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Budget ’23 asks First Nations communities to keep waiting

Paul Wright
Last edited: May 12, 2023

Tuesday night was the Albanese Labor Government’s first full budget after providing an initial budget in October 2022, five months after their election win.

Tuesday was all about the humble-brag over the first budget surplus in 15 years, it was a valiant attempt by Treasurer Jim Chalmers to make the at times contradictory claims of frugality and generous cost of living relief for the many people struggling with high inflation, high interest rates, slow wage rises and one of the least generous welfare systems for the unemployed in the OECD.

So what did it mean for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples? At best it can be described as a mixed bag although if you read the ABC’s obligatory ‘Winners & Losers’ summary you’d be under the impression that ‘Indigenous Communities’ are in the winners circle for once… it would be nice if it was true.

The good news that there is funding for ending violence against Women and Children; monies for mental health supports – particularly in this heightened atmosphere in the lead up to the referendum to decide whether to enshrine a First Nations Voice to Parliament; significant investment into the Central Australia communities;  funding to improve cancer outcomes for First Nations peoples; and additional monies to deliver the Voice referendum and complementary civics education, as well as progressing Regional Voices to complement the National Voice.

Regarding the mental health support funding which is $10 million that will go to the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, Prime Minister Albanese said that:

We’re very conscious of the pressure which Indigenous Australians will be under…

We know that when the postal ballot was held on marriage equality, then people in that community felt under pressure as well, and we have been conscious about that.

It is a sad reality that this needs to be a consideration at all, but any new money for mental health support is welcome.

The announced “$590 million to the National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children” is very welcome and a significant portion with $200 million quarantined for services and supports for First Nations women – necessarily the most resilient group in Australia facing the intersectionalities of racism, gender discrimination and the pressures of holding their families and communities together.

In her Ministerial Statement on the budget, Minister Linda Burney outlined more breakdown on the Government’s commitments to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and regarding water infrastructure and food security advised:

The Government is committing $150 million over four years to support First Nations water infrastructure and provide safe and reliable water for remote and regional communities. Funding for the National Water Grid fund will target communities that do not have access to clean drinking water…

$11.8 million for the National Strategy for Food Security in remote First Nations communities to make essential food more affordable and accessible.

These were all welcome measures and investments made (or reiterated) this week by the Albanese government, but there remains some major concerns for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Firstly, I was shocked that there is still no serious funding allocated to Aboriginal Legal Services – one of the most important frontline services in Australia. The sector have been warning for ages now that there is a $250 million shortfall in funding in NSW alone and that they will need to start closing down services without investment. NSW/ACT Aboriginal Legal Services CEO, Karly Warner said before the budget:

We are really concerned for these communities. While we are doing our best to minimise the pain for our clients and communities, there is no doubt that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will suffer through the justice system when there is no access to culturally safe legal services.

Remember the words of the Uluru Statement… ‘Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.’ How can a government with such strong rhetoric on finally getting justice for First Nations peoples turn a blind eye to this critical need? The last government intentionally underfunded many services for ideological reasons and because it was an easy way to marginalise criticism. Chronic underfunding also served as a budget booby-trap for an incoming Labor government that would be expected to fix the situation. Nevertheless, Aboriginal Legal Services and many other community controlled services are essential to closing the gap and are the proven solution with much better outcomes for the communities that have access to them.

My other long standing pet peeve is the lack of serious, long term and connected up investment for the Closing the Gap Strategy. There was some additional monies provided in this budget which are welcome but there doesn’t seem to be a funding strategy that will deliver the Closing the Gap agenda. Yes the States and Territories need to stump up considerably too but it is Federal leadership and investment that is going to determine if this is another wasted decade or a program of real change. Take education for example, there is so much more that needs to be done to see progress as outlined by this piece in the Conversation today.

Overall, it was a ‘meh’ budget for First Nations communities. There are certainly some welcome investments in some areas and the Government’s commitment to finally bringing forward a referendum for the people to decide on the Voice is such a relief (and to see it properly supported with funding). But as Ross Gittens said in his analysis, the word for this budget is ‘complacent’ and that complacency extends to the myriad priorities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities that are being asked to keep waiting.

 

To understand more about how the budget relates to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, check out:
Paul Wright
National Manager for Policy, Advocacy & Government Relations at Mission Australia

Paul is National Manager for Policy, Advocacy & Government Relations at Mission Australia. He was ANTAR’s National Director from 2018 to 2023 and has many years of experience working in both Government and non-government sectors – covering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, health, immigration and social services. Paul studied politics and international relations at the University of Canberra and has a Masters of Strategic Studies from the Australian National University. Prior to his role with ANTAR, Paul was the Executive Officer for the Close the Gap Campaign Secretariat and the National Health Leadership Forum at the Australian Human Rights Commission. In 2021, he became a PhD Researcher at the Western Sydney University (Social Sciences).