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Concern for 'disturbing' funding cuts to Aboriginal services

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South Australian Aboriginal leaders have warned “disturbing” measures announced in the State Budget – including ending a native title grant and a $6 million funding cut to the Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation bureaucracy – will result in further disadvantage and challenges for Aboriginal groups.

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In the State Budget, handed down on Tuesday, the Government announced it would save $550,000 each year by discontinuing grant funding that had been paid to SA Native Title Services to participate in native title negotiations with the state.

The Government also outlined its plan for an “alternative approach to Aboriginal affairs”, including developing a statewide plan, in consultation with Aboriginal people, to detail Aboriginal engagement targets across areas including education, child protection, health and jobs.

But a closer reading of the Budget reveals the plan will come at a cost to other Aboriginal policies and services, with the Budget papers stating that the Aboriginal Regional Authority Policy developed by Labor in 2004 will “no longer be performed in 2018-19”.

The Government will halve the number of staff working in the Department of the Premier and Cabinet’s Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation division and cut more than $6 million in funding, $1 million of which it attributes to the abolition of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner, following the Marshall Government’s decision to abandon the state treaty process.

A Government spokesperson told InDaily the staffing cut was due to the completion of the treaty process, the Stolen Generations Reparations program and a review of the Aboriginal Heritage Act.

The spokesperson said no Aboriginal Regional Authorities would be abolished, but when questioned further on what the Budget papers meant by “no longer performed” the spokesperson did not respond before deadline.

Narungga elder Tauto Sansbury described the cut to native title funding and the confusion surrounding the future of the Aboriginal Regional Authority Policy as “very disturbing and concerning”.

“Maybe for (Treasurer) Rob Lucas it sounds like a great Budget, but it’s certainly not for Aboriginal people,” Sansbury told InDaily.

“To be honest I expected something like this because any time there are government cuts, every time the Aboriginal community is really at the forefront of that.”

Sansbury said he was particularly concerned about the apparent discontinuation the Aboriginal Regional Authority Policy, signed off in 2016 by then Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation – and now shadow minister – Kyam Maher.

The policy set out to formally recognise the authority of Aboriginal governance structures and strengthen relationships between Aboriginal groups and the Government.

Currently, there are three recognised regional authorities in South Australia: the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association, Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority and Far West Coast Aboriginal Corporation.

“Regional authorities were created to help communities organise themselves, develop relationships with governments and provide a voice for the community,” Sansbury said.

“We talk to others in the communities about creating business, education opportunities (and) we are there to discuss and find solutions for crime prevention and child protection.

“Cutting the authorities will create more disadvantage for Aboriginal communities, (it) will lead to the removal of those services for our people and will shut down opportunities for employment.”

Maher said at last count, about 12 Aboriginal groups were in the process of negotiating to become regional authorities recognised under the policy.

“The Regional Authorities Policy was about helping Aboriginal groups (and) helping Aboriginal nations with self-determination; helping with interactions with different levels of government,” Maher said.

“If all funding is being discontinued it’s hard to see how the ones that have already been set up will properly continue – but probably even more worrying is that this was a part of a notion of rebuilding the program for more regional authorities to come on over time.”

Maher questioned the wisdom of cuts to the Aboriginal Affairs and Reconciliation division of the Department of the Premier and Cabinet before the Government had begun negotiating with Aboriginal groups for its new statewide plan.

“Whenever you’re developing a new plan, a new strategy for Aboriginal people, there needs to be a lot of consultation, going back and forward between different groups in order to facilitate that, and that requires money,” he said.

“It’s just completely at odds to say that they will develop a plan when they will be cutting $6 million in one year.”

Maher also expressed concern for the grant funding cut to SA Native Title Services, saying the move would “massively reduce” SA Native Title Service’s ability to negotiate on native title.

The grant has allowed SA Native Title Services to negotiate 107 Indigenous Land Use Agreements in South Australia since 2001.

In a statement to InDaily, SA Native Title Services CEO Keith Thomas said the government’s decision to cut the grant would pose a challenge for his organisation, but the organisation would still be able to continue to perform its statutory functions with the funding that is provided by the Federal Government.

“The grant was provided in past years primarily to facilitate South Australian Aboriginal communities’ interactions with the government and its agencies in negotiating agreements, but also to assist in maintaining our infrastructure and capacity,” Thomas said.

“Our board and management have already put in place strategies to deal with the reduction in funding while maintaining quality services to ensure we continue to protect and have recognised the native title rights and interests of Aboriginal people in South Australia.”

A Government spokesperson said the State Government would continue to work with the SA Native Title Service on a “case-by-case” basis for ongoing native title negotiations.

“The South Australian Government, through its current negotiation process, has resolved 16 native title claims, which is more than any other jurisdiction,” the spokesperson said.

The Budget papers also outlined a restructure of an Aboriginal youth-specific homelessness service called Marni Wodli, which would save the Government $232,000 in 2018-19 and $427,000 thereafter.

Marni Wodli provides government-funded youth accommodation services for at-risk Aboriginal young people between 15 and 18 years old.

In a statement to InDaily, Human Services Minister Michelle Lensink said the restructure of the service would not impact its day-to-day operation.

“It is business as usual for Marni Wodli, with current services maintained for clients,” Lensink said.

“The State Government is committed to ensuring that specialist services are responsive to changing needs. Marni Wodli provides a limited service which could be better connected to its clients’ communities.

“The development of a new Aboriginal housing strategy and a state-wide housing and homelessness strategy during 2018-19 provides the opportunity to refocus Marni Wodli into a culturally appropriate accommodation service for Aboriginal young people.”

Lensink said the future service model at Marni Wodli would be developed in consultation with clients, staff and the community.

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