Indigenous Australia and the 2016 Budget: The Great Australian Fiscal Silence

24 May 2016

In February 2016, in launching the 8th Report on Closing the Gap, Malcolm Turnbull began with a well-rehearsed rhetorical flourish in the Ngunnawal language. Tony Abbott may have been the Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs for a couple of years, but could he match this? Yet Turnbull’s linguistic performance stood strangely at odds with the report he would go on to launch, a report that tells, yet again, of multiple failures to meet the very basic Closing the Gap targets. These annual reports are starting to sound like yearly ritual pleas for absolution by the nation’s leaders: we are trying so hard and yet we are failing, we must try harder.

Despite the dismal report card Turnbull reassures us, gushingly, ‘Now, we are the most successful multicultural society in the world. The glue that holds us together is mutual respect – a deep recognition that each of us is entitled to the same respect, the same dignity, the same opportunities.’ Tell that to the thousands of Indigenous Australians working for the dole for 25 hours a week at below award wages, experiencing levels of deep poverty unimaginable to most Australians.

The latest disappointment is not just the making of the current government. Since 2004 there has been a fundamental shift in the policy approach. We have been witnessing a shift from a focus on culture and community to the individual as the responsibilised citizen; it has been accompanied by the retreat of the state in supporting community-based services in favour of market-driven forms of delivery.

Such an approach reflects commitment to apply neoliberal logic to the deeply entrenched issues of Indigenous marginality and disadvantage; I term it the ‘Canberra Consensus’. It is an approach that is failing according to the government’s chosen metrics, the Closing the Gap performance measures.

The Productivity Commission made this abundantly clear in its assessment of the COAG National Indigenous Reform Agreement released in November 2015: progress was only made in reducing disparity between Indigenous and other Australians in child mortality and Year 12 attainment rates. The early education target was not met. Little progress was made in closing the gap on life expectancy, and reading and numeracy; and employment gaps have increased rather than narrowed. This is a damning report card from an independent agency.

With such a report card and an election-to-be-announced, one might have expected a major boost to Indigenous funding in the May budget. Perhaps some restoration of the $530 million ruthlessly gouged from Indigenous affairs in the 2014 Hockey horror budget that saw reduced support to legal services, family violence and prevention services and child care services? Or restoration of support to the nation’s only Indigenous representative body, the Congress of Australia’s First Peoples? Instead the government prefers highly symbolic ‘constitutional recognition’ in the future to effective democratic representation in the present.

In line with the ‘jobs and growth’ mantra, the headline items, totalling just $88 million, went to Indigenous business institutions. The Indigenous Land Corporation crippled by debt associated with the purchase of the overpriced Ayers Rock Resort is to be provided a loan of up to $65 million. And Indigenous Business Australia is to be supported with $23 million to renew its focus on Indigenous entrepreneurs and small business and take advantage of the government’s concessionary Indigenous Procurement Policy. I have written about these and other specific budget items for The Guardian here.

And Indigenous business, of course, will benefit pro rata from proposed tax cuts for all small business. This all sounds good in theory, but trickle down has rarely worked for Indigenous Australians, especially those residing in regional and remote Australia where business is non-existent; and also when mainstream businesses seem reluctant to employ Indigenous staff.

Given the extent of the challenge, the Indigenous-specific measures announced are paltry and wedded to a particular ideological approach: support the big end of town and Indigenous disadvantage and marginalisation will magically benefit from imagined overall growth.

In 1968 anthropologist Bill Stanner spoke of the Great Australian Silence in relation to the historical mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, a national myopia. The just announced 2016 Budget could be similarly termed ‘the Great Australian Fiscal Silence’, a fiscal myopia incommensurate with the level of need.

– Jon Altman


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