The Minister for Indigenous Affairs has defended the Abbott Government’s decision to cut funding for a program aimed lowering rates of recidivism among Aboriginal prisoners, saying it did not produce “strong outcomes on the ground”.
The federal government has been accused by Labor of lying after it ceased funding for a ‘through care’ program run by the NSW/ACT Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS), which provided resources for prisoners pre- and post-release to help them deal with substance abuse, find housing, and re-integrate into the community once their sentences were completed.
Minister Nigel Scullion said the axing of the program, which costs $500,000 annually, did not mean the Abbott Government had broken a commitment that savings found in Indigenous affairs would not impact on frontline services.
“This is not a backtrack. We are targeting money where it is most needed most on the front lines,” Scullion told New Matilda, in a written statement.
“The Government is keen to ensure that every dollar we put into Indigenous services will benefit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and make a real difference on the ground, not caught up in bureaucracy and red tape.”
The Minister said prisoner support programs were generally funded by state governments but that the Abbott Government would continue to provide support for 10 through care programs via its Indigenous Justice Programme.
It remains unclear what differentiated the NSW/ACT program from similar schemes in the Northern Territory and Queensland, which have had their support extended for a further two years.
Phil Naden, the CEO of ALS NSW/ACT told New Matilda on Tuesday that his organisation’s through care program, which had been run in conjunction with NSW Corrective Services, had been effective and that cutting its funding would leave up to 80 clients a year without support.
“It leaves a very big gap in the service. We’ve now got our case managers advising all the jails and the clients that we have engaged in services that we will no longer be around,” Naden said.
“We’re unsure where to refer these clients because we’re under the impression that we were the only service provider providing this vital service.”
Labor has stepped up its criticism of the Abbott Government’s decision to scrap the program, with Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs Shayne Neumann labelling Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s commitment to closing the gap “fake” and “a joke”, while also lashing out at Scullion.
“The Minister has been going around the countryside saying that no front-line services will be cut,” Neumann told Parliament on Tuesday.
“This is the start of many, many services, groups and organisations around the country, from Fitzroy Crossing to Newcastle, to Melbourne, to Ipswich to Torres Strait to Cairns, which will receive funding cuts from this government.”
In response to a question from Neumann about the half a billion dollar cuts ear-marked for Indigenous spending, Prime Minister Abbott Tony Abbott accused Labor of spending wastefully while in government. He said “re-organising” Indigenous affairs would help increase the effectiveness of spending.
“We believe that we can make modest savings in this area and still deliver more to the Indigenous people of our country,” he said.
Update, June 19: The Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion responded to futher questions put by New Matilda after deadline. He said that internal self-audits completed by the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW were consulted in the process of reviewing the ThroughCare program.
“In a competitive funding environment, the reports indicated the service was not delivering strong enough outcomes on the ground to warrant further government investment,” the Minister said.
Scullion rejected claims the ALS NSW/ACT had been singled out.
“A small number of Indigenous justice-related services whose funding from the Australian Government expires on 30 June 2014 have not been offered additional funding.”
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