Indigenous Affairs

Dr John Garden
Social Policy Section

The size of the budget commitment

The Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, in his media release, 'Budget backs a better future for Indigenous Australians', stated that the Budget:

… will take total spending on Indigenous specific programmes to a record $3.5 billion in 2007-08 – 42 per cent more in real terms than Labor spent in its last year in office.[1]

The totalling of all the Australian Government Indigenous Expenditure (AGIE) figures in all the 2007–08 portfolio budget statements gives a figure of $3.64 billion as the budget estimate for 2007–08. Identifiable Commonwealth expenditure on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs in 1995–96 was $1.72 billion.[2] This 1995–06 expenditure figure in 2007–08 dollars is $2.43 million.[3] Using these figures the 2007–08 Budget represents a 49 per cent increase in real terms over 1995–96 expenditure.

The adequacy of the budget commitment

To develop a view on the adequacy of the funding, it is useful to consider changes to the size of the Indigenous population and the extent of unmet need.

On the subject of population, it might be observed that over the last 11 years there has been growth in the Indigenous-identifying population which is much higher than that for the general population. According to the 1996 Census of Population and Housing, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, Australia (ABS Cat. No. 2034.0), the estimated resident Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population as at 30 June 1996 was 386 049. According to Experimental Estimates and Projections, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians (ABS Cat. No. 3228.0), the estimated resident Indigenous population in 2007 (projecting forward from 2001 Census data using two different series of assumptions), might be either 510 405 (low series) or 561 387 (high series). These two 2007 projections would represent an increase of 23.2 per cent and 35.5 per cent respectively over the population estimated for 1996 giving rise to even stronger government financial implications. When adjusted for the increased Indigenous population, in real terms Indigenous specific expenditure has grown from between 10.6 and 21.6 per cent between 1995–96 and the 2007–08 Budget.

On the subject of unmet need, the following might be observed:

  • Housing: the Government has made a commitment of $293.6 million over four years to start up the new Australian Remote Indigenous Accommodation (ARIA) Program. This measure may be considered against the ATSIC’s estimates of funding shortfalls in Indigenous housing ($2.3 billion in 1999 and $3.5 billion in 2002) and a housing backlog that would take more than 20 years to clear.[4] The need in the Northern Territory alone has been estimated by the National Issues in Indigenous Housing 2004/05 and Beyond: Position Paper Developed by the Northern Territory Government to be $806 million.
  • Health: the Budget makes a commitment of $37.4 million for health visits for children aged 0–8, $38.2 million for family centred primary health care; $36.9 million for upgrading services to meet national standards; and $14.6 million to continue Indigenous community drug initiatives. These measures may be considered against the March 2007 Oxfam Australia report Close the Gap: Solutions to the Indigenous Health Crisis Facing Australia which found that increased funding for Indigenous health services in the range of $350 to $500 million per annum was required.
  • Employment: the Budget makes a commitment of $97.2 million to transform 825 Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) positions into paid jobs. This measure and other funds to broker employment for urban CDEP participants may be considered against the 2004 study by Boyd Hunter and John Taylor which estimated that by 2011, out of a total Indigenous population of over 15 yrs of 363 577, and a labour force of 189 424, only 93 884 Indigenous people will be in mainstream employment and 36 974 in CDEP employment.[5]

The Budget provides $815.7 million in new and extended funding over five years for 26 initiatives focusing on remote housing, education, employment and health. It also changes some policy settings with the aim of achieving further improvements in these areas. However, so low is the base from which programs are trying to advance the socio-economic situation of Indigenous Australians, that there will be debate about the adequacy of the commitment.

Overall thrust

Two observations may be made on general policy direction.

Firstly, the budget initiatives continue the Government’s drive to ‘give Indigenous Australians greater opportunity to share in the nation’s prosperity’—a drive others call mainstreaming.[6] Resources are redirected away from the areas where mainstream services and markets are strong. Where they are not, Indigenous people are offered or encouraged to seek opportunities elsewhere. The following initiatives exemplify this:

  • the replacing of CDEP in strong labour markets (i.e. urban Australia) with employment brokerage services
  • the ending of exemptions from having to look for work or undertake other approved activities for income support recipients in remote areas
  • the funding for hostels and private boarding schools which offer young Indigenous people an opportunity to seek employment and educational opportunities away from their home community
  • the expansion of places in the Indigenous Youth Mobility Programme which assists young people to access quality training in major centres
  • the creation of 1000 more scholarships for higher education and ABSTUDY entitlements enhanced to better support study away from home and
  • the funding for projects designed to attract Indigenous people in regional and remote communities into training through the Work Skills Voucher program.

Secondly, the Budget continues the Government’s thrust towards trying to get more out of public expenditure by clarifying lines of responsibility. The Government has been trying to achieve this at an agency level with Council of Australian Governments’ sponsored whole-of-government trials. It has also been trying to achieve this at a community level with Shared Responsibility Agreements (SRAs) and Regional Partnership Agreements (RPAs). Although evaluations of the success of these agency and community initiatives are yet to be completed, the Government is clearly keen to press on with the approach at the individual level—the aim here being to give Indigenous individuals a greater sense of ownership over core aspects of their lives. The following initiatives exemplify this:

  • the replacing of the Community Housing and Infrastructure Programme with the ARIA program, which will only fund houses or upgrades where the houses can be transferred to state and territory housing authority ownership or made available for purchase by individuals—the strategy here intersecting with the Government’s strategy to free up land tenure possibilities on communal land and
  • the conversion of some of the CDEP positions into ‘real’ jobs in government service delivery.


 [1].     M. Brough (Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs), ‘Budget backs a better future for Indigenous Australians’, media release, 8 May 2007,, accessed on 17 May 2007.

[2].    As recorded in J. Herron (Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs), Addressing Priorities in Indigenous Affairs, AGPS, Canberra, 1998.

[3].     Using the implicit price deflator for non-farm GDP.

[4].     The source for this information was the ATSIC website which is now inaccessible.

[5].    B. Hunter and J. Taylor, ‘Indigenous employment forecasts: implications for reconciliation’, Agenda, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 179–192,, accessed on 17 May 2007.

[6].     M. Brough, op. cit.