As Treasurer Josh Frydenberg handed down the federal government’s pre-election budget on Tuesday night, I watched in anticipation to see what it would hold for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities.
It’s an important issue, particularly in light of the government’s 2020 commitment to new targets to address the ever-growing disparities between Indigenous peoples and the rest of the population that have yet to be adequately addressed.
It was no surprise to see a strong budget focus on the cost of living. Petrol prices have surged past A$2 a litre, and the cost of food is rising because of COVID-19, floods and climate change.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese was quick to criticise the budget, likening it to “fake tan” and claiming that the one-off cost-of-living payments are more about winning the upcoming election than planning for the future. The problem with fake tan, he said, is that “it fades pretty quickly”.
Unfortunately, Indigenous people are used to disappointing budgets that lack the strategic planning needed to address real issues that Indigenous communities themselves constantly raise.
True, the cost of living is soaring for many Australians. But like all things, this is never an even playing field. The cost of living in remote Aboriginal communities beggars belief. It is so outrageous that it triggered a federal parliamentary inquiry in 2020.
Perhaps not unexpectedly, the inquiry failed to deliver any meaningful results. Petrol prices have also been extremely high in rural and remote locations for a long time, significantly impacting Indigenous communities. For example, petrol prices have reached as high as $3 a litre in Arnhem Land.
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What’s in the budget for us?
So, what’s in the 2022 pre-election budget that will address the new targets set by the government? Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt said in his budget-night press release that the Morrison government has embarked on “the most ambitious Indigenous policy reform agendas”.
The federal budget should address the needs in the broader community, but also the targeted commitments that the government makes, such as those outlined in the Closing the Gap scheme.
The government has pledged $636.4 million in the 2022 budget over six years to expand Indigenous land and sea management on Country. This will provide more education and employment opportunities in remote and regional Australia. Given the lack of any real commitment to climate change, I guess the government is hoping Indigenous rangers will do the work so urgently required.
Housing in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory has been allocated $408 million. The funding will be used for addressing overcrowding, homelessness and much-needed improvements to homes. The government has also allocated $183 million over the next three years to improve economic, social and health outcomes for Indigenous people in the NT.
Although homelessness and affordable housing is a major concern for Indigenous people across Australia, no funding was committed to other locations. Yet most Indigenous people live in urban areas. In Victoria, for example, the number of Indigenous people seeking help from services for housing issues has increased by 33.6% over four years – the highest rate for Indigenous people anywhere in Australia.
Is the budget addressing the Indigenous health gap?
The budget promises an estimated $16.2 million for Indigenous health spending across 2022-23. Specifically, the funding is to combat blood-borne viruses and sexually transmissible infections in the Torres Strait, and improving trachoma control services. Australia is the only developed country where trachoma still exists. It only impacts Indigenous people, and is directly related to overcrowding and poor housing conditions, including access to clean water and sanitation.
The federal government has also pledged $12 million towards combating rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease in Indigenous communities, which continue to have one of the highest rates in the developed world. The ABC 4 Corners report Heart Failure highlighted the ongoing impacts of racism in the health system and the appalling lack of healthcare provided.
The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) has expressed disappointment at what it describes as the budget’s failure to adequately fund Indigenous health, even though the disparities in health between Indigenous peoples and other populations in Australia are supposedly one of the key areas of the government’s commitment.
The organisation’s chief executive, Pat Turner, said:
As long as this $4.4 billion funding gap remains and as long as there are funding gaps elsewhere – in particular, in housing – we cannot expect the unconscionable health gap to close. This Budget is an opportunity lost. NACCHO calls upon the government to close the funding gap for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Last year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the “ultimate test” of closing the gap would be that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in particular would have the same opportunities as other children in Australia.
On this scale, the federal government has failed miserably. Indigenous children in Australia are ten times more likely to be removed from their families.
Catherine Liddle, chief executive of SNAICC, the national peak body for Aboriginal children and families, expressed the frustration Indigenous people have on this issue:
People have been saying this for a long time, yet the change in investment and transformation to the system that’s required to fix it hasn’t followed through.
Turner and Liddle both also highlighted the considerable shortfall in the commitment needed to meet the ambitious targets set out in the Closing the Gap agreement.
Overall, the budget falls short of adequate investment across key areas such as health, housing, education and employment. It also fails to provide funding to address the high number of Indigenous deaths in custody and to support families facing the financial burden of seeking legal justice.
Frydenberg acknowledged the women’s safety crisis in Australia, and the government has reiterated its support for a dedicated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Action Plan led by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Council on family, domestic and sexual violence. But the budget fails to fund Aboriginal family violence and legal services where resources are urgently needed.
The co-chair of the First Nations-led coalition Change the Record, Cheryl Axleby, said that if a budget was a reflection of a government’s priorities, it’s clear that First Nations’ needs are a long way down the list.