First glance at the Indigenous affairs component of the 2008-09 budget and you’re left with the impression that it’s not good, but it’s not exactly bad either.

There’s more money ($4.3 billion, up from $3.5 billion), there’s a few good economic development programs (but only really in remote Australia) and it doesn’t seek to actively undermine the basic human rights of Aboriginal people… disappointing for the conservatives, I know, but we do only have so many hours in the day to “save the children” and “help the Aborigine people develop their land”.

The problem arrives when you move outside the Indigenous affairs portfolio and start to put it in some kind of mainstream context. That’s when you realise that the government is delivering a surplus of $21.7 billion, plus tax cuts worth more than $40 billion over four years… and all of a sudden, Wayne Swan is starting to like a bit of a miser.

There’s $780 million for new Dental Health Programs for Normie and Sheila Strugglestreet. A good thing too. Aussies definitely need access to teeth. But how did black Australia go on that pesky little half billion annual under-fund in Indigenous health?

Queue the theme from Friday the 13th please… In their 2008-09 budget submission, published in January this year, the Australian Medical Association appealed to the Rudd government to “make a much stronger commitment to dealing with the state of Indigenous health” by boosting the annual figure by $430 million. AMA president Rosanna Capolingua described the under-fund as “unconscionable”.

Last night, I asked a spokesperson for Health Minister Nicola Roxon how much of the $430 million under-fund had been wiped out by a boost. Here’s the answer: “Over the next four years, $3.1 billion has been allocated for Indigenous specific health measures. That compares with $2.2 billion over the last four years.”

What does that mean? It means the government doesn’t want to be pinned down to a figure that reveals what the actual annual increase in black health funding is. And that’s because it’s a country mile shy of the AMA identified shortfall. On average, Labor is saying it will provide an extra $225 million a year. In other words, about half what is needed.

In the transport portfolio, if you under-fund by half, people have to walk to work. In health, people die. And that’s why last year, Roxon — when she was Opposition spokesperson on health — told The Australian newspaper that the AMA report card was “… an indictment of the Howard government’s failure, and a direct rebuttal of Tony Abbott’s approach to Indigenous health”.

The repeated refusal by Abbott to bridge the gap is also why Roxon described his actions as “criminal”. And she’s right. It is criminal. Which is why we’re all looking forward to Roxon surrendering herself to Victorian police. Luckily for her, however, she won’t need to access Aboriginal legal aid. Because contrary to widespread media reports, the ALP did not keep all of its election promises. One pledge from the 2007 national conference was to “… ensure the effective and efficient operation of the courts and tribunals by strengthening funding to Aboriginal Legal Aid Agencies.”

So why is it that the budget papers from the Attorney-General’s department show an Aboriginal legal aid allocation in 2007-08 of $58 million, but just under $52 million in 2008-09. I’m no mathematician, but that looks an awful lot like a $6 million cut. It was a question I put to Minister for Home Affairs, Bob Debus’s office, last night. The answer, while lengthier than Roxon’s, was no more honest. “Legal aid is a key priority in my portfolio and I’m keenly aware of pressures in this system particularly for Aboriginal legal services.”

The government must responsibly manage the economic conditions it inherited. “Aboriginal legal services recently got a one-off injection of nearly $5 million. In the current tight fiscal climate it’s important to note that legal assistance funding has been maintained….”

Sorry, Bob… what was that election pledge again? Aboriginal legal aid will be strengthened… I’ll concede, this budget is better targeted than what the Liberals dished up for 12 years, but let’s face it – Swan was coming off a very low base.

Much of the new Indigenous affairs money (more than half in fact) is being directed to the Northern Territory intervention, which affects less than 10% of the total Australian Indigenous population. Help the NT, great. But a budget that ignores the needs of the rest adds up to another missed opportunity to start seriously ‘closing the gap’ between black and white.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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