1 November 2020

So, unless you’ve been off the grid or in a bunker since January, the 2020 Budget has been offered up by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg (five months late), with the historic backdrop of the cold hard economic reality of living with a global pandemic.

In May last year, the Treasurer guaranteed a surplus. Now, we’re looking at nudging up over $1 trillion in public debt over the next few years.

Our Budget analysis last year was underwhelming (to say the least), with the Government’s response to the ongoing significant needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The 2019-20 budget continued the austerity-lite measures which saw their friends in business, mining, and construction looked after, and not a lot for the most vulnerable people in society.

Well, we’re all Keynesians now, and the enormous record-shattering spending in this year’s Budget is designed ‘hopefully’ to help the Australian economy recover as quickly as possible from pandemic induced recession.

With hundreds of billions of dollars being spent over the next few years, you’d be forgiven for thinking there must be some reasonable funding commitments made towards the pressing needs of Australia’s First Nations communities. But, alas, like last year’s much rosier Budget, the largesse is mostly reserved for business and middle- to high-income taxpayers, pensioners, and industry.

As has become the standard habit of analysing the Budget each year, the media quickly looks to identify ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, and nearly always leads its commentary with calculators to help individuals identify what’s in it for them – depressingly selfish lens through which to look at our national Budget. Indicative of how sparse this Budget is for First Nations peoples, this policy space doesn’t rate a mention at all in the winners and losers list, and there seems to be radio silence from the Minister, with none of the usual Ministerial Statements or Media Releases to point us to funded plans.

It’s disappointing how little focus the media gives to Budget ramifications for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and frustrating that it isn’t given the attention it deserves. Following are some our quick observations about the 2020-21 Federal Budget.

Nothing much for Closing the Gap

It was only a little over two months ago that the Prime Minister was trumpeting the signing of the new National Closing the Gap Agreement which committed Federal and State governments to a decades-long program of work (after negotiating with the Coalition of Peaks) finally to start making inroads into the huge disparities between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians in life expectancy, health outcomes, incarceration, education, and employment.

We all welcomed the new Agreement, but were suspicious about the absence of any detail on how the new Closing the Gap plan would be resourced and funded.

Maybe the funding details would be in the Budget, we thought. Nope.

It’s mind-boggling trying to understand how the Government can announce such a commitment without providing any means to enact it. How has the Government given a green light – in the economic situation in which we find ourselves – to spend spend spend in epic proportions, and still not found any money for its flagship Indigenous Affairs policy?

In February this year (feels like a lifetime ago now), the Prime Minister gave his annual Closing the Gap report, once again stating our collective failure to close anything. First Nations peoples die younger and sicker than those in other social groups, have disproportionate numbers incarcerated, and are left behind in most education and employment measures. If not now, what would it take for this Government actually to fund its stated solutions?

There were some scraps for Community Controlled Health, but nothing for the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander legal services. Most of the little bits mentioned were rehashed announcements of old monies already committed in previous years.

Ironically, the Government ‘will provide $10.1 million over four years from 2020-21 (and $2.6 million per year ongoing) to the Productivity Commission to deliver an annual progress report and an improved dashboard to measure progress towards Closing the Gap targets, as well as a three-yearly review’. So, it looks like there will be money to report on progress, but no money to undertake the work necessary for the long hoped-for progress.

What was announced?

Not much. If you could be bothered looking through the limited details, its best to trawl your way through Budget Paper Nb2 (Budget Measures), which lists the program spending for the different portfolios. But we’ve saved you the trouble, if you read on.

In his Budget speech, the Treasurer did announce that the Government would be

… investing $150 million in the Indigenous Home Ownership Program to construct new homes in regional areas, creating jobs, and helping hundreds of indigenous families buy their own homes.

This is, of course, a welcome inclusion, but a drop in the ocean of what is actually needed for the housing shortfall across Australia. In the lead-up to the Budget, a survey of leading economists suggested that the majority believed a significant boost in social housing would have been the most effective stimulus measure which could be taken. Apparently, there are 160,000 Australian families currently waiting for public housing, many of them Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, and many waiting for many years.

It is so much harder than providing adequate safe housing to address the social determinants of health that underlie the state of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health statistics.

There was some money for:

  • ‘$4.2 million over two years to engage Indigenous River Rangers to increase First Nations peoples’ access to water for economic and social purposes, and embedding First Nations’ participation in delivery of the Basin Plan’.
  • $10.1 million over four years ‘to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) to facilitate the return of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage material held in overseas collections to Traditional Owners and custodians’.
  • A measly ‘$2.2 million over four years from 2020-21 to reduce the backlog of applications and support the timely administration of new applications under the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984′.

Good and worthy measures, but hardly going to change the world.

There are some additional measures relating to Covid-19-specific support which account for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, but that’s about it. Obviously, the Jobkeeper and Jobseeker stimuli have helped this year, but they are winding up over the next six months, with job-seekers returning to the days of needing to skip meals to survive on $40 a day.

Nothing for Closing the Gap. Nothing for Constitutional reform. Nothing for truth and reconciliation.

The Treasurer rightly stated last month that “So many Australians, through no fault of their own, are doing it tough”. The most vulnerable communities in Australia are doing it the toughest, and this Budget fails to help them at this desperate time.

They must do better.

Paul Wright is the National Director of Australians for Native Title & Reconciliation. He has had nearly two decades of experience working in Government and non-government sectors, covering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs, health, immigration, and social services.

Republished from John Menadue’s Pearls & Irritations 8 October 2020.

Photo Invasion Day rally Melbourne 2020. Matt Hrkac. flickr cc.

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