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The health gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is Australia’s most urgent and serious health challenge.  Despite this fact, Indigenous issues barely rated a mention in the Federal Government’s most recent Budget.  This, however, does not mean that Indigenous communities are unaffected by the Budget measures.  In fact there are a broad range of impacts from the Budget which will affect Indigenous Australians but these can be difficult to determine as the relevant Budget measures are spread across a range of programs in different portfolios and often not clearly articulated in the Budget papers.    

As mentioned in Croakey last week, Dr Lesley M Russell, Adjunct Assoc Professor, Menzies Centre for Health Policy University of Sydney, has trawled through hundreds of pages of Budget papers and scoured the balance sheets to extract and analyse the relevant data. Her analysis shows that in fact the level of funding for Indigenous issues is going backwards, despite the fact that the inequality gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is widening.  This disturbing finding is compounded by the fact that Indigenous self-determination and representation is being undermined in a number of ways, including through the threatened forced closures of remote communities in Western Australia.        

To read the full report go to the website of the Menzies Centre.  It contains a wealth of data and a detailed analysis of the cumulative impact of the Budget on Indigenous people and communities across a range of policy areas, including health, housing education and community services.  It also includes an assessment of progress against the Closing the Gap targets.   The following is taken from the introduction to the Report which sets its context and highlights its main findings.   

Dr Russell writes:

While the Federal Government’s 2015-16 Budget contained no major announcements on Indigenous issues it is far from benign in its support for Indigenous programs.  Advocacy groups say it has failed to undo the damage done and anxiety caused by funding cuts in last year’s Budget and many programs and services continue to operate with uncertain funding without clear strategies and policies from the Abbott Government.

This comes on top of the threat of remote community closures in Western Australia, attempts to weaken protection from racial vilification under the Racial Discrimination Act, and concerns about the implementation of and outcomes from the Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) tendering process.

Indigenous organisations are losing out in the competition for funds to deliver Indigenous programs and services and after last year’s Budget cuts, there is no new funding for key representative groups such as the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.

Despite the need and the promises, Commonwealth funding for Indigenous Affairs as a percentage of both total outlays and GDP is in decline. And it is disconcerting to see Indigenous voices and input into decision-making being side-lined.

Indigenous groups and spokespeople have called the government on the absence of real engagement and consultation – something which has long been recognised as the key to failure or success in Indigenous affairs.

In March 2015 the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion, took delivery of ‘The Empowered Communities Report’, produced by a group of Indigenous leaders from across Australia, brought together by the Jawun Indigenous Partnerships Corporation.

The report outlined ways for Indigenous communities and governments to work together to set priorities and streamline services at a regional level, in line with the Government’s approach. The Minister committed that the Government would consider carefully the report’s recommendations and respond ‘in due course’. That has yet to happen.

What emerges most strikingly from this year’s Budget analysis is that little has been done over the past twelve months to assess the implications of commissioned reports and reviews, to capitalise on the restructure and realignment of Indigenous programs, to develop promised new policies and to roll them out.

All that has been done to date is to shift responsibility for programs to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and to rebrand programs that may or may not be effective. It’s a policy-free zone, where ad hoc decisions are the norm and budgets continue to be constrained in ways that limit the effectiveness and reach of programs and services.

There are a number of examples where program funding has been provided at the expense of other needed programs – taking $11.5 million from Indigenous Safety and Wellbeing programs to reverse funding cuts to the Indigenous Legal Assistance Program is perhaps the most egregious example.

There are also concerns that proposed changes to mainstream programs such as increased co-payments and safety net threshold in health, reduced Commonwealth funding for public hospitals, increased costs for higher education, and changes to the collection of census data will have a disproportionate impact on Indigenous Australians.

Small wonder then that most Closing the Gap targets remain out of reach and the sector is struggling to keep programs functioning and retain staff.

The inequality gap between Indigenous peoples and other Australians remains wide and has not been progressively reduced. With a significant proportion of Indigenous Australians in younger age groups, and without funded commitments to actions now and into the next several decades to improve their socio-economic status, future demands for services will burgeon.

As Tom Calma, in his role as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and Race Discrimination Commissioner, pointedly stated in 2008: “It is not credible to suggest that one of the wealthiest nations in the world cannot solve a health crisis affecting less than 3 per cent of its citizens.

Research suggests that addressing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health inequality will involve no more than a 1 per cent per annum increase in total health expenditure in Australia over the next ten years. If this funding is committed, then the expenditure required is then likely to decline thereafter.”

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