The 2021-22 Federal Budget did not hold many surprises. With big-ticket items such as the massive spend on the aged care sector being leaked in the weeks prior and the re-announcement of several funding measures, many have labelled this year’s Federal Budget a placeholder budget in case of an early election.

For Indigenous Australians, there were no significant measures announced that are likely to make a huge difference, and the measures that were announced lacked detail and a plan for implementation.

Read on for NIT’s comprehensive wrap of budget measures that will affect Indigenous Australians.

 

Agency funding

The National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA), the federal Indigenous body, will have almost $3.9 billion at its disposal for the financial year 2021-22, including $348.7 million in departmental resourcing.

This is down from last year, where the NIAA ended up with over $4.1 billion.

Indigenous Business Australia will have $206.6 million up from $177.3 million last year, and the Indigenous Land and Sea Council will have total resourcing of $95.4 million, up from last year’s $82.5 million.

In terms of special accounts, the current balance of the Indigenous repatriation special account established in 2016 is sitting at $1.4 million.

 

Cashless Debit Card

Although the Government tried its very best to expand the card despite its own commissioned research showing there were no significant improvements for CDC participants, the Commonwealth is continuing to fund the existing locations anyway.

Part of this funding, which is conveniently listed as ‘not for publication’, will go to “long-term data collection and an evaluation to measure the impact of CDC” – even though the $2.5 million University of Adelaide study had no significant findings favouring the CDC.

The Government has said the funding is not for publication due to “ongoing negotiations with potential commercial providers”.

 

Closing the Gap

The new National Agreement on Closing the Gap was only recently rejigged in July last year and an update including a new incarceration target was announced in April.

While last year’s budget allocated $46.5 million to helping Indigenous organisations take on the new targets, this year’s budget had no new funding allocations for the initiative.

This was an expected move by the Government, as the Coalition of Peaks was also not expecting any extra funding announcements. However, it’s understood Indigenous organisations are hopeful there will be more funding announced later in the year.

 

COVID-19

Australia’s economy has bounced back spectacularly from COVID-19, particularly thanks to iron ore being at a record price and Western Australia’s iron ore production. But some sectors are still recovering and have been supplied with funds to assist in their recovery.

The NIAA has been given $16.6 million this financial year to assist boarding school providers who have a high number of Indigenous students in remaining financially sustainable during the recovery period.

To continue the remote response to the pandemic, $11.2 million has been allocated to support remote and regional Indigenous communities.

The arts sector has also received additional support, with $11.4 million to support tourism in regional areas as well as further funding for the Indigenous Visual Arts Industry Support program.

While the Indigenous Visual Arts Industry Action Plan already had $28.1 million over five years from the year 2020-21 announced, the Government says the additional funding for the program is to support Indigenous arts centres and fairs through COVID-19.

Arts charity Support Act has also been allocated $10 million for artists and arts workers to recover from COVID-19.

 

Education

Last year’s federal budget saw uproar from the public as Aboriginal boys education initiative, the Clontarf Foundation, received $39.8 million without mention of Indigenous girls programs. This year, the Government has steered clear of new, specific Indigenous education announcements.

Instead, they re-announced their commitment to supporting an additional 2,700 places in Indigenous ‘girls academies’ with a $63.5 million investment over four years from 2020-21.

The original announcement to continue with the girls academies came in January as a $36 million investment, after the Government announced at the end of 2020 that the original Girls Academy program was being defunded to the shock of hundreds of staff and students.

The government funded services build upon Role Models and Leaders Australia’s original Girls Academy model.

Onto preschool participation, the Government has thrown its support behind giving kids at least 15 hours a week of preschool participation in the year before full-time school. The Government said this will support “increased participation for Indigenous and disadvantaged children” but didn’t go into further detail.

For the kids and schooling part of the NT Remote Aboriginal Investment: $29.3 million is being allocated to improve education attainment, student attendance, develop the Indigenous workforce, and assist with teacher housing in remote schools.

 

Environment

The Government has received significant criticism for the lack of environmental measures in this year’s budget, and rightly so. Australia is not making great progress on the world stage when it comes to mitigating climate change.

The National Partnership payments for the environment will see, however, $30 million to the Northern Territory for two key projects set to deliver “reliable and affordable energy, reduce emissions and support economic recovery”.

The Government says this will enable a 35 megawatt big battery for the Darwin-Katherine Interconnected System and microgrids with battery storage in up to 10 remote Indigenous communities. This measure builds on the $28.5 million handed to WA last year for a similar big battery and microgrid program.

Last year the Government announced $3.5 million for the National Forestry Industry Plan, however no money has been allocated to any states since – not even for the 2020-21 year. Essentially, they’ve re-announced the measure without having done anything to create “new farm forestry assets, private native forestry and Indigenous forestry areas”.

Another re-announcement was $10 million over two years for Indigenous enterprises and community organisations to improve that access to stockyards, off-grid solar power systems, water security equipment and greenhouses.

And in terms of policy? Out of the $29.3 million over four years the environment says it will invest in environmental policy assessments and reforms, only $500,000 of that over the next two years will go to “improved Indigenous heritage protection and Indigenous involvement in Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 decision-making processes”.

The Oceans Leadership Package will allegedly see $11.6 million over four years to “expand and create new Indigenous Protected Areas that provide greater coverage of Sea Country, protect marine biodiversity and create additional employment opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.

 

Family

Despite abolishing the Family Court system in February this year, the Federal Government has decided to funnel $123.8 million over four years to “support the reform of the family law system and improve access and safety for children and families”.

These measures include:

  • $60.8 million over four years from 2021-22 (plus $1.7 million per year ongoing) to reform family law case management processes, improve outcomes and better meet families’ needs “by delivering a safe, child centred, accessible and efficient system”
  • $29.0 million over four years from 2021-22 (plus $8.5 million per year ongoing) to improve information sharing across family law and family violence and child protection systems
  • $26.9 million over four years from 2021-22 (plus $6.8 million per year ongoing) to improve access to legal assistance and increase judicial resources for family law matters in South Australia
  • $6.3 million in 2021-22 to the Family Violence and Cross Examination of Parties Scheme to ensure protection of family violence victims in family law proceedings
  • $0.9 million over four years from 2021-22 to support the Family Law Council (plus $200,000 per year ongoing) to advise the Attorney-General on the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) and other family law matters.

There are no mentions here of ensuring courts and family law processes are culturally safe, nor is there any specific funding dedicated to Aboriginal legal services who assist with such cases.

On the Government’s move to ‘merge’ the Federal Circuit with Family Court? They said in the budget papers that the funding provided to the Federal Court’s admin entity “will be directed to the family law courts” which are set to merge on September 1, 2021.

 

Health

After a Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety that uncovered dismal shortfalls in the aged care sector, it’s only right that the Government allocated $17.7 billion to reforming the sector.

But of this, the only mention of Indigenous Australians was in reference to accessibility in non-urban areas. The Government has said they are allocating $630.2 million to improving access to quality aged care services for regional, rural and remote areas “including those with Indigenous backgrounds”.

In his budget speech, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg also threw in that some of that near $18 billion would go to a “new Indigenous workforce” in the aged care sector – without giving any indication either in his speech or the budget papers as to how that would work or what that would look like.

Moving onto primary care, the Government has committed $22.6 million to redesigning the Indigenous Health Incentive: a program to support practices and Indigenous health services to provide better health care to mob.

Again, no mention of how they will do this and who they will engage with in the process. And this $22.6 million is out of the $480.9 million over five years dedicated to improving access to primary health care services.

To support preventive health measures, $7.5 million is going toward the ongoing operations of the National Cancer Screening Register, which will support additional service provider costs and alternative delivery pathways of bowel cancer screening kits to Indigenous populations.

Every year the Government also allocates money to the States and Territories under the National Partnerships payments for health. In 2021-22, a total of $690.6 million will be provided for health services, Indigenous health, health infrastructure and other health payments.

Of this sum, the Government has estimated it will provide $16.1 million to States and Territories in 2021-22 for Indigenous health programs, but it’s set to halve in 2022-23 at approximately $8 million.

Some specific measures received similar funding again, such as for trachoma control services for mob in jurisdictions where trachoma is endemic. These areas will receive around $4.7 million each year for the next four years.

The rheumatic fever strategy is continuing from last year’s budget announcement with a steady $2.9 million for this financial year, and around $3 million each year thereafter.

To combat rheumatic fever, the Government is funding programs that “register and control acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in 2017 approximately 9 in 10 Indigenous people were living with acute rheumatic fever or rheumatic heart disease.

To address blood-borne viruses and sexually transmitted infections in the Torres Strait , the Government has given Queensland $4.5 million over four years, which started last financial year.

The Government says this funding is for testing and treatment, disease prevention activities, sexual health checks, and the delivery of a culturally appropriate sexual health education campaign.

For the NT Remote Aboriginal Investment’s health component, $7.4 million has been allocated for 2021-22 to supplement primary care services in remote communities. It will also support the provision of oral and hearing health services for children in remote communities.

An ongoing crisis in Indigenous communities, the Government has poured millions into suicide prevention.

To implement initiatives under the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Strategy, $79 million over four years will go to crisis and support services for mob.

For data collection, $117.2 million over four years has been dedicated to establishing a national database on service delivery, performance and outcomes in the mental health system, as well as for longitudinal studies on Indigenous and children’s mental health.

Nearly $60 million will also fund initiatives to increase the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health workers and upskill and re-distribute mental health professionals.

 

Heritage

As mentioned in the environment section, a measly $500,000 has been allocated over two years to improve Indigenous heritage protection and for Indigenous involvement in decision-making around the EPBC Act.

Instead of allocating funds for significant reform to cultural heritage standards after the Juukan Gorge disaster which caused global outrage, the Government has decided to put almost $5 million into developing a business case for a cultural precinct in Canberra.

This $4.7 million in funding has already been provided for the Government, and if all goes to plan the Ngurra Cultural Precinct will get the green light and will include a national resting place for “the respectful holding of repatriated ancestral remains”.

 

Housing

Despite the Government saying it’s supporting “significant reform in the provision of housing for Indigenous Australians in remote communities, particularly in the Northern Territory”, the only real housing funding announced was for the NT only.

The Territory has been allocated funding over the next two financial years, a significant boost up to $185 million from $137.2 million last year. The 2022-23 financial year will see another $110 million to the NT.

The funding is meant to address overcrowding, poor housing conditions, homelessness, and severe housing shortages, as well as supporting the delivery of new houses, refurbishments and housing-related infrastructure. That $185 million will be stretched quite thin if all this is for the next financial year.

The Government also mentions providing “incentives to establish more sustainable housing systems in remote Indigenous communities” but doesn’t mention any specific funds for such systems or incentives.

The Indigenous Home Ownership Program is also still continuing, with $1 billion set aside for the loan program.

 

Justice

It’s no secret the Government has struggled with allegations of their poor treatment of women in recent months. In fact, it’s dominated much of the public agenda.

This makes it even more interesting that despite investing $998.1 million over four years to women’s safety, only $26 million over the same period is to “better support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who have experienced or are experiencing family violence”.

This is really the only specific mention of Indigenous women and their safety in the budget. There is no extra funding for Aboriginal legal services who assist Indigenous women, despite study after study demonstrating these women experience domestic, family and sexual violence more than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

One decent thing is the caveat under the women’s safety section that the Government “will not proceed with a measure to extend early release of superannuation to victims of family and domestic violence”.

Funding has been allocated to support “national discussions” with the States Territories about a “joint program of work to strengthen the justice response to sexual assault, sexual harassment and coercive control”. These national discussions will see $4.7 million over two years. That’s some expensive dialogue with no guarantee of action.

 

Summary

The 2021-22 Federal Budget did not have any obvious big wins for Indigenous people, as the clear focus was on the aged care sector, and rightly so.

As usual, there are plenty of funding allocations that look promising if the appropriate consultation and implementation occurs – such as with the suicide prevention funding – but it remains entirely possible the Government will fall short yet again.

Unfortunately, the services who do the most day in, day out, like the Aboriginal legal services and Aboriginal Community-Controlled Health Organisations (ACCHOs) across Australia, received no additional funding.

It’s a slap in the face for ACCHOs in particular, as they are largely responsible for the outstanding response to COVID-19 in Indigenous communities – not one Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person has been lost to coronavirus to date.

The same can be said for Aboriginal legal services, who are tirelessly representing families who have lost loved ones to deaths in custody and who will continue to do so, especially given the six Indigenous deaths in the last two months alone.

Now, Australia waits to see when the election will be and if this placeholder budget serves any purpose.

By Hannah Cross