Last Tuesday I wrote about a “Herald Investigation” into the government’s creative book-keeping on funding of indigenous affairs. To sum up the story, their accounting gives the impression that the commonwealth has for years been throwing billions at aboriginal Australia. Such funding has frequently and dysphemistically been termed ‘sit down money’.

That, in contrast with the clear squalor and poverty in which some people in some communities infamously live, leads the majority to one conclusion: Aborigines are no good at spending money. This has had severe corollaries, not the least of which has been the move to quarantine commonwealth welfare payments to aboriginal people.

In today’s Herald, the editorial has leapt onto the issue with a scathing attack on the government’s ‘creative accounting’.

With grim irony, some of the money the Federal Government claims it spends for Aborigines is, in fact, used against them. This includes no less than $30 million spent over the past six years opposing native title and compensation claims. Another $35 million spent on reconciliation projects – which, one might think, is intended to benefit all Australians – is counted as spending on Aborigines alone.

It is certainly welcome that the Herald editor has decided to publicise this issue (as most indigenous issues in this country tend to go a little under-the-radar, until recently), and I can absolutely agree with the sentiment the editor (no byline is ever given in Herald editorials) expresses, when s/he says:

Such creative accounting helps explain the enormous gap between the impressive figures nominally budgeted for indigenous Australians, and the deprivation that confronts visitors to remote communities in the Northern Territory and beyond.

Before leaving for my most recent field trip, issues of funding were becoming more discussed, especially in the blogosphere, regarding such events as Mal Brough’s despicable ultimatum to Tangentyere Council: $60 million dollars in housing funding in exchange for tenure of their land. In such discussions, the term ‘sit down money’ was strewn about like parmesan cheese in an Italian restaurant¹. I was mindful therefore, when I arrived in the Territory, of the conditions in the community, the apparent abandon with which the community organisation is alleged to have been wasting their generous federal funds, and the behaviour of individuals rumoured to be awash with welfare money.

What confronted me was consistent with a community almost entirely bereft of adequate funds. I’ve written about this before, but the community president has been perpetually writing grant applications to fund desperately needed housing and infrastructure upgrades, only to be repeatedly fobbed off. In fact it has come to the point where the community president merely phones whichever Territory or commonwealth department is in charge of such things, and asks plainly whether or not he has a shot of getting any funding. The answer is usually ‘no’. This saves him hours otherwise spent writing futile applications.

All in all, the concept of ‘sit down money’ was never made apparent in my recent time there, and I spent a lot of time discussing these matters with the community president. I feel vindicated then, that critical evaluation of the typical opinion towards indigenous communities and their funding is emerging as a result of the Herald‘s investigation. I also feel personally vindicated in a position I publicly took last week, when I said:

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’.

Compare that with the editorial’s closing statements of yesterday (emphasis added):

Successful indigenous organisations must not be scapegoated and marginalised. Otherwise, the Federal Government’s $580 million intervention in remote communities risks expensive failure – a failure that will no doubt be counted as “Aboriginal spending”.

Maybe I have a future career in writing editorials.

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¹Sorry for that metaphor. I couldn’t bring myself to say something as rote as strewn about like confetti.

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<update>

Joe sends me this troubling image from Wadeye, where he’s currently doing some fieldwork, of a banner on a government building, which means it probably counts as ‘Aboriginal spending’ (Click the image to see the larger size):

nomo jidanabat

Note the imagery: sitting down is bad money while working in a mine (or in a kitchen if you’re a woman, evidently) is good money.

I wonder how much it cost the Indigenous Affairs department to design and make signs like this.

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