Comment: A long way to go for the Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs

Prime Minister Tony Abbott at his tent at the Garma site on the Gove Peninsula, Northern Territory, Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is quietly failing on his "Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs" promise.

Tony Abbott has made much of his concern for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ advancement, declaring himself the Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.

After his first year of government, we see little advancement and in fact many argue that things are worse.

We now have a muddle of responsibilities, with a Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and much of the bureaucracy dragged into PM&C, who aren't used to running programs.

The Minister for Indigenous Affairs now seems to be the Minister for truancy, safe communities and jobs while the Parliament Secretary seems to be tasked with implementing Andrew Forrest's wish list. 

There is chaos around implementing the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, with uncertainty over funding, continuity of services and supports, and cuts to programs, including Aboriginal legal aid. 

In this climate, it is no wonder that Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda has some strong words to say in his Social Justice & Native Title Report 2014.

The report is an important, comprehensive document that reviews the year from a social perspective.

It examines the Racial Discrimination Act and proposed changes to racial hatred provisions. It talks about native title, creating safer communities, self-determination and a new era of Indigenous governance, and giving effect to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In the Senate, I made a point of addressing the comments made by the Social Justice Commissioner, Mr Mick Gooda, on the Indigenous Advance Strategy and some of the budget measures, particularly those related to Closing the Gap.

Mr Gooda speaks about this year’s budget measures, saying it ‘has been a year characterised by deep funding cuts, the radical re-shaping of existing programs and services, and the development of new programs and services’.

In particular, Mr Gooda points out that details about the Government’s Indigenous Advance Strategy have been scant, with minimal involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The lack of consultation around the Government’s approach is very concerning.

The report also speaks about legal aid and the Government’s $13.4 million cut to the Indigenous Legal Aid and Policy Reform Program, which take effect from 1 July 2015, and will result in essential front line services being lost.

This is one example of the impact of the $534.4 million in cuts that have been made from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs, as 150 programs are collapsed into five. The Commissioner notes any savings from this so-called will not be reinvested into Indigenous Affairs and Closing the Gap initiatives.

As a result, progress towards closing the gap targets faces being seriously compromised.

The just released Productivity Commission Access to Justice Arrangements report also makes the point that frontline legal services will be lost with the cut in legal aid funding. When Aboriginal incarceration rates are continuing to climb cutting funds for legal aid is not the sign of a Government that cares about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Another report, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage, released a couple of weeks ago, highlighted the growing gap in incarceration rates in Australia.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians make up only 2.3 per cent of the adult population but over a quarter of the adult prison population as at 30 June 2013. Between 2000 and 2013, the imprisonment rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults increased by 57.4 per cent and in 2012-13, the daily average detention rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people was around 24 times the rate for non-Indigenous young people.

The government's cuts to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs will only make the situation worse as we see critical services lose funding.

Many people are calling for the establishment of justice targets to help provide a clear framework in which the federal and state and territory governments can work with communities and peak Aboriginal organisations to look at how to address this appalling statistic and appalling failure of our system. Unfortunately the Federal Government has rejected these calls for justice targets.

As Mr Gooda recommends we also need to be investing in justice reinvestment as part of the approach to addressing the underlying causes of incarceration.

For too long, governments at the state, territory and Commonwealth levels have been sitting on their hands when it comes to addressing this evidence based approach

Of course, you cannot talk about incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples without talking about deaths in custody. Most of the 339 recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody still haven't been implemented and we see no willingness from the PM for Aboriginal Affairs to take a lead on this issue.

Likewise, there must be action on the issue of the indefinite incarceration of people with cognitive impairments. Predominantly, this affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Many of the people who continue to be held indefinitely in custody have been found unfit to stand trial. 

We heard this week that Australia has breached its obligations, under various UN conventions, for four Aboriginal men with cognitive impairments in the Northern Territory.

The response from this government has been to wash their hands of this issue, to disagree with the Australian Human Rights Commission's findings and to say that it is not the government's responsibility.

The government basically attacked the Australian Human Rights Commission for the findings it made in relation to these four men rather than seeking to act to address this travesty of justice.

It is clear from the Social Justice Commissioner's report, the Overcoming Disadvantage report and the Accessing Justice Report that the Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs has a long way to go before he can claim he is adequately addressing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage.

Senator Rachel Siewert is the Greens spokesperson on family and community services.