Thursday, 17 May 2018

The Government’s Budget narrative in Indigenous affairs

‘False face must hide what the false heart doth know’
Macbeth Act One, scene seven

In my day job as a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, I have just co-authored with Danielle Venn an analysis of the implications of the recent budget for Indigenous Australians (link here). I won’t duplicate much of that analysis here, (and recommend readers have a look at it) but do wish to focus briefly on the ways in which the Government seeks to frame its narrative.

In contrast to established practice ten or fifteen years ago, there is no Budget Paper which pulls together all the Indigenous related measures. This may reflect the gradual transition away from Indigenous specific expenditures (currently less than one fifth of all government expenditure on Indigenous citizens), but it seems to me to relate as much to a desire by government to minimise transparency around the overall impact of its budget on Indigenous interests. A similar process has occurred in relation to the former Budget Paper on International Development Assistance.

In a world where the overarching framework for Indigenous policy is seen by most citizens as Closing the Gap, where Governments across the political spectrum have signed up to utilising the framework, and where progress in meeting the targets can be characterised as extremely modest, there would be merit in linking funding allocation to the Closing the Gap targets. See a recent CAEPR paper on the Closing the Gap refresh process for more discussion on this issue (link here).

For better or worse, the current Government is not prepared to do this (with the exception of the Health budget allocations which are guided at least notionally by an implementation plan linked to Closing the Gap), which raises two questions:
·         what are the actual overarching priorities it is pursuing through the budget process, and
·         what are the drivers for the decisions which are taken?

The answers to these questions are entirely opaque. It is far from clear that there is any overarching framework guiding budget allocations. Of course, funding is not everything, and merely listing the allocation of funding says nothing about the effectiveness of those expenditures. But governments make much of their budget policies in other areas of public policy, so we ought not to dismiss the effect of funding allocations a sign or signal of government policy intentions in Indigenous affairs. In other words, as in most areas of public policy, actions speak louder than words.

In the absence of a clearly articulated overarching priority setting framework for Government funding allocations, there are a number of potential hypotheses which might explain the Government’s approach to Indigenous funding:
  • ·         Indigenous funding may be the result of essentially ad hoc bids from Indigenous interests which manage to capture ministers’ attention and appear to be worth supporting;
  • ·         Indigenous funding may be the result of pork barrelling in key electorates designed to make local members and senators look good in the eyes of potential voters;
  • ·         Indigenous funding may be the result of ideological framing of policy opportunities designed to send signals to the Government’s more influential (and potentially more extreme) supporters; and / or
  • ·         Indigenous funding may be the residue after all other key policy and political interests have been addressed by the government’s budget decision making process. 

I don’t propose to assess the potential validity of these hypotheses here, but merely note that the budget outcomes when looked at holistically (as in the CAEPR analysis referenced above) are not inconsistent with one or more of these hypotheses.

This then raises a further issue: were a Government to adopt an approach based on one or more of these hypotheses, what would its budget narrative look like in relation to Indigenous policy?

The answer, I venture to suggest, would be that the narrative would look very similar to the narrative the Government has promulgated following the most recent budget. Again, the narrative in the health portfolio is an exception.

The Minister for Indigenous affairs issued two media releases, one on 8 May (link here) and the other on 9 May (link here). Taken together, they seek to portray an impression of significant budget allocations listing multi-billion dollar allocations in the Indigenous Advancement Strategy and referencing billion dollar amounts in relation to the Land Fund and the Indigenous Procurement Policy whereas in fact these figures have no relationship to the allocations included in the Budget papers and the Appropriation Acts. While all governments spin their narrative to place their decisions in the best light, there is a line where spin crosses over into factual inaccuracy and indeed invention.

The Minister’s 8 May media release begins with the words: ‘This year’s budget includes $5 billion in investment through the Indigenous Advancement Strategy…’. In fact, as the PMC website points out (link here), the $5 billion was allocated in the 2015-16 budget for four years, and thus there is only around $1.2 billion available for the coming year and this was not a decision taken in this budget. Similarly, there is no new budget measures related to the Land Fund nor the Indigenous Procurement Strategy, notwithstanding both issues were highlighted in the Minister media releases. Finally, the Minister appears to have invented the reference to an $800 billion increase in health expenditures in his 9 May media release, as this figure is not mentioned in the budget papers and nor is it mentioned in the Health Minister’s media release.

My point is not to merely identify some ‘gotcha’ moments, but to join the dots between a misleading and inaccurate political narrative and its necessity in circumstances where the Government has no coherent or effective policy strategy or framework.

The risks for both Indigenous Australians, but also for the Australian community generally, is that the implicit assumptions that government is working diligently and largely effectively to address Indigenous disadvantage is reinforced by the Government’s narrative. I termed this a ‘complacency effect’ in my submission to the Closing the Gap refresh process (included in the CAEPR paper referenced above). When problems or challenges inevitably emerge because the budget reality does not match the budget narrative, the likelihood that Indigenous Australians will be blamed or will blame themselves is amplified. Governments who mislead the community about the efforts they are making in this areas are not just failing to ‘close the gap’, but are actually contributing to circumstances which will eventually lead to tangible harm in ways which may not always be visible to the community at large, but are nonetheless hugely significant for those affected.

For example, the Treasure blithely claimed in the only reference to Indigenous citizens in his budget night speech thatIndigenous Australians also benefit from our $550 million commitment [over five years] to address remote housing needs in the Northern Territory’. However, the reality is that the Government took a conscious decision to reduce its longstanding contribution to addressing the extraordinary outstanding needs in remote housing by $2.15 billion over five years. It makes no policy sense, and it will not assist in Closing the Gap. In fact, it will widen the gap, at least in remote Australia.

The real story of the recent budget for Indigenous Australians is that the Government has no coherent budget strategy, no overarching policy framework, and as a result, is forced to resort to a flawed policy narrative. While the budget itself represents a backward step for Indigenous interests, the Government’s narrative also has seriously adverse implications for Indigenous Australians. It engenders complacency when what is required is a sense of purpose and urgency.

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