An apt cartoon from NT News cartoonist and Troppo blogger Colin Wicking
As Colin Wicking acutely observes, the debate about responsibility for appalling conditions in remote indigenous communities has degenerated into a predictable federal/NT slanging match
A similar divide is evident in the discussion about causation amongst op-ed pundits. The right (e.g. Christopher Pearson in today’s Oz) emphasise the need for strong law and order policies and the malign influence of customary law. They make some good points. I don’t share the latte left belief in the sanctity of customary law as an element of “self-determination”. That especially applies to practices in relation to “promised” brides, but my objection is wider than that. Even in their original traditional guise, most forms of customary law “payback” “justice” were dreadfully barbaric and contrary to basic norms of international law. Degraded by alcohol and substance abuse as they are today, these practices are little more than licences for intimidation and indiscriminate mayhem. Alcohol-fuelled violent crime followed by equally alcohol-fuelled “payback” often gives rise to an endless cycle of retribution and counter-retribution.
Left-leaning pundit Adele Horin makes an even stronger point. She points to a recent joint Commonwealth/NT study into government spending at Wadeye/Port Keats which showed significant underspending per capita compared with the NT average. The most seemingly blatant example was education, where the NT government only spent 46 cents for every dollar spent on average elsewhere.
The problem with that figure is that the discrepancy occurs because NT school funding formulae, not only in Wadeye but throughout the Territory, are based on average school attendance rather than either enrolments or total number of school age children. Because attendances at Wadeye are even lower than the depresssing record of most other indigenous communities (it sems that less than 100 out of 650 kids attend school regularly), they don’t get much funding. It isn’t at all obvious that there would be any point in simply putting more teachers and classrooms out there without ensuring kids attended school, but there is no valid excuse for failing to implement effective policies to drastically boost attendances. The sorts of policies discussed in my previous post.
On the other hand, Territory politicians exhibit a bipartisan determination to deny that they are short-changing Aboriginal communities at all:
Treasurer Syd Stirling said yesterday the NT Government had spent the full $90 million allocated on Aboriginal housing last year. Opposition Leader Jodeen Carney said the NT Government spent 49.7 per cent of its annual budget on delivering services to Aborigines.
She said $19,069 per year was spent on every indigenous Territorian and $7873 on non-Aboriginal people.
The Commonwealth/NT report on Wadeye reached a different conclusion:
Contrary to expectations and to hype, the study found that governments had spent far less per head on an Aboriginal person in Wadeye than on the average Territorian – almost $2000 a year less.
How can both sets of figures be correct? I suspect they can’t. Horin ventures a guess:
Any visitor to Darwin can see it is well-equipped with modern amenities and pleasant housing – and that is partly because the Northern Territory under Commonwealth grants funding receives almost 5 ½ times per person what NSW or Victoria receives. As Bowden says, the generous Commonwealth funding flows untied to the territory on the basis it labours under problems of disadvantage and distance. But the funds appear to be distributed lavishly to the northern suburbs of Darwin in order to retain eight vital Legislative Assembly seats.
A Commonwealth Grants Commission working paper also shows that, compared with spending by other states, the territory underspends on “services to indigenous communities”. It should have spent $161.1 million on Aborigines in 2004-05. It spent just over half that.
In other words, successive NT governments have spent somewhat more on indigenous Territorians (hence Jodeen Carney’s figure of 49% of the NT budget spent on delivering services to Aborigines), but nowhere near as much as they should be spending having regard to how much they receive from the Commonwealth for redressing indigenous disadvantage.
Where Horin gets it wrong is in her assumption that the missing money is spent on providing lavish services to Darwin’s northern suburbs. She seems to imagine that Darwin’s streets are paved with gold. In fact, although Darwin’s services and infrastructure are very good, they’re no better than any other capital city, and Commonwealth Grants Commission formulae are designed to achieve exactly that result.
So where did the money go? It disappeared in a welter of extravagant publicly funded capital works projects over the last 20 years, the interest bill from which remains a huge drain on the NT budget. Territory net debt is currently running at $1.776 billion, where some other states have managed to almost eliminate state debt with GST revenue. The interest bill on this debt more than accounts for the annual shortfall of $80 million in spending on indigenous affairs.
The debt was run up progressively to fund a succession of ill-advised loss-making projects over the last 20 years, including the Yulara resort, Darwin and Alice Springs Sheratons, the Douglas-Daly farms project, the Trade Development Zone, Darwin-Alice Springs railway and the current convention centre/Darwin Waterfront project. All of these with the arguable exception of the railway are essentially private sector projects in which government had no business being involved. The total cost to NT taxpayers from these projects was much more than the current $1.776 billion net debt; that’s just the residue that the current Martin government hasn’t yet managed to pay back.
In some respects, therefore, it’s unfair to blame Clare Martin for failing to spend more in Aboriginal communities. She’s saddled with the legacy of 23 years of CLP fiscal mismanagement, and if she diverted much more money to services to Aboriginal communities it would be at the expense of delivering lesser standards of service to Darwin and Alice Springs than other parts of Australia enjoy. Mind you, that argument would have more force if the Martin government wasn’t currently spending $150 million or so of taxpayer’s money on the Darwin Waterfront project, which will push the budget back into deficit for the next 2 years. It’s eerily reminiscent of a CLP “big bucks” project from the bad old days of the 1980s. What Labor under Clare Martin has done is to adopt fiscal and general policies essentially indistinguishable from those employed by the CLP over 23 years!
Nevertheless, you don’t need to be a political genius to realise that for the Martin government to substantially increase NT government spending to Aboriginal communities at present would be an almost certain recipe for electoral annihilation. And the Feds are very unlikely to force them to do so, because that would equally certainly be sentencing their local CLP colleagues to permanent opposition status. That’s why the whole disgraceful fiasco has instantly degenerated into the usual pointless feds versus NT blame game charade.
So what’s the answer? Abolish self-government and appoint an Administrator to distribute federal funding equitably? Hardly an idea that anyone in the Territory, including indigenous people, would happily embrace. The NT was very badly neglected until we obtained political representation in the early 1970s and then full self-government in 1978. There must be another answer, but I have no idea what it is. Meanwhile, the situation in indigenous communities continues to deteriorate, driven by decades of government underspending and mismanagement, and exacerbated by gross irresponsibility on the part of Aboriginal people themselves.