Federal treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, has handed down his first budget and has described it as being "back in the black" with a budget surplus of $7.1 billion expected to be delivered next financial year, but the treasurer acknowledged "serious challenges" lay ahead.
“The global economy is slowing. Communities are feeling the impacts of flood, fire and drought. Families face cost of living pressures. And every one of us wants to see wages growing faster. But let me be clear: the answer to these challenges is not higher taxes," he said.
The 2019 Budget sees further tax relief for low to middle-income earners. It also includes a record $100 billion National Infrastructure Plan and a $525 million skills package which the treasurer said will create 80,000 apprenticeships.
However, despite the Coalition’s rhetoric about a "stronger economy", spending on Indigenous programs and services was lacklustre, with specific expenditure buried deep in the budget papers.
The government said it will invest $160 million for Indigenous health, with $10 million going to the Lowitja Institute, the national institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research.
Ms Janine Mohamed, interim CEO of the institute welcomed the investment and thanked Ken Wyatt, the minister for Indigenous Health.
“The new funding will ensure that the Lowitja Institute continues to deliver public value of more than $3 per every $1 invested, and will enable us to remain as a key component of the national research architecture,” she said.
$35 million will go toward funding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-specific solutions to family violence.
$5 million over four years will also go toward implementing Indigenous suicide prevention, to be led by young Indigenous leaders.
A further $4.5 million will be for Indigenous leadership to create a national plan for culturally appropriate care, and $3 million for a centre of excellence in childhood wellness.
Chief executive of the Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwives (CATSINAM), Melanie Robinson, said she was disappointed about the lack of expenditure in youth suicide.
“As we know there is a massive issue going on in our communities around suicide and lots of our young people are struggling,” she told NITV. “I thought there would have been more of a commitment ... in that space.”
An additional $60 million will be spent upgrading roads in the Tiwi Islands, as part of a $492.3 million Roads of Strategic Importance to the Northern Territory, which was provided for in last year’s federal budget.
The government will also put $276.5 million over five years into supporting Indigenous students as part of its Closing the Gap refresh. A further $5 million will go to promote school attendance in remote communities.
Another $70.6 million will cover the cost of extinguishing Higher Education Loan Program (Help) debts for teachers after they undertake a four-year placement in very remote locations, as announced in February.
An increase of less than $20 million has gone towards legal assistance, prompting the Law Council of Australia to label the allocation "abysmal". They say the figure falls well short of the additional $310 million per year needed to provide adequate access to legal justice.
“The Budget may be in surplus but Australia will remain in a significant justice deficit so long as the government fails to deliver adequate funding for Legal Aid Commissions (LACs), Community Legal Centres (CLCs), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS) and Family Violence Prevention Legal Services,” said Arthur Moses, the president of the Law Council of Australia.
Mr Moses did however acknowledge that reversing proposed cuts and providing additional funding of $16.7 million over three years for ATSILS was welcome, saying the decision to dissolve the Indigenous Legal Assistance Program and roll funding for ATSILS into a single funding mechanism could threaten the independence of those services.
“ATSILS provides specialised and culturally appropriate legal services for some of the most marginalised people in our community," he said. "They need to maintain independence to effectively continue their vital work.”
National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples Co-Chair, Dr Jackie Huggins, said it was still too early to know the "actual detail" of the impact of the budget on funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and interests.
There are some glimmers of hope, said Ms Huggins, particularly around the Royal Commission into the abuse and neglect of people with a disability, women’s safety and health initiatives and education, but she said Congress still had questions.
“No progress has been made on the economic empowerment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples,” she said.
Ivan Simon, co-chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Housing Authority, said he was sad and disappointed about the lack of remote housing commitment.
“I didn’t see much in there. I guess the devil is in the detail,” he told NITV News.
Mr Simon said he was concerned about how Indigenous housing service providers will be involved in the rollout of a $315 million social bond into mainstream community housing.
“We find it very difficult to play in that mainstream system,” he said.
Finance Minister Matthias Cormann told NITV News his government considered Indigenous Australians a priority.
“From Tony Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison, it’s been a very strong personal priority of three prime ministers, and of course it’s a priority for Nigel Scullion… We are strongly committed to Closing the Gap and there is increased funding right across the board,” he said.
- For more discussion of Budget 2019, watch NITV's The Point, 8.30pm tonight on Channel 34.