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Will Mundine save us from Abbott’s funding cuts?

by Stephen Hagan 18 December 2013

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ederal Treasurer Joe Hockey has warned of doom and gloom for years to come during his National Press Club address yesterday on his government’s mid-year economic and fiscal outlook for the nation. “Returning the budget to sustainable surpluses will not be achieved by piecemeal savings here and there,” alerted Hockey on revising up the deficit to $47 billion this year. He further forecast the deficit to reach $667bn within the decade if the hard calls aren’t made immediately on reducing government spending. In forewarning the nation of his intention to reign in the fiscal deficit

Prime Minister Tony Abbott with Indigenous Advisory Council’s Warren Mundine. File image

– after accusing Labor of years of largesse – Hockey effectively gave his bureaucratic razor-gang carte blanche to slash funding to all government programs, with no exceptions. It therefore came as no surprise to me to read of the Indigenous Affairs budget come under attack ahead of Hockey’s National Press Club address and again on the day of his bleak signal of harder times ahead. A couple of days ago the Abbott government took funding from the First Peoples Education Advisory Group, citing the “tight fiscal environment” and the need to cut red tape. In making the announcement Indigenous Affairs

Minister Nigel Scullion said he thought “very carefully” about cutting funds for the final year of this group. He said he would now take education advice from the Warren Mundine led Indigenous Advisory Council “in line with our policy of reducing bureaucracy and red tape”. First Peoples Education Advisory Group member, Emeritus Professor Paul Hughes, wasn’t amused when he received the bad news in the form of a letter from Scullion of the government intention to take expert education advice from other sources. “One would have thought experts would mean an advisory group such as ours, which was set up for that Page 1


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purpose,” he said. “I particularly worry the quality of advice they’re now going to receive from experts will be diminished.” Next on Abbott’s razor gang list, announced yesterday, was the scrapping of the watchdog that monitors service delivery in remote Indigenous communities. Brian Gleeson, the coordinator-general for remote Indigenous services, will finish up when his contract expires in January 31, providing a saving to the government of $7.1m over three years by scrapping his office. In finding another $9 million in savings over three years the Abbott government also announced yesterday they would defund the peak National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and all law reform and policy officer positions nationally. NATSILS chairman Shane Duffy said there was no group to fulfill their legal advocacy work for Indigenous people if they were prohibited from doing so. “Without the advocacy work of a national peak body and state and territorybased law reform and policy officers, more people are going to end up in prison. It’s as simple as that,” he said. Duffy was emphatic when he said he didn’t expect this action from Abbott, “from a Prime Minister who has positioned himself as the Prime Minister for Indigenous Australians”. It’s been reported that Warren Mundine, Chairman of the PM’s Indigenous Advisory Council, was unhappy with the cuts to NATSILS but true to form – in not wanting to offend Tony Abbott - remained conspicuously silent on the matter. The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, on the other hand, was quick to criticise the Abbott government on NATSILS funding cuts. “Congress calls upon the Prime Minister to show leadership and understanding of the need for increased capacity in our organisations and

communities. He can demonstrate that by ensuring the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services is retained and strengthened,” said Co-Chair Les Malezer. “Our Peoples must be selfdetermining and will not accept Governments making decisions on funding priorities without us.” I’m not sure whether Malezer and his co-Chair Kirstie Parker have asserted their position on these and future funding cuts to Indigenous programs as a means of putting on a brave face for their selective membership before the inevitable razor is sharpened and executed on them by an unsympathetic bureaucrat acting obediently to the directions of Mundine, Scullion and Abbott. In fact I’m quite surprised the National Congress has lasted this long under the Coalition’s watch as Scullion’s office told me before the elections in September that they would not be funded should they win office. At the very least I would expect the razor gang to slash $5m off the National Congress – a figure promoted as the sum total of funds required to finance Abbott’s Indigenous Advisory Council for a year. Given the Indigenous Advisory Council is going to run for a minimum period of three years – then I predict $15m will be slashed from the National Congress to pay for Mundine’s committee for that duration. I would not be floored should the full weight of a sharpened razor fall and sever completely the National Congress of all its funds and – in the same vein as the total demise of ATSIC under the Howard administration’s ruthless savagery – render them obsolete. I’m not sure relying on Warren Mundine to man-up to Tony Abbott by telling him to steer clear of cutting the Indigenous Affairs budget is a good strategy. If Mundine’s form to date, of

standing up to Abbott and big corporations in saving Indigenous jobs, is anything to go on I suspect we’ll all be in for plenty of belt tightening as well as harmful social and emotional duress for years to come. Mundine’s surprising comments to the announcement early this month of Rio Tinto’s decision to close their alumina refinery in Gove as “purely commercial” speaks volumes of where his head space is at since assuming the highest public office in Indigenous Affairs. “I’m very comfortable with David Peever being on the council, and I spoke to him on Friday about it, and the skills, knowledge and experience that he brings to the council are things that we do need,” Mundine told Sky News in his defence of Rio Tinto managing director’s decision that will impact on 1500 jobs, many of them local Indigenous workers. So what can we expect from Warren Mundine in his influential position as head of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council? Recently Mundine was very animated when he said he wants to become the prime minister’s “worst nightmare”, saying he will “call him out” if the government doesn’t produce outcomes for our mob. “We are going to make him the prime minister for Indigenous people, and that is through the success rate we do in education and getting people into jobs.” Well on the latter points Mr Mundine why have you allowed Abbott to get rid of the peak Indigenous Education advisory body; take money off our peak Indigenous legal service; close down the coordinator-general for remote Indigenous services office; and condone the actions of your advisory council member, David Peever, when he elected to shut down his company’s Gove alumina refinery that will cost remote Indigenous workers hundreds of Page 2


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jobs? Mundine’s high profile Indigenous council member, Leah Armstrong, CEO of Reconciliation Australia, said recently that engaging with business is the “key to addressing the disadvantage”. I don’t expect the conservative CEO of Reconciliation Australia will speak up for her people if it meant upsetting Mundine and Abbott and placing her esteemed council membership at risk. I don’t know the other Indigenous members of the council to say whether they have the ticker to stand up for our rights. Only time will tell whether they have the backbone to do so or if they’ll choose to remain quiet and compliant to Abbott whilst he takes the razor to our programs. Let’s hope their handsomely remunerated sitting fees and associated costs related to meeting attendance, including business class travel, is worth their silence and the legacy they will carry with them well after they’ve exited the council. I’m hopeful that some of the Indigenous members on the council will form an alliance and publicly challenge decisions that are detrimental to our mob around the nation. Only time will tell. Perhaps Indigenous Australia should forget about appealing to the Indigenous membership of the PM’s advisory council and instead lobby the heavy corporate hitters in Westpac CEO Gail Kelly and Australian Indigenous Education Foundation CEO Andrew Penfold. Penfold, in particular, has outstanding runs on the board in the field of achieving Indigenous education outcomes. Despite my high regard for the ability of Andrew Penfold to getting things done, I am conscious however that Warren Mundine has recently been elected Chair of the AIEF following the resignation of Ann Sherry AO at a board meeting on 25 November. And again, only time will tell

whether Kelly and Penfold can lend their considerable corporate weight to influence Abbott and his acquiescent deputy, Mundine, to embargo any further cuts to the Indigenous Affairs budget. I also hope they can change the terms of reference of their meetings from being confidential to being public documents. To me it’s rather hypocritical that government agencies insist on Aboriginal organisations being accountable and transparent with government funding – yet they, Mundine’s council, have secretive meetings amongst themselves on policies that, when implemented, have significant – and based on

recent funding cuts – potentially detrimental effects on our lives. We are in for interesting times ahead during Abbott and Mundine’s watch. Will Mundine prove his doubters wrong and show true leadership by leading from the front to effect meaningful policy change to significantly close the gap in our mob’s high levels of social marginalization? Or will he be a docile yielding black ‘pretty boy’ figurehead for Abbott as his government continues to erode our hard fought rights won by our forebears? Only time will tell!

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Will mundine save us from abbott’s funding cuts?