• Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt (L) and Co-Chair of the Joint Council on Closing the Gap Pat Turner (AAP)Source: AAP
The federal government has released its 2020-21 budget with no new funding committed to tackling twice the amount of targets for Closing the Gap on Indigenous disadvantage.
Natalie Ahmat, Shahni Wellington

6 Oct 2020 - 9:12 PM  UPDATED 6 Oct 2020 - 9:12 PM

Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has handed down what has been described as the nation's most significant budget since World War II.

It includes massive spending measures on infrastructure as the Morrison government focuses on creating millions of jobs in a bid to pull the country out of the recession created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But what’s in it for Indigenous Australians?

In a statement, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, said the Morrison government was committed to changing the way it works with, and for, First Nations with a focus on partnerships and shared decision making.

“The 2020-21 Budget continues the government’s commitment to co-designing the solutions that will positively impact the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”, he said. 

Closing the Gap

A major question surrounding funding for Indigenous services was how the government planned to pay for its historic national agreement on Closing the Gap.

Earlier this year, a partnership was formed between the federal government, the Australian Local Government Association and the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations, to establish 16 new, ambitious targets to address Indigenous disadvantage.

Despite the targets doubling in size and tackling areas such as Indigenous education, health, languages and justice, the federal government has included no new funding in the 2020-21 budget. 

In August, the Commonwealth government announced an initial contribution of $46.5 million over four years, with the Victorian government adding an additional $3.3 million. 

The budget papers revealed that funding will be resourced from existing funds under the National Indigenous Australians Agency to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled organisations build their capacity and business models.

This also referenced only one of the four priority reforms that were part of the national agreement.

The budget did however include $10.1 million dollars over four years to be provided to the Productivity Commission (and $2.6 million per year ongoing) for oversight of the Closing the Gap process – including an annual progress report.

Old money

There were projects listed and referenced by the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, in his Budget 2020-21 media release, but many graphs showed no new money was being allocated. 

Queensland Remote Housing 

Remote housing in Queensland has been an on-going struggle for Indigenous residents, with representatives calling for action from all levels of government.

A $100 million dollar investment into Queensland housing was mentioned in the 2020-21 budget - an election promise from the federal government that it claimed was fulfilled and provided for, this year. 

It is worth mentioning that this measure was part of a 'one-off' agreement with the state government for it to assume full responsibility for housing in remote communities.

Funding was also allocated for remote Indigenous housing in the NT. 

In his budget delivery in Parliament on Tuesday night, the federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg said $150 million would go towards the Indigenous Home Ownership Program for regional areas. 

Over three years, the money will be used as an equity injection to Indigenous Business Australia (IBA) to deliver 360 home loans for new construction.

In 2017-2018, the annual budget spend for regional Indigenous housing was $526.6 million.

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Returning Cultural Artefacts

The government will provide $10.1 million over four years from 2020-21 to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) to facilitate the return of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage material held in overseas collections to Traditional Owners and custodians.  

The cost of this measure will again be met from within the existing resources of the National Indigenous Australians Agency.

The federal government is also continuing its commitment to the $5.4 billion Indigenous Advancement Strategy.

New funding

As the federal government conceded the nation is headed to a record debt of almost $1 trillion, a large portion of spending has gone to creating jobs via infrastructure projects and tax concessions to stimulate the economy.

Here are some Indigenous-specific points found in the budget papers:

Basin rangers

Indigenous ‘Basin rangers’ will be funded as part of the government’s Murray Darling Basin plan. The recently announced Murray-Darling Basin Package includes $3.1 million to create four new Indigenous River Ranger groups to care for Country.

The federal government hopes the roles will bring Indigenous knowledge to the management of the Baarka and support water and natural resource management activities within the Basin.

The package will also see an Independent Water Commissioner established to revive public confidence in the plan.

CLONTARF student placements

The CLONTARF Foundation, a non-Indigenous run organisation, will receive funding for 2,000 Indigenous senior students as part of a $1.2 billion investment for new apprenticeships and traineeships.

The government also committed funding to a number of other Indigenous-specific programs and projects including:

  • $16.7 million in National Partnership payments to the States and Territories for specific Indigenous health programs, targeting conditions including trachoma, sexually transmitted infections and rheumatic fever.
  • $14.8 million over four years to employ more Indigenous rangers to remove abandoned ghost nets from Australia’s northern waters, to help save marine life including dugongs and turtles
  • $3.9 million to extend the “Time to Work Employment Service” by a further 12 months, to help First Nations prisoners transition into work after their release 
  • $2 million to support the development of designs for a Noongar Indigenous cultural centre in Perth

Referendum oversight

This budget did not include any funding for a possible referendum on Indigenous recognition or mention of constitutional change.  

While the process to find a model for a ‘Voice to government’ is still underway, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, had committed to a referendum in this political term.

It was later conceded COVID-19 had de-railed that timeframe and a co-design process to find an appropriate model of recognition began.

Mr Wyatt maintains that no options are off the table – but there is no money in the papers to be seen.

COVID-19 Recovery

The government announced several new measures to help support First Nations through the COVID-19 pandemic, including $4 million to continue the Remote Point of Care testing program in regional and remote communities.

Communities disproportionally affected by the pandemic will share in $1 billion Relief and Recovery Fund, with $27 million dollars earmarked for an arts support package which will help regional and Indigenous arts centres and artists who have suffered due to the cancellation of art fairs and exhibitions.

There’s also $12 million in funding for Traditional Owners of jointly managed National Parks to help replace revenue lost due to coronavirus travel restrictions.

This follows a federal government decision to provide temporary support for tourism operators in a bid to kickstart the regional tourism sector by waiving entry and permit fees within Commonwealth operated National Parks.

This funding is in addition to the $19.8 million the government announced during its July Economic and Fiscal Update to support Indigenous businesses, including Redfern’s National Centre of Indigenous Excellence, Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia and the Tjapukai Aboriginal Cultural Park in Cairns, all of which have been hit hard by the pandemic.

The government will also provide funding to support jurisdictions with the cost of implementing COVID-19 related travel restrictions to remote communities.

- more to come.

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