Debunking: 33 Billion

12 Feb 2019

When it comes to Indigenous people and free things, many Australians have a lot to say: “Indigenous people get free cars”, “Indigenous people get free houses”, “Indigenous people get free University education.”

When it comes to Indigenous people and free things, many Australians have a lot to say: “Indigenous people get free cars”, “Indigenous people get free houses”, “Indigenous people get free University education.”

These one-liners are thrown around just as frequently as “Indigenous Leader”. So, I’ve decided to debunk the Indigenous freebie myth.

I recently saw a post on social media that said Indigenous people get 33 billion dollars from the government. I was shocked and confused. I even nearly texted my cousin to see if she’d gotten any of this money. Here I am paying off my car, my HECS debt, together with my partner we rent a two-bedroom apartment. Apparently, all of this should have been free for me!

A quick google search on Indigenous spending led me to the 2017 Indigenous Expenditure Report. Right there in black and white, this report explained that there is an important distinction between ‘Indigenous people’ and ‘Indigenous Affairs’. One is a collective group who live Indigenous lives. The other is a portfolio set up to benefit those who know how to work a system for their own benefit (think, non-Indigenous bureaucrats, charities, organisations, corporates, and the occasional millionaire ‘philanthropist’ who usually doesn’t put any of their own money on the table for their ‘Indigenous’ charities and initiatives).

So when people say 33 billion dollars is spent on Indigenous people, you can reply “not really, it is actually spent on Indigenous Affairs, the two are vastly different”. But even that isn’t exactly true either. I’ll explain it.

In 2017, the Australian Productivity Commission released a report on Indigenous Expenditure by the Australian government.  An estimated $33.4 billion of Australian, State and Territory government expenditure was spent on services provided to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in 2015-16.

This is a fact.

There is a truth to the $33 Billion.

But there is much more going on when you look a little deeper.

According to the report, 6 billion (18%) of the 33 billion dollars was spent on targeted programs for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, and the remainder was through non-targeted, or mainstream, services. Spending on mainstream services has increased from $20.9 billion to $27.4 billion.

So when people say 33 billion dollars is spent on Indigenous people, you can reply “not really, it is actually spent on Indigenous Affairs, the two are vastly different”

So, what is the difference between targeted programs and non-targeted? Good question, this is the important part:

Indigenous specific spending (targeted) is money spent on services and programs that are provided to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community specifically (and that can be directly identified and measured). An example is a program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in a school. Spending is reported and tracked. Strict rules and guidelines are in place to ensure money is spent correctly.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mainstream spending (non-targeted) is provided for all people (Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians). The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander component is estimated using service use measures. Think hospitals, prisons and job service agencies.

Stay with me, this is the tricky part.

What has been created is a loophole where organisations, or governments, can take money earmarked for Indigenous people, but their spend is not directly reported on in the same manner as a targeted program. The report highlights there are limitations in measuring the gaps in data or incomplete identification of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in administrative data collections when referencing non-targeted spending.

This means that we don’t exactly know where the money is going or even if it is being spent on Indigenous issues.

From the data, we know that non-Indigenous people cost the taxpayer 522.7 billion dollars a year. By comparison, 6% ($33.4 billion) is earmarked for Indigenous people, but the Indigenous population comprises roughly 3% of the overall population.

The most vulnerable (disabled, elderly, unwell and young) in the Indigenous community comprise of those needing greater use of services by the government. With a percentage of the population living in remote locations, the cost increases again. The report highlighted this as the main factor contributing to a more substantial disparity of spending per person between Indigenous and non-Indigenous.

Greater need can be related to systemic disadvantage and generational low socioeconomic factors. Monetisation from land ownership and generational wealth is not a thing for Indigenous people, yet.

We are starting fresh in a system that kept us on the outside for generations. It is important to remember in this that land ownership for many in previous generations in Australia was not due to hard work and savings, but they were literally gifted parcels of land. From settlers to returned soldiers to mining magnates. This has led to a massive head start for many non-Indigenous Australians. Even those who bought their properties in the past generation or two, the housing boom has seen phenomenal wealth generation through increased house prices, negative gearing and as we are seeing at the moment, things like franking credits. Many Indigenous people have been, and continue to be, denied these opportunities.

We are literally starting fresh in a system that kept us on the outside for generations.

The report is in basic terms, numbers and line items. It does not examine the effectiveness and efficiency of service providers who receive funding. What this report does highlight is the need for a greater understanding of what money is spent on Indigenous people directly. What funding directly benefits the day to day lives of the Indigenous population. This perhaps could assist the government to better identify what works and what doesn’t.

A great example of non-targeted spending was when Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion gave his (non-Indigenous) mates money from this portfolio to actively work against native title claimants in the Northern Territory. The money gifted by Nigel came from the 33 billion dollars. It is Indigenous Affairs money. But how does that benefit the mob?

Can you see the loophole?

Overcrowding is still a significant problem facing Indigenous people in communities across the country. Clean drinking water, a fundamental human right. Many Indigenous communities do not have this. Incarceration rates go up. Children are still being removed from their families. Indigenous suicide is still a significant issue affecting many Indigenous families.

33 billion does not go directly to Indigenous people, as the report proves. If more of this money was better spent addressing these issues with evidence based services ran by Indigenous people with a focus on outcomes and community control, instead of being controlled by non-Indigenous bureaucrats and politicians who don’t understand the needs of Indigenous people then perhaps we wouldn’t continue to be the most disadvantaged Australians.

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