Like most Australians, I’ve watched the unfolding disaster in Burma with a growing sense of horror. In particular, I’ve been stunned by the Burmese junta’s response to the crisis.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd reportedly described it as ‘obscene’. A fair call.

But with his government’s first federal budget just over 24 hours away, I can’t help but wonder how we’ll be describing Rudd’s response to the humanitarian crisis that has been unfolding in his own country… for the past 100 years or so.

After all, the average life expectancy in Indigenous Australia is 59 years for a male. In Burma, it’s 60.

What concerns Indigenous affairs watchers most is that if recent history is anything to go by, blackfellas are in for a bit of hiding. In budgetary terms, Indigenous affairs funding fares much better under the Liberals.

Under Hawke and Keating, the government delivered an average of around 1.2 percent of the total budget to Indigenous affairs. Under Howard and Costello, spending climbed almost immediately to 1.4 percent, and peaked at almost 1.6 percent in 2003-04.

Granted, much of that spending was misdirected, and opportunities for real progress were squandered. The value of surpluses delivered by Howard and Costello in 12 federal budgets could have wiped out the annual Indigenous health funding shortfall (of $460 million) more than 200 times over, but they never acted to seriously bridge the gap.

They also ignored the massive unmet need in Indigenous housing (estimated at $2.3 billion 2001.. God only knows what it is now). But Howard and Costello still did better than their predecessors in pure funding terms.

The other thing you need to be aware of is that you won’t read any serious analysis of the Indigenous affairs budget in the mainstream press. Last year, The Sunday Age reported that black Australians would be “among the biggest winners” in the 2007-08 budget, and The Australian tipped a “significant increase” in black health funding.

A few days later, Costello delivered a cut in real terms of $52 million to the total budget, and health funding was lifted by just six percent of the total annual underfund.

Still, they did better than The Sydney Morning Herald, which lifted almost all of its coverage directly from government press releases.

Thus, here’s some of the key things to watch for in 2008-09:

• In education, Labor promised to provide $34.5 million so that every Indigenous child up to Year 10 has an Individual Learning Plan (basically a detailed record of that child’s learning progress and specific needs).

• Also in education, Labor promised to ensure that every four-year-old in remote Aboriginal communities is attending an early childhood education centre within the next five years. The promise has a ‘no Australian child will live in poverty’ ring to it, and without an immediate injection of substantial capital funding (to build pre-schools) Labor has no chance of meeting the goal by the end of 2012. But let’s wait and see what the budget delivers.

• In the area of housing, it will be interesting to see what Labor does with the Home Ownership on Indigenous Land Program (HOILP). The $107.4 million program was the brainchild (and I use the term loosely) of former Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough who described it as a centrepiece of the previous Indigenous affairs budget. And how many Indigenous people have accessed the program in the past year? One. Expect it to be axed. Scratch your head if it’s not.

• Keep a lookout for funding for the creation of a new national representative body, one of the key ALP election promises to Indigenous Australians. If there’s no allocation, pressure will increase on Labor to explain when it plans to make good on this promise.

Of course, the ‘big ticket item’ will be health funding, due in no small part to the fact that Labor has pledged to close the 17-year life expectancy gap within a generation.

In order to have any chance of achieving that, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) estimates that Labor will need to spend an additional $1.84 billion during the next four years to address shortfalls in primary healthcare services for Indigenous people.

Personally, I think there’s two chances of that happening – none and buckleys. But let’s wait and see.

Labor also promised to halve the gap in mortality rates for black children under five (currently, they’re about three times greater than for non Indigenous children). $186.4 million was promised over four years. We watch with interest.

In terms of the total Indigenous affairs budget ($3.5 billion last year), it would, of course, be unconscionable for a government to claim on the one hand that black Australia is in the grip of a ‘national emergency’ and on the other cut or fail to significantly increase spending simply because it wants to tackle inflation, particularly in light of an expected $17 billion budget surplus.

That would be akin to… well, the Burmese junta allowing politics to get in the way of properly assisting its own citizens in the face of a massive humanitarian crisis. Or in Kevin Rudd’s words, ‘obscene’.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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