To: The new Indigenous Affairs Minister
From: Chris Graham, editor The National Indigenous Times 
Re: Some tips for your new job

Dear Minister,

Welcome to Indigenous affairs. I guess you backed the ‘other guy’ last time there was a leadership contest and thus, you’ve been sent to the ministerial equivalent of Siberia.

First and foremost, you need to be aware that the old Liberal-Labor mantra – ‘throwing more money at the ‘Aboriginal problem’ won’t fix it’ – is no longer of any use to Indigenous affairs ministers.

Just prior to the election, the previous government threw more than half a billion dollars at the NT intervention before they quickly discovered it was about one poofteenth of what they actually needed. $700 million later and the bill has climbed to $1.3 billion… and we still haven’t even touched the sides.

That’s right minister, the level of historical government neglect of Aboriginal communities is absolutely staggering. So too is the bill to fix it. But fix it we must.

Hence, your first mission should be to walk 300 metres down the parliamentary corridor to the Treasurer’s office and refuse to leave until you’ve secured an agreement for a tripling of the Indigenous affairs budget (as a starter).

In housing, the total national shortfall six years ago was $2.3 billion. It’s likely to be more than double that now.

In health, you’re going to need to secure at least an extra $500 million a year, which is the annual funding shortfall estimated by the Australian Medical Association and Access Economics.

In education, Aboriginal people are fleeing tertiary study in droves. That’s because at the turn of the century, the incumbent government wiped out special assistance measures. It came about because of the government’s other mantra – everyone should be treated the same even though some people’s needs were clearly much greater.

Securing all this extra funding shouldn’t be too difficult, in theory, because we’ve enjoyed obscene budget surpluses for the last few years. So obscene, in fact, that since 2003 we’ve had sufficient surpluses to wipe out the health gap 188 times over.

The reason past ministers have not acted to plug these gaps is really quite simple – politics. Traditionally, voters would prefer to see budget surpluses and tax cuts, rather than Aboriginal children getting an education or a polio vaccination. And Australians really hate it when you treat other people ‘differently’.

But today, there is a window of opportunity, albeit a small one, where you can have a positive impact on the lives of Aboriginal people not just in the Northern Territory, but across the nation. There is a mood for change, but you’ll blow it by playing politics and being a populist.

Thus you might like to consider adopting some of the following helpful phrases during your time in the portfolio:

1. Two people walk into a doctor’s surgery. One has cancer, the other has a cold. Do you treat them differently?
2. Overcoming decades of historical government neglect is very, very expensive.
3. Australia has the worst record of any first world nation on earth when it comes to the life expectancy of its Indigenous peoples. As a nation, we need to shut our mouths and start looking overseas to nations like the US and Canada for guidance on the way forward.

And on that front minister, you’ll also need to turn your mind to ‘symbolic’ things like treaties and Indigenous governance. These are basic concepts that were adopted by nations like New Zealand and the US more than 170 years ago.

That’s right minister, 170 YEARS AGO! You might classify Australia as a little ‘behind the times’ in our thinking. Like I said, welcome to Siberia.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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