• Picture: Twitter via #savethecns (Twitter)Source: Twitter
COMMENT | It's time for the government to put their money where their mouth is and properly fund – for the long term - services that have a proven record in saving Aboriginal lives.
Luke Pearson

9 Mar 2016 - 4:02 PM  UPDATED 9 Mar 2016 - 4:22 PM

It has been announced this week that the Custody Notification Service (CNS) run by the NSW/ACT Aboriginal legal Service (ALS), will be granted funding until 2019, which is a huge relief to those involved, and to those of us who have followed the #savethecns hashtag since it first appeared in 2013.

This recent announcement begs the question though: will we be tweeting the #savethecns hashtag again in 2019 when this funding cycle runs out?

In case you don’t know, the CNS is a legislated service that requires police to notify whenever an indigenous person has been taken into custody. Since its inception in 2000, there have been no deaths in custody in NSW/ACT, which is why it was a key recommendation of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in Custody.

NSW Indigenous legal line still facing funding uncertainty, says CEO
The Custody Notification Service - a key recommendation of the 1991 Royal Commission into the Aboriginal deaths in custody - may be under threat in NSW if funding arrangements aren't addressed.

Like most important issues of government funding affecting Indigenous services, I first became aware that the CNS was under threat in 2013 via Facebook and Twitter. I saw the efforts of the ALS in trying to raise awareness and support, and reached out to see if I could lend a hand in any way in helping them get people on board.

The success of this campaign led to them securing additional funding to keep the service alive for another two years… Hi-fives for the good guys!

As time has a bad habit of doing though, those two years quickly passed us by, and in 2015 the #savethecns campaign was brought back to life, this time including an online petition via change.org which quickly reached over 50,000 signatures, and a drive to get people to call Tony Abbott’s office directly, and demand that the funding be continued.

It also received some significant media support, most notable from the legendary First Dog on the Moon in The Guardian, and Charlie Pickering on The Weekly

To the credit of Nigel Scullion, something I don’t offer very often, he bowed to public pressure and committed to ensure that this essential service remained funded until 2019.

While I write this though, the ALS have stated that they still have no formal guarantee beyond June, and Scullion has reaffirmed his commitment that will ensure it continues to be funded until 2019.

But when 2019 rolls around, who can say whether Scullion will still be the Indigenous Affairs Minister? Or even what the state of Indigenous Affairs will be or - if we are to listen to the wishes off some extreme right Liberals like Denis Jensen - if the portfolio will even still exist by then.

The story of the CNS having its funding threatened in 2013 follows a disturbingly common trend over the past few years, where the federal government withdraws support from a service or program, hands responsibility over to the relevant state, who then claim to not have sufficient resources to fund it.

This is what we have seen with the threatened closures of remote communities, and recently with the  ensuing closure of Western Australia’s only Aboriginal-led midwifery service, Moort Boodjari Mia.

This process enables state and federal governments to wash their hands clean while blaming each other for the loss of services. It blurs the focus for campaigners on who they should be lobbying to ensure services continue, and it sends a message to Aboriginal people, communities, and essential service providers that neither state or federal governments are sincere in their respective pledges to work in partnership with Indigenous people in ‘closing the gap’.

Those campaigns, like the #savethecns, which manage to get sufficient online support, and subsequent media attention, are those most likely to be saved from the chopping block at the final hour, but there are far too many services being cut for them all to be so lucky. And even the ‘lucky’ ones are only saved for a finite amount of time - usually no more than three years - only to have to go through it all again, and perhaps with a new government in place, new funding regimes, and the same need for the same service that they have been providing for years.

Governments are quick to talk about the need for generational commitments to Closing the Gap when it comes to justifying their lack of progress towards it, but are still yet to back up this perspective with long term and transparent funding structures to enable communities and organisations to engage in long term planning and focus on service delivery instead of having to take a few months out every other year to coordinate campaigns for their very survival.

When even those services, like the CNS - which are legislated as needing to exist - are under threat, what hope is there for other essential services that do not have legislative backing, or do not have the resources to coordinate and maintain social media and public awareness campaigns to ensure their survival?

These services should be planning in generational cycles, not according to election cycles. 

Luke Pearson is NITV's online engagement specialist and the founding director of IndigenousX.