Indigenous Languages

Mar 13, 2013

Creative Australia lends extra support to Indigenous languages, but is it enough?

The Federal Government's new Creative Australia policy includes an announcement of nearly $14 million in new funding for Indigenous languages support, over four years. While it's a welcome announcement, Greg Dickson isn't quite jumping up and down about it.

Simon Crean today launched a comprehensive arts policy, Creative Australia, which is backed by $235 million in new funding. The Creative Australia policy and Crean’s Arts portfolio encompasses Indigenous arts, culture, heritage and languages so the policy analysis unit here at Fully (sic) (i.e. me on my lunch break) was keen to see what the new policy might hold for Indigenous languages, especially in light of last year’s Our Land, Our Languages parliamentary inquiry report that gave many recommendations calling for increased effort and support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait languages.

That report mentioned that Federal funding for Indigenous language programs had stagnated at under $10 million for years and recommended a substantial increase in funding for the Indigenous Languages Support scheme. The Creative Australia policy has acted with:

Provide new funding of $13.983 million over four years to develop new community-driven language resources and activities, an extension of the Indigenous Languages Support program…

(I don’t know why they couldn’t chuck in an extra $17,000 and make it a clean $14 million, but I digress…)

I have a vested interested in this issue as I provide volunteer support and services to a language centre already funded by the Federal Government. And after reviewing Creative Australia, my initial reaction is conflicted. The increase in funding is incredibly welcome and will undoubtedly be put to good use by the dozens of community and grassroots Indigenous language projects and organisations that bubble away across the nation. But does $14 million over four years equate to the recommendation of a ‘substantial increase in funding’ that the Creative Australia policy is responding to? I’m not convinced.

$14 million dollars over four years across 250 Indigenous languages equals out to $14,000 in new funding per year, per language. (250 languages is a conservative estimate: the Creative Australia report quotes 600 which would equate to under $6,000 in new funding per year per language). While I’m loathe to look a gift horse in the mouth, I’m not sure that this increase in funding is significant enough to tackle the attrition of Aboriginal languages in Australia or bring about significant community development outcomes, employment or other measures that will contribute to the Closing The Gap framework.

Think about what it takes to resource a struggling language in order to arrest its decline. You need to do things like teach kids language skills (oral and written), train adults to be language teachers and – in the case of many languages – become better speakers of their language. Resources like books and recordings are needed to support these efforts too. It’s a big job. An extra $14,000 can go far, but far enough to bring real outcomes for Indigenous people and their languages? I’m not convinced.

Success stories like the improving fortunes of Maori in New Zealand have been backed by much more significant government funding and support than is given to the sum total of Indigenous languages across our whole continent. So while I, like many others who devote time and energy into supporting Indigenous languages, will appreciate this increase in funding, I believe it falls short of being afforded the label ‘significant’. A few further glimmers of hope in the Creative Australia policy are found tucked away in the appendices. The recommendation to allow Indigenous language organisations to be able receive tax-deductible donations for the first time would be a welcome move, as is the funding increase to AIATSIS for the digitisation of their extraordinary archives that many language projects rely on (Thanks Lauren for pointing this out). But in the meantime, the struggle continues.


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5 thoughts on “Creative Australia lends extra support to Indigenous languages, but is it enough?

  1. wamut

    Thanks for the comments yumob.

    @John yes, it’s $14 million in new funding, over 4 years, on top of the approx $10million per year they’ve been granting for many years now. So that’s $54 million over 4 years, so we’re looking at about $13.5 million per year. It might sound like a lot and it’s definitely greatly received and put to good use. My conflicted views remain though. For example, consider New Zealand which has a smaller economy than ours yet funding for Maori language support has been estimated at somewhere between $226 million and $400 million per year. It makes our government’s ‘generosity’ look tokenistic by comparison.

    Another way of looking at it pessimistically is that a rise from $10mil/year to $13.5mil/year actually just equals out to something approximating a natural CPI increase given that the figure has sat at $10mil/year for years (as many as 15 years).

  2. John Williams

    From what I read its an increase of $14 million to $54 million but.could be mistaken;

  3. Lauren Gawne

    Part of the problem is that language is not actually part of culture according to the Government’s Register of Cultural Organisations (

    To quote from their website:
    “ultural bodies eligible for listing on the Register are those whose principal purpose is the promotion of a cultural activity such as: literature; visual, community, performing or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts; music; crafts; design; television; video; radio; film; or movable cultural heritage.”

    This means that work done directly with languages struggles to receive funding based on its cultural importance – even though language is deeply connected with the historic and living culture of a group of people. This set of grants was exiting because for the first time in a long time the Federal government have acknowledge (in the Aboriginal language context) that capturing and sharing knowledge about language is a vital part of cultural vitality. Hopefully this will set a precedent – for Indigenous languages, migrant languages and, of course, Auslan.

  4. Adam Schembri

    It’s good news, but it will be interesting to see how much change it can bring about, as you point out. I don’t mean to steal anyone’s thunder, nor detract from the incredible importance of documenting indigenous languages (and I have a vested interest too – which I’m happy to declare), but there is one other language, unique to Australia, that receives no funding from Creative Australia, nor is there a government-funded language centre of any kind to support documentation work or resource-creation. It’s endangered in the long term, a unique part of Australia’s cultural heritage, used in the home by up to 9000 people in the 2011 Census, and almost as old as Australian English itself, but those of us who work on it are completely dependent on the shifting sands of competitive grant money. I’m talking about Auslan (Australian Sign Language): the deaf community and its language always seem to fall between the cracks between various government programs.

  5. Lauren Gawne

    When you stop and think about just how many langauges there are in Australia (250), suddenly $14 million doesn’t go very far! But it’s not all doom and gloom.

    This isn’t the only thing in the report that will benefit Indigenous languages though. There’s plans to update the National Indigenous Languages Policy, which will be greatly welcomed, as well as the development of a policy framework to respect and protect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ Traditional Cultural Expressions, which will hopefully filter through to a wider Australian audience.

    Also the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (IATSIS) are getting $12.8 million to digitise their collections, which will mean that communities will finally be able to have access to recordings of their own language.

    Some of the other policies will also have a flow-on effect to positive language outcomes. For example, a new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander free-to-air television channel NITV (part of SBS) will give people new domains to speak their language.

    It’s nice to finally see that Indigneous languages are a tangible part of Australia’s cultural landscape!

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