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Indigenous heritage laws, education big winners from Victorian budget

Dechlan Brennan -

The cost-cutting Victorian budget has delivered a win for Aboriginal heritage laws and Indigenous-led decision making in education, whilst seeing significantly less invested in Indigenous-led health and legal services.

The 2024-25 budget was widely expected to deliver austerity measures, as the state looks to hold onto its AA rating — already the lowest in the country. Victoria faces a $2.2 billion deficit this financial year, however it's projected to return to a surplus of $1.5 billion by 2025-26.

In his 10th budget, Victorian treasurer Tim Pallas said he has been forced to make "sensible and disciplined decisions" to combat high inflation and workforce shortages in the state.

Nonetheless, net debt is now forecast to hit $187.8 billion by 2027-28.

Overall, the 2024-25 budget sees $273 million allocated to First Peoples' self-determination and support, with the government noting this will build on their "existing $1.9 billion commitment".

$51 million over four years has been allocated Aboriginal-led decision making in education with the government saying this will increase the "knowledge and understanding of our state's history".

Cultural heritage is also a big winner from the budget, with $42 million over three years being allocated to protect Aboriginal cultural heritage in Victoria. This includes funding for Registered Aboriginal Parties (RAPs) and the Victoria Aboriginal Heritage Council.

The issue of cultural heritage was thrown into the spotlight when the Victorian Opposition's Indigenous spokesperson Peter Walsh highlighted his concerns with the process as a reason for the LNP's withdrawal from the Treaty process.

This despite making no submission to the ongoing land management truth-telling inquiry, and being criticised by a Native Title expert for his lack of knowledge on the subject.

On the back of the Yoorrook Justice Commission's hearings into land and water injustices, $41 million has been allocated to "enable increased Traditional Owner access to water and decision making in water management".

In health, the Aboriginal Health in Aboriginal Hands: Strengthening cultural safety and supporting culture and kinship will see be funded to the tune of $10.8 million over four years, in line with the submission for funding from the Victorian Aboriginal Community-Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO).

$4.1 million over four years will be given to the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service (VAHS) to provide better access to specialist paediatric medical and allied health services for Aboriginal children, whilst $28.2 million will back Aboriginalâ€'led specialist family violence and youth diversion services, as well as dedicated inâ€'prison programs and supports.

However, VACCHO's submission for $24 million over two years to purchase land for the Dandenong and District Aborigines Co-Operative (DDACL) - deemed critical - was rejected. $4.4 million over four years, instead of $10.5 million over three, was allocated for the marra ngarrgoo, marra goorri health and wellbeing accord.

Overall, roughly a quarter of the funding requested by VACCHO was delivered.

VACCHO labelled the budget a "mixed bag," arguing it fell short of providing the "concrete commitment needed to support Aboriginal organisations who champion Aboriginal culture to keep families strong".

"While I welcome the budget's emphasis on families...the reality is this budget is the equivalent of dipping your toes in the water compared to what is necessary to empower Aboriginal organisations to champion 65,000 years of Aboriginal culture and keep families strong and healthy," VACCHO acting chief executive, Jim O'Shea said.

Mr O'Shea said the organisation was "particularly concerned" by the decision not to fund the DDACL, noting "the staunch and dedicated team at DDACL has been left to support one of the fastest growing Aboriginal populations in Australia in buildings that are falling apart".

For the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS), whilst the base funding over four years for their specialist Balit Ngulu and Baggarrook programs was met, they argued more was needed by the Allan government if it was going to honour its commitment to "truth, treaty and self-determination for First Peoples", as well as its commitment to address the "scourge" of violence against women.

VALS highlighted the budget announcement of $30.8 million over the three years for a two-year trial of electronic monitoring for young people on bail, stating the "failed" idea represented a "10-fold investment of what has been committed to Balit Ngulu".

VALS chief executive Nerita Waight said depriving Aboriginal Communities of the resources they needed to thrive put in doubt the government's commitment to self-determination.

"While government rhetoric speaks to a commitment to Aboriginal self-determination, actions and numbers speak louder than words," Ms Waight said.

Ngaweeyan Maar-oo responded to the budget by arguing the government wasn't investing enough in the "priority reforms and target areas needed to Close the Gap".

Whilst welcoming funding for the Koorie Youth Council and language and culture in Victorian schools, they said the $16 million dedicated to supporting ACCOs

in their delivery of family violence and justice services fell "significantly short" of what was required.

Ngaweeyan Maar-oo also commended the funding of Yoorrook, but said the long-lasting benefits of the truth-telling hearings wouldn't be met if the Victorian Government's failed to invest in the National Agreement.

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