Every year I do an analysis of the Indigenous provisions in the federal Budget. This is done in the light of current and past strategies, policies, programs and funding, and is supported, where this is possible, by data and information drawn from government agencies, reports and published papers.
This year’s analysis is now available on the University of Sydney e‐scholarship website where you can also find the analyses from previous years.
The 2016-17 Budget presents a sad story about the level of commitment of the Turnbull Government to Indigenous Affairs and to Closing the Gap on Indigenous disadvantage.
In his introduction to the 2016 Prime Minister’s Report on Closing the Gap (a report which shows that progress towards this goal has stalled), Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said this:
“…it is not until Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have the same opportunities for health, education and employment that we can truly say we are a country of equal opportunity. The expectations must be the same for everyone – from each newborn, to the child about to start school, the student dreaming of his or her future and parents trying to pay the bills and best nurture their families.”
In contrast to these grand words, addressing Indigenous disadvantage is not listed as a Budget priority, was not mentioned in the Treasurer’s Budget night speech, and was not highlighted in new mainstream programs that might benefit Indigenous people. The Government's relationship with Indigenous people is now widely seen as being at a low point with widespread funding cuts to Indigenous services which are increasingly being removed from Indigenous control.
The Budget has new spending of just $60.7 million / 4 years on programs specifically for Indigenous people; perhaps most of the $10.5 million for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders will also go to help Indigenous mothers and babies. On the other hand, money is shuffled between programs in several versions of robbing Peter to pay Paul and staffing for Indigenous programs will undoubtedly suffer from efficiencies taken within the Australian Public Service. There is nothing in this Budget to reverse the 2014-15 Budget’s $534 million cuts which have left the Indigenous sector reeling and an indexation freeze on funding under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy will apply until July 2019.
While it is possible that Indigenous people will benefit from new programs to address dental health and provide quicker routes to employment for young people, they will also suffer from attacks on mainstream programs such as the freeze on Medicare rebates.
Two years have passed since most Indigenous programs were moved to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) and there has been none of the needed reforms in Indigenous policy which were promised and progress in this regard is now in a critical state.
There have been significant failings around Closing the Gap on Indigenous disadvantage and addressing the disproportionately high indigenous incarceration rates and discriminatory outcomes in the justice system. Too many Indigenous people have low levels of education, are unable to gain meaningful employment, and live in appalling housing conditions. Progress towards social justice and constitutional recognition is painfully slow.
Recently Jackie Huggins, co-chair of peak Indigenous body the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, told the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues that the government-funded process to consider changes to recognise indigenous people in the Constitution included “no proposal from the government to correct the inequality disorder, nor is there a guarantee that this position will change”. She also said that the flagship policy for overcoming indigenous disadvantage, Closing the Gap, “in reality … advances policies and actions that explicitly remove and deny indigenous control and decision making”.
These issues will not be resolved by simply applying more funds to them, although it is increasingly difficult to do more with less. What is needed is highlighted succinctly in Dr Huggins’ speech- more Indigenous control and decision-making. Many Indigenous organisations in urban, rural and remote areas are successfully managing a broad range of programs and services for their communities. We must learn from their experience and expertise and be as willing to accept their timeframes for outcomes, their need to be unencumbered by red tape, their requirements for capacity building and their failures as we are for mainstream programs and services.
It is clear that the Turnbull Government is intent on mainstreaming many Indigenous services and introducing contestability into others. While the evidence is clear about the adverse consequences of these moves, there is a lack of evaluation data and research to determine the extent to which community development practices are more effective than other practices in delivering successful Indigenous-managed programs or comparing community management against programs where communities are not given responsibility for management.
Without genuine engagement of Indigenous people it will be increasingly difficult to meet the COAG targets and Australia’s commitments under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. There is plenty of authoritative advice on how this must be done; what is now required is leadership from all Governments – substituting actions for words and evidence for ideology, the timeframes and resources to enable targets to be achieved, and the meaningful involvement of all stakeholders.
Dr Lesley Russell is Adjunct Associate Professor at the Menzies School of Health Policy at the University of Sydney.