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Wednesday, 08 July 2015 10:08

The Government's retrogressive Indigenous Advancement Strategy

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aboriginalwomanchild150When I studied theology, there was one concept that seemed to take so long to understand: People need their reality confirmed and not denied. Examples of the denial and the rewriting of reality abound in Australia – currently and historically – in regard to its First Nations people, writes Sister Michele Madigan rsj.

Reality is being redefined in many aspects of Australian life, especially for indigenous Australians. Since Tony Abbott declared himself the Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, and put the Federal Indigenous Affairs Office under his own Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PMC), it has become unclear to many Aboriginal people how they have gained from the change.

When I studied theology, there was one concept that seemed to take so long to understand: People need their reality confirmed and not denied. The example used by my Columban missionary lecturer was from Peru, but examples of the denial and the rewriting of reality abound in Australia – currently and historically – in regard to its First Nations people.

In February, after presenting the Closing the Gap report, a "profoundly disappointed" Prime Minister asserted, "We must strive and strive again to ensure that the First Australians never again feel like outcasts in their own country."

The very next month Aboriginal Communities throughout South Australia were informed they had been "successful" in their funds application (yes, that was the word used by officials from the PMC). Their success had been in attaining just 10 per cent or less of the funds needed to administer the communities and provide the programs which make them viable.

July 1 is the beginning of these new budget allocations, or lack thereof, under the title of Indigenous Advancement Strategy. As one of the Aboriginal CEOs summarised in terms of the real world, "I don’t think the Government under the new Indigenous ADVANCEMENT strategy is really interested in Aboriginal Advancement."

On April 13 after months of negotiations, the Federal and SA State Governments finally reached a more reasonable compromise regarding the MUNS (Municipal and Essential Services) funding issue for power, water, sewerage and other essential services on SA Aboriginal Communities. But obviously, to survive, a Community cannot just be a place where essential services are available.

In the early 90s, I lived in the Far West of SA Community of Yalata, 1000 km northwest of Adelaide. Yalata has suffered so greatly from displacement and from the inter-generational health effects of the Maralinga British nuclear testing in the 50s and 60s. However the Community currently provides many programs: women’s services, community landscaping, youth work and training, mail collection, an internet centre, community administration, night patrol, building crew and land management.

Under the IAS allocations, only the night patrol and a homework project were funded. The decision to defund youth services surely defies reality in a nation which has the highest youth suicide in the world and where detention rates of Aboriginal youth at 26 times the rates of other children are the main focus of the recent visit of the Amnesty International’s Secretary General.

As well as programs lost, of course as a result of the IAS decisions the Yalata Community has already lost ten jobs. Again the clash with reality when such defunding is held up against the oft stated mantra of the Abbott Government’s regarding Indigenous Affairs: "Getting children to school, adults to work and building safer communities."

The IAS defunding can’t only be a result of the Communities not having the same expertise to complete the very difficult application forms as the well off successful applicants like the AFL or various Shire Councils. The regional SA Ngarrindjeri Community of Raukkan had a 60 page application which was the height of professional expertise and clarity. With a uniform less than 10 per cent allocated to all Communities, it’s hard not to assume that the percentage of funding to be received by SA Aboriginal Communities was previously set.

When approached by the local Murray Valley Standard for their May 28 front page story, the Minister’s office had another try at George Orwell’s doublespeak, claiming that Raukkan had previously received only MUNS funding from this government. As CEO Clyde Rigney points out, this situation itself was the result of years of governments systematically defunding other funding sources for Aboriginal Communities as in the closure of ATSIC, CDEP (Community Development Employment Program) and other funds sources.

Recently some Aboriginal organisations have had funding restored in part as the Federal Minister has been forced to rectify the IAS funding round which The Guardian (27 May) names as "troubled". Minister Scullion’s quoted statement provides another Orwellian twist: "The government is giving organisations extra financial security by locking in the grant funding for two or three years, which will enable providers to get on with the job of delivering positive outcomes for Indigenous communities." It seems as long as you’re not actually an Indigenous Community, you have more chance of getting funding to help an Indigenous community. Raukkan community council member Verna Koolmatrie points out the human reality: "We have a good governing Council with intelligent people on that committee; we don’t want to sit here and have other people do things for us, we want to be part of closing the gap."

Michele Madigan is a Sister of St Joseph who has spent the past 38 years working with Aboriginal people in remote areas of South Australia and in Adelaide. Her work has included advocacy and support for senior Aboriginal women of Coober Pedy in their campaign against the proposed national radioactive dump.

This article was first published on 29 June 2015 in Eureka Street, a publication informed by Jesuit spirituality and the principles of Catholic Social Teaching.