While a top economics firm says “the rivers of gold are running again” for the Australian economy, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders are sceptical about how much of that will flow to Indigenous issues in next week’s federal budget.
Treasurer Scott Morrison will deliver the 2018-19 budget on Tuesday, the Turnbull Government’s last before the nation goes back to the polls.
While economic forecasters such as Deloitte Economic Access say the taxman is rolling in money thanks to an economic upturn, the National Congress for Australia’s First Peoples said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people often missed out on the benefits or investments failed to make any significant change.
Asked if he expected the rivers of gold to flow to Indigenous people in the budget, Canberra-based Congress co-chair Rod Little said: “I don’t hold out any excitement for that.”
In its latest budget monitor, Deloitte Economic Access said it expected budget bottomlines in 2017-18 and 2018-19 to improve by more than $7 billion.
“The rivers of gold are running again, with the global and Australian economies doing the budget plenty of favours,” it said.
“It’s an almost picture-perfect backdrop for the taxman: not only are there more dollars in the economy than Treasury forecast, but companies and super funds have also increasingly run out of the losses they racked up during the GFC – meaning that good news on the economy is being turbocharged in terms of its effects on the tax take.”
But Mr Little said funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-controlled organisations and service deliverers had been going backwards.
“Each year with the budget we are always looking and hopeful that there will be some significant investment by government that will really have an impact so that you are not at the door banging all the time and asking for dribs and drabs of money,” he said.
Plans need financial backing
Mr Little said key areas included the justice system where more funding was needed for prevention rather than punishment, out-of-home care to address a “crisis” affecting Indigenous children, education and disability services.
He said Indigenous health also needed a proper commitment.
“What we’ve got is an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health plan but we’ve also got an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander implementation plan – neither has been funded and there’s no forward commitment of any investment,” Mr Little said.
Resources also needed to be put into determining the impact of fracking on water supplies.
“We know there have been reports of water poisoning and I’ve only just heard that Aboriginal people living in remote areas are trying to purchase their bottled water from Alice Springs because the water in their communities is not safe,” Mr Little said.
“There are at least a handful of communities doing that.”
Mr Little said Congress would like to have some input into how taxpayer dollars could best be spent in the area of Indigenous affairs.
He said often government spending was ineffective.
“The message for the Federal Government is to uphold its obligations,” he said.
“When it makes commitments it should honour those … investing in the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as guided by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and organisations like the National Congress.”
Poor track record
Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy said the Coalition Government had a history of cutting funding to Indigenous affairs.
“One of the biggest cuts in recent times was the 2014/15 budget that cut $500 million from Indigenous Affairs,” Senator McCarthy said.
“This had and continues to have devastating effects on frontline services.
“Minister Scullion’s approach to funding Indigenous programs and services is not well planned and is ad hoc.
“Look at the recent remote Indigenous housing debacle. Minister Scullion was making commitments, then withdrawing commitments then changing his mind again.
“First Nations people want and deserve clear commitments not double-speak, because at the end of the day, the decisions made about the budget directly impact services affecting them every day.”