Reality is being redefined in many aspects of Australian life, especially for indigenous Australians. Since Tony Abbott declared himself the Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, and put the Federal Indigenous Affairs Office under his own Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PMC), it has become unclear to many Aboriginal people how they have gained from the change.
When I studied theology, there was one concept that seemed to take so long to understand: People need their reality confirmed and not denied. The example used by my Columban missionary lecturer was from Peru, but examples of the denial and the rewriting of reality abound in Australia – currently and historically – in regard to its First Nations people.
In February, after presenting the Closing the Gap report, a ‘profoundly disappointed’ Prime Minister asserted, ‘We must strive and strive again to ensure that the first Australians never again feel like outcasts in their own country.’
The very next month Aboriginal Communities throughout South Australia were informed they had been ‘successful’ in their funds application (yes, that was the word used by officials from the PMC). Their success had been in attaining just 10 per cent or less of the funds needed to administer the communities and provide the programs which make them viable.
July 1st is the beginning of these new budget allocations, or lack thereof, under the title of Indigenous Advancement Strategy. As one of the Aboriginal CEOs summarised in terms of the real world, ‘I don’t think the Government under the new Indigenous ADVANCEMENT strategy is really interested in Aboriginal Advancement.’
On April 13th, after months of negotiations, the Federal and SA State Governments finally reached a more reasonable compromise regarding the MUNS (Municipal and Essential Services) funding issue for power, water, sewerage and other essential services on SA Aboriginal Communities. But obviously, to survive, a Community cannot just be a place where essential services are available.
In the early 90s, I lived in the Far West of SA Community of Yalata, 1000 km northwest of Adelaide. Yalata has suffered so greatly from displacement and from the inter-generational health effects of the Maralinga British nuclear testing in the 50s and 60s. However the Community currently provides many programs: women’s services, community landscaping, youth work and training, mail collection, an internet centre, community administration, night patrol, building crew and land management.
Under the IAS allocations, only the night patrol and a homework project were funded. The decision to defund youth services surely defies reality in a nation which has the highest youth suicide in the world and where detention rates of Aboriginal youth at 26 times the rates of other children are the main focus of the recent visit of the Amnesty International’s Secretary General.
As well as programs lost, of course as a result of the IAS decisions the Yalata Community has already lost ten jobs. Again the clash with reality when such defunding is held up against the oft stated mantra of the Abbott Government’s regarding Indigenous Affairs: ‘Getting children to school, adults to work and building safer communities.’
The IAS defunding can’t only be a result of the Communities not having the same expertise to complete the very difficult application forms as the well off successful applicants like the AFL or various Shire Councils. The regional SA Ngarrindjeri Community of Raukkan had a 60 page application which was the height of professional expertise and clarity. With a uniform less than 10 per cent allocated to all Communities, it’s hard not to assume that the percentage of funding to be received by SA Aboriginal Communities was previously set.
When approached by the local Murray Valley Standard for their May 28th front page story, the Minister’s office had another try at George Orwell’s doublespeak, claiming that Raukkan had previously received only MUNS funding from this government. As CEO Clyde Rigney points out, this situation itself was the result of years of governments systematically defunding other funding sources for Aboriginal Communities as in the closure of ATSIC, CDEP (Community Development Employment Program) and other funds sources.
Recently some Aboriginal organisations have had funding restored in part as the Federal Minister has been forced to rectify the IAS funding round which The Guardian (27th May) names as ‘troubled’. Minister Scullion’s quoted statement provides another Orwellian twist: ‘The government is giving organisations extra financial security by locking in the grant funding for two or three years, which will enable providers to get on with the job of delivering positive outcomes for Indigenous communities.’ It seems as long as you’re not actually an Indigenous Community, you have more chance of getting funding to helpan Indigenous community. Raukkan community council member Verna Koolmatrie points out the human reality: ‘We have a good governing Council with intelligent people on that committee; we don’t want to sit here and have other people do things for us, we want to be part of closing the gap.’
Michele Madigan is a Sister of St Joseph who has spent the past 38 years working with Aboriginal people in remote areas of South Australia and in Adelaide. Her work has included advocacy and support for senior Aboriginal women of Coober Pedy in their campaign against the proposed national radioactive dump.
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29 June 2015
Great comeback Sister Michele. Thank you for your fighting words.
30 June 2015
Thank you Michele. Your last sentence moved me greatly. I hear Aboriginal people time and time again articulate that deep longing to be REALLY listened to...how wonderful closing the gap could be if the wisdom of Aboriginal people was heeded.
30 June 2015
In many ways, Indigenous Australians are becoming - perhaps have become - a forgotten people. The Federal Government knows it will not lose any votes for cutting funding to Aboriginal community groups, because too few other Australians care. How many other Australians can say they have any relationship with even one Indigenous Australian? How many other Australians have visited, and learnt from, any remote Aboriginal community? In Melbourne when some who care demonstrate against closure of remote Aboriginal townships in Western Australia, the closure caused by cessation of Federal funding, media reports emphasise the interruption of traffic delaying commuters getting home on a Friday evening. Western Australia has narrowly redefined "sacred site" to facilitate mining on Aboriginal land. Toughening of Northern Territory legislation on public drunkenness has increased the already excessive jailing rate of Aboriginal people. Meanwhile funding support for Aboriginal legal services has been cut. Our "Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs" knows he can cut funding to Aboriginal communities, particularly remote regional communities, without risk of losing votes. How many voters will notice what happens to 3% of the Australian population when all organisations who provide social support are suffering cuts to funding?
30 June 2015
We need to find a political party that will govern by needs and not perceived fears. We need to take our focus of "terrorists" and onto our own people. Foremost among these are our indigenous peoples. Whilst the current group of politicians can keep our attention on shadows of disasters imagined they can hide the hideous self serving policies that they are foisting on all Australians whilst the rest of the world looks on with extreme disapproval.
30 June 2015
Thanks Michele. This confirms my belief that the "gap" that must be closed is the one in our understanding of the First People's culture and their ability to take responsibility for their own development when allowed to do so.
01 July 2015
Thanks Michele, once again, for your stamina and tenacity.
Lucy van Kessel
02 July 2015
Thanks for this informative and troubling article. How do we get justice for Aboriginal people?
04 July 2015
Thank you Michele, We here at Warmun Kimberley got no funding from the IAS. Your words are well said for other Indigenous communities in the Kimberley.