of work or work-like activity for 46 weeks a year and face strict penalties for non-compliance. Non-remote jobseekers are required to work 20 hours a week for only six months of the year.

The Government proposes to establish a scheme, ironically described as ‘encouraging lawful behaviour from income support recipients’, under which the Commonwealth will be able to make compulsory deductions from the welfare payments of serial fine defaulters who have outstanding state and territory court-imposed fines. The Commonwealth will also be able to suspend or cancel the welfare payments of individuals who have outstanding state and territory arrest warrants for indictable criminal offences.

This budget provision raises deep concerns about its impact on Indigenous people. It has been described by the National Congress of First Peoples as ‘a recipe for ensuring that the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society will remain so, with unpaid fines likely leading to increased rates of incarceration rather than pathways to prosperity.’

The Australian Law Reform Commission has made a series of recommendations that Indigenous people, who are over-represented as fine recipients and are less likely than non-Indigenous people to pay a fine at first notice (attributed to financial capacity, itinerancy and literacy levels), be allowed to work off unpaid fines, rather than being locked up.

A higher proportion of Indigenous people aged 15 and over received a government pension or allowance as their main source of income (52%) compared with non-Indigenous people aged 15 and over (25%). This proportion increases with remoteness.  About 23% of Indigenous Australians get a parenting payment, of this 14% is for a single parent, most likely a mother; six percent receive a Disability Support Pension and 5.5% receive a carer payment (AIHW 2017).

Punitive measures that will take welfare income away from Indigenous women – there are several in this budget -  will further entrench disadvantage.

The Government has announced it will extend the cashless debit card trial in Ceduna (South Australia) and East Kimberley (Western Australia) for one year to 30 June 2019. The Government will also undertake an additional independent evaluation of this trial. The expenditure for this measure is not for publication as negotiations with potential commercial providers are yet to be finalised – in fact the costs of this measure over its implementation have never been made public, although it appears to be over $25 million.

The previous evaluation commissioned by the Government and released in 2017 generally presented the results of this trial in a positive light. Others are less sanguine, in large part because community safety and violence have not improved.

The Cashless Debit Card trials have racial and gendered consequences, specifically for Indigenous women. They cast them as inadequate managers of family finances and expand bureaucratic control over their lives and their families (Bielefeld, 2017). While the government stated that the Cashless Debit Card would benefit Indigenous women through increased safety, these policies are a breach of human rights and an extension of oppressive colonial governance that disadvantages and harms Indigenous women.

The evidence base for the effectiveness the Cashless Debit Card trials based on outcomes that are meaningful for Indigenous women and their families is meagre and needs to be strengthened if this approach is to be continued.

Social Services and Support: What’s missing

Although they have higher education levels, the proportion of Indigenous women employed remains lower than Indigenous men. This seems to be due to the amount of unpaid work women undertake, mainly care of children and those with a disability.

Despite the acknowledged failures of the CDP, this budget introduces only minor improvements, including a new wage subsidy scheme and slight reduction in the hours participants need to work for their benefits. But for a wage subsidy scheme to have any impact, there must be jobs available in the first place. Since the introduction of the CDP, 340,000 financial penalties have been applied, despite having only around 33,000 participants: this situation is likely to worsen under the new provisions in the Budget.

Some 14% of Indigenous women have caring responsibilities with 20% of unpaid assistance provided by women aged 45-54.  These women are themselves likely to need help due to their own disabilities, chronic illnesses and age. Being a carer affects their income and many women, especially those in remote areas, have trouble accessing carer support payments (Carers Australia).

There is no guarantee that the proposed reforms to carer support services in the Budget will better help Indigenous women.

Culture and land rights: What’s in

In the week before the Budget was announced, and less than two months before the program’s funding was due to expire, the Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion announced continued funding of $250 million over 3 years for the Indigenous Rangers program (Davidson, 2018). This provision is not in the budget papers.  The Working On Country program, established in 2007, employs more than 2,000 people, many of whom are women, who care for 60% of Indigenous Protected Areas, which comprise about 43% of the national reserve system. A recent report has called for a doubling of the number of female Indigenous rangers.

Justice: What’s in

From 1 January 2019, the maximum payment suspension period available to Disability Support Pension (DSP) recipients who are imprisoned will be reduced from two years to 13 weeks, consistent with the suspension periods available to imprisoned recipients of other income support payments such as Newstart Allowance. This provision will have a considerable impact on Indigenous women who are more likely to be receiving the DSP and more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous Australians.

Justice: What’s missing

Indigenous women are imprisoned at 21 times the rate of non-Indigenous women. They are currently the fastest growing cohort of the incarcerated population in Australia.  Often their offences are minor. The three main offences Indigenous women appear in court for are: road traffic and motor vehicle regulatory offences (42.3%); public order offences (15.4%); and offences against justice procedures, government security and operations (12.1%).

Some 80% of these Indigenous women in prison are mothers, so their imprisonment causes huge disruption in their family and their community. It increases the risk that their children will end up in the child protection system or potentially in the criminal justice system and perpetuates disadvantage.

A 2017 report found that the lack of data on female Indigenous prisoners, and lack of specific initiatives to help them, has allowed the imprisonment rate to increase. In particular, Indigenous women with disabilities (including mental health and cognitive disorders) are set on a path into the criminal justice system.

A number of reports have recommended that Indigenous people with minor offences for issues like fines be allowed to work these out in the community rather than be imprisoned. Keeping Indigenous girls in school will reduce their likelihood of coming into contact with the justice system, yet there are few programs specifically designed for this group.

It is imperative that a social justice target is included in the refresh the Closing the Gap effort. In addition, for these changes to happen, more affordable legal assistance will be needed. Where such services as exist, they are already operating at crisis level. The need for legal services must be comprehensively mapped to determine the gaps in their provision.


  •  NFAW recommends that Government commits to increased levels of consultation with Indigenous communities and leaders and greater attention to addressing their needs, implementing their stated proposals, acknowledging and utilising their knowledge and skills, and measuring outcomes they see as meaningful.
  • NFAW recommends that there is greater transparency in how Indigenous funds are allocated and spent.
  • NFAW recommends that a more holistic approach is taken to addressing Indigenous disadvantage. Specifically, for Indigenous health, the gap will never be closed unless and until the social determinants of health are addressed.
  • NFAW recommends that there are stated national targets to reducing homelessness, improving the quality of housing, and reducing rates of incarceration -  together with appropriate resourcing and programs to achieve these.
  • NFAW recommends that more attention is paid to ensure cultural safety for Indigenous people working in and accessing mainstream services.
  • NFAW recommends that the Government works towards the delivery of a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice as outlined in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.