Multicultural grants funding pulled

The federal government has confirmed it intends to end the Building Multicultural Communities Program in July next year.

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

The multimillion-dollar Commonwealth grants scheme, launched by the former Labor government, provides one-off funding of up to $160,000 to community groups and local government bodies working to promote and foster social cohesion.

According to the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, the Coalition government has cut $11.5 million from the program for the current financial year, with no plans for it to continue into 2014-15.

As Kristina Kukolja reports, there's concern more than 400 groups already approved for financial assistance will lose out on support.

(Click on audio tab above to hear full item)

Around $4.55 million was allocated to the Building Multicultural Communities Program in May, introduced by the then Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Kate Lundy.

That amount was later increased to $14.2 million, due to what Labor said was high demand.

But in November, the Coalition government announced it was freezing funds approved under the scheme to over 400 community organisations and local government bodies, while it conducted a budget review.

One organisation, called Welcome to Australia, is a national asylum-seeker support group.

It has now received notification from the Department of Social Services that the offer of financial assistance has been withdrawn.

The group's "Welcome Centre" in Adelaide had been granted $160,000 towards services such as supplying food, furniture and English lessons for asylum-seekers living in the community on bridging visas.

Spokeswoman Kate Leaney says an email addressed to Welcome to Australia's national manager states that in light of the current state of the federal budget, the federal government has decided to reduce the scope of the multicultural grants program.

And it instructed the group not to spend any money as the Department of Social Services would not be reimbursing associated expenditures.

Ms Leaney says it's a damaging blow to the volunteer-based group that's heavily reliant on government funding.

"Shocked and devastated. I mean it really came out of the blue and out of left field for us. We've been working pretty steadily on the grant requirements of getting our centre up and running, asking questions from the Department as we went and felt we were working in partnership on this grant, and then to be told that we actually don't have an agreement in place, I guess we were just shocked and gutted, really a little bit numb as to what is happening and where we go from here."

The South Australian government says at least another 50 groups across the state have also had funding offers withdrawn, totalling around $1.4 million.

They're joined in New South Wales by at least 12 more groups, including the Alliance of Philippine Community Organisations and the Newcastle Hebrew Congregation.

The Ethnic Communities Council of the Newcastle Hunter Region says it has already spent tens of thousands of dollars towards approved initiatives, such as the first Multicultural Men's Shed in Australia, expecting to have their expenses covered by the multicultural grants program.

CEO John Tucker believes the current government is legally obliged to honour the funding promises.

"The Minister (for Multicultural Affairs) at the time sent us a letter of offer, so we then sent back an acceptance of that offer. So, in our book and in legal terms, according to our legal advisers, we do have a contract with the government, regardless of whether the actual formal agreement was signed or not we believe we've got a formal agreement. The only reason that wasn't signed was that the Department shilly-shallied (hesitated) and didn't get any agreements out and therefore we didn't get a chance to sign anything, and then they went into caretaker government."

The Arab Council of Australia says it has received mixed messages from the federal government about the status of around $25,000 it was expecting to receive under the Building Multicultural Communities Program.

Executive Director Randa Kattan claims that on at least two occasions between September and last week -- when she too received an email from the Department of Social Services -- officers from the Department of Immigration had assured her the funding process was on course.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection took over administration of the scheme from the Minister for Multicultural Affairs, and has since transferred it to the Department of Social Services.

Ms Kattan says in October she received an email saying funding agreements were still being drafted.

"I wrote again in October to the Department asking that I had had previous conversations with you guys, I'm writing to seek clarification; we still haven't received the funding agreement. Is this grant still forthcoming given the change of government? We hear back and within two days of writing that letter and I get an email saying that they are currently working on drafting up the funding agreements and unfortunately it has taken a little longer than anticipated, but they hope to have it all out for comments in the coming week."

SBS has contacted the Department of Social Services to ask if all of the groups approved for funding under the Building Multicultural Communities Program are to have their offers of funding withdrawn.

In a statement, the Department says it would not be appropriate to release details of those who did or did not meet the funding terms until all applicants have been notified.

The Minister for Social Services, Kevin Andrews, and the Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs, Senator Concetta Fierevanti-Wells, have both declined to comment.

But Opposition spokeswoman for Multicultural Affairs, Michelle Rowland, has refused to stay silent.

"These were funds that were fully budgeted in the May budget this year and they had been approved. They had actually been tabled in Parliament by the relevant minister and I think that it is astounding now that we've had the MYEFO announcement confirming the cessation of the program when even up to a week ago, I know first-hand of community groups who were told, 'Just wait and see. Wait and see'."

The main body representing migrant and refugee communities in Australia says it's concerned by the federal government's actions.

The chairman of the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia, Joe Caputo, says it has some explaining to do.

"From the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia, we would like the Government to actually be very clear on this and to explain to the communities, what are its plans and the reason behind it. We don't believe that this should be done just by a letter. Of course it's appropriate that the organisations that have put in and believed they would be funded receive those letters, but it's also important to explain publicly and to the communities why, and the rationale behind it."


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