OPINION: For Indigenous Affairs, the budget this year is a mixed bag. Some new programs are welcome, while the scrapping of some bad ones is also a positive. But as ever, not enough is being spent on our community writes Professor Tony Dreise.
Tony Dreise

13 May 2021 - 11:57 AM  UPDATED 13 May 2021 - 1:34 PM

The Federal Budget focuses heavily on politically sensitive issues for the Government.

Aged care and women’s initiatives are prime examples.

It is perhaps not surprising that the Indigenous affairs portfolio does not feature heavily in Budget 2021-22. This is not an entirely negative development, given that First Nations affairs is better served by good policy rather than opportunistic politics.

From a First Nations perspective, this year’s budget presents a mixed bag of positives, negatives, and unknowns. On the positive side, investment in the community enterprise space appears to be a big plus.

For instance, the Government says that almost $14 million will be allocated over four years to support Indigenous female entrepreneurs to create innovative responses to issues facing their communities and to increase the economic security of Indigenous women through grants and flexible loans.

Initiatives to support healthy Sea Country is another plus, with funds to protect marine biodiversity and grow jobs.

Investment in Indigenous enterprises will also be extended to primary industry and land management sectors as well as to Prescribed Body Corporates to help deliver recent reforms to the Native Title Act 1993.

Funds will also be provided to remote communities to help with food security measures and to improve access to off-grid solar powered systems. Initiatives to support the First Nations cleaner energy space is vitally important in promoting energy justice. Much more should be done in this space.

The positive side of the Budget not only includes new measures, but also measures that are being scrapped.

Research has shown for a number of years that the Community Development Program (CDP) has been plagued with problems, principally in relation to the mutual obligation dimensions that are unfair to vulnerable jobseekers who reside in places with thin labour markets.

While a $432 million allocation to the Northern Territory to tackle overcrowding and the poor state of housing is welcome, it is disappointing to see other parts of Indigenous Australia with poor housing seemingly overlooked. Greater public investment in community and social housing and other infrastructure would also provide a strong stimulus for jobs growth in economically marginalised communities.

Perhaps the biggest and most disappointing aspect of the Budget is the miniscule allocation to Indigenous cultural heritage.

Given the spotlight on the Juukan caves debacle over the past year, governments both state and federal need to be actively bolstering their efforts to protect priceless heritage tens of thousands of years old.

There are a number of announcements within the Budget with many unknowns for First Nations. Take for example, aged care. The Budget refers to building an Indigenous workforce in aged care but does not provide detail about resources, timeframes or targets. It is not clear how much of the $17 billion for aged care will target First Nations communities.

It should be borne in mind that while Indigenous people have lower life expectancy than the Australian population, there is a fast-growing cohort of older First Nations people and Elders who will require culturally designed care and services on Country. Equally, further detail about First Nations targeted investment in disability support is critically important given Indigenous people are far more likely to experience disability.

A sizeable apprenticeship and traineeship package is another centrepiece of the Budget. Policy makers will need to keep an eye to the big risks confronting Indigenous youth in work or study. The Budget provides $2.7 billion to create 170,000 new apprentices and trainees for Australians who are keen. First Nations young people need to be at heart of this initiative given that they were three times more likely to be unemployed before COVID hit, are now likely to be even more vulnerable in finding work in a post-COVID environment.

This Budget, like many before it, begs the question: is it a proportionate and adequate response to the unique challenges and opportunities in front of Indigenous Australia? When one considers that British Columbia in Canada just announced $18 billion to support First Nations in their Province alone, Australia’s public investment in Indigenous affairs appears to be a long way off.

Tony Dreise is a proud Guumilaroi man. He is the Professor of Indigenous Policy and Director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University

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