Not content with the devastation of six years of the NT intervention, Tony Abbott went to the election insisting he would be the “Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs”. He has wasted no time in launching a new wave of attacks on Aboriginal communities.
Just before the election, the Liberals revealed plans to cut $42 million from Aboriginal Legal Services (ALSs). Following outrage and threats of protest, this was scaled back to a $13 million cut. But NATSILS, the peak body representing ALSs, has been completely defunded. NATSILS chairperson Shane Duffy said the cuts will “further entrench Aboriginal people as second class citizens in their own country”.
Similar cuts under Howard saw steep increases in Aboriginal imprisonment. The number of Aboriginal prisoners has increased four times since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Their incarceration rate is amongst the highest in the world.
ALS lawyers already deal with up to 50 clients per day, making effective representation impossible. And the focus on cutting “policy positions” means the cuts will cripple advocacy around issues such as deaths in custody or community development and diversionary programs as alternatives to prison.
The $3.4 million cut to Indigenous Family Violence Legal Services (IFVLS) is particularly shocking, given horrific levels of violence and despair in Aboriginal communities. Queensland’s IFVLS told a recent inquiry the majority of their work involves advocating for women who have had their children removed by Child Protection authorities. More children are currently being removed from Aboriginal families than at any time in Australian history. Already many parents go unrepresented in these cases and this will now worsen.
Cuts that haven’t been reported at all in the media include Aboriginal Early Childhood Support and Learning, set to lose all their funding after two decades co-ordinating and advocating for Aboriginal preschools. Similarly, organisations who had received grants under Labor from the Aboriginal Benefits Account (ABA), revenue from mining on Aboriginal land in the NT, have been told all grants are suspended pending review, crippling vital community projects.
The Liberals have also cut $15 million from the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, an Aboriginal representative body created under Labor. Congress was set up as a toothless “advisor” to government and has struggled to gain roots in communities, with less than 900 people voting in their last election.
However, in its place, Abbott has hand picked representatives for his “National Indigenous Advisory Council”, chaired by Warren Mundine. Disgracefully, Mundine has already accepted the “need” for cuts to Aboriginal services, including Legal Aid.
The Council includes the Westpac CEO and the Managing Director of Rio Tinto. It is part of the broader Liberal push to promote big corporations and the free market as the route out of poverty. While Abbott blames Aboriginal people themselves for the third world living conditions and high levels of unemployment, he is pushing for them to sell their land and assimilate into the “mainstream economy”.
Abbott wants to undermine collective ownership of Aboriginal land across the country. In his free-market fantasy this will lead to private companies driving economic development in communities and flourishing “private home ownership” to cure chronic overcrowding. In the NT, the attack comes in the form of 99-year, whole of township leases. Regulations introduced in December will allow NT Land Councils to be by-passed on decision making over leasing lands.
In Queensland, collective Aboriginal title could be replaced by individual title, something Errol Neal, the Mayor of Yarrabah, has warned could lead to the community being “swallowed up by developers”.
Mining magnate Andrew Forrest has been chosen to chair Abbott’s review of Indigenous employment, threatening even more punitive measures to force Aboriginal people off their lands into work or training for corporate Australia. This is despite the complete failure of his Aboriginal Employment Covenant. Despite promising 50,000 jobs for Indigenous people and taking millions in government funding, it secured only 14,000 jobs over the last five years—30 per cent lasting less than six months.
The idea of corporate Australia as the saviour for Aboriginal people is a joke. Abbott’s corporate agenda is meant to finish off what the Intervention started—to dispossess and complete the assimilation of Aboriginal Australia.
By Paddy Gibson