The 2020 budget was meant to deliver our recovery as a nation and economic path forward following the coronavirus recession. There was a lot to hope for from the Treasurer outlining ways to support Australians in this time of unprecedented economic pain. But once again the government has left Indigenous people high and dry.
We have been forgotten, underfunded, and left to the sidelines once more. This budget does nothing for us, but at least it doesn't pretend to. The government shows it lacks serious vision for Indigenous Australia and seems unable to truly address the systemic issues faced by our people.
The disadvantages faced by Indigenous people in this country are large and widespread. Our infant mortality rate is twice that of non-Indigenous Australia. Our school attendance, success and graduation rates lag behind the rest of Australia; one in four Indigenous children read below national standards, and only two-thirds of our students complete year 12. Indigenous employment is 26 per cent less than it is for non-Indigenous people, and we are paid less on average. Our life expectancy is eight years less than for non-Indigenous people. And despite being 3 per cent of the population we make up nearly 30 per cent of the adult prison population.
All of these are serious systemic problems and require serious systemic solutions. And all exist on top of pandemic recovery. This 2020 budget underdelivers on addressing any of them.
There is very little from the government in term of specific funding for Indigenous people coming out of the recession. While there are small measures such as increased money for Indigenous housing, and funding for Indigenous rangers, there are no large-scale items focused on specifically helping Indigenous communities.
This budget is proof, if you didn't already need it, on why fully implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart and a constitutionally enshrined Voice is so vital.
What money that is specifically earmarked also is somewhat controversial. A funding boost for Clontarf, given their history, and lack of focus on women, does nothing to advance the interests of our people; mental health funding for Indigenous Australians administered by non-Indigenous organisations is egregious at best; and a reclassification of Abstudy independence tests, while good for Indigenous youth, appears to be an attempt to expand mutual obligations.
The real issue with this budget for Indigenous people however, rather than what is allocated, is the lack of new financial support. Most of what has been announced is merely the reallocation of previously appropriated funds, rather than new money for new purposes.
Like that aunty at Christmas who always regifts you what she got last year, the government is shuffling around money it already earmarked and presenting it afresh. It is also plainly underfunding areas it needs to in order to be committed to Indigenous people and advancing our interests.
Take their commitment to "Closing the Gap". This budget contains no money for achieving the targets it set itself as recently as three months ago. The expanded and revised goals agreed to with the Coalition of Peaks in July were hailed as ambitious and serious when it comes to solving Indigenous disadvantages.
Yet the government has not given any money beyond $46.5 million from when the agreement was announced, that itself repurposed funds from the National Indigenous Australians Agency. It has also reallocated money for the Productivity Commission to review these targets, but without money to achieve change, what is actually achieved? There can be no headway when the government shows it isn't financially committed.
There is also no money allocated for work towards a referendum on a Voice to Parliament, something government has been reluctant to implement from the beginning. This budget is proof, if you didn't already need it, on why fully implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart and a constitutionally enshrined Voice is so vital.
The government has decided to punt on helping Indigenous people yet again, and without pressure from us in the halls of power, protected by the constitution, they will continue do so. Treaties will not get us the kind of change a Voice will when it comes to funding through the budget, but a Voice can get us to that and treaty.
Indigenous people have once again been left out and left behind by a government that has shown it is not committed to change. This budget does not even have the veneer of trying to solve the systemic inequities faced by Indigenous people. It has given up on Indigenous people.
I don't know whether the government will be able to "Close the Gap" or resolve the fundamental issues plaguing our mob. But if their success is to be based on how this budget aims to deliver for us, addressing the systemic disadvantage doesn't seem likely.
- James Blackwell is a proud Wiradjuri man, and Research Fellow in Indigenous Policy at the Centre for Social Impact at the University of New South Wales.