Author: Cheryl Axleby
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Cheryl Axleby is a proud Narungga woman with family ties across South Australia. Cheryl is the co-chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS).
Yet again, our people have been let down with this year’s Federal Budget. The investment in our communities is more eroded, our quality of life more diminished, our voices and needs more blatantly ignored.
While the Budget seeks to commemorate colonisation, it fails to address its ongoing consequences and the oppression that our people continue to experience. The most alarming aspects of the Budget further stack the system against our people and punish people living in poverty.
As a co-chair of NATSILS, I have been actively involved in trying to engage with governments to provide insight and solutions into justice and social issues we face, and the need for greater investment. It is disheartening that they are not listening, and actively doing damage to our communities.
One role of the Government is to recognise that poverty, racial and structural disadvantage exists and to do something about it, including making the right investments to drive change.
More pressure has been placed on rural and remote communities to increase employment where there are no opportunities, and at the same time, the National Partnership agreements on remote housing for WA, Qld and SA have not been funded.
Yet we know that many people accessing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services need help with housing and tenancy. These measures are set to create more legal need and greater barriers to accessing justice which directly impacts upon people’s physical, emotional and social wellbeing.
Welfare & CDP
Stringent measures deducting welfare payments from people with unpaid fines and outstanding warrants have been introduced. These measures come in the face of increasing rates of over-representation, and a demonstrated connection between poverty and imprisonment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Across Australia, governments should be abolishing imprisonment for unpaid fines, not deducting welfare payments from people who are already oppressed by the system. This will likely have a huge impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. We cannot afford to lose more lives to unpaid fines.
The concerning welfare measures include extending a punitive demerit point system to Community Development Program (CDP) participants. This cuts and suspends welfare payments for weeks at a time, risking further deep financial disadvantage for our most vulnerable people.
The over-penalising of CDP participants is causing high levels of financial hardship and shows that the program is deeply flawed. Since the introduction of the CDP, 300,000 financial penalties were applied, despite having only around 33,000 participants.
Despite the clear failures of the CDP, only minor improvements were introduced, including a new wage subsidy scheme and slight reduction in the hours participants need to work for their benefits. But for a wage subsidy scheme to have any impact, there must be jobs available in the first place. The loss of people’s income is causing deep distress and harming health. The CDEP programs previously supported within our communities, in my view, more adequately met the needs of our people and contributed to building community capacity.
Closing the Gap
Closing the Gap is not mentioned, despite a year-long refresh agenda. There is some welcome investment in Indigenous health organisations and aged care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
On the other hand, the Budget is strangely silent on justice, family violence, Closing the Gap and child protection. All of these areas have been identified as ‘a national crisis’ and are all interlinked.
Yet the Government has neglected the needs of our people who are victims and survivors of family violence. And while the NDIS is fully funded, there is no funding to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability will have equal access to culturally-safe support services under the NDIS.
When it comes to justice, the Australian Government has ignored the findings from their own Law Reform Commission ‘Pathways to Justice’ and Northern Territory Royal Commission inquiries. The recommendations, including introducing national justice targets, support for justice reinvestment and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services to deliver essential legal help, did not form part of the Budget. Instead, they have introduced oppressive, punitive measures which will disproportionately affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s quality of life.
We all know the statistics. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are 13 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous people. This is worse, and increasing, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, who are imprisoned at 21 times the rate of non-Indigenous women. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, who are 6% of the Australian youth population, make up 55% of children and young people in prison are 25 times more likely to be imprisoned.
How can it be, that these shameful statistics, continue to be ignored by our Commonwealth, state and territory governments.
The escalation of increasing rates of overrepresentation demonstrates current government policy and programs are not meeting the needs of our people. And we know that the Government could save $19 billion annually by 2040 if the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous rates of incarceration were closed.
The welcome investment in Indigenous health will not outweigh the government’s changes to housing and welfare, which will further entrench disadvantage. This will lead to more unmet legal need for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal services, already at crisis level. This need must be comprehensively mapped to determine the gaps in providing essential legal help.
Time for change
We remain unheard. Our national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representative bodies are not invited to sit at the table with government. Our communities are not meaningfully involved in the reform process. And now the poorest amongst us will be punished for the ongoing effects of colonisation.
There are solutions. Many of these were set out by our organisations in the 2016 Redfern Statement. Now we continue to wait for the Government to act on their commitment to “do things with us, not to us”.
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