The budget: an indigenous 'time bomb'


By Jennifer Thompson

Given the government's stated priorities, the federal budget is a major missed opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, according to ATSIC.

Of the four priorities constantly emphasised by the government — health, housing, education and employment — only health funding was increased in the budget, said ATSIC chairperson Gatjil Djerrkura. "We are still living with the consequences of the $470 million cut over four years imposed in the 1996 budget", he said. "This budget does nothing to help us deal with those consequences."

While the health initiatives were welcome, Djerrkura said, "indigenous health, education and housing need the same increased commitment from the government". No extra funds were provided for housing despite an estimated $4 billion deficit in housing and infrastructure in indigenous communities across Australia.

The lost opportunity was particularly deplorable, he said, because ATSIC's Community Housing and Infrastructure Program (CHIP) has been acknowledged as one of the most active, innovative and efficient programs in the commonwealth sphere.

Djerrkura welcomed the "long overdue" decision to bring entitlements for Community Development Employment Project (CDEP) participants into line with other social security and work for the dole recipients. However, the government had ignored ATSIC's advice to fund an expansion of the CDEP scheme, "critical to improving indigenous employment", he said.

ATSIC had sought a modest growth from 30,400 places this year to 33,600 in 2001-2002 to counter the "no new growth" phase in which the program had lingered since Howard's election. The ATSIC proposal was for a net increase of 1000 participant places, in addition to the 550 "natural growth" places built into existing forward estimates.

The worsening in indigenous unemployment (currently at least 23%), given lack of opportunity and increased population growth, was "chilling", said Djerrkura. "There is a time bomb ticking away in our communities ... over 7000 young indigenous people are expected to enter the labour force each year over the next decade. We will need to find job growth of about 10% per annum to meet this demand."

He noted that the budget also reduced indigenous control of program funds. "The government seems determined to exercise increasing control over priorities in the ATSIC budget. Some 70% of ATSIC's funds are already 'quarantined' for expenditure on CDEP, community housing and infrastructure, and native title." This year, the Aboriginal affairs minister, John Herron, has also earmarked further sums for transfer to the Commercial Development Corporation and the Torres Strait Regional Authority, and is taking $2 million from ATSIC running costs to finance an expansion of his policy support.