Nigel Scullion

A secret document, leaked to Crikey, reveals significant changes being considered for the federal government’s wildly successful indigenous rangers program — that is, if Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion keeps his job and is around to implement them.

The “Indigenous Rangers — Working on Country” program was started in 2007 under the Howard government as a means to provide employment and training for indigenous Australians into work applying their knowledge of the local land to care for it. It currently employs 777 indigenous rangers in full-time roles in 107 different groups, and more than 2500 indigenous people overall in full-time, part-time or casual positions.

Before the election, Labor announced it would spent $200 million over five years to double the number of rangers by 2021, but the Coalition would not detail its policy, except to say that the program is funded until June 2018. The program has $335 million in funding from 2014 to 2018.

A May PowerPoint presentation on the work plan for the program obtained by Crikey reveals Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion’s proposed direction for the program as the 2018 deadline looms. The minister is reviewing costs of the program and potential viable career pathways for rangers after 2018.

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The presentation signals a shift away from community-run structure of the organisation to one where there are set rules for how rangers are employed.

The options being considered after 2018 include potentially only allowing ranger groups to recruit registered community development program job seekers, and limiting the maximum time someone can be in a ranger group to five years, with a minimum of two years’ break between projects. There could be minimum training achievements (such as Cert III or a driver’s licence), and ranger groups could potentially be paid job placement payments for getting participants into employment.

The slides note that these options are likely to be opposed by the current providers and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (where indigenous affairs sits) would need to manage the long-term employment of the rangers if there is less job security in the ranger program.

The government will also be examining the size and wages structure across the ranger teams, where they are located, the work being undertaken, and cost efficiencies that might be found.

“The review will benchmark program costs against similar land and sea management programs including, but not limited to, Commonwealth and state and territory parks rangers.”

The PowerPoint presentation warned that the internal review might not be seen as sufficiently independent.

A source formerly involved in the program told Crikey that the proposed direction for the program ignored the fundamental grounding of the program in indigenous people living on and caring for their land and sea country. Just before the election was called, a government-commissioned independent report reviewing the impact of government investment in five indigenous protected areas was released with no public acknowledgment from the government.

The report found that for the $35.2 million of government investment in the project, it made a social return of $96.5 million. In particular, those indigenous protected areas that were looked after with government funding from the Working on Country program delivered a 2.8:1 return, versus 2.1:1 with no Work on Country investment. The program was found to deliver low-cost land management for the government by allowing rangers to reduce weeds, fires and feral animals, and better manage threatened species.

The program is in the process of handing over management of the ranger groups to local organisations, but the government has warned there might be a lack of organisational capacity on the ground to hand the risky programs. In the medium term, indigenous ranger groups will be encouraged to undertake more commercial activities.

The decision to move Indigenous Affairs into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet by then-prime minister Tony Abbott has been widely criticised, but Turnbull has kept the portfolio in PM&C. Scullion’s time in the portfolio has been marred by controversy, and many think he will lose it in an upcoming cabinet reshuffle. Crikey’s sister site The Mandarin revealed earlier this year that Scullion demanded the Indigenous Land Corporation alter its annual report to remove passages he didn’t want in there before it was tabled in Parliament.

Groups under Scullion’s responsibility have called for his resignation, and there is speculation he will not remain in the job once Turnbull announces his new ministry next week.