Will Tony Abbott cut our Indigenenous Affairs budget?
Stephen Hagan irst Nations leaders should prepare themselves for significant cutbacks to the Indigenous Affairs portfolio under a Tony Abbott led Coalition administration after the 14 September elections later this year. No one doubts that the inordinately confident conservative razor gang is at work, as we debate this issue, on social policy trimmings to balance the budget for immediate implementation after the polls are declared. It matters little what the budget ‘black hole’ really represents after Labors years in office as Abbott will inflate the size to justify his significant cutbacks. He’ll argue that all portfolios
will fee the pain in his party’s effort at addressing the budget ‘black hole’ but I suspect it will disproportinately reflect a bias against First Nations people. But it’s the magnitude of the cutbacks that is at the heart of this ongoing debate as media forecasts of doom and gloom at the polls for the incumbent Labor Party gains traction. Media commentators were forecasting back in January that federal Labor could lose as many as 18 marginal seats and those figures haven’t improved much with pollsters three months on. If those figures were realised by the Coalition the result would cut Labor’s numbers from 54 in the lower house, handing power to the Coalition with 91 seats.
The latest and most shocking disclosure last week involving a senior Abbott policy adviser making unambiguous threats to cutting the education budget for one of Australia’s most respected drivers of Indigenous education, adds credence to my pessimism on this topic. Andrew Penfold left a successful career as a lawyer and investment banker to devote his time full time but voluntarily to help transform the lives of Indigenous children through the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation (AIEF). AIEF is a private sector led, non-profit organisation focused on empowering Indigenous children in financial need to build a future through quality education and careers. A product of strong Page 1
partnership between the Australian Government and the private sector, AIEF has set up a $44 million fund to open the doors to leading schools and universities for young Indigenous Australians. Tony Abbott was forced, by a media outcry, to demote his director of policy, Mark Roberts, after the top-level staffer threatened to use his position in a future Abbott government to ensure a cut in funding to Penfold’s AIEF. “Dr. Roberts’ behavior was completely unacceptable. As a result of the investigation, Dr. Roberts has been demoted from his role as Director of Policy,” Tony Abbott said in a statement. “The contact last evening was initiated by Dr Roberts and in no way reflects on the individual concerned or the organization he represents.” Accepting that Roberts’ behavior was deemed inappropriate, Abbott also denied rumors that the staffer had told the AIEF Chief he would
cut his throat when the coalition won government. “That particular phrase is denied – it is denied,” Abbott said to reporters the morning following the incident at an official Qantas reception. On the other hand, Peter Van Onselen claims to have overheard the threat. He also tweeted about it. “A Tony Abbott staffer told an eminent Australian that he would ‘cut his throat’ once ‘we’ are in government…,” he tweeted about 0016 AEST on Friday. Van Onselen, an academic, author and political journalist said he heard Roberts say either slit the throat or cut the throat and then he heard the cutting of funding – as an exact quote. He said there was certainly no animosity on the part of Andrew Penfold, and he could not understand what had caused Abbott’s staffer to make those serious comments. The reason I raise this particular incident is to remind our leaders
that they might think Tony Abbott will support ongoing federal Indigenous funding initiatives, but in reality he is going to be far to engrossed immediately after taking office in pleasing the big end of town to worry about us. The Abbott razor gang will go about their merry way in slashing the Indigenous Affairs budget with little interference from their boss as he oversights far more important issues in his first month in office. It was fortunate for First Nations people that high profile media personality Peter Van Onselen was fearless in coming forward with what transpired at a Qantas party in Sydney last Thursday night when he overheard Mark Roberts make that threat against Andrew Penfold, otherwise an identical claim from a non-media personality wouldn’t have had the same outcome. The question remains: Will Tony Abbott cut Indigenous Affairs funding?