Politics Opinion

Lies and myths continue of 'over-funded' Indigenous services

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A disproportionate number of Australia's First Nations people live in poverty (Screenshot via YouTube)

Government spending on Indigenous services has been exaggerated, with the reality painting a harsh picture of how Australia treats its First Peoples, writes Gerry Georgatos.

I HAVE HEARD several prime ministers, during the last decade and a half, assert tens of billions of dollars from Canberra each year to improve the circumstances of this continent’s First People, particularly the one in two living below the Henderson Poverty Line or in proximal value to this line in the sand. In 2011, I challenged what was then colloquially termed the “Indigenous Disadvantage Spend” — $25 billion annually (circa 2010).

At the time, amid my predominant work, I forayed into a little journalism, which included contributions to the National Indigenous Times (2011 to 2014). In the 40 months of that foray into print journalism, I contributed 2,000 articles. One of those stories was a debunking of the lie or myth – call it what you like – of tens of billions of dollars in annual spending on the First Peoples.

Even though I debunked the so-called expenditure, the lie of tens of billions spent annually continued.

The Productivity Commission’s 2014 Indigenous Expenditure Report was released to the media amid statements the spending addressed Indigenous disadvantage. By then, the annual spend was asserted at $30 billion.

Prime ministers bought the crock of these spends as addressing disadvantage. They perpetuated the myth.

Then along came I. But I am but one — David to the behemoth.

In 2011 and 2012, I wrote articles disaggregating the expenditure. I exposed the lies.

In 2012, I wrote, less than one billion dollars annually effectively reaches First Peoples. The then Federal Government quickly analysed my assertions and replied that I was correct. There were no tens of billions of dollars spent on First Nations disadvantage. So, if there weren’t, then how do these diabolical myths begin? Moreso, why do they continue being peddled?

Let me replay the 2014 Indigenous Expenditure Report. It totalled $30.3 billion in spending on “Indigenous disadvantage”, accounting for 6.1% of total direct government expenditure. Total estimated expenditure per person across all government programs in 2012-13 was $43,449 for a First Nations individual, compared to $20,900 for a non-First Nations Australian.

Then Chair of the Productivity Commission and Chair of COAG Steering Committee, Peter Harris, said:

The report of total government expenditure and the information on outcomes in the ‘Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage’ report are two critical building blocks. Governments, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and researchers have the opportunity to use these reports to consider the effectiveness and efficacy and efficiency of government expenditure. In that way, this report will contribute to better policy making and improving outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

Though the expenditure report is no longer aligned with “disadvantage spending”, it has been used by prime ministers and ministers. Most Australians believe this is the case. Consequently, they are lulled into “little is working” and “stop wasting billions”. If only tens of billions had been spent each year since the turn of the century. If this had been the case, there’d be considerably fewer First Peoples living below the poverty line, fewer children removed, fewer in gaol and less suicidality.

The report suggested:

‘Indigenous expenditure increased in real terms by $5.0 billion (19.9%) from 2008-09 to 2012-13, while non-Indigenous expenditure increased by 9.0%. Expenditure per Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person increased by 10.3%, and expenditure per non‑Indigenous person increased by 2.2%.’

We were being sold that each year more was being thrown at First Nations' disadvantage.

The first time I disaggregated the Productivity Commission’s annual Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage Report, 12 years ago, the attributed total spend was $25.4 billion. Then Prime Minister Julia Gillard publicly stated that $25 billion a year was spent on addressing the disadvantages of the First Peoples.

The spend was sold as 86 initiatives. To this day, the hogwash is seeped through public consciousness.

You’d be shocked at what was considered as spending on overcoming “Indigenous disadvantage” — Australia’s corrective services budgets! The descendants of this continent’s First Peoples are incarcerated at the world’s highest gaol rate. How can any corrective services spending be included in an “overcoming disadvantage” budget, for anyone, considered as restorative and transformational?

If only the attributed $44,000 per First Nations spend actually “hit the ground” where needed, instead of corrective services, law and order (police) and child protection department budgets misused to attribute spending on improving the lives of impoverished First Peoples.

Spending on remote and regional homeland infrastructure just does not occur with an equivalency to non-First Nations Australian towns, remote and regional. Australia is the world’s 12th largest economy and one of the world’s wealthiest nations per capita, but 22% of the descendants of the First Peoples have no clean water, no electricity and no comparable sewerage. Thirty-five thousand remote and semi-remote children go without a secondary education because there are no high schools. In anyone’s book, that’s a human rights abuse.

When I disaggregated the $25.4 billion spending, it included $3.2 billion on ‘public order, safety and corrective services’. This isn’t a redress or restorative spend. So, let's subtract the $3.2 billion from the $25.4 billion. This leaves $22.2 billion.

The total direct spending attribution inherits the normal spending for any Australian. $20,900 is the accepted cost burden of every Australian. Therefore, that component is not an affirmative action or additional spend to overcome disadvantage for marginalised First Peoples. Presently, there are at least 400,000 descendants of the First Peoples living below or near the poverty line.

So, let's subtract the $20,900 from the $43,449 spend on a First Nations person. Therefore, the $25.4 billion I reduced to $22.2 billion is conservatively reduced by at least $14 billion. We’re left with $8.2 billion.

There was an education spend included — $3 billion. For too long, what schools there are in homeland communities have been grossly neglected. One should not argue the right to go to school as a line item to overcoming disadvantage. No Australian community should be denied schooling.

So, let's subtract the $3 billion. This leaves $5.2 billion.

It is reprehensible that in the $25.4 billion, $4 billion in social security payments to First Peoples were included. These payments are the basic right of all eligible Australians of whom the majority are unemployed. Let’s subtract the $4 billion and voila, we’re left with $1.2 billion.

Some of the $1.2 billion gets murky to clearly disaggregate, as there’s much conflation. Expenditure on “job creation programs” specifically for disadvantaged First Peoples is fair enough. It was five times the rate spent on “job creation programs” for non-First Nations Australians. However, half of this specific expenditure was absorbed by bureaucracy. Not good.

At the time, I continued through the 86 categories and concluded that just less than one billion dollars a year reached the descendants of the First Peoples in terms of restoratively overcoming disadvantage.

The spending has marginally increased in the ten years since, but it is underwhelming. There is an entrenchment of poverty – relative and abject – affecting one in two of Australia’s now nearly one million descendants of the First Peoples.

Australians need to understand, there is no spend in the tens of billions each year. A number has been done on the First Peoples for too long. It is a national abomination. Governments should apologise. Governments should spend the tens of billions, preferably hundreds of billions each year, on the one in two First Peoples crushed by generational poverty.

This is the least owed to the First Peoples, for the sins of a nation of invaders who corralled into human misery and with brutal savagery dispossessed the First Peoples of their birthrights, dignity and humanity for nearly two decades. There should be no quibbling about spending. We need to do the spend, not pretend we do.

Let me finish, with several paragraphs on the myth of over-funded communities. We often hear the claim there are scores of services, many that duplicate what others do, in remote and regional homelands.

A few years back, in 2016, I responded in the media, including Independent Australia, to attacks that First Nations homeland communities and towns are over-funded.

I challenged Sara Hudson’s research from the Centre for Independent Studies. Sara argued there were 67 services and 400 programmes in Roebourne for less than 1,200 residents. There was a time when I travelled to Roebourne regularly. I knew it pretty much inside out.

I wrote that I do not know where these 67 services are located. Certainly, there aren’t 67 services on Scholl Street.

There are some services that provide similar programs and it is often suggested as duplication. However, Roebourne is majorly impoverished. It languishes in overwhelming unmet needs in primary and secondary health. Roebourne’s surrounding townlets are soaked in inequalities, missing the equal serve of infrastructure and social assets where the comparator is non-First Nations towns nearby.

As I wrote at the time, it is wrong to describe a single-person operation as a “service”. It is disingenuous to impute a casual pro rata “programme” or workshop as some fully fledged programme. I once coordinated a project – Students Without Borders – with 100 programmes but, like most of the programmes, they were not full-time and were limited to small numbers of participants contingent on personnel levels. I described Students Without Borders as the one project, not 100 services.

The 67 services needed to be identified by Sara and described in detail. The 400 programmes also needed to be identified. But her article, which reached more readership than mine, had many Australians believing Roebourne is an over-funded community.

According to the United Nations Development Programme, the Human Development Index, Australia ranks second in the world for public and social health, but when I disaggregated to the First Peoples – standalone – they ranked 132nd.

No lie should be so grand that it makes people invisible, especially the most marginalised and disadvantaged people.

The Constitution should preamble the First Peoples, that’s a truth-telling no-brainer. The Voice to Parliament should be much more than is asked, but what little is being asked, should not be denied — it is the right thing to do. If our governments want to continue betraying the wronged and the disadvantaged, then do that while staring into their eyes, while they hear their words, the burning issues, and have to own them.

And when they reply to the voices wrapped in mortal coils, they’ll be staring into their eyes — wearied eyes that have seen children as young as nine suicide. First Nations children are 80% of Australia’s suicides of children aged nine to 12, of one in 16 First Nations deaths a suicide (formerly at one in 18); half of Australia’s child prisoners are First Nations; one-third of the Australian prison population is of the First Peoples; half of Australia’s children removed are of the children of the descendants of the First Peoples; of deaths in custody, of deaths after custody (ten times the rate of deaths in custody).

I can continue, but you understand. Surely, you must understand.

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus on social justice.

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