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Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion (screen shot via YouTube).

Why were next year’s Australia Day celebrations going to be funded via the Government’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy? Karen Wyld uncovers a web of mismanagement in the Indigenous Affairs portfolio.

AUSTRALIA DAY and meaningful acknowledgement of First Peoples continue to be debated across the nation, with signs of traction.

Unfortunately, the current Federal Government’s responses have been woeful; as has the continuing poor performance of their Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS).

Keeping with this tradition of ineptness, due to an administrative error in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, it appeared that next year’s Australia Day celebrations would be funded through the Government’s Indigenous Affairs portfolio.

Needs-based funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (First Peoples) programs and services are a much-debated issue. On one hand, there are those who think too much government funding goes to First Peoples’ communities and organisations. On the other hand, there is evidence that not enough funding is going to the organisations best placed to deliver much needed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs and services.

And then there is ongoing suspicion of Federal funding within the Indigenous portfolio, not only going to organisations ill-equipped to deliver core services for First Peoples, but to those not even intending to do so.

In the current financial year, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet listed on its website an allocation of $3,864,000 from the Indigenous Advancement Strategy funding to the National Australia Day Council (NADC), commencing on 1 July 2017.

The IAS, an initiative under former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, was announced in May 2014. It was heavily criticised in that first year and subsequent financial years, for not applying an evidence-based approach or efficient community engagement strategies. The timing of the announcement and sudden rollout of a massive overhaul in Indigenous funding left a trail of uncertainty for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander core services and programs.

As predicted, the IAS program fell short of meeting its objectives and failed many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations. Highly criticised for an exorbitant amount of funding going to non-Indigenous organisations, with no experience working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, an independent audit was held.

The Australian National Audit Office found glaring issues with the management of the IAS funding and heavily criticised Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion. Minister Scullion acknowledged that the Government needed to improve accountability and made a commitment to ensuring more funding went to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities/organisations in future IAS funding rounds.

Yet a few months later, the NADC is listed on the Department’s website as receiving $3.8 million of IAS funding. NADC is a Commonwealth owned, not-for-profit company that sits within, and is funded by, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Its primary functions are to promote the meaning of Australia Day, allocate funding for State/Territory and national Australia Day celebrations and manage the Australian of the Year Awards.

Unquestionably, NADC’s functions do not sit under the Government’s current Indigenous Affairs priority areas. And NADC activities do nothing to support the Government’s 2017-18 Budget commitment to "closing the gap".

It could be argued that NADC’s activities negatively impact on many First Peoples. Australia Day represents a devastating loss of land, infringements on self-determination and a legacy of inequity and injustice for First Peoples. To even think that this nationalistic day is funded by the program that is intended to fix inequity, health disparities and loss of economic means, resulting from ongoing settler-colonisation, is a massive slap in the face.

Calls to change the date of Australia Day to one that does not remind First Peoples of invasion and loss, are increasing. The conversations, although often countered with ignorance and racism, are happening across the continent. With more and more citizens, local and State/Territory governments and organisations showing strong support for the change, the date will change.

A recent IndigenousX article on the need to change the date stated:

'The unfortunate reality for the Australia Day Council, and for the rest of the nation, is that this isn’t an issue that is ever going to go away. The only way to aspire towards a day where we can "come together as a nation" is to change the date. There is literally no other way.'

However, the responsibility for IAS funding sits with Minister Scullion and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Post-audit, Minister Scullion made a commitment to improving the administration of IAS, to better meet the department’s objectives. Minister Scullion should be held accountable for yet another sign of mismanagement.

Email from Minister Scullion's media team.

Early on 31 August 2017, all traces of IAS funding for NDAC were removed from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet's website. Contacting someone within Scullion’s media team, I was sent an email confirming it was an administrative error. And that this error has now been rectified.

However, this administrative error adds to the ongoing management issues that have placed IAS under a cloud since its inception in 2014. Australians, especially First Peoples, deserve efficient, evidence-based and transparent government funding programs. First Peoples deserve a better approach to Indigenous Affairs than what this government is delivering.

Karen Wyld is a First Peoples (Martu descent) freelance writer and consultant. You can follow Karen on Twitter @1KarenWyld. This article was originally published on the IndigenousX website and is republished with permission. 

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