In much the same way that the Tony Abbott government’s attacks on Gillian Triggs deflected media attention away from the horrific substance of the Human Rights Commission’s report on children living in detention, his “lifestyle choices” comment this week ensured the media has paid little attention to the government’s cuts to Aboriginal services.
“It is not the job of the taxpayer to subsidise lifestyle choices. It is the job of the taxpayer to provide reasonable services in a reasonable way,” Abbott said, in what was widely criticised by the media as an ignorant, insensitive and clumsy gaffe.
What the media missed in their rush to publicise Abbott’s latest blunder is that his government is not providing “reasonable services” to the Aboriginal community.
The latest round of cuts has seen $534.4 million slashed from Indigenous programs over five years. The result is that the peak body for Indigenous legal services has been forced to close. Community night patrols and early childhood programs will have to go. Early intervention programs that aim to prevent young Aboriginal people going to jail, programs to help victims of domestic violence and encourage Aboriginal children to stay at school have all been cut.
The cuts have been widely criticised by lawyers, legal aid service leaders, the Productivity Commission and, most recently, the Northern Territory's chief justice, Trevor Riley.
The federal government's misnamed Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) began in July last year and replaced more than 150 individual programs and activities with five broad-based programs: jobs, land and economy; children and schooling; safety and wellbeing; culture and capability; and remote Australia strategies.
Groups were required to apply for federal funding under these streams, detailing how their project was in line with the government’s priorities.
Nearly 5000 groups applied for funding for specific projects. Only 964 were successful in sharing the $860 million in government funding.
The Guardian reported that two applications from the New South Wales Aboriginal Legal Service were rejected by the IAS scheme, “including one for its existing custody notification service, which provides 24-hour legal advice and welfare support for Aboriginal people arrested in NSW.
The service is the only one of its kind in the country and requires police to call a hotline when they arrest an Indigenous person. The service was a recommendation of the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody."
On March 9, the ABC reported that the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, based in Darwin, will soon have to stop taking new clients amid uncertainty over its funding next financial year.
On March 9, the Lawyers Weekly quoted Australian Bar Association (ABA) president Fiona McLeod SC as saying “the likely consequences of these cuts will be chaos in the courts and an increase in indigenous imprisonment, [which is] already at unprecedented levels”.
The statistics concerning Aboriginal incarceration in Australia are “damning” and constitute a “national crisis”, she said.
MacDonnell Regional Council president Sid Anderson described the budget measures as a direct attack on the wellbeing of Aboriginal people living in remote areas. Fellow councillor Greg Sharman told the ABC he was concerned anti-suicide and substance abuse programs could be threatened by the funding cuts.
"These are the people who are working with our kids, that are working with our future. We've got people out here doing programs about not doing suicide, staying away from drugs, staying away from alcohol. If they're not getting any guidance they're not going to go in the right direction,” he said.
Northern Territory Council of Social Services CEO Wendy Morton told the ABC: "What I'm hearing anecdotally is that programs primarily working with young people have been hit."
The cuts have also seen SBS axe the news service on National Indigenous Television, which aired coverage critical of Abbott. Tracker Magazine was axed for similar reasons shortly after Abbott was elected.
Larissa Behrendt, writing in the March 6 Guardian said the government is "cutting funds in other areas that are critical in overcoming Indigenous disadvantage – areas that also employ large numbers of Indigenous people.
“The cuts make it so much harder for disadvantaged Australians to access proper legal services and mean the gap between the sort of representation the rich can afford and the poor will receive will become much wider. These cuts are directed at the most vulnerable people in our society – Aboriginal people, women and children."