Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Death by a thousand cuts – what is happening to the Indigenous culture programs of the Australian Government?

The Indigenous cultural programs of the Australian Government play a critical role in support for both Indigenous communities and for a diverse and dynamic Australian culture.

A network of community-based Indigenous arts centres and an array of cultural activity across Australia have been fostered by these programs, often providing the only positive balance to the destructive impact of a focus on deficit models of Indigenous capability supported by both major parties.

Dancers at the Garma Festival, East Arnhem Land. Performance and music is often one of the few activities which bring people together in a co-operative, positive and productive way to build community through culture

A portfolio of case studies drawn from decades of experience of the Indigenous cultural programs, bolstered by anecdotal evidence, shows that involvement in arts and cultural activity – by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities – often has powerful flow on social and economic effects. By building self-esteem and generating a sense of achievement; developing a stronger sense of community; increasing skills and capabilities through involvement in engaging activities relevant to modern jobs and thereby increasing employability; and by helping to generate income streams however small, cultural activity can have profound long-term effects.

In an article at the time of the Budget I flagged that things didn’t seem to add up with arts funding in the Budget, including support for Indigenous culture.

As we head to the announcement of the feared Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook where more budget cuts are usually on the cards, it’s timely to review the current state of Indigenous culture funding provided by the programs managed by the Ministry for the Arts in the Attorney-General’s Department.

These programs are part of a suite of programs which originated with ATSIC and were transferred through a string of Commonwealth departments over the years. They encompass the Indigenous Culture Support (ICS), the Indigenous Languages Support (ILS) and the Indigenous Visual Arts Industry Support Programs (IVAIS).

They were augmented with some serious jobs money as various employment programs were reviewed, restructured and redirected so they have a number of jobs programs sitting alongside them as well.

In the two annual funding rounds 2012-13 and 2013-14 many organisations received triennial funding which committed a reasonably large part of the program funding available in 2014-15. This was just as well because no annual funding round was run during 2014 to allocate funding for 2014-15.

Instead, faced with an increasingly urgent situation where potentially many dozens of Indigenous cultural organisations across Australia would have had to cease operating, funding for at least some organisations which had no funding already allocated for 2014-15 was approved in late August by Minister Brandis.

From the preamble to the public list of approved funding for the 2013-14 funding round the funding for ICS in 2013-14 was $7.6m, funding for ILS was $10.1m and IVAIS was $11.1m. These amounts usually grow at a low rate each year to notionally reflect inflation, typically a bit over or under 2%. In 2014-15, it would normally be expected that ICS would be around $7.7m, ILS $10.3m and IVAIS $11.3m.

Instead if you add the 2014-15 funding already committed in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 funding rounds to the amounts approved in August 2014, the total for ICS is only $5.1m, ILS is $8.8m and IVAIS $10.5. These are around the totals mentioned in the media release from Brandis about the funding.

This means that somewhere along the line $1.5m seems to have vanished from what would reasonably be expected to be the ILS budget and $2.6m seems to have vanished from ICS. These are cuts of 14% and 34% respectively. Only IVAIS, while slightly lower than to be expected, managed to maintain close to its level, losing just $0.8m, about 6.7%.

Reviewing the available figures can give us a reasonably accurate picture of what’s happening. There are two possible factors that can muddy the picture, while not fundamentally changing it. Firstly there are usually a few special one off projects which are supported which may be difficult to discern from the bulk lists. Secondly the inclusion or otherwise of GST can vary from source to source.

Unless some very large one-off projects have been approved which are not included in these lists – something that is highly unlikely – this is genuine cause for concern. We can check because Government departments are required to publish lists of grants on their website. The AGD list is somewhat confusing because some things seem to be listed and others not. However to take a conservative approach, with the risk we might be counting some grants twice and therefore understating the level of vanished funds, there seem to be miscellanous grants totalling $0.5m for ILS, $0.6m for ICS and $0.2m for IVAIS.

At a very conservative estimate then $0.9m seems to have vanished from what would reasonably be expected to be the ILS budget and $2.2m seems to have vanished from ICS. These are cuts of 9% and 29% respectively. On this reading IVAIS has lost $0.6m, about 4.9%.

So, while all of these crucial programs have taken a hit, the worst affected program, ICS, seems to have suffered somewhere between a 29% and 34% cut, losing between $2.2m and $2.6m.

We also need to take into account the fact that ILS has previously lost $9.5 million over four years. This was new funding in the National Cultural Policy to support the development by Indigenous communities of educational resources in digital format to help revive and save the threatened languages that are part of Australia’s core heritage.

In a normal annual funding round, reasonably large amounts of funding are usually approved, despite the increasing proportion of program funding tied up in previously approved triennial grants. In the August 2014 decision $3.1m was approved from the ILS program and $2.8m from IVAIS but only a miniscule $0.8m was approved from ICS. Yet ICS has the lowest level of funds already committed due to previous triennial agreements.

In the 2013-14 annual funding round, the last one run, a round in which an unusually high level of triennial grants were approved, the total single year funding approved was $2.9m. From $2.9m down to $0.8m in a single year is a very large drop.

What about those organisations which might have applied if a funding round had been run as expected? If the Ministry for the Arts is aware of them they might have received some relief in the latest decision but for new organisations or smaller, less visible ones, they can simply slip through the cracks.

Even more worrying is the question of what will happen over the next few years to the surviving funds in this shrinking universe. As we move on from previous funding rounds less and less is committed into the future. If new rounds are not run, the level of uncommitted funds increases.The risk is that the Government-wide search for cuts or demands for funding to support other more fashionable whims of Ministers will strip yet more funding from these critical programs. The Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook process currently being finalised is a perfect example of when this could happen. If these level of cuts can occur in one single year, what is likely over several?

There are critical organisations, currently in the final years of triennial agreements, which play a central role in the whole body of Indigenous cultural work. Without action they will receive no more funding from these programs after the middle of next year. If there had been an annual funding round, they would be funded triennially and able to plan ahead and attract other support.

The most striking example of many is a genuinely national project, based in Newcastle, which has equipped hundreds of Indigenous languages organisations and community members with the online and digital means to save their languages. The Arwarbukarl Cultural Resource Association which develops the Miromaa Language Resource and provides support and training to language communities around Australia is a linchpin in the Indigenous languages revival movement. Without it the work saving Indigenous languages in Australia would be set back decades.

The only other option seems to be the newly consolidated Indigenous funding through the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, branded as the Indigenous Advancement Strategy. Despite cuts across the area we are talking about serious levels of funding, but it is funding that has previously supported all Indigenous organisations. Now the Indigenous cultural organisations have to fight it out with many more, often bigger and more influential players.

Yet what does this mean given that the Indigenous cultural programs were consciously kept back from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet pool, so that they could continue to play a role as part of the Arts portfolio? Are they just going to become a shadow of their former glory or end up more and more limited to the ‘arts’ component of the suite of programs which supports Indigenous arts centres. This is easier in an environment where the focus is on ‘arts’ as opposed to ‘culture’ or even ‘languages’. This is probably why the program supporting Indigenous art centres has been least affected by the haemorrhaging of funds.

The Ministry for the Arts can try its best to keep these programs delivering. However this is a world where there are constant cycles of cost-cutting and competing demands for discretionary funds. Any programs that are not completely focused and completely understood by the whole organisation right up to the highest levels, including the Minister, are at risk.

Perhaps, these programs will join other large programs such as the Lending Right programs as yet another bucket to raid when the Minister suddenly needs cash for his latest pet project. Looking at the figures it seems highly likely that this has already been happening.

In the Indigenous culture area this is particularly likely to hit hard because many organisations rely on small amounts of funding from year to year merely to continue their base level of operation and many have been supported this way for many years if not decades. They are then able to use the government funding to attract a broader range of support.

The ABC special ‘Outback Choir' about Morambilla Voices is a taste of the sort of worthwhile and life-changing projects being supported by these vanishing funds. Luckily the Morambilla Voices project is one of those that received triennial funding in the 2013-14 funding round, the last one that was run, from the Indigenous Culture Support Program, the program which has been most heavily cut.

See also

Collateral damage – the creeping cumulative impact of national arts cuts 
‘Asked in the most recent Senate Additional Estimates hearings about cuts to Ministry for the Arts funding in the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook review, the Department of Communications and the Arts replied that there were cuts of $9.6m over the forward estimates. This seriously understates the cumulative long-term magnitude and effect of these cuts and underestimates, just as with the national cultural institutions, the long-term damage. Yet this is the real and permanent impact – a compound effect of creeping cuts’, Collateral damage – the creeping cumulative impact of national arts cuts.

Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding 
‘The transfer of substantial program funds from the Australian Government’s main arts funding agency, the Australia Council, to the Ministry for the Arts has had the effect of masking serious cuts to crucial programs run by the Ministry, including its Indigenous cultural programs. There have been cuts to overall Ministry program funds stretching long into the future almost every year since the 2014-15 budget, with the long-term trend clearly heading downwards’, Smoking gun – the invisible cuts to national arts and culture funding.

‘Having a go’ at Australia’s arts and culture – the Budget Mark 2
we are seeing is the steady skewing of Australia’s arts and culture sector as the most dynamic component, the one most connected to both artistic innovation and to community engagement, atrophies and withers. This is the absolute opposite of innovation and excellence. It is cultural vandalism of the worst kind, ‘Having a go’ at Australia’s arts and culture – the Budget Mark 2.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Valuing the intangible.

The Magna Carta – still a work in progress
‘You don’t have to be part of ‘Indigenous affairs’ in Australia to find yourself involved. You can’t even begin to think of being part of support for Australian arts and culture without encountering and interacting with Indigenous culture and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals who make it and live it.’ The Magna Carta – still a work in progress.

Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come
‘The inaugural Victorian Indigenous literary festival Blak & Bright in February 2016 was a a very important event for Australian cultural life. It aimed to promote and celebrate a diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices. It raised important questions about how the movement to revive and maintain Indigenous languages – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history – is related to ‘Australian literature’. Australian culture as a whole is also inconceivable without the central role of Indigenous culture – how would Australian literature look seen in the same light?’, Literature and languages – inaugural Indigenous literary festival sign of things to come.

The language of success ­– recognising a great unsung community movement
‘What is especially significant about the Prime Minister, in his Closing the Gap address, recognising the importance of Indigenous languages is that this is the first time a Liberal leader has expressed such views. It’s exciting because for progress to be made it is essential that there is a jointly agreed position. This moment arises from the tireless work over many decades of hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language revivalists – surely one of the great positive unsung community movements in Australian history. By their hard work they have managed to change the profile of Indigenous languages in Australia. Unfortunately the address reinforced the tendency of government to overlook the success stories that are already happening in local communities and look for big institutional solutions. I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a missed opportunity’, The language of success – recognising a great unsung community movement.

The hidden universe of Australia's own languages
‘I’ve travelled around much of Australia, by foot, by plane, by train and by bus, but mostly by car. As I travelled across all those kilometres and many decades, I never realised that, without ever knowing, I would be silently crossing from one country into another, while underneath the surface of the landscape flashing past, languages were changing like the colour and shape of the grasses or the trees. The parallel universe of Indigenous languages is unfortunately an unexpected world little-known to most Australians.’ The hidden universe of Australia's own languages.

Black diggers – telling war stories
‘If you are convinced you have heard all of Australia’s great stories, think again. If you consider you know something about Indigenous Australia you probably need to start from scratch. Black Diggers, “the untold story of WW1’s black diggers remembered” is a great Australian story. Why over a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians left their communities in remote Australia or our regional cities or the big state capitals to travel overseas to fight and die in the European trenches far from home is part of a larger Australian story. Why they would bother when they were not even recognised as Australian citizens in their own land is a story all their own – but a story relevant to every Australian’, Black diggers - telling war stories.

Indigenous cultural jobs – real jobs in an unreal world
'Subsidised Indigenous arts and cultural jobs are real jobs with career paths that deliver genuine skills and employment capability.' Real jobs in an unreal world

Indigenous culture and the gap in Closing the Gap

‘Experience of many years of the Indigenous culture programs shows that involvement in arts and cultural activity often has powerful flow on social and economic effects.’ The gap in Closing the Gap.

Support for small scale arts and culture
'Budget cuts only to uncommitted funding sound benign but will end programs by letting them peter out over several years.' After the Budget: Government support for small scale arts and culture – here today, gone tomorrow

Long term effect of broader Budget cuts far more damaging
'Wider budget cuts combined over years will have a compounding effect on arts and culture far more damaging than anything immediate.' After the Budget: the future landscape for Australian arts and culture

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