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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