Commonwealth Expenditure on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs


Current Issues Brief 15 1995-96

John Gardiner-Garden
Social Policy Group

The author would like to thank his colleagues Geoff Winter and Greg Baker for their considerable assistance with the production of the paper's table and graph.

Contents

Introduction

This paper summarises in prose, table and graph form Commonwealth expenditure in the area of indigenous affairs from 1967-68 to 1994-95 and presents arguments for and against three propositions which are often put in debates over this expenditure.

Expenditure from 1967-68 to 1994-95

Identifiable Commonwealth expenditure in the area of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) Affairs began with the establishment of the Office of Aboriginal and Affairs soon after the landmark referendum in 1967. It increased significantly with the creation of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) soon after the Whitlam Government came to office in December 1972. It increased noticeably again in 1985 when the relevant expenditure by other Commonwealth departments started to be separately identified. In 1990 the DAA was replaced by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and at about that same time several other specialist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies started to have their expenditure separately identified. By 1992/93 total identifiable Commonwealth expenditure in the area exceeded $1.4 billion. In 1993/94 ATSIC expenditure continued to increase but overall Government expenditure in the area fell slightly as a result of lower identifiable expenditure by other Departments.

The table and graph below are based on data presented in various DAA and ATSIC Annual reports.


     COMMONWEALTH EXPENDITURE ON ABORIGINAL AND TORRES STRAIT ISLANDER AFFAIRS
     -------------------------------------------------------------------------
                             1967-68 TO 1994-95
                             ------------------
                                ($ millions)
                                ------------

                       =============================================================
                       1967-68  1968-69  1969-70  1970-71  1971-72  1972-73  1973-74
                       =============================================================
Main ATSI agency (a)
--------------------
Employment                                   1.4      0.4      0.6      4.1      4.8
Health                              0.5      0.8      1.2      2.0      3.0      9.4
Law and justice                                                         0.7      1.2
Housing                             2.3      2.8      6.1      6.5     14.3     25.0
Community infrastructure                     0.3      7.5      8.2     10.5     15.7
Education                           0.8      0.9      2.9      3.0      3.1      4.8
Other                      0.0      6.4      2.7      2.0      3.6      8.6     17.3
Total                      0.0     10.1      8.9     20.0     24.0     44.3     78.3

Other specific ATSI agencies
----------------------------
ATSICDC
Abor. Hostels
ABTA
AIATSIS
Ranger agree.
TSRA
Total

Other portfolios
----------------
Employment, Education and Training
Housing
Other
Total

GRAND TOTAL                0.0     10.1      8.9     20.0     24.0     44.3     78.3
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Grand total
1994-95 prices             0.1     70.4     59.0    125.9    141.0    243.8    377.6
====================================================================================
                       1967-68  1968-69  1969-70  1970-71  1971-72  1972-73  1973-74
====================================================================================



                       =============================================================
                       1974-75  1975-76  1976-77  1977-78  1978-79  1979-80  1980-81
                       =============================================================
Main ATSI agency (a)
--------------------
Employment                14.6      5.7      5.3      6.8      6.9      7.0     10.1
Health                    11.9     15.9     14.4     16.3     17.5     18.5     19.9
Law and justice            2.7      3.7      3.7      3.9      4.2      5.0      5.0
Housing                   43.0     43.2     39.9     34.3     39.4     45.7     48.6
Community infrastruct     16.4     27.5     25.2     26.1     22.5     18.4     13.3
Education                  6.0      9.0      8.5      9.2      9.1      8.8      9.9
Other                     30.1     33.9     23.9     27.7     33.0     37.3     52.6
Total                    124.8    138.9    121.0    124.3    132.6    140.8    159.4

Other specific ATSI agencies
----------------------------
ATSICDC
Abor. Hostels
ABTA
AIATSIS
Ranger agree.
TSRA
Total

Other portfolios
----------------
Employment, Education and Training
Housing
Other
Total

GRAND TOTAL              124.8    138.9    121.0    124.3    132.6    140.8    159.4
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Grand total
1994-95 prices           493.7    472.9    369.8    351.6    351.3    340.4    347.9
====================================================================================
                       1974-75  1975-76  1976-77  1977-78  1978-79  1979-80  1980-81
====================================================================================



                       =============================================================
                       1981-82  1982-83  1983-84  1984-85  1985-86  1986-87  1987-88
                       =============================================================
Main ATSI agency (a)
--------------------
Employment                10.4     10.4     18.4     27.0     29.9     40.2     65.5
Health                    21.6     23.8     28.5     36.5     37.9     38.1     41.1
Law and justice            6.5      8.0     10.9     12.1     12.9     13.2     14.7
Housing                   42.3     50.2     57.9     68.9     78.5     81.8     90.4
Community infrastruct     21.7     24.8     32.1     35.2     34.8     49.1     45.5
Education                 11.0     12.2     14.0     15.4     15.7     16.0     12.4
Other                     55.2     68.6     81.0     86.1     85.4     93.6    107.8
Total                    168.8    198.0    242.8    281.2    295.1    332.1    377.4

Other specific ATSI agencies
----------------------------
ATSICDC
Abor. Hostels
ABTA
AIATSIS
Ranger agree.
TSRA
Total

Other portfolios
----------------
Employment, Education and Training                           148.6    167.3    180.6
Housing                                                       59.4     60.0     83.0
Other                                                          4.4     24.8     15.1
Total                                                        212.5    252.2    278.8

GRAND TOTAL              168.8    198.0    242.8    281.2    507.6    584.3    656.2
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Grand total
1994-95 prices           330.9    349.6    401.6    437.5    737.5    791.5    832.6
====================================================================================
                       1981-82  1982-83  1983-84  1984-85  1985-86  1986-87  1987-88
====================================================================================



                       =============================================================
                       1988-89  1989-90  1990-91  1991-92  1992-93  1993-94  1994-95
                       =============================================================
Main ATSI agency (a)
--------------------
Employment                99.0    133.2    194.1    204.5    240.8    251.9    278.3
Health                    43.5     43.7     48.6     48.2     61.1     70.6     84.8
Law and justice           17.0     19.6     18.6     21.8     29.8     31.6     33.4
Housing                   96.7     60.7     74.5     75.4     37.2    106.0    123.1
Community infrastruct     69.3     78.0     98.3     99.0    165.6    122.3     94.4
Education                 (d)
Other                    124.5    172.9    170.2    160.9    262.4    305.7    327.5
Total                    450.0    508.2    604.4    609.8    796.8    888.1    941.5

Other specific ATSI agencies
----------------------------
ATSICDC                                     10.0     10.0     10.0     10.0     (e)
Abor. Hostels                               22.6     23.6     29.6     35.8     29.1
ABTA                                                 37.3     31.1     27.0     29.1
AIATSIS                                               5.8      5.8      5.6      5.5
Ranger agree.                                         0.2      0.2      0.2      0.2
TSRA                                                                            21.9
Total                                       32.6     76.9     76.7     78.6     85.9

Other portfolios
----------------
Employment, Education    190.9    210.6    305.9    389.5    351.7    279.4    291.9
Housing                  111.7    132.5    139.6    143.5    161.7     93.7     91.0
Other                     24.9     22.9     35.3     37.8     51.1     22.3     63.1
Total                    327.6    366.0    480.9    570.8    564.5    395.4    446.0

GRAND TOTAL              777.6    874.1   1117.9   1257.5   1438.0   1362.0   1473.4
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Grand total
1994-95 prices           911.0    961.5   1180.1   1302.5   1471.5   1378.3   1473.4
====================================================================================
                       1988-89  1989-90  1990-91  1991-92  1992-93  1993-94  1994-95
====================================================================================

(a) Office of Aboriginal Affairs - 1967 to 1971; Department of Aboriginal Affairs - 
1972 to March 1990; Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission - March 1990 onwards.
(b) Excludes Community Housing.
(c) Includes Community Housing.
(d) Function absorbed by other agencies from 1988-89.
(e) Became self-funding from 1994-95.

Source: Annual Report of the main ATSI agency, various years.

Commonwealth Expenditure on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs.

It is important to note the following:

  • The main-agency figures include not only loans and grants to organisations and payments to State and Territory governments, but also running /administration costs and consequently the ATSIC figures given here are usually a little higher than those used in the Government's annual Social Justice for Indigenous Australians.
  • As the names of the main agency's areas of activities and of the other Commonwealth portfolios with relevant expenditure have varied over the years only general descriptors of these areas and portfolios are used. For example, main agency 'health' includes substance abuse programs while main agency 'employment' under ATSIC narrows down to only Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) figures, leaving some other employment expenditure under 'other main agency expenditure'.
  • Some of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander specific agencies which make an appearance on the graph in the 1990s (eg ATSICDC - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commercial Development Corporation and AIATSIS - the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies) had predecessors in the 1980s, expenditure on which has been included under 'Main agency - other'.

The proposition that the definition of Aboriginality is too loose

Since identifiable expenditure on Aboriginal-specific programs started to increase rapidly a decade ago, there have been many suggestions that the Federal Government's administrative definition of Aboriginality was too loose. Arguments in favour of this proposition include:

  • The increase in identifiable expenditure followed, albeit by five years, the introduction in 1980 of the following administrative definition: 'An Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person is a person of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent who identifies as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and is accepted as such by the community in which he (she) lives.' This three-part definition soon started to enter legislation (eg. Aboriginal Land Claims Act 1983, s 2) and was accepted by the High Court (Mr Justice Deane in Commonwealth v. Tasmania 1983) as giving meaning to the expression 'Aboriginal race' within s. 51 (xxvi) of the Constitution.
  • There are alternatives. For more than sixty years the Commonwealth used a narrow definition of Aboriginal. As early as 29 August 1901 Attorney-General Alfred Deakin advised that 'half-castes' are not 'aboriginal natives' within the meaning of s 127 of the Constitution. The opinion was endorsed by Attorney-General Isaac Isaacs in October 1905 and repeated in each Census Report form 1911 to 1966(1).
  • The Federal Government's three-part administrative definition of Aboriginality is out of step with the genealogical definition used in many pieces of Federal legislation: 'Aboriginal' means a person who is a member of the Aboriginal race of Australia.'(2)
  • The Federal Government has not always been strict in the application of its 'acceptance' test. Not only have Australian born South Sea Islanders reportedly received Aboriginal benefits, but the Full Federal Court found in Attorney-General (Cth) v. State of Queensland, July 1990, that Aboriginal descent was sufficient grounds for the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody to inquire into the death of Darren Wouters, even though the community did not identify him as Aboriginal nor did he identify himself as Aboriginal.

Arguments against the above proposition include:

  • There is no blood test or physical examination which can establish aboriginality. Scientists long ago recognised 'race' to be a social construct with no biological basis, that genetic and morphological variation within the human species is far too small to sub-divide the species, and that it is much more useful to conceive of the species in terms of 'populations' suggested by region, culture, caste, religion, kinship and frequency, not exclusiveness, of genetic traits.(3)
  • The definitions based on degrees of Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal blood which were used for decades in State legislation produced capricious and inconsistent results based, in practice, on nothing more than an observation of skin colour. Drawing on documented sources, the historian Peter Read has offered the following conflation:

    In 1935 a fair-skinned Australian of part-indigenous descent was ejected from a hotel for being an Aboriginal. He returned to his home on the mission station to find himself refused entry because he was not an Aboriginal. He tried to remove his children but was told he could not because they were Aboriginal. He walked to the next town where he was arrested for being an Aboriginal vagrant and placed on the local reserve. During the Second World War he tried to enlist but was told he could not because he was Aboriginal. He went interstate and joined up as a non-Aboriginal. After the war he could not acquire a passport without permission because he was Aboriginal. He received exemption from the Aborigines Protection Act - and was told that he could no longer visit his relations on the reserve because he was not an Aboriginal. He was denied permission to enter the returned Servicemen's Club because he was.(4)

  • The three-part definition helps protect individuals from the prejudice of contemporary society. One of the main findings of a recent study was that 'mainstream Australians' are very ready to use labels such as "half-caste" and "1/16th black", to consider "real" indigenous people as living somewhere else and to see the "white" indigenous person as manipulating the system.(5)
  • In countries such as Canada where the Federal Government was involved in indigenous affairs from an early date, 19th and early 20th century categorisations of indigenous people have become entrenched and present enormous problems for individuals and families.
  • The inclusion in the present definition of self-identification fits well with such definitions as that considered by the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1986:

    Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies..., consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories.... They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems.(6)

  • The three-part nature of the present administrative definition produces a tighter definition than that which would result from one based only on descent and indeed, when the Government introduced its ATSIC Bill in 1988, it was criticised by the Coalition and the Democrat spokespeople on Aboriginal Affairs for using the broader, and arguably circular, definition of an Aboriginal person as 'a person of the Aboriginal race of Australia'.(7)

The proposition that indigenous Australians are receiving more than their fair share of Commonwealth money

Comments made during the 1996 Federal election campaign prompted much public debate on the above proposition. Arguments for the proposition include(8):

  • With only 1.6% of the total Australian population identifying as indigenous, per capita Commonwealth expenditure on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is high and contributing to the spread of welfare dependency among indigenous people.
  • Some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander specific entitlements appear to have more generous conditions than do their mainstream equivalents (eg. the parental means test for Abstudy's living allowance and the eligibility criteria for Abstudy's school/hostel directed boarding allowance).

Arguments against the above proposition include(9):

  • By any socio-economic indicator indigenous Australians are, as a group, far worse off than non-indigenous Australians. Numerous reports identify massive unmet need, especially in the area of housing and infrastructure for remote Aboriginal communities, and, as high as present expenditure is, it is following decades of neglect and legal discrimination.
  • Less than 10% of the Commonwealth's assistance to indigenous people is in the form of payments to individuals.
  • Nearly a third of Commonwealth wide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander specific expenditure (and nearly all ATSIC's expenditure) substitutes to a large measure for expenditure on mainstream assistance programs (eg. Abstudy for Austudy, Community Employment for Newstart, Community Housing for housing under the Commonwealth-State Housing agreement, Aboriginal Legal Aid for general legal aid, Aboriginal Medical Services for Medicare supported services). A further 10% is for services which are arguably the responsibility of other levels of government.
  • Indigenous Australians utilise mainstream services and benefits such as Pharmaceutical Benefits and Aged Care at a much lower rate than other Australians. In fact, in 1993-94 the sum of mainstream and specific health expenditure on indigenous people (1.6% of the population) was only 1.26% of total Commonwealth health expenditure.(10)
  • Most Aboriginal-specific programs are not generous in their entitlements (eg the Community Development Employment Projects, nearly one third of ATSIC's budget, offer working participants the equivalent of or less than a Jobsearch allowance).

The proposition that Commonwealth expenditure would be more effective if most indigenous services were mainstreamed

Since the election, allegations of favouritism and financial irregularities within bodies funded by ATSIC (eg the NSW and Victorian Aboriginal Legal Services), within ATSIC regional councils (eg over housing development funds) and within the ATSIC board itself (eg over grants and conflict of interest) have given rise to debate on the above proposition. Arguments in favour of the proposition include:

  • ATSIC's role as a representative political body needs to be separated from its role as a service provider.
  • The delivery of Government service on grounds of Aboriginality not only generates resentment in the community which does not assist the people the services are meant to benefit, but it may add to welfare dependency.(11)
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander specific programs (other than those concerned specifically with land and culture) could be run either as such by mainstream specialist agencies (just as the Department of Education has administered Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student assistance since 1988 and the Department of Health has had responsibility for Aboriginal Medical Services since 1995) or, when they substitute for easily accessible mainstream programs, could be abandoned in favour of the latter.
  • In some cases an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander specific program (eg CDEP) could become a program open to all Australians.

Arguments against the above proposition include:

  • Mainstream agencies lack the cultural sensitivity to deliver services successfully to indigenous Australians.
  • Indigenous control of these services is essential for the advancement of Aboriginal self-determination and reconciliation.
  • The accountability requirements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations are strict compared with those imposed on the states and territories for their use of relevant Commonwealth money.
  • Many problems may be solved by changing, not ATSIC, but the Aboriginal Councils and Associations Act 1976, presently under review, so that corporate structures are not forced onto small bodies which are supplying essential services.

Conclusion

The question for policy makers is how to find a way forward on the service delivery front given the above arguments and given indigenous peoples' wider aspirations in the not unrelated areas of human rights, land rights, constitutional reform and recognition of customary law. It may be that at many points the best way forward lies somewhere between the opposing positions characterised above. It may also be that there are entirely different ways forward.

An alternative to either tightening or loosening the administrative definition of Aboriginality may be to have no definition. Eligibility for a benefit or program could be in terms of descent from a traditional owner, recognition as custodian, health, employment or educational need, language used etc, depending on the particular purpose of the benefit or program.

An alternative to both the ATSIC and mainstream model of service delivery, may be regional bloc funding. Such funding might be an extension of administrative agreements between interested parties, might involve establishing new statutory regional authorities (along the lines of the Torres Strait Regional Authority) or might involve setting up new regional governments (as happened in the Norfolk Island Act 1979).

Endnotes

  1. Hanks, Peter: 'A National Aboriginal Policy?', UNSW Law Journal, Vol. 16(1), 1993: 48-49.
  2. eg Aboriginal and Torres Strait (Queensland Discriminatory Laws) Act 1975, Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976, Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders (Queensland Reserves and Communities Self-Management) Act 1978, Aboriginal Development Commission Act 1980, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 and the Aboriginal Land Grant (Jervis Bay Territory) Territory Act 1986.
  3. eg Bowles, G., The Peoples of Asia, 1977: 2-3.
  4. From an as yet unpublished paper presented at the Aboriginal Citizenship conference at the Australian National University in February 1996.
  5. Report by Brian Sweeney and associates for the Aboriginal Reconciliation Branch of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, A New Beginning: Community Attitudes towards Aboriginal reconciliation, January 1995: i.
  6. Cunneen, Chris and Libesman, Terry, Indigenous People and the Law in Australia, Butterworths' Legal Studies Series, 1995: 238.
  7. Gardiner-Garden, J., 'Aboriginality and Aboriginal rights in Australia', Mabo Papers, Department of the Parliamentary Library, Parliamentary Research Service Subject Collection No.1, 1994: 43.
  8. For the many harder-to-substantiate but widely held beliefs which help give the above proposition community acceptance, see the report produced by Brian Sweeney and Associated for the Aboriginal Reconciliation Branch of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, A New Beginning: Community Attitudes towards Aboriginal Reconciliation, January 1996.
  9. For more on the issues of substitution and utilisation see Commonwealth Government paper Social Justice for Indigenous Australians 1994-95, especially pages 39-41, the 1994 ATSIC commissioned study entitled 'The Substitution Factor in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Programs' and the Parliamentary Library's Research Note No.16, 16 October 1995.
  10. Dodson, Michael, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Second Report 1994: 128.
  11. eg Pollard, David, 'Ending Aboriginal Poverty', Policy Autumn 1991: 9.
 
 

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