The Abbott government’s 2014 streamlining of its $8.5 billion indigenous affairs budget, and the moving of the portfolio directly into the Office of Prime Minister and Cabinet, was poorly executed, failed to consult key indigenous groups and led to widespread confusion, a Senate inquiry has heard.
Labor’s indigenous affairs spokesman Shayne Neumann told The Australian a report tabled last night on the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, announced in the 2014-15 budget, had “exposed the lie that (Tony) Abbott was the PM for indigenous affairs; they now know they got (the policy) wrong”.
“We now have evidence of the extent of the devastating cuts which have decimated frontline services,” he said.
The report, which comes after 12 months of deliberations and hearings, notes that the consolidation of more than 150 programs previously delivered across eight government portfolios into just five streams had been deeply problematic.
The five streams were identified as jobs, land and economy; children and schooling; safety and wellbeing; culture and capability; and remote Australian strategies. It was claimed this would make program delivery more flexible and reduce red tape.
However, the Senate committee found that the system’s use of competitive tendering processes had disadvantaged many indigenous groups and not always delivered programs where they were most needed. It recommended in future this method be replaced by needs-based assessments.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda told the inquiry that while he had initially been hopeful the changes would be beneficial, they had in fact “meant deep cuts, uncertainty, stress and anxiety for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples”.
Les Malezer, of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, said the streamlining was “being attempted too quickly, too dramatically and in a way in which our people and communities have not been able to cope”.
Evidence from PM & C confirmed the lack of consultation and engagement between government and indigenous groups, with senior bureaucrat Liza Carroll admitting the department had “underestimated the amount of effort that we are now realising was needed upfront. We recognised it needed some, but I do not think we had recognised the depth of that early enough.”
Ms Carroll said the difficulties some indigenous organisations faced in coping with the changes had been “underestimated”, a fact which had partly led to the department being unable to “finish our assessment process at the end of the last financial year”.
The report acknowledged Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion’s note that IAS funding had increased the number of indigenous organisations funded under the portfolio from 30 per cent to 46 per cent, with these groups receiving 55 per cent of total IAS funding.
Mr Neumann last night demanded that the government act on the committee’s recommendations, which included awarding “longer contracts … to ensure stability” and establishing funding guidelines that “give weighting to the contribution and effectiveness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations to provide to their community beyond the service they are directly contracted to provide”.
“I’m looking forward to a mea culpa from the minister,” Mr Neumann said.
List of Recommendations
3.112 The committee recommends that future tender rounds are not blanket competitive processes and are underpinned by robust service planning and needs mapping.
3.113 The committee recommends that future tendering processes should be planned strategically, with a clear sense of service gaps and community need based on consultation with local services and communities. A tendering or alternative funding process should be conducted in a manner which enhances the capacity of organisations to meet community needs.
3.114 The committee recommends that future selection criteria and funding guidelines should give weighting to the contribution and effectiveness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations to provide to their community beyond the service they are directly contracted to provide.
3.115 The committee recommends that where possible and appropriate, longer contracts be awarded to ensure stability so that organisations can plan and deliver sustainable services to their communities.
3.116 The committee recommends that the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet improve its overall Indigenous Advancement Strategy communication plan to ensure that all stakeholders are fully informed and have access to clear and timely information.
3.117 The committee recommends that the full internal review of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy process undertaken and facilitated by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet be made public.
3.118 The committee recommends that the Government release the revised funding guidelines as a draft for consultation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and their organisations.
3.119 The committee recommends that Government prioritise investment in capacity building and support for smaller community controlled organisations in future tender processes.
3.120 The committee recommends that the Government act immediately to address the 30 June 2016 funding deadline for organisations.
Download the full report here