Indigenous affairs: education, employment and community safety

Budget Review 2021–22 Index

James Haughton and Sally McNicol

These Indigenous Affairs budget briefs summarise Indigenous-specific measures across portfolios, and provide some assessment of the likely effects of relevant general measures on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. For consistency with previous budget briefs and with reporting frameworks such as the Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage reports, measures are grouped into the (former) Council of Australian Governments (COAG) ‘Building Blocks’. This brief covers measures related to education, employment, and community safety (which fall chiefly within the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) portfolio), while another Indigenous affairs brief covers measures relating to health, governance and culture (including land) and housing. All page references are to Budget Measures: Budget Paper No. 2 2021–22 unless otherwise specified.


The NIAA describes its key priorities (p. 213) as (in summary):

  • protecting Indigenous communities from the impact of COVID-19
  • mental health and youth suicide, community safety, education and employment, particularly in remote areas
  • the Indigenous Voice, constitutional recognition and the new Closing the Gap Agreement and
  • regional and local governance and Indigenous economic development.

In these priority areas, measures related to COVID-19 and mental health are chiefly funded through the health portfolio, so are covered in the other Indigenous Affairs budget brief. There are no specific Budget measures related to the Indigenous Voice or the new Closing the Gap framework. Minister Wyatt has flagged that more measures will be announced mid-year when the Commonwealth completes its Implementation Plan for the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap, due by July 2021 (12 months after signing the National Agreement). Thus the majority of NIAA portfolio measures in this Budget relate to community safety, education, employment and economic development.

Within these areas, some new Indigenous-specific measures with new funding (pp. 218–219) were announced, but with the exception of the new $111.0 million Remote Jobs program, the majority of Indigenous Affairs portfolio announcements consist of reprogramming and reprioritisation of existing NIAA funds. As the NIAA’s Evaluation Framework is now in operation, such reprioritisations still have the potential for substantial impact if they direct funding from less effective to more effective programs.

The Opposition and some Indigenous peak bodies have criticised the government for not announcing Closing the Gap measures in the Budget. Other Indigenous peak bodies have welcomed the announced funding and said they need to see the details of future Closing the Gap measures.

There is no additional ongoing non-health funding currently incorporated in overall forward estimates, with ‘Assistance to Indigenous Australians nec [not elsewhere covered]’ rising from $2,431 million in 2020–21 to $2,522 million in 2021–22 then falling to $2,347 million in 2022–23 (Budget Strategy and Outlook: Budget Paper No. 1 2021–22, p. 199), partly as a result of the longstanding National Partnership on Northern Territory Remote Aboriginal Investment (formerly ‘Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory’) expiring after this year. However, such estimates are subject to change, and the Budget includes $3,815.5 million in spending ‘decisions taken but not yet announced’ across all portfolios, creating potential fiscal scope for future announcements (p. 50).

Education and Early Childhood

Ensuring that Indigenous children have access to and attend high-quality preschool education has long been seen as a key component of closing the education gap, and is the subject of target 3 of the new Closing the Gap agreement. The new Guaranteeing Universal Access to Preschool measure (p. 91) may assist this if funding is directed to culturally appropriate (p. 78) services. Given lower attendance rates in remote areas, tying of funding to attendance from 2024 may be a concern. For more details see the Library’s budget brief titled Universal access to pre-school.

The new National Early Childhood Program for Children with Disability or Developmental Concerns measure (p. 178) may particularly benefit Indigenous children if delivered in culturally appropriate ways. In 2012, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children aged 0–14 years were more than twice as likely as non-Indigenous children to have a disability (15.2% compared with 6.6%).

The cross-portfolio measure Schools and Youth – supporting students, teachers and young Australians (pp. 78­–79) includes $16.6 million managed by the NIAA to assist boarding school providers to Indigenous students to remain financially sustainable under the impact of COVID-19.

The Indigenous Jobs and Skills Advancement measure (p. 173) includes $63.5 million over four years from 2020–21 to support an additional 2,700 places in Indigenous girls’ academies, providing culturally appropriate support to achieve year 12 and go on to further study or employment. However, this is not accompanied by new money, so will most likely come out of existing NIAA programs. The Government has previously been criticised (Recommendation 9, pp. 55–60) for prioritising Indigenous boys’ academies and sports programs over programs for girls and women. According to the Women’s Budget Statement (p. 48) this measure will ‘ensure gender equity in the provision of support for Indigenous students’.

Employment and Economic Participation

Funding of $111.0 million over five years in new money has been allocated towards piloting and rolling out the new Remote Jobs Program (RJP) (p. 176), which is to replace the existing Community Development Program (CDP). The CDP has been strongly criticised for the high rates of suspensions and penalties levied on participants and is currently the subject of a class action alleging it is racially discriminatory, which is noted in Budget Paper No. 1 (p. 284) as an unquantified contingent liability. An independent evaluation of the CDP found that the program was only marginally effective at boosting employment rates, and that community members on average thought the CDP made communities worse off. During the response to COVID-19 all CDP participation requirements were removed and penalties suspended or waived for participants. The NIAA has now stated that while the new RJP is being piloted, CDP mutual obligation activities will be voluntary rather than compulsory, although looking-for-work requirements still apply. The announcement that the new RJP will be co-designed with Indigenous people will be welcomed by many Indigenous stakeholder organisations, who have long advocated for a more community-directed employment program.

Not Indigenous-specific, but likely to complement this measure, is the Provision of Remote Services – continuation measure (p. 184) which provides $99.3 million to Services Australia to deliver government payments and services in remote locations. Indigenous people receiving ABSTUDY Living Allowance and other social security payments will also benefit from the $50 per fortnight increase in the base rate of working age payments (p. 181). For more on these changes to Social Security payments, see the Library budget brief titled Social Security.

The Indigenous Jobs and Skills Advancement measure (p. 173) involves a $243.6 million reprioritisation of existing funds, with no new money attached. It includes:

  • $128.4 million over three years for a new Indigenous Skills and Employment Program to replace a number of existing programs, commencing 1 July 2022 and complementing changes to the CDP
  • $63.5 million over four years from 2020–21 for Indigenous girls’ academies, mentioned above
  • $36.7 million over four years from 2020–21 to supplement funding for the Prescribed Body Corporate (PBC) Capacity Building program, to support recent amendments made by the Native Title Legislation Amendment Act 2021 to the Native Title Act 1993. The limited capacity of many PBCs to implement the reforms required by these amendments was repeatedly raised in stakeholder submissions to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee Inquiry into the amendments (pp. 37–38).
  • $10 million over two years from 2021–22 for Indigenous enterprises and community organisations to improve their access to off-grid solar power systems, stockyards, greenhouses and water security equipment. This may build upon the JobMaker Plan (investment in new energy technologies measure) that was included in last year’s Budget, and
  • $5 million in 2021–22 for grants to improve the food security of remote Indigenous communities. This is possibly in response to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs’ recent Inquiry into food pricing and food security in remote Indigenous communities.

Cuts that might be made to other programs to accommodate these measures have not been identified.

The Women’s Economic Security Package measure (p. 81) includes ‘$13.9 million over four years from 2021–22 to establish an Early Stage Social Enterprise Foundation focused on providing capacity building and financial support for early stage social enterprises that improve the safety and economic security of Indigenous women’. According to the Women’s Budget Statement (p. 46) ‘the Foundation will provide flexible loans and grants to approximately 30 Australian social enterprises each year to support Indigenous women entrepreneurs to innovate and solve social issues facing their communities’, particularly women who have experienced domestic violence. This is possibly a response to the Prime Minister’s Social Impact Investing Taskforce, whose final report has not yet been released. An Early Stage Social Enterprise support program was previously trialled by Indigenous Business Australia (IBA) from 2013 to 2015, with mixed results.

Measures relating to the Indigenous arts industry are discussed in the other Indigenous Affairs Library budget brief.

Community Safety

The Women’s Safety cross-portfolio measure (pp. 83–85) includes two items specific to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children:

  • $26.0 million over four years to better support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children who have experienced or are experiencing family violence and
  • $31.6 million over five years from 2021–22 for a dedicated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander survey on safety and violence.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women experience significantly higher rates of family and domestic violence, and higher hospitalisation rates due to family and domestic violence, than the general population average. Reported victimisation rates differ between sources, so the new survey may assist in clarifying the extent of victimisation and appropriately targeting prevention and assistance measures. For general information on this measure see the Library budget brief titled Women’s safety and economic security.

The National Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Child Sexual Abuse measure (pp. 174–175) includes a component ‘developing trauma-informed and culturally appropriate approaches for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’. It is not clear how much of the measure’s overall budget is devoted to this component, but the NIAA will receive $10.9 million over four years as part of the measure. Rates of substantiated child sexual abuse of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were approximately three times the rate of substantiated sexual abuse of non-Indigenous children in 2017–18, although the many issues affecting reporting of child abuse mean that such statistics should be used with caution.

The Budget also includes a not-for-publication amount (p. 173) for the Commonwealth’s settlement costs relating to compensating the Aboriginal survivors of sexual and other abuse at the Garden Point Mission on Melville Island in the Northern Territory (NT). A current class action against the Commonwealth lodged in the New South Wales Supreme Court by Stolen Generations survivors from the NT is listed in Budget Paper No. 1 (p. 284) as an unquantifiable liability.

The Budget provides an unpublished amount to continue the Cashless Debit Card (CDC) and Income Management programs (p. 179). Although these programs are not Indigenous-specific, the majority of those subject to income management in the Northern Territory (81%) and Western Australia (67%), and the CDC locations of East Kimberley (83%) and Ceduna (76%), are Indigenous. In all locations Indigenous participation in these programs is disproportionate relative to their percentage of the Australian population (3.3%).  More detail, including recent evaluations and commentary, is provided in the Library budget brief titled Cashless Debit Card and Income Management.