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2024 Federal Budget: Mixed reactions to 'a confetti shower of inadequate, piecemeal funding'

David Prestipino -

The Albanese Government's third Federal Budget has been met with cynicism from a vocal opponent and hesitation from key Indigenous sectors, with the Commonwealth under pressure to let funding programs be Indigenous led to leverage community benefits.

Most of the federal government's First Nations investments were confirmed in February, with its Closing the Gap plan a priority after an Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum was voted down last year.

A $770m remote jobs program, and March's announcement of a $4bn remote housing program for the Northern Territory were the major components of the Indigenous Affairs portfolio. 

Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council (QAIHC) chairman, Matthew Cooke said the 2024 Budget delivered by Treasurer Jim Chalmers on Tuesday night could have been a watershed moment for the Albanese Government, with a $9 billion surplus a chance for the PM to make real investments that deliver on promises to Close the Gap by 2031.

"The government's approach to investment contributes to the confetti shower of inadequate and piecemeal funding," he said.

First Nations Foundation CEO and Wiradjuri man, Phil Usher said how the Indigenous funding is spent was crucial to the current and future wellbeing of Aboriginal people.

"I think in terms of the amount, it's probably not as important as the execution... and making sure it's Indigenous-led and designed," he told National Indigenous Times.

Mr Usher said the $774m Remotes Jobs and Employment program was a different approach to increasing Indigenous employment by investing in business programs.

"There was a hint of a different method there," he said on Wednesday.

"We know blackfella businesses are 100 times more likely to employ Aboriginal people, so I think the government is starting to see that as an inadvertent way to focus on jobs, rather than the traditional [ways]."

Mr Usher said there was hint in the Budget the government was starting to realise that funding Indigenous businesses was the solution to future wellbeing of First Nations people.

"Indigenous businesses understand the cultural obligations of living in two worlds better than anyone, with their First Nations staff," he said.

Gunnai, Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung woman and Independent Victorian Senator, Lidia Thorpe said the Budget showed Labor was going backwards trying to deliver its commitments.

"The Budget made no new major First Nations announcements. It just amplifies Labor's silence on justice for First Peoples," she said on Wedensday. 

"Despite the cost of living crisis, the deaths in custody crisis, the child removal crisis and the housing crisis, Labor has chosen to put forward little in these areas. 

"It's a Budget that re-allocates and re-announces existing funding, rather than providing anything new."

She said the Government had instead chosen to put $50 billion more into defence, give tax handouts to people already well off and and prioritising a surplus over helping people.

"Critical frontline community services in crisis are crying out for funding for community-controlled health, housing, domestic violence, legal assistance, drug and alcohol support, and youth programs," she said. 

"But once again, these calls have been ignored by Labor."

Senator Thorpe said the Albanese Goverment had gone silent on its promise for a Makarrata Commission.

"This Budget leaves nothing but questions on what is happening to already existing funding," she said of the redistribution of more than $100m in funds from last year's failed referendum to another campaign.

"The government is using the failed Voice vote as an excuse to walk back its commitment to Truth and Treaty ... it must progress this commitment so we are finally able to heal and mature as a nation."

The Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council expressed bitter disappointment calling the Budget a "missed an opportunity" following the failed referendum and continued underperformance of Close the Gap measures

The QAIHC's Matthew Cooke said the Budget showed Closing the Gap targets were fading "further away each day".

"Yes, the Commonwealth has made some investments in Indigenous health, particularly in very remote parts of Australia; but more must be done," he said.

Mr Cooke told National Indigeous Times with a $9.3 billion surplus, the Federal Government had to strengthen partnerships with the Indigenous Community-Controlled Health Organisation sector to Close the Gap.

Funding for 29 new urgent care clinics, for example, was not an investment in comprehensive primary health care, rather "more band aid medicine". 

"They’ve created 29 more opportunities to cut a ribbon, but when will this government get serious about preventative health?" he said.

"While real investment in social and emotional wellbeing is needed, the government's approach to investment contributes to the confetti shower of inadequate and piecemeal funding."

He said government should have made concrete investments to significantly increase funding through the Indigenous Australians' Health Programme and respond to the findings of the recent Productivity Commission review on progress of Closing the Gap.

Mr Cooked urged the Commonwealth to make genuine investments in community-controlled solutions to address the social and health challenges Indigenous communities continued to confront and empower them to shape their own futures.

He said the Albanese Government must act decisively for meaningful reform. 

"The Commonwealth must act decisively to bring about meaningful reform, addressing the structural and systemic inequalities that persist," he said. 

First Nations should also see a decent chunk of the $23 billion the government will spend over 10 years to accelerate Australia's transition to clean energy, with the government luring private sector investment for renewable energy projects across the country, which Net Zero Australia recently estimated required clean energy infrastructure on 43 per cent of Indigenous lands for Australia to reach its emissions target by 2060.

The 2024 Budget commited $151m to Closing the Gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, with $20m redirected from funds relating to the unsuccessful 2023 campaign, which the government commited $364m to last year.

A focus on First Nations outcomes this year included $110m over four years to bridge the education divide, with funding to extend existing programs, develop specific policies, attract and retain First Nations teachers and support Indigenous organisations. 

A voluntary prison-to-employment $76m transition program would help First Nations prisoners find jobs after release and curb reoffending rates, while a four-year, $13m youth program would help reduce Indigenous suicide rates.

Indigenous health services received a $95m allocation for treating, preventing and testing for diseases prevalent in First Nations communities.

OTHER INDIGENOUS INVESTMENTS:

- $111.1 million to improve remote First Nations communities' access to essential services in the Northern Territory 

- $53.8 million to establish First Nations language centres and expand learning services

- $29.1 million to partner with First Nations community-controlled peak bodies to improve early childhood and education outcomes

- $100 million to establish the Outcomes Fund and supporting place-based strategies in skills and employment

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