Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Black Dollars Go Everywhere But To Blacks by Joel Gibson and Debra Jopson

Hundreds of millions of dollars which the Federal Government says it has spent on indigenous affairs have never been spent, have been used to benefit all Australians or have gone towards opposing Aboriginal native title claims.

A significant portion of the money the Government says it has spent since 2000 - which has risen annually and reached $3 billion last year alone - was either underspent or the result of creative accounting, a Herald investigation has found.

Over the past six years, at least $30 million of the money the Government promoted as being for Aborigines was used to oppose native title and compensation claims. Spending figures have also been bloated by money spent on services that benefit everyone - such as medical centres - but the money is nevertheless described specifically as the "black dollar".

Last financial year, for example, almost $50 million of the federal spending on indigenous people was for legal aid, which the courts have recognised as a right under common law. The $500,000 estimated to be the cost of Family Court disputes involving Aborigines has also been counted.

Official federal black spending has included $9.2 million over four years of Aboriginal involvement in the North Australia Quarantine Strategy, which allows officials to tap into indigenous knowledge to help prevent the incursion of new diseases.

The Government's indigenous budget has even included $66,000 over the past six years for the Bureau of Meteorology to gather weather forecasts using traditional indigenous observations of nature.

Creative acounting has helped create the impression that Aboriginal spending is soaring. Three years ago, the amount listed as Centrelink indigenous spending almost doubled from $46.6 million to $85.8 million by adding in all additional expenses incurred in delivering age pensions to indigenous people.

Over two financial years, the Federal Government spent $8.7 million less than it budgeted on its family violence partnership program under Mal Brough's families portfolio.

The Government spent almost $110 million less than it said it would on 30 items in its indigenous budget last financial year, according to analysis by the office of Labor's indigenous affairs spokeswoman, Jenny Macklin.

The shortfall included more than $25 million on health services, $2 million for child-care services, $9 million for the family violence partnership program, $9.8 million for Indigenous Business Australia's equity and investments, and $37.4 million for Abstudy for tertiary students.

In May, Ms Macklin also claimed that budget papers revealed underspending of $60 million in the current indigenous housing program for 2006-07.

In the financial year 2005, the Federal Government failed to spend $181.75 million it had allocated to schooling indigenous children and adults, simply moving the money into the following year's budget, Senate estimates reveal. The revelations come as the Government has pledged $580 million in new spending to fund its Northern Territory intervention, and as the Herald has found that in at least one Alice Springs organisation, Tangentyere Council, chronic underfunding has exacerbated Aboriginal disadvantage.

"A lot of indigenous-specific expenditure has not been simply on top of' that which indigenous Australians might benefit from by being Australians," a federal parliamentary library paper released this month said.

A large proportion is substitute spending for programs that other Australians get as a matter of course, said parliamentary researchers John Gardiner-Garden and Malcolm Park.

The Herald found numerous examples of "grey dollars" spent on services needed by the entire nation. In many cases the spending was of greater benefit to non-indigenous people.

Almost $250,000 spent over the past six years on courts and tribunals used by both claimants and their opponents sorting out native title issues has been counted as money for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Other examples of general expenditure put into the indigenous budget include:

■ All federal spending on reconciliation, meant to be for improving relationships between indigenous and other Australians, with $35 million of projects listed over nine years.

■ The $18.6 million cost of the National Museum of Australia's indigenous galleries and programs over the same period. These educate all Australians and even overseas visitors.

■ A $7.6 million plan to put public phones into remote communities. Andrew Crouch, from the Centre for Appropriate Technology in Alice Springs, which designed the 240 low-maintenance phones so far installed, said there was nothing inherently Aboriginal about the phones.

■ Even the total $2.6 million the Tax Office spent in the 2005-06 financial year ensuring indigenous corporations paid GST properly has been counted.

The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Mal Brough, said last night that everything listed in his Government's budgets as such was genuine indigenous expenditure.

He said there had been underspending on specific items listed in the indigenous budget, because organisations that may have been slated to get funding had been found wanting.

"I won't apologise for doing that," Mr Brough said. "Too much money has been spent just to expedite getting it off the books in years gone by without driving for outcomes. But we are driving for outcomes now."

This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald

Tuesday, August 21, 2007