Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion's announcement of further funding dispelled fears that the Working On Country ranger program was under threat.
The National Native Title Council (NNTC), which groups a number of Aboriginal Land Councils across Australia, has applauded the move, as the ‘Work on Country’ and the Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) programs "have proven to be extremely valuable, both in terms of the social and cultural outcomes, as well as great environmental outcomes for the Commonwealth".
NNTC CEO Glen Kelly says "they provide employment and economic development opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in remote and rural areas".
Kelly told NITV News he's relieved that the significance of the programs has been recognised.
“We’re really happy with that announcement. We were very worried and, in fact, there was a lot of campaigning done before the election, and even as far back as last year, to extend the program beyond its current date,” he said.
However, Minister Scullion did not provide specific details. His comments follow the commitment by the NT opposition leader, Michael Gunner, that a Labor government would boost the funding and power of rangers in the NT.
Kelly told NITV that cutting these initiatives “would’ve made unemployed a lot of people who work in the ranger program. The extension to 2020 is a great outcome, and we’re pleased that the Minister and the Commonwealth Government have seen the value of these programs.”
The Working on Country program is widely regarded as one of the most successful Government programs aimed at Closing the Gap.
It provides funding to organisations employing Indigenous rangers who undertake environmental services, land protection and management. The program recognises Indigenous people’s strong relationship and obligations to country and their desire to have their land and sea management work recognised as paid employment.
“People aspire to these jobs. Working as a ranger seems like a very good thing to do among these communities and that has other social and cultural knock on as well. People have income, people are employed properly, and there’s a whole lot of value created in the community because sites and country are getting taken care of… Culture is also supported by the rangers, and the Commonwealth Government is also a recipient of the value that comes out of these programs because of the better position in which communities find themselves."
“The NNTC has consistently advocated for on-country employment for Indigenous peoples as a practical solution to help close the disadvantage gap. The ranger program, in particular has a proven track record in providing sustainable employment pathways for Indigenous peoples where it is most needed and that is in rural and remote regions”, says Mr Kelly.
In May this year, the Government’s review of the program found that the Indigenous Protection Areas (IPAs) and Work On Country (WoC) programs are “engaging Indigenous Australians in meaningful employment to achieve large scale conservation outcomes; facilitating reconnection with country, culture and language to achieve exceptional levels of engagement among Indigenous Australians, which is driving positive social, economic, cultural and environmental outcomes; and helping to catalyse the development of an Indigenous land and sea based economy, empowering Indigenous landowners to manage their country in accordance with their priorities.”
The Pew Charitable Trust has backed the ranger and protected area programs through the Country Needs People campaign, which works with an alliance of over 25 grassroots Indigenous organisations across Australia, representing hundreds of rangers, millions of hectares of IPAs and many aspiring groups.
In their review of the economic and social benefits of the program, The Pew Trust describes the two programs as “robust and successful examples of grassroots Indigenous initiatives in land and sea management meeting thoughtful government policy.”
According to both Pew's and the government’s reviews, both programs are financially sound.
“Between the 2009 and 2015 financial years, an investment of $35.2m from Government and a range of third-party investors has generated social, economic, cultural and environmental outcomes with an adjusted value of $96.5m” across the five IPAs studied. This is a fraction of the value returned from the 70 IPAs and many ranger groups that exist across Australia.
Kelly told NITV News: “the next step is to see that announcement placed into action and to see these contracts signed… The IPA is fully subscribed, so the budget that has been provided by the Commonwealth is currently at capacity. What we’re hoping is that the IPA is expanded, so that more communities can have access to, or declare some of their lands as Indigenous Protected Areas, and be supported by the ranger program.
"In the Closing the Gap report delivered earlier this year, you see that they speak effusively about this program. It would’ve been embarrassing for them to say that one of their most successful programs was being cut. This is a program that any government should look at expanding. If the outcome is so profound from such a small investment, I think that’s a very justifiable reason for expanding the program in the future.