CONGRESS 2014 Budget Response


Concern over impact of the Budget on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples will suffer disproportionately under the 2014 Federal Budget, according to the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.

“General and specific Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander measures in the Budget are already causing considerable anxiety amongst our peoples,” said Congress Co-Chair Kirstie Parker.

“Our people are amongst the sickest, poorest and most marginalised Australians, so the pain of some measures will be felt especially hard by us.

“These include the introduction of GP co-payments and raising of the pension age, coupled with a cut of more than half a billion dollars to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs over the next five years. Yet another major overhaul of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs, no long-term funding certainty for our health and legal services or clarity around measures to Close the Gap, and undermining of Congress as the only national independent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representative body.”

Ms Parker said scant detail had been provided in relation to the major overhaul of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs under a new ‘Indigenous Advancement Strategy’, and the reduction of about 150 existing programs to just five.

“We strongly support a reduction in red tape and duplication. However, in the absence of more information and any clear funding guidelines or criteria for that handful of programs, it is difficult to determine how a cut of nearly $550 million over five years to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programs is justified. Days after the Budget, our peoples are in virtually no clearer position than we were before.

“Our community controlled health organisations have been offered no more than 12 months funding. Of course, that’s better than nothing but it’s no way to build longevity or attract and retain high quality staff. We join others in seeking clarification as to how the Government will deliver on its promised commitment – in terms of funding and national leadership – to Close the Gap.

“Our legal services and family violence prevention legal services will bear cuts they can ill-afford as they struggle to address the chronic over-representation of our people in the criminal justice system and protect victims of family violence, especially our women and children.

“This is the manifestation of Commonwealth confusion on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples needs and expenditure that we believe will damage rather than enhance our people’s lives.”

Ms Parker, who is also Co-Chair of the Close the Gap Campaign Steering Committee, said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples already experienced roughly twice the burden of ill-health as other Australians.

“So, anything – such as a GP co-payment – that further deters our peoples from managing their illness together with their doctor will inevitably compound our already higher rates of hospitalisation for chronic or acute conditions. That’s bad news for both us and the public purse,” she said.

“The pension age is to be lifted to 70 years but we’re unaware of any consideration being given to the fact that, with the average life expectancy of our men at 69.1 years and for our women 73.7 years. That’s roughly ten years less than the general Australian population – our people will be lucky to make it to retirement age, let alone collect superannuation.

“We call upon the Government to think more deeply about its plans, and to ensure it values and utilise the expertise that exists within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, organisations and communities. We want the Government to move forward in genuine partnership with us.”

Discontinuation of $15 million set aside in the Budget Forward Estimates for Congress from 2014-17 amounted to censorship of independent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices by stealth, Ms Parker said.

“The Government has said that it is willing to meet with and receive advice from Congress and we welcome this. However, it feels very much like our independent national representative body is being tolerated rather than supported.

“Our members have always aspired for Congress to be financially independent from government and self-sustaining in the long-term and this has not changed. It is sad that, whereas it was always clearly identified that an estimated ten years of investment and support was needed for us to achieve sustainability in a measured way, it was just three years before this particular government ‘pulled the plug’.

“The fact that the Government flagged this decision in December makes it no less nasty. However, while confirmation of it is a definite blow to Indigenous self-determination, it is by no means a knockout punch for Congress. Our membership continues to grow and, with restructuring already undertaken and considerable belt tightening, we expect our reserves to sustain us for the next two to three years while we work to diversify our funding base.

“As well as seeking ongoing support from our membership, we will be appealing to decent, fair-minded Australians to do what this Government apparently won’t – to champion and support an independent representative voice for our peoples, chosen by our peoples.”