Matthew Heffernan: Don’t Redefine Indigenous, Redefine Good Government
January 13, 2018
Photo credit: Amy Hetherington
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Matthew is a Pintupi-Luritja/Irish man, hailing from Alice Springs but now calling Darwin home. Matt was awarded a National Scholarship from “Global Voices” (A Non-Government Organisation promoting international diplomacy). This involved undertaking research to develop a paper for publication on “Indigenous Economic Development”. As part of the scholarship Matt travelled to New York City to participate in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, where elements of the paper were included in the Global Youth Caucus’ final recommendations to the Forum. Matt is now a fulltime IT student. If you can’t read this just turn it on and off again.
Recently the Productivity Commission looked into the way in which GST revenue is distributed across Australia’s states and territories. Currently, GST revenue is carved up based on a number of factors to achieve what is called horizontal fiscal equalisation (HFE). This assessment involves a number of measurements, one of which includes taking into account the proportion of Indigenous people in each state or territory. A significant change to the assessment criteria that is now being considered is the way in which “Indigenous” is defined by the Commonwealth Grants Commission.
This proposal has been prompted by a submission to the Productivity Commission’s GST review from the Yothu Yindi Foundation (YYF), which includes research that indicates that of the 68% of $3.4bn in the Commonwealth Grants Commission assessments meant for Indigenous people, only 53% of it was spent in this area by the Northern Territory (NT) Government. The submission also states that the trend of more people around Australia identifying as Indigenous, has meant that the GST allocation for the NT has significantly diminished in recent years.
One argument put forward by the YYF submission is that a university educated Indigenous person in Parramatta shouldn’t be prioritized over the needs of an extremely disadvantaged welfare dependent Indigenous person from Papunya, a community approximately 250km North West of Alice Springs. (Funnily enough, my family roots are tied to both of these places.)
There is of course a lot of merit in examining more closely the GST carve-up based on Indigenous–ness. While there is disadvantage for Indigenous communities across all the states, the NT does have its own unique challenges. For example, there is remoteness, lower gross state product, lower population and population growth, lower education outcomes, etcetera. There are many more areas in which the NT ranks in the lowest or lower tiers. These all justify why the NT should be getting a larger share of the GST revenue pie.
Unfortunately, however, revelations about the effect on GST revenue distribution from a rapid spike in the demographic of Indigenous people across South Eastern states is like blood in the water for the sharks of the NewsCorp news media, who took a brief pause from their frenzy on #AfricanGangs, to police the identities of Indigenous Australian’s based on assimilationist-era blood-quantum rationales in their coverage of the story earlier this week.
As Professor Marcia Langton highlighted in thisAustralian article, determining factors like chronic health and household occupancy issues should be prioritized over simply Indigenous demography when determining need for GST revenue distribution. Although the NT’s extreme levels of disadvantage in those areas (and others) do justify a greater share of GST revenue, this doesn’t and shouldn’t negate the fact that Indigenous people in communities across Australia, remote and urban, still do require significant funding for the same and similar issues faced in Papunya.
While Parramatta might be an easy target for white media’s disdain of the Indigenous middle class, New South Wales also has remote townships with significant Indigenous populations such as Moree, Wilcannia and Bourke that continue to experience their own socioeconomic-related issues.
However, this leads us to two questions. The first being: if the NT Government is indeed getting a larger share of the GST pie, WTF is going on NT Government? With all the issues raised in the Closing the Gap reports, the numerous recommendations from the numerous Royal Commissions, and not including the numerous inquiries from the various parties in the NT Government over the last few decades, how is it that they’ve managed to not apportion Indigenous-focused funding properly?
I believe part of the problem is that there is lack of foresight that has crept into Indigenous policy development, primarily driven by populist, short-term electioneering. Come to the NT during an election year and watch as promises of housing development and refurbishments are bandied around, and then watch as those same commitments become lost in the quagmire of poor contractor management and bureaucratic process overheads.
The second question then is, with such gross oversights, who should oversee this distribution? The Productivity Commission? A panel made up of entirely zero Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people?
Please excuse me while I conflate a lot of old timey idioms, but while the Federal Government might see this as a high-horse to climb on to disparage the NT Labor Government, it should also be careful of throwing stones from its glass house (Do they still live there? I’m pretty sure it shattered a few centuries ago. I’m not sure).
Well, last year, there was a fairly significant forum held at Uluru, to discuss a wide variety of economic, political and social perspectives on Indigenous governance and recognition. From this meeting there came a few recommendations, including the foundation of a more representative Indigenous body. Perhaps the latest revelation of failure by Federal and Territory governments in the mismanagement of Indigenous affairs revenue is evidence enough now, that in terms of our own governance, we as Indigenous people are the best suited to handling these matters ourselves.