Senate inquiry: First Nations funding, confusing, fractured and racist

The Guardian: Senate committee will investigate an Indigenous advancement strategy funding process described as confusing, fractured and systemically racist

Aboriginal Funding
"I think that says eleventy forty, Joe. Yep, I'd bet the Aboriginal homelands on it".

The government’s latest funding round has been accused of preferencing non-Indigenous providers and leaving many services unsure about their future.

Calla Wahlquist and Helen Davidson 19 March 2015

The government’s latest funding round has been accused of preferencing non-Indigenous providers and leaving many services unsure about their future.

The Senate has supported a motion calling for an inquiry into the rollout of funding under the Indigenous advancement strategy, which has been described as confusing, fractured and systemically racist.

Western Australian Greens senator Rachel Siewert moved on Thursday for the Senate finance and public administration references committee to examine the program’s tender process, and particularly its impact on the efficiency and sustainability of service delivery.

She also called on the government to release the full list of who would and would not be funded under the program.

“At the moment many distressed groups are scrambling around trying to work out if they have made the cut, while other groups are still trying to find out what they have been funded for and for how much,” Siewert said.

“Many of these groups provide essential services that are integral to stopping disadvantage within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, they do not deserve to be left in the lurch.”

Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion announced the first $860m round of funding earlier this month. At the time, Scullion said 964 organisations had received funding to deliver 1297 projects and would be contacted by staff from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to “finalise funding arrangements”.

A number of Aboriginal medical services in Western Australia have told Guardian Australia that they have received a letter saying they will receive some funding, but have not been told how much.

Others, such as the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Service, say they received significantly less than applied for and lost money paying for consultants to complete the convoluted application process.

The medical service’s chief executive, Vicki O’Donnell, said it received $2m over three years from the Indigenous advancement strategy funding – equivalent to its previous funding. But it applied for $8m in response, O’Donnell says, to a call in the application process to be “innovative” and expand its services.

One of its subsidiaries, Broome Regional Aboriginal Medical Service, applied for $5m but received $1m . That’s just one year’s funding – they’ll have to reapply next year, which O’Donnell said would sap resources from service delivery and lead to staff uncertainty and, potentially, job losses.

Some job losses have already been confirmed. The national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services body has confirmed it will close after it lost funding. Other organisations have also flagged job losses, including the north Australian Aboriginal justice agency, and the Barkly and MacDonnell Ranges regional councils.

Spinifex Health Service in Tjuntjuntjara, a remote community of 200 about 680km northeast of Kalgoorlie, is one of those that says it does not know its final funding allocation.

“I have given up second-guessing what the government does; both sides, state and federal,” manager Vicki Taylor said.

A spokeswoman from Scullion’s office told Guardian Australia organisations recommended for funding would enter negotiations with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet before any contracts were finalised. Once that was done, the details would be posted on the department’s website within 14 days.

Michelle Nelson-Cox is the chairwoman of the Aboriginal Health Council of Western Australia. She told Guardian Australia that quantifying the funding lost was difficult, because the federal government had not released a finalised list. But she said discussions with local Aboriginal medical services showed the total funding shortfall could be as much as $100m, which she said would lead to widespread job losses.

The Aboriginal health sector is the second-largest employer of Aboriginal people in Western Australia, employing about 6200 compared to the 6700 employed in the mining industry.

“This is going to have a devastating impact in regards to sustaining Aboriginal employment, particularly in remote areas,” Nelson-Cox said.

Nelson-Cox said it appeared the funding round had preferenced non-Aboriginal health providers over Aboriginal medical services. She said the latter had proven they could provide culturally-appropriate community-focused health programs, which had been successful in delivering on Close the Gap outcomes.

“I have been in this industry for 30 years and I have never seen this amount of systemic racism that this federal government has created,” she said.

The opposition Indigenous affairs spokesman, Shayne Neumann, said the overly bureaucratic process was geared against Aboriginal and community-based organisations.

“The evidence we have got so far suggests there will be a decline in community delivered frontline services and that bigger organisations will deliver those services,” he said.

“You can’t expect good outcomes in closing the gap if you try and cut your way to close the gap.”