One of the best parts about the 2009-2010 indigenous affairs budget is stuff that’s not even in it.

Confusing, I know. But not half as confusing as trying to identify black money spread across dozens of portfolios, interspersed with “special” Northern Territory intervention funding.

And then there’s the Council of Australian Governments funding — $4.6billion over 10 years, which was announced at the November 2008 COAG meeting.

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Obviously, it’s money separate to the 2009-2010 budget. But it features heavily in the budget papers. And deservedly so. While new money this year is a modest $1.3billion (up from $1.2billion last year), across the whole portfolio it all adds up to $4.8 billion for 2009-2010.

That’s a $1.3billion improvement on the Howard government’s last budget just two years ago. More is needed: unmet need in indigenous housing across the country is higher in its own right; factor in health, education, infrastructure, policing etc and that sort of cash barely touches the sides.

But in percentage terms, it’s still better than just about any other government has done before. You’d have to go back to 1992-1993, the International Year of the Indigenous Peoples when Paul Keating was in The Lodge, to find an equivalent percentage of government revenue directed towards indigenous affairs.

After years of political bastardry, our leaders are finally acknowledging that indigenous affairs is grossly under-funded. That is no small feat and worthy of high praise. The political temptation to trot out the “throwing more money at the problem won’t solve it” line must seem almost irresistible, particularly during lean financial times.

Of course, how the money is spent is rather crucial. On this front, Labor gets some mixed reviews.

This budget hints that Labor might be a little “out of ideas” on indigenous affairs. Granted, the massive COAG expenditure steals the thunder of this budget a little, but regardless much of the expenditure outlined is in fact the worst bits of bad Liberal Party policy.

Just over $800 million of the $1.3 billion in new money has been directed to the Northern Territory intervention, a Howard government election stunt. Renaming it ‘Closing the Gap in the Northern Territory’ — as Jenny Macklin has done in this budget — doesn’t make it any more palatable, or any more Labor.

Notably, there’s no money in this budget for the new National Indigenous Representative Body promised by the Rudd government in the 2007 election. Sceptics might suggest the government is trying to drag out the process so it doesn’t have to go to an election with The Australian newspaper bleating away in the background about “a new ATSIC”. But watch this space the budget papers note preferred models are due to be delivered to the government in July, and funding will presumably follow. We hope.

The biggest brain snap award goes to $106million allocated (primarily to Centrelink) for the compulsory income management of less than 15,000 blackfellas caught up in the ‘Closing the Gap in the Northern Territory’. And that’s just for one year, and is on top of more than $100 million already expended by Centrelink on a scheme that has been condemned by the United Nations as racist.

If you do the math, it’s more than $7000 per person, per year, to manage an income that in most cases is barely double that amount. If your accountant was charging you 50 cents to manage a dollar you’d have him shot (and then take his job). Compulsory welfare quarantining based on race is a stupid, racist policy and will continue to define Jenny Macklin’s stewardship of Indigenous affairs while-ever it remains. But moving along…

  • Native Title Representative Bodies will see a $50 million injection to help them boost their capacity. Labor is finally making good on its promise of better resourcing the NTRBs. A very applause-worthy initiative.
  • Black health has received a $200 million boost over four years. It’s short of the money the Australian Medical Association has previously reported is needed in Indigenous health (when Howard left office, there was an annual shortfall of $450 million), but it’s a reasonable boost, particularly in light of the $800 million commitment through COAG.
  • The Torres Strait will receive $30 million for stage four of a major infrastructure building project. It’s a relatively modest amount for a region that is mired in poverty, but it’s still welcome cash.
  • There’s $203.1million over three years to ensure the sustainability of more than 1600 jobs already created in the Northern Territory. This is a good thing Aboriginal people have been used for decades to provide basic government services on “work for the dole” rates. But even so, it’s time the money to pay “real wages” came from “real budgets” in other departments, thus freeing up more money in Indigenous affairs to direct to areas of greater need.

Overall, this budget feels a little like Canberra bureaucrats have loaded up a big cannon full of cash, aimed it in a northerly direction (sorry Tassie and Victoria) pressed fire and hoped that at least some of it hits the ground.

Some of it will, of course, will. But a lot of it won’t. Rebuilding the capacity to deliver services after the mindless destruction of ATSIC’s regional structure (the best part of a flawed national body) will take some time. But in the interim, I think you’d have to concede the Rudd government has shown that in the face of a global financial crisis — aka a licence to get away with numerical murder — that it’s still prepared to allocate growing resources to indigenous affairs.

This budget is a down payment on a better future for black Australia. It’s not enough to “close the gaps” in indigenous affairs, but it’s a good start. While more is needed, the will is clearly there and that’s worth acknowledging.

Chris Graham is editor of the National Indigenous Times.

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