They say that the winners write history. Last time I checked, Peter Costello was no winner. Thus, it’s a little perplexing to see him now trying to shift all of the blame for the multitude of failures in Indigenous affairs during the Howard government reign onto his former leader.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m as grateful as anyone that Costello is using his memoirs to dump a bucket all over our former prime minister. Howard was the sort of man who went power-walking every morning, but couldn’t bring himself to join a bridge walk for reconciliation which started just a few hundred metres from his home.

But if you look at Costello’s record as treasurer… well, the non-assassin has nothing to smile about.

Costello will no doubt claim that Indigenous affairs budgets, in dollar terms at least, increased year-on-year while he was the treasurer. That’s true enough, but it’s about as honest as Labor’s repeated claim in Opposition that Howard’s was the highest taxing government of all time.

Of course it was. Taxation revenue increases as economies grow. But similarly, Indigenous affairs budgets should increase in both real and percentage terms as government budgets grow.

Under Costello, they shrunk.

Costello delivered 12 budgets, and with only two exceptions he cut the Indigenous affairs budget in real terms, while at the same time convincing a disinterested media that Indigenous affairs funding was actually booming under the Liberals.

In May 2007 — when The Age reported Indigenous Australians would be the big winners of Costello’s 12th budget — Costello actually slashed it to just 1.18 percent as a proportion of total government revenue. To find a comparable figure in history, you have to go back to a time when Bob Hawke was Prime Minister.

In short, as the nation got wealthier, Indigenous Australians got an increasingly smaller share of the pie. And all the while, Aboriginal people continued to die, on average, in their 40s in some remote regions; child mortality rates in Aboriginal communities sat at levels five times greater than non-Aboriginal communities; trachoma remained entrenched in central Australia (we’re the only developed nation on earth where this is the case); petrol sniffing reached epidemic proportions; thousands of Aboriginal children remained without proper access to schooling; and overcrowded housing continued unchecked, with many communities seeing averages climb above 20 people per dwelling.

Not exactly a record to be proud of.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey