Updated to include statement below from the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) on concerns about discriminatory changes to the way some Aboriginal organisations will be required to incorporate, and from the Close the Gap Steering Committee on cuts to anti-smoking programs.

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community leaders have called on Prime Minister Tony Abbott to personally step in to address the federal Indigenous Affairs policy and funding environment, which they say is “descending into chaos”.

Representatives of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples (Congress), National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS), National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services (NFVPLS), National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), Secretariat for National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC), and the Healing Foundation – supported by the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) – met in Canberra this week to discuss the impact of the 2014 Federal Budget on key organisations and frontline services.

The group issued a statement saying that, despite Government assurances to the contrary, Budget cuts to Indigenous Affairs were impairing the ability of community-controlled organisations to deliver frontline services in critical areas such as legal assistance, family violence, children, youth and women, drug and alcohol misuse, and health. It said:

“This threatens long term damage to outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and prospects for a reconciled nation.”

“There is virtually no evidence of coordination between government agencies responsible for funding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and programs. Buck-passing appears to be the norm.

“This environment is one of confusion and this is causing instability, anxiety and uncertainty. Despite requests for information from many of our organisations, there are few answers. We’re simply told to ‘put it in writing’. Then, when we do, we get no response.

The group said there was a disconnect between the Government’s stated narrowly-focused priorities of jobs, school attendance, and community safety and its actions.

It said that under the new Indigenous Affairs arrangements:

  • Funding for 38 Children and Family Centres throughout the country – “vital hubs in our communities” – ceased on 30 June this year.
  • Funding for Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services, which support thousands of Indigenous women and children every year, is currently due to cease on 30 June 2015.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services around the country are yet to learn how $13.1 million in cuts to their operations will be applied to frontline services, and their national advocacy and reform body NATSILS has been defunded. Due to this uncertainty, legal services are being forced to close offices, staff are leaving, positions are going unfilled and services such as duty solicitors reduced.

“How is community safety advanced when important building blocks such as crucial support for women and children experiencing family violence, and access to legal representation, are stepped away from?” the statement said.

The group has called for:

  • Emergency talks between Abbott – who declared himself ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs’ – and national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community leaders beyond the Indigenous Advisory Council and other individual advisors.
  • Immediate extension of transitional funding arrangements under the Government’s new Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) from six months and a year to a minimum of 18 months and two years. They say the IAS open grant and tender process due to commence on 8 September should be deferred while the Government urgently clarifies eligibility criteria and other areas of concern.
  • Government assurance that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, service providers and advocacy bodies will be respected and supported to undertake community development and service delivery to their constituents.
  • A Parliamentary Inquiry into the recommendations of the Forrest Review into Indigenous employment and economic development. The group expressed serious concern that the review dramatically overstepped its original terms of reference, denying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and communities an opportunity to make submissions on the range of issues it went on to cover and now seeks to limit and rush responses to recommendations contained in its ‘Creating Parity’ report.

“We call on the Government to start talking to the leadership that is backed by our communities, to stop the confusion, instability and chaos, and to provide much needed clarity and certainty,” the group said.

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The Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO) today released a statement on behalf of members expressing concern that discrimination against Aboriginal organisations will jeopardise the capacity of the Aboriginal community controlled sector to deliver services to vulnerable and disadvantaged people across the country. VACCHO CEO Jill Gallagher said:

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) has announced that Aboriginal organisations receiving over $500,000 per year from the Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) will be required to incorporate under the Office of the Registrar for Indigenous Corporations (ORIC), the federal body administering the Corporations (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) Act (CATSI Act). Any non-Aboriginal organisation will be required to move their registration to Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC).

ORIC has substantially more powers than ASIC to intervene in the governance and business of a registered organisation. ASIC is the nationally recognised registrar for corporations. Despite this, PM&C is refusing to allow eligible Aboriginal Organisations the choice to register with ASIC.

This is a discriminatory process. It flies in the face of Government commitments to respect and promote the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as it takes away the right to self-determination.

We are not being treated as equals by the government. There is simply no evidence that a move to an Aboriginal specific legislation will improve health outcomes, or contribute to the Close the Gap targets.

VACCHO is concerned that the federal government’s decision will see a significant amount of funding redirected from critically needed, limited funding sources for front-line service delivery as hundreds of organisations are forced to make this move in order to receive funding from PM&C.

VACCHO has received an estimate of up to $42,500 for organisational legal costs to move to ORIC – we and our members are opposed to re-directing this amount of funding away from front-line service delivery!

The news comes as a blow to VACCHO as it is in direct contradiction of the commitment by the Prime Minister to consult with the Aboriginal Community on key policies that will affect them. This policy could create problems that the PM&C appears not to have considered.

The overall impact of these costs will have a significant impact on delivering services to the most disadvantaged people across Australia.

 

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The Close the Gap Steering Committee has also urged a re-think on Federal Budget cuts to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander anti-smoking programs, saying research published in the Medical Journal of Australia shows they are likely to be detrimental in closing the gap in health inequality and financially counter-productive.

“We know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander anti-smoking campaigns have been successful in reducing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander smoking rates,” said Kirstie Parker, Co-Chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and Co-Chair of the Close the Gap Campaign.  “With this further evidence of the disproportionate impact of smoking on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander maternal health, surely it’s time for a re-think on the budget cuts.” See the full statement.

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