Today’s Sydney Morning Herald, which, for the first time in a couple of months, I am reading from paper rather than a computer screen, owing to the fact that I returned from my field trip last night, has on the front page a “Herald Investigation” into the dodgy book-keeping of the commonwealth and how it makes itself look good with respect to the funding of indigenous affairs.

A significant portion of the money the Government says it has spent since 2000 – which has risen annually and reached $3 billion last year alone – was either underspent or the result of creative accounting, a Herald investigation has found.

Essentially, the government has for years, it seems, been labelling money as ‘aboriginal spending’ when in fact it is plainly not. For example, the cost of the commonwealth mounting legal defences against native title claims, hardly classifiable as funding for indigenous people, is put down as exactly that.

Spending figures have also been bloated by money spent on services that benefit everyone – such as medical centres – but the money is nevertheless described specifically as the “black dollar”.

Other examples include the cost of ensuring aboriginal corporations pay enough GST and the cost of putting payphones in remote communities whether they are indigenous communities or not.

This is significant with respect to all the current hoo-haa about aboriginal communities in Australia, because for years, the argument against increased funding for housing, employment, education and health has been something along the lines of ‘you can’t just throw money at them, it gets wasted’. Well now, it emerges that the argument was in fact right; the money did get wasted, but it was wasted by bureaucrats and ministerial staffers, not by aboriginal people.

This of course is reminiscent of the initial estimates of the cost of the NT intervention, some $580 million, most of which will go to the 725 odd people employed to administer the changes. That too, will probably be counted in the grand total of ‘indigenous spending’.

My suggestion: Let’s actually spend money on aboriginal communities. That is, as opposed to knocking back funding applications for housing, say, on the basis that there’s not enough money left to fund the projects after it had all been spent hiring, training and paying the people employed to knock back the funding applications¹.

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¹That’s quite Heller-esque, isn’t it?

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<update>

Wednesday, 22nd August:

Today, Professor Jon Altman has more to add to this, and about the unreasonable conditions the government imposed on Alice Springs town camps in return for adequate funding, which I wrote about way back when.

“An example [of the Government’s placing “unreasonable hurdles before Indigenous people”] is the Alice Springs town camp housing, where the conditionality was that land be leased for 99 years, and when the land owners said ‘We didn’t want to lease our land’, the Government just withdrew $60 million worth of funding,” he said.

“So in some ways you can always make it sound as if you’re spending a lot of money, but if you have enough conditionality to it you may end up spending none of it.”

This vindicates the position I took back then, somewhat facetiously, that the government deliberately included completely unreasonable conditions, such as the relinquishing of hard-fought-for land, knowing that the community would reject the offer, so that they could turn around and say ‘we tried to give them these funds, but they wouldn’t negotiate’.

Call me a cynic if you like.

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