No guarantees sought over NT remote Indigenous communities, Senate hears. However, Nigel Scullion, federal Indigenous affairs minister, confident funding change will not affect Northern Territory communities the way it affected WA
The Guardian 29 May 2015
The commonwealth did not seek an assurance from the Northern Territory government that remote Indigenous communities would remain open before it proposed a change in funding arrangements, the Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion, has revealed.
The federal government set aside a one-off payment of $155m in the budget for the territory government to take full control of municipal services. In the 2014-15 financial year, the commonwealth provided nearly $21m for municipal services in 376 NT outstations and homelands.
A similar takeover of services in Western Australia led that state’s government to announce it would shut several remote communities. The prime minister, Tony Abbott, backed the move saying the public purse should not prop up people’s “lifestyle choices”.
Scullion said the WA government reneged on a deal with the federal government and then blamed funding changes.
“The Western Australian process is most unfortunate – all the rubbish that has gone on over there,” Scullion told a Senate committee on Friday. “The nonsense from the Western Australian government had very little to do – had nothing to do – with the changes we made in regards to municipal funding.”
Despite the controversy that the announcement of the closures brought for the federal government, Scullion admitted that no assurance was sought from the NT chief minister, Adam Giles, that outstations would remain open.
“Have you sought a guarantee that no remote communities will close?” asked Labor senator Nova Peris.
Scullion replied: “I didn’t actually have to. The chief minister said that himself before we actually started any negotiations.”
Giles was emphatic that outstations would not be affected by the funding changes.
“I’ve been very clear, 10,000 times saying the communities will continue operate the way they currently are,” Giles told ABC Radio shortly after the 12 May budget was announced. “How the relationship works between the federal government and the territory government is a matter for us administratively but we’ll continue to maintain those services.”
Scullion told Friday’s estimates committee that it was “irresponsible” to ask questions about whether communities would close, noting that people had already been making “mischief about that” in the territory.
“I’m very confident that this will be a seamless transfer,” he said.
The estimates committee also revealed that the NT government had known about the funding changes for some time as the commonwealth had indicated 12 months ago that it was looking at new options.
“So the Northern Territory government did know that this was coming?” Peris asked.
“They knew that it was under consideration,” Caroline Edwards, from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which has responsibility for the Indigenous affairs portfolio, said. “We canvassed a lot of options with them, and were informed just before budget night of where we’d landed.”
The NT government denies it knew of the plans.
“Executive government had no confirmed knowledge of what the essential services package proposed by the Australian government would be before the federal budget came down, but we understand some preliminary discussions had occurred between officials occurred prior to that,” a spokesman for the treasurer, David Tollner, said.
Peris said there were still questions to be answered.
“The revelation that Adam Giles and the Country Liberal party knew about these budget measures and did nothing to stop them, is damning,” Peris said. “They have claimed they weren’t informed of these measures by the federal government. That is clearly not true.”
The Greens senator Rachel Siewert said the NT changes “can’t come as a surprise”, pointing to the fact that similar measures were being negotiated in WA since 2010.
“It’s been well known that the [federal] government wants to step back from its municipal obligations,” she said.
Giles has yet to declare whether or not his government will accept the one-off payment, which will make the territory ineligible for municipal funding for at least eight years.
Scullion has vowed to press on with “more formal” discussions with Giles on the matter.