Whether on Invasion Day, education and truth telling, or on our demands for justice over deaths in custody; every debate on First Nations affairs feels at the very least repetitive. The same is true regarding the budget. The government does not allocate new money, where it allocates any money at all, and ignores true First Nations consultation. I made that argument last year in this paper, and what I said then is as true in 2021 as it was in 2020. But what should we expect when we as First Nations people don't have a Voice in this country?
The government's commitments to Closing the Gap still remain extremely uncertain following this budget. Ever since the agreement was announced in July 2020, there has been "a lack of specific and identified funding". $45 million was announced at the time, but in the two subsequent budgets since then, no further funding has been allocated. Without a commitment to actually spend money and make an effort, progress towards the targets is highly unlikely to be achieved, and First Nations people and communities will not be better off.
Of course, even the money allocated in this budget does not leave us better off. Funding for Indigenous health receives an increase of 1.8 per cent next financial year, while funding actually decreases by more than 8 per cent in real terms across the forward estimates to 2024-25. Meanwhile, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the life expectancy for First Nations people still sits at seven to 14 years behind the rest of Australia. First Nations legal services did not receive any funding, nor was money allocated towards furthering any of the still unimplemented recommendations from the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Meanwhile First Nations people are still the most incarcerated group of people in the country. Decades of continued injustice is par for the course for First Nations communities.
Where the government has included "funding", in many cases it is not actually new money. None of the $243.6 million Indigenous Skills and Jobs Advancement package, including the $128.4 million for an Indigenous Skills and Employment Program, or the $63.5 million for expanded places in Indigenous girls' academies (a pleasant backflip on the 2020 budget's gutting of these programs), is additional funding. It is merely repurposed funds from other programs under the broad Indigenous Advancement Strategy, which the government uses as a shield behind which it hides its financial sophistry.
There is of course some good news for First Nations people in this budget. $185 million dedicated towards housing in remote communities; an increase to the Indigenous Visual Arts Industry Action Plan; and $11.6 million towards expanding the number and size of Indigenous Protected Areas. There is also $79 million spent on the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention Strategy. All of these, plus quite a few not mentioned here, are good things for First Nations communities.
It is also worth mentioning the $111 million allocated to replace the Community Development Program (CDP) with a new Remote Jobs Program. The CDP was a much maligned and highly controversial "Remote Work for the Dole" initiative, and it is good news that the government has ended it, and paused mutual obligations while it is revamped. But it remains to be seen what form the new program takes, and whether the Remote Jobs Program is just a carbon copy of the CDP.
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The problem is that the government is going to want to use these examples of good initiatives and new spending as a brush with which to paint the whole budget as a "win" for First Nations people, but this is not the reality. While yes, we should celebrate the wins where we can, and there are wins in this budget for First Nations people, we also need to keep our eye focused on pushing for substantive change. The government is not financially committed to First Nations people, and will remain uncommitted until we achieve a Voice.
It has been almost four years since the Uluru Constitutional Convention gifted the nation the Uluru Statement From the Heart. It was a powerfully poetic invitation developed after extensive consultations and dialogues with First Nations communities right across the country. The Uluru Statement is a call for justice, but more importantly, a call to be heard. Yet in the four years since 2017, we have had the government misrepresent and deliberately stall any attempts at progress towards Uluru's key reform: a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice to Parliament. They don't think it will work, but also they don't really want it to.
The Australian people are not as pessimistic, nor as foolish. Data from the UNSW's Indigenous Law Centre shows that 87 per cent of all submissions to the government's own process support placing a Voice within the constitution, and taking the issue to the public via a referendum. Public support more broadly is also very much behind a referendum on a Voice. An enshrined Voice is the only solution to ensure not only that First Nations people are heard within our political system, but also broader society. It is how we make the government focus on our issues, and it's how we help realise the change we want to see. Protecting that Voice in the constitution is also the only way we can guarantee that our Voice is here to stay.
The government made a commitment at the 2019 election to hold a referendum. It is time that they stood by that commitment. Refine their model, then take it to the people. The issues in this budget, and in all other aspects of First Nations politics and policy, are only going to continue while we remain voiceless, and unheard.
- James Blackwell is a proud Wiradjuri man and research fellow in Indigenous policy at the UNSW's Centre for Social Impact.