By Chris Martin
Aboriginal organisations working to reunite children of the "stolen generation" with their families will be shielded from the effects of the federal government's 11% cut to indigenous funding, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) confirmed last week.
A bitter row between the government and ATSIC over control of the commission's budget has intensified after a High Court ruling on September 18. The full bench of the court found that the minister for Aboriginal affairs, Senator Herron, was acting beyond his powers in appointing an auditor to arbitrate on fund distribution.
Despite the row, across the board cuts of 10-20% will continue to be imposed on all Aboriginal programs not specifically quarantined in earlier budget negotiations, principally health and housing projects.
The Sydney regional manager of ATSIC, Tom Popp, said that the exemption of family reunion projects reflected ATSIC's commitment to the principles behind the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families.
The inquiry has heard testimony from hundreds of individuals and organisations on the traumatic effects of separation. An estimated 100,000 Aboriginal children were separated from their families under "protection" laws in force between the 1890s and 1970s.
Popp confirmed that funding for Link Up, the main agency providing family reunion assistance, would be maintained. Link Up's future had been in doubt after its funds were cut by 10% and extended for only the first three months of the financial year, pending the budget outcome.
Link Up's coordinator, Barry Duroux, said it was crucial that the agency be allowed to continue its work: "People only see the results of separation — the alcoholism, the homelessness, the deaths in custody. They don't see the roots of these problems, this terrible policy that has destroyed Aboriginal families."
Link Up has had 200 new applications for assistance since the inquiry began its hearings in July. The agency has already provided aid to more than 1000 people, helping them gain access to welfare board files and church and archival records to trace a path back to their families.
"Link Up organisations, where they exist, are the only place where people who have been taken away from their families as children can turn for help", according to Lorena Allam, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's media/policy officer attached to the inquiry. Allam said that Link Up will have a key role in the implementation of the inquiry's recommendations, and HREOC would be closely monitoring ongoing support for all agencies providing family reunion services.
Kathleen Schilling, researcher with the Family History Centre at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, said that their programs would also be protected, despite a 14% cut to the institute's funding.