Abbott Government's Indigenous Funding Shake-up in Disarray

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The Abbott government’s “ambitious reform agenda” for Indigenous affairs funding appears to be in disarray, with half of the applications received under its Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) incomplete or late, forcing the government to extend its grants period.

A large number of applications were from smaller Aboriginal organisations, who didn’t have the administrative resources to cope with the short time frame and new requirements under the new approach by the Commonwealth.

Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion announced a six-month extension for applications yesterday after receiving an “overwhelming response” to its first grant funding round.

The Indigenous Advancement Strategy is the Abbott government’s new model to streamline Indigenous funding, and involved repositioning 150 separate programs into five broad streams set by government – “Jobs, Land and Economy”, “Children and Schooling”, “Safety and Wellbeing”, “Culture and Capability” and “Remote Australia Strategies”.

$4.8 billion over four years is divided between those five programme streams.

In a statement released yesterday, Minister Scullion said that while more than 5,000 applications had been received, they were of “varying quality”.

He noted that 72 organisations identified by Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), whose funding was due to cease in early December, had not applied under the IAS. 

Minister Scullion said “of the almost 2,300 individual applications lodged, more than half were either late or had some compliance issues including, at times, insufficient detail for immediate assessment”.

“Many of these are from smaller Indigenous organisations. This does not reflect their ability to deliver effective services on the ground, but highlights they may not have the resources or administrative structures to support the lodgement of effective funding applications.”

The Abbott Government has been repeatedly warned of precisely this problem, with major concerns across Indigenous affairs that small Aboriginal organisations which are good at service delivery will lose funding to large non Aboriginal organisations who are good at submission writing.

The IAS also sparked widespread confusion from Indigenous organisations concerned about where their programs fit into the new process and what it meant for the future of frontline services.

It also came against a backdrop of a half a billion dollars slashed from the black budget.

Organisations were given a short timeframe to apply under these new requirements, with the round opening on September 8 and closing on October 17th. It has now been extended for another six months.

Earlier this year, a coalition of Aboriginal organisations, led by the only nationally elected Aboriginal body the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, slammed the IAS funding round stating it is causing “instability, anxiety and uncertainty”.

“It threatens long-term damage to outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and prospects for a reconciled nation,” the group said.

There has also been widespread concern over the new requirement that Aboriginal organisations that receive more than $500,000 in government funding be incorporated under the Office of Indigenous Corporations (ORIC), whereas non-Aboriginal organisations can operate under the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC).

The Aboriginal Health Council of WA was one organisation to claim the policy was discriminatory.

“ORIC has significantly more powers than ASIC to intervene in the operations of a registered organisation,” it said.

“Without outlining any need for change, the Federal Government is creating a two-class system, where it is far easier for them to intervene in the affairs of Aboriginal organisations,” she said.

“Non-Aboriginal organisations will effectively be able to do as they please under ASIC, while ORIC will have incredible powers to direct the affairs of Aboriginal organisations.

Minister Scullion said he was committed to the IAS because “it is the right thing to do and I am focussed on getting this right the first time, which means taking the necessary time needed to do it properly”.

Extending the assessment process was about ensuring “we must learn from past mistakes where programmes and policies failed because their implementation was rushed”.

He said the assessment period extension wouldn’t impact those organisations funded until June 2015.

But Greens senator Rachel Siewert said the extension “was the inevitable outcome of a flawed process”.

“This is quickly turning into a debacle,” Senator Siewert said.

“Community organisations and service providers have been deeply concerned by the new funding application process implemented under the IAS.

“The government cut half a billion dollars from Aboriginal expenditure, rushed the process, did not do the assessment of what worked before reducing the programs and put too much pressure on over-stretched organisations to respond.

“The combining of cutting so many programs, the tight time frames and application process changes have put a lot of pressure on organisations, as shown by the large number of applications, the issues with the quality of some applications and the fact that other organisations have not applied.”

Senator Siewert called on the Abbott government to “go back to the drawing board”. 

New Matilda

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