You can usually tell how bad a budget’s going to be by the level of frenetic government spin that precedes it. So it was with a sense of growing unease that I came to suspect we were being asked to believe Indigenous affairs spending in the 2007-08 budget was going to be bigger than God’s underpants.

The public relations campaign began with one of those ‘official budget leaks’ to The Australian newspaper last week, which reported (among other “massive boosts” in Indigenous funding): “The Treasurer will unveil a significant funding boost for Aboriginal health programs.”

The campaign wound up with a surprising report in The Sunday Age over the weekend, which revealed: “Indigenous Australians will be among the biggest winners in Treasurer Peter Costello’s record 12th budget on Tuesday.”

Good lord! How exciting! Now here’s what really happened.

Peter Costello presided over a cut in the Indigenous affairs budget of about $50 million in real terms. If that’s a ‘win’, then I vote One Nation.

Since they came to power, the Howard government has routinely allocated almost precisely the same percentage of the total national pie to Indigenous affairs. In other words, it doesn’t budget according to need, it budgets by rote, based on what it thinks is the minimum it can get away with.

Sadly, 2007-08 is no different, save of course for the cut. Last year, the government spent 1.5 percent of the budget on Indigenous affairs. This year, it will spend 1.48 percent (which is a drop of almost one percent on 2003).

That translates to $3.5 billion in government largesse, $200 million more than the promised $3.3 billion in 2006-07. It may seem a hefty sum on the surface, but the devil is in the detail.

In his press statements, Minister for Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough claims:

The 2007-08 Indigenous Affairs Budget contains 26 initiatives involving $815.7 million in new and extended funding over five years focused on remote housing, early childhood, new education opportunities, health and economic independence. These measures have a net fiscal balance impact of $748.3 million.

We’ll stop you there, Mal. If the 2007-08 budget represents $815.7 million in ‘new and extended funding’ out a total of $3.5 billion, and you allocated $3.3 billion last year, did you (a) try to cover the budget cut by re-announcing old funding; (b) cut funds from somewhere else; or (c) under-spend $600 million last year?

Irregardless, a $748.3 million ‘net fiscal balance impact’ represents just under half what the federal government is preparing to throw at its new “seniors bonus payment”, a one-off payment of $500 for no apparent reason.

I can think of another word that starts with b that would better describe this initiative and it rhymes with tribe.

So while ignoring the desperate (and growing) needs of a race of people who endure the worst living conditions in the first world, the Howard government is proposing to spend $1.3 billion to buy the votes of old people… who mostly vote Liberal anyway.

There are, in the interests of balance, some good (dare I say it very good) initiatives in this year¹s budget. They include:

  • Extension of the Return of Indigenous Cultural Property Programme, with $4.7 million to fund the repatriation of Indigenous remains and sacred objects, which are being held in Australian museums.
  • Building an Indigenous workforce in government service delivery, with $97.2 million to create 825 jobs through the conversion of Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP aka the black work for the dole) positions into real jobs in government service delivery. A great initiative, but of course around 30,000 Aboriginal people rely on CDEP for their weekly income – 825 jobs is less than one-thirtieth of what is needed.

As usual, the good government initiatives are grossly under-funded and the bad ones are brimming with cash, with the overwhelmingly majority of those targeted at Indigenous people in remote regions, even most three-quarters of Indigenous people live in an urban or metropolitan area.

The government is trumpeting a boost to Indigenous housing of $293.6 million. But there are two catches. Firstly, if the money is for public housing, then it represents just over one-tenth of what the government identified as the Indigenous housing shortfall in 2001 ie. $2.3 billion.

Secondly, the money probably isn’t for public housing it’s likely to be used to con Aboriginal people into giving up their basic property rights in exchange for the ‘privilege’ of buying second-hand, sub-standard government housing at outrageously inflated prices (aka the odious ‘home ownership on Indigenous land program’).

But the area that is most disappointing is health. Despite under-funding to the tune of about half a billion dollars a year, the federal government has announced additional Indigenous health funding of just $90 million, and two quarters of that will be spent on drug initiatives and capital works programs.

At the same time, Australian taxpayers get a surplus of almost $11 billion, plus tax cuts worth three times that amount yet they still wonder why Indigenous Australia is in such a mess. As Bill Clinton might say, “It’s the economy, stupid”.

The tragedy is that the government is likely to be applauded for it, because mainstream media analysis of the Indigenous affairs budget will almost certainly be limited to no coverage in the metros, and one of two complimentary stories in The Oz, based ‘loosely’ on government press releases. That said, I can’t wait to see what The Sunday Age reports.

Peter Fray

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