Aboriginal activists discuss 'surviving the cuts'

'The government says it wants to close gaps but everything it has done until now has failed.'

Having appointed himself Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, then PM Tony Abbott went about cutting more than $500 million from Aboriginal services funding in the 2014 budget. The cuts formed part of a plan to consolidate existing government-funded Aboriginal affairs programs into its “Indigenous Advancement Strategy” (IAS).

In March this year, Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion announced that nearly 1000 organisations would receive a share of the $860 million up for grabs in the first round of IAS funding. This money is going to finance 1297 projects.
This represented about one-quarter of all projects that were submitted for funding approval. More than half the groups that received funding are non-Aboriginal organisations.

In response to the government's funding cuts to Aboriginal services, the University of Technology Sydney's Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning and the Jimmy Little Foundation hosted a forum, “Surviving the cuts: A forum for discussion of IAS funding”, on September 29.

Below we republish some of the speakers' abridged comments. They have been transcribed by Green Left Weekly's Rachel Evans.

* * *

Graham "Buzz" Bidstrup, manager, Jimmy Little Foundation's “Thumbs up” program

Touring with Jimmy Little was a beautiful introduction to Aboriginal Australia.

In 2005, we were in Alice Springs with the Western Desert mob, and saw army trucks as part of the NT intervention. Women took their babies and ran away because they thought the army would steal them.

That NT intervention money could have equipped every community with state-of-the-art medical equipment.

The Jimmy Little Foundation had been privately funded but Medicine Australia offered us money for a "good tucker, long life mantra, thumbs up" health campaign. The Department of Health liked it, and gave us funding for three years. We thought it would last forever.

But when we applied to the IAS for funding, the government said the IAS was “oversubscribed” and wouldn't give us any money.

Professor Larissa Behrendt, Eualeyai/Kamillaroi woman and director of research, Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning

We are talking about funding cuts that were justified by the ideology that we are now capable of looking after ourselves. This is the post-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) era mantra of both parties.

Government policy at ATSIC was self-determination and when it was dismantled, the government said self-determination had failed. Well, ATSIC did work and it is false to say it didn't. It was a great advocate for Indigenous regional self-government. When ATSIC was abolished we lost the most Aboriginal public servants we have ever had.

After ATSIC, the right wing discredited Aboriginal peoples' initiatives and programs. But research constantly shows that the best results come when Aboriginal people are centrally involved in designing culturally appropriate programs.

Then came the disastrous impact of the NT Intervention, which undermined the initiative of Indigenous people on the ground by implementing a top-down approach from Canberra.

These recent cuts are a continuation of the belief that Aboriginal communities cannot look after ourselves.

There is a racist narrative that Aboriginal culture is part of the problem, but people in communities can be agents of change. We've seen successful bilingual language programs, breakfast and lunch programs and drop-in centres set up initially without government funding.

But they need to be expanded with funding.

Professor Alan Cass, Menzies School of Health Research

Unfortunately we have a crisis. The burden of chronic disease in Indigenous Australia is crippling and unless we deal with diabetes and kidney failure we will not close the gap.

The biggest contributor to the gap is people dying young — from heart disease, cancer and other diseases. Aboriginal women have heart attacks at 20 and by 30 are on dialysis with kidney disease.

Young women already have diabetes when they have children. The risk of children getting diabetes when a parent has it is 3 to 5 times greater. So we are seeing four-year-olds presenting with diabetes. There is a tsunami of chronic disease affecting the ATSI community.
We want to move beyond a sickness paradigm to a well-being paradigm and we need to acknowledge patterns of health as determined by social status. Housing and environmental conditions are key determinants.

But we have a wall of opposition from the government. We need health, education and housing. How many Aboriginal people don't have secure housing? Way too many. So are governments willing to engage? Not that I have seen in 20 years.
Health services need to help us get the information. How many diabetics? How many people smoke? It is pathetic how little information exists out there. Mainstream health services are failing abysmally in providing services.

Patricia Turner, Arrente/Gurdanji elder and former CEO of ATSIC and NITV

When I first started working for the government in the 1970s, I said I wanted to see health statistics. It was a battle to get departments to collect coherent data. The states don't use the same database for national coherence. It was, and still remains, a disgrace.

But we were breaking ground in Canberra in the '70s and '80s. This was on the back of the 1967 referendum and changes to Commonwealth laws.

Then Gough Whitlam was elected and set up the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs. The Northern Territory was still being run by the federal government until 1978, so in the '70s and '80s we set up Aboriginal organisations to fill the gap in services. We built an Aboriginal public sector, based on community-controlled organisations.

Now Nigel Scullion, the federal minister for Aboriginal affairs, pulls out the mantra of “school, work, safety” and defends the IAS, saying it is a great step forward.

The IAS combined 500 programs into five. When we applied for funding from the IAS, we had to wait six months for it to come through. We applied for $5 million and had $282,000 approved — that is an insult.

Now, after a fight, we have got it up to $1 million.

Under ATSIC we managed local and state offices, and now we are being treated like idiots. The whole management of IAS has been incompetent and confusing — I can't say a good word about it. We had issues with ATSIC, but nothing like this.
The government has to clear the slate and give us an apparatus — a national body with regional and local council structures — a decentralised bureaucracy which the government supports but does not run. I can't see any other way.

Jon Altman, director, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research Foundation, Australian National University

The government says it wants to close gaps but everything it has done until now has failed. Trust us, says the government, all we have to do is change the values of Aboriginal Australians and make them like non-Aboriginal Australians and, in time, everything will sort itself out.

But this IAS is operating in the capitalist system and they are cutting funding to communities and funding fly-in, non-Indigenous, profit-making services or NGOs. This keeps money going to white, mostly well-meaning, anti-racists who are employed in these NGOs.

But this is not empowering communities — it is undermining them.

Aboriginal Australians living in remote communities are more and more disempowered, but they are surviving the cuts. We have to continue to fight.

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