ATSIC cuts: 'a tragedy in the making'


By Pip Hinman and Sally Mitchell

The government's decision to slash the budget of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) is petty and racist. In national monetary terms, the government's "saving" of $400 million over the next four years is less than a drop in the bucket. But for Aboriginal people it is a "tragedy in the making".

The unanimous view of Aboriginal leaders is that the cuts will mean that Aborigines will die faster and go to jail more often. "For every $1000 of tax cuts, my estimate is that there will be an Aboriginal body in the morgue", Professor Marcia Langton from the Northern Territory University told Green Left Weekly.

Senator John Herron, the minister responsible, is trying to play down the impact of what he describes as "just an 11% cut". But Aboriginal leaders say it will be closer to 30-50%.

The director of studies at Tranby Aboriginal College in Sydney, Jack Beetson, described the cuts as "economic genocide". He told Green Left that no service provider — black or white — could sustain such a dramatic cut to their budget and keep operating.

Peter Yu from the Kimberley Land Council and Aden Ridgeway from the NSW Aboriginal Land Council said the cuts breached Australia's human rights obligations and many Aboriginal leaders are now looking to make the 2000 Olympics a major focus for protest.

Ray Jackson from the NSW Deaths in Custody Watch Committee told Green Left Weekly that the cuts will reverse "the few positive reforms" at federal and state levels which have came from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. He said that the Watch Committee's work with the Department of Corrective Services and the courts would be "seriously crippled" and that its work in juvenile justice centres and prisons would be severely compromised. The areas that won't be cut, Jackson said, are "those where the major flow of monies finish up in white pockets".

On August 16, ATSIC chairperson Lois O'Donoghue announced the likely cuts that ATSIC would be forced to make to the 1996-97 budget. They include: the community training program; the development of industry strategies (an initiative of the deaths in custody royal commission); the movement to awards program; and the community and youth support program.

Beetson said that cuts to the community training program "would have a direct impact on Aboriginal education". While Tranby does not receive operational grants from ATSIC, supplementary funding from ATSIC has enabled people to attend meetings and conferences — "an important part of our overall development". He believes that this cut "is the forerunner to the government dismantling ATSIC altogether".

Langton disputes the government's rhetoric that health and essential services are being "quarantined" from the cuts. She told Green Left Weekly that because the capital component of the Community Development Employment Program had been cut "the result will be that Aboriginal communities will not be able to afford to deliver essential services to their communities".

Langton said that because the CDEP program is a cheap substitute for social security payments the government is legally required to keep it going. Right now, Aboriginal people are the only Australians who work for the dole. Without capital funding Aborigines will apply for the dole which, according to Langton, may result in "enormous social consequences" as people leave their communities and try to find work in unemployment-ridden townships. "A lot more money will have to be spent on police and hospital services and other welfare programs."

Bob Sampson from the Aboriginal Welfare Centre told Green Left that while the centre, a charitable organisation which provides emergency relief to large numbers of people in Sydney's west, is not directly funded by ATSIC, the cuts will put even more pressure on groups already struggling "to just keep the doors open". Currently the centre has just $7000 from the Commonwealth Human Services and Health Department to survive until the end of the year.

The government is so confident that its attacks on ATSIC's management have struck a chord — particularly with those already suffering economic hardship — that it took the highly confrontationist option of announcing the continuation of the mining companies' $800 million per year subsidy in the form of the diesel fuel rebate on the same day as the dismemberment of ATSIC. The timing was not lost on Aboriginal organisations. As O'Donoghue said, the government is willing to put "influential and already privileged" groups' interests above those of the most disadvantaged.

So ruthless has the Coalition government been in pushing through its racist agenda, even some of own supporters are running for cover. Former Liberal minister for Aboriginal affairs Fred Chaney, now a member of the Native Title Tribunal, took the government to task — mildly — for the scale of the cuts. While the Australian editorial stopped short of criticising the cuts per se, it did comment that "several aspects of the Government's announcement [on ATSIC] ... raise serious concerns".

The embarrassment felt by some in the ruling class is not hard to fathom. While the government was happy to market Aboriginal Australia in Atlanta recently, its main agenda is to put a halt to Aboriginal self-determination.