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This Budget won’t be closing the gap anytime soon

The 2014 Budget presents a grim future for eliminating Indigenous disadvantage, writes Astha Rajvanshi. Additional research provided by James Wilson.

Aboriginal flag

At the release of the 2014 federal Budget, the Australian government’s rhetoric of “cutting red tape” came with little interest in improving the lives of Indigenous Australians – the most marginalised and vulnerable group in Australian society.

With an unprecedented $534 million in cuts to be made to Indigenous programs, grants and activities over the next five years, the Budget proposes sweeping changes to Indigenous affairs in an attempt to reduce “waste and duplication”. These include the consolidation of 150 Indigenous programs into new Indigenous Advancement Strategies (a program with five broad-based categories) within the portfolios of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet; over $160 million coming out of Indigenous Health to be redirected to the Medical Research Fund; and ceasing the funding of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, Australia’s only national, autonomous representative body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

The government’s ‘slash and burn’ mentality does not spare the systemic poverty and illness that plagues Indigenous Australians, but perhaps this should not come as a surprise to anyone. In his 2006 book titled Battlelines, Tony Abbott wrote, “Aboriginal people’s high incidence of chronic disease, substance abuse and domestic violence are a function of unemployment, lack of education and very isolated living, not official neglect”. This sentiment belies an ideological distancing of the state from its responsibilities in addressing the historical marginalization, underrepresentation, and discrimination that occurs in
the lives of Indigenous people.

In 2008, the Australian Government committed to Closing the Gap – a national strategy aimed at reducing Indigenous disadvantage in areas of life expectancy, child mortality,
access to early childhood education, educational achievement and employment outcomes. The success of these targets is largely dependent on the effective implementation of programs and yet, in 2014, progress towards these goals has been slow and unsteady. The life expectancy gap remains about a decade, literacy and numeracy rates of Indigenous children are yet to be improved, and little progress has been made towards the goal of halving the gap in unemployment.

In early April, Reconciliation Australia wrote to the Prime Minister nominating health, employment, education and criminal justice as critical areas for reconciliation and urged the Government to maintain investment in these areas. “Given the high levels of ongoing disadvantage experienced by our Peoples, compounded by historical neglect by successive governments of all persuasions, there should be no reduction in levels of Commonwealth expenditure on Indigenous affairs,” they wrote.

It is astonishing, then, that rather than maintaining investment, the federal Budget has taken away more than ever before from Indigenous affairs.

The most recent Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey results reiterate the fact that Indigenous Australians have far worse health outcomes than other Australians, with higher rates of asthma, ear disease, diabetes, heart and circulatory disease, and kidney disease. Regular GP visits are required, and over the past decade, the steady rise in the amount of visits to GPs and other health professionals made by Indigenous Australians has been a positive sign. The new Medicare $7 co-payments could halt this trend and possibly reverse it. Moreover, under a new Remote Community Advancement Network, the bilateral agreements with each state and territory replace agreements on remote service delivery, giving states the green light to allow hospitals to charge for emergency visits. Indigenous Australians earn half the average weekly income of non-indigenous Australians, and these new costs may discourage some from seeking medical attention and medication early. This hurdle, combined with health services’ lack of understanding of the cultural differences in the Aboriginal community, is likely to result in many families simply being unable to afford the healthcare system, in turn erasing the confidence and goodwill to participate in it.

Recent changes made to welfare further exacerbate problems around “welfare dependency”. The government and media often portray the poverty, alienation and poor health of Indigenous people as a consequence of their own actions. Previously, the Howard government also increased the number of obligations that welfare recipients needed to meet in order to receive their basic allowance. Something often overlooked in putting the blame on “dole bludgers,” however, is precisely why such a sizeable proportion of Aboriginal people rely on federal welfare payments.

Indigenous Australians’ average income is lower than the rest of the Australian population, with 17 per cent unemployed, versus 5.8 per cent for the population as a whole. Additionally, only 51 per cent of Indigenous Australians are in the labor force, compared with 64.8 per cent for the country as a whole. These statistics combined mean that significantly more Indigenous Australians are eligible for income support payments, or dependent on someone who is. The Government’s tightening of the eligibility criteria will hit them harder than any other group. The average Indigenous life expectancy is 69 for men and 73 for women; the eventual lifting of pension eligibility age to 70 will mean a disparate size of the Indigenous population won’t live long enough the pension age to access their entitlements.

To bring Indigenous people’s employment figures to the national average, the government would be required to generate over 140,000 new jobs for Indigenous people. It is easier to blame their unemployment on “welfare dependency,” implying that Aboriginal people are happier and often choose to be on welfare than in paid work – far from the grim realities of these communities.

Moreover, under these strategies, $54 million will be allocated to police stations, to be built in seven remote Indigenous communities in QLD, WA and SA. This increase in policing communities will only strengthen the ‘tough on crime’ approach that often contributes to the overrepresentation of Indigenous Australians in the criminal justice system; Indigenous Australians make up for 26 per cent of Australia’s prisoner population, yet constitute only 2.5 per cent of the total Australian population.
The reliance on incarceration, which costs the Australian government over $2.6 billion a year, comes at the cost of investing in new policies and alternatives that address the underlying causes of crime within Indigenous communities, as well as the prevention and restoration of those convicted. If reducing the numbers of Indigenous Australians in prison is to be achieved, the government needs to put an end to exploiting the fears of the electorate by investing in the hugely disproportionate Indigenous incarceration rate.

However, closing the gap is more than a whole-of-government budget approach to delivering targets. Tackling Indigenous disadvantage goes beyond increasing access to health services, building houses, providing job training, welfare reform and community policing.

Instead, it requires the government to acknowledge and pay respect to the deep and complex social connections that Indigenous communities share with their land and culture. Much of this requires giving Aboriginal people the autonomy to make their own decisions. With the lack of future funding for Congress, there are no other elected bodies in Australia that allow Aboriginal people to make decisions and have the responsibility in a self-sustainable way. With Tony Abbott assuming this responsibility through the self-proclaimed title of the Minister of Indigenous Affairs, bridging this gap seems far from likely.

When Australian governments release annual budgets, the inheritance of a preceding economy comes with the political pressure of pleasing voters, and making choices that divide people into areas of efficiency or deficiency. Once again, investment into Indigenous Affairs has been lost in the bureaucracies that surround the budget, throwing the First Australians under the bus. For a people whose land, culture and language is still being cut or taken away from them, the success of closing the gap will only be realized when Aboriginal people are central to the political process, not just subject to it.