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Issue #1657      September 24, 2014

Indigenous leaders urge PM to step in

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community leaders have called on Prime Minister Tony Abbott to personally step in to address the federal Indigenous Affairs policy and funding environment, which they say is descending into chaos.

And, a year after winning the election, Mr Abbott has not met with the head of any peak Indigenous organisation. The first grant round for funding under the new $4.8 billion Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) opened on Monday, but Indigenous leaders say the ambiguities and unanswered questions about the new funding regime have left many Aboriginal community-controlled organisations wondering if they will survive.

Representatives of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples (Congress), National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS), National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services (NFVPLS), National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO), Secretariat for National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care (SNAICC), and the Healing Foundation – supported by the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) – met in Canberra last week to discuss the impact of the 2014 federal Budget on key organisations and frontline services.

Congress co-chair Kirstie Parker told the Koori Mail newspaper that, despite government assurances to the contrary, Budget cuts to Indigenous Affairs were impairing the ability of community-controlled organisations to deliver frontline services in critical areas such as legal assistance, family violence, children, youth and women, drug and alcohol misuse, and health.

“Not only are frontline services being affected, there seems to be almost total confusion around the new IAS and no capacity within the bureaucracy to answer the questions of Aboriginal organisations trying to navigate their way through the process,” she said.

Chair of both the NATSILS and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service Qld Shane Duffy said cuts meant they were forced to close four offices in Queensland.

“The cuts will be across the board; they won’t only affect our criminal legal services but also civil and family, the whole box and dice of what we deliver,” he said. “And if we have to reduce services, that means less people represented across the state, and also less access to a culturally competent organisation.

“Cuts to our services will mean an increased number of our people going to jail and more kids on child protection orders. And this is at the time when Queensland has the highest imprisonment rate in its history.”

NACCHO chair Justin Mohamed said that while Aboriginal community-controlled health organisations had secured funding until June next year, there was no certainty after that date.

“On top of that, we need to consider the overall impact of the Medicare co-payment on our mob and the changes to youth allowance (where the government is proposing that young people get no social security for six months of the year) – these all have a direct impact on our services,” he said.

In answer to questions from the Koori Mail asking whether Mr Abbott was prepared to meet with, or respond to, the Indigenous leaders’ call, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister said: “The Prime Minister meets regularly with Indigenous leaders and will soon be travelling to meet Indigenous leaders in North East Arnhem Land. Indigenous Affairs funding is being transformed through the Indigenous Advancement Strategy to ensure that funding delivers real outcomes on the ground and helps meet the government’s priorities of getting children to school, adults into work and ensuring communities are safe.”

Mr Mohamed, Ms Parker and Mr Duffy all said that while it was positive Mr Abbott was willing to meet with Yolngu leaders in Arnhem Land, that was no replacement for discussion with peak Indigenous bodies.

The group called for an emergency meeting with Mr Abbott – and has also called for a parliamentary inquiry into billionaire miner Andrew Forrest’s recent report “Creating Parity”, so Indigenous people and organisations can have the proper opportunity to be involved in policy formation.

“We don’t see how Mr Abbott, having declared himself Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, can effectively close the door to the national Indigenous community-backed leadership and stay true to his promise about a simplification of the system and a reduction in red tape,” Ms Parker said.

Koori Mail

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