The dollars and sense of Shared Responsibility Agreements just don't add up

Thursday, 1 September 2005

SPECIAL FEATURE: If you believe the Howard government's figures - and we'll explain a little later why you shouldn't - then the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination will spend almost its entire $97 million annual budget administering Shared Responsibility Agreements that have been signed with Aboriginal communities.

And while it does, the money that will actually 'hit the ground' in those communities is likely to be less than $30 million.

In laymen's terms, that means that in the course of this financial year, the government will have spent at least $3 to ensure $1 is spent in Aboriginal communities.

By contrast, the much maligned but now abolished ATSIC spent around 14 percent of its budget on administration - again, in laymen's terms, around 14 cents to deliver $1 in program funding to Aboriginal people.

But as we said, that's all predicated on the belief that the information provided by the government is correct. It's clearly not.

The $97 million claim is contained in an explanation to the federal senate from the Office of Indigenous Policy Coordination (the new department which replaces ATSIC) on its administration expenditure on SRAs.

During a Senate estimates hearing in May, former ALP spokesman on Indigenous Affairs, Senator Kim Carr was trying to get to the bottom of how much money the OIPC was spending on itself, versus what it was spending in Aboriginal communities.

It's a familiar tale - Carr's predecessor, Kerry O'Brien revealed through parliamentary questioning that the Department of Transport and Regional Services had spent around 76 percent of a trial budget aimed at reducing red tape in Aboriginal communities on, believe it nor, red tape (see story page 7).

The OIPC didn't have the breakdown Senator Carr was seeking at hand, so it took the question on notice.

Two months later, here's what the OIPC and the office of Indigenous Affairs Minister, Senator Amanda Vanstone came back with.

"Senator Carr asked: In relation to SRA funding, could you give me a breakdown of how that better part of $100 million is to be spent.

"$28.8m of administered funding will be spent on the Shared Responsibility Agreements Implementation Assistance Program (SRA IAP) in 2005-06 (Ed's note: this money largely be spent on assisting communities to create SRA agreements, and funding bureaucrats and consultants to be involved in the process).

"$57.6m of departmental costs will support the ongoing operations of [Indigenous Coordination Centres), including ICC staffing and infrastructure costs and national office costs associated with the SRA management, support and implementation of the Indigenous Women's Development Program, support costs for ICC operations, and progressing the Council of Australian Government (COAG) trials. (Ed's note: Why the government is grouping COAG costs and women's programs in an answer on SRA funding is unclear).

"$10.2m in other resources represents the estimate of revenues to be recovered from other agencies that utilise the ICCs under the common service arrangements."

The total figure is $96.6 million - $400,000 shy of the OIPC's entire departmental budget for financial year ending July 2006.

Either the figures are wildly inaccurate, or the staff of the OIPC will be going without tea and coffee facilities in 2005/06.

The other possibility - a decidedly more likely one - is that the government was simply trying to avoid being pinned down on how much it's spending to deliver SRAs to Aboriginal communities. In the process, it has inadvertently misled parliament.

The government could, if it wished, pin down almost precisely what it will spend through the OIPC to administer the SRAs. So what is the true figure? The government isn't saying - not to the media, and not to parliament. So we're left to speculate, at least in part. Let's halve the figure and assume the OIPC will only spend about $50 million of its budget administering SRAs. Unfortunately, that still doesn't take into account the total administrative spend across the whole of the government on SRAs.

Under the new 'mainstreaming' arrangements, OIPC staff based throughout regional Australia (in the new Indigenous Coordination Centres) act as "solution brokers" for Aboriginal communities.

Their job involves "shopping around" federal government departments looking for funding to achieve identified community projects.

But the other mainstream government departments will also spend substantial sums on administering the SRA agreements as they become involved.

So the true figure the government will spend on the bureaucracy in organising SRAs is likely to be substantially higher than $50 million, and even greater than $100 million, due to the duplication of numerous bureaucrats from several government departments all working on the same SRA.

This is where things get a little difficult for the government. After 10 months of signing up communities to SRAs, Senator Vanstone has only announced $13 million in funding that will actually be spent in communities.

The latest available figures from the government show 72 SRAs have been signed in the past 10 months, at an average of $180,347.22 per agreement.

Keeping at its current pace, the Howard government will have signed around $30 million worth of agreements (150 in total) by June 30 next year.

To even come close to matching the amount of money the government says it will spend on the OIPC bureaucracy (to administer SRAs), the government will need to increase its output nine-fold and sign another 500 agreements before June next year.

But if the government factors in the cost to other agencies of administering the SRAs, it will need to sign over 900 agreements to match expenditure on government bureaucrats, versus what it's spending in Aboriginal communities.

Last week, NIT invited Indigenous Affairs Minister, Amanda Vanstone to explain the answer provided by her to parliament.

Six days later, her office had still not replied. We suspect they're still trying to work out the numbers. Read on, and you'll find out why.

A look at the official document which details the "Australian Government investment in SRA activities" reveals so many accounting holes, you could drive the entire fleet of Coca-Cola trucks through it.

According to the document - available on the government's Indigenous web portal - the community of Shepparton, in Victoria has signed an SRA with the government aimed at "Strengthening Families".

But the government has left the box that details the value of the agreement blank.

The case is the same with the ACT agreement, except that not only doesn't the document list a figure, it doesn't even list a community, simply an agreement entitled "Governance".

In the Cape York community of Hopevale, the government lists an SRA aimed simply at "Partnership". With whom, the document doesn't say. It also fails to list a dollar amount.

The community of Bourke, in western NSW, has apparently signed an SRA to "help kids stay at school", again with no dollar amount listed.

And the nearby Murdi Paaki Regional Council is receiving an unknown amount to "Engage with governments".

The figures in those five communities may be a mystery, but unfortunately they're not in the town of Sarina, in northern Queensland.

According to the Howard government, community leaders have signed an SRA aimed at "Giving young people a future".

In exchange, the government will provide "$0"... perhaps not the best negotiating effort on the part of the Sarina community. Either that or the figure is wrong.

But things look decidedly better for the community of Yalata in South Australia - according to the document, the government will fund a "new scout troop for kids" to the tune of $114,000... and then, inexplicably, a further $72,000 listed immediately below it, with no explanation of what it's for.

Now we get to the nonsensical part of the SRAS - the bits that just don't seem to make any sense.

The government's listing of "investment in SRA activities" exposes a major flaw in the whole SRA approach.

The amount of money one community gets versus another seems to bear no resemblance to the size of the problem or the outcome sought.

Rather, it seems to depend on a combination of factors including the negotiating skills of the community; the negotiating skills of the bureaucrat directly involved in the agreement; and the government department which signs the agreement.

The NSW community of Bourke, with an Aboriginal population approaching 4,000 people, will receive $47,000 to "Make the town safer".

But the Northern Territory community of Tennant Creek - with an Aboriginal population of around 1,250 - will receive $363,000 to create "a safer community".

According to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, the annual number of assaults in Bourke in 2004 were almost eight times the state average.

While Tennant Creek irrefutably has a problem with violence, its assault rate sits at around the Territory average.

Tara in the remote Northern Territory has a population of around 120. It's receiving $45,000 aimed at "Improving school attendance".

Coober Pedy, which has an Aboriginal population of around 340 gets just $10,000 to "Get kids back to school".

And Brewarrina, which has a population of over 1,000 receives $245,000 to "Help young people stay at school", although the detail on how that will be achieved is missing from the website.

The town of Engonia, north of Bourke, with a population of around 100, will receive $20,000 to "Improve Education".

Interestingly, the Engonia SRA includes a paragraph on what the NSW government promises to provide to the local school, including "... desks and sporting and electronic equipment, and monitor test results."

Is the federal government suggesting NSW doesn't provide desks in the first place?

Regular readers of NIT will know it happens in the Northern territory community of Wadeye (where up to 100 students arrive at school every day with nowhere to sit), but in NSW as well?

Distinguished Professor Geoff Scott is the former Acting CEO of ATSIC.

He has spent several months studying the detail of the government's new approach to Indigenous affairs and while not condemning the principle of 'shared responsibility', is scathing of how the government has implemented it.

"The concept of the SRAs is one tool in your whole toolbox, but used by itself without any back-up [it] is going to create massive problems," Prof Scott said.

"They can be a useful tool, but by themselves they're unsustainable. It's tantamount to short-term, unsustainable behavioural engineering.

"This whole new approach to Aboriginal affairs is an experiment, to quote Dr Shergold - we're in the era of trial and error.

"But the errors will be visited upon Aboriginal people."

Prof Scott accused the federal government of deliberately withholding information and figures on Shared Responsibility Agreements to escape public scrutiny.

"They're only giving half the information. It's very scant and it's not possible to access the full scope of the SRAs," he said.

"You can't identify other parties' costs or contributions in kind. It's not possible to quantify any of it.

"Communities have been told they're not to give information or data out because it's the property of the Commonwealth government.

"I think it's a case of a government trying something new and in the process doesn't want to be subject to public scrutiny. And they've taken active steps to make that happen.

"I can understand why they would do that, but it's not good administration.

"When you have an environment where information is withheld, people must draw their own conclusions.

"This area of public accountability and scrutiny which was so rabid and detailed in the ATSIC era, has faded into obscurity.

"We now have a culture of excess operating. All governments do it, ATSIC didn't because it wasn't allowed to."

Prof Scott said the government had not done its homework before embracing SRAs as the 'quiet revolution'.

"Their policy has been put in place without any research or any planning and without reference to the national indicators framework," he said.

"Their service delivery is now more complicated. There are numerous agencies delivering the same programs.

"In the way they're being implemented, they have far more value as a media propaganda tool than a disciplined and rigorous policy approach.

"The government has got to take a step back, assess how they've gone then come back and do a rigorous analysis of where their successes and failures have been.

"That's a sign of a mature agency... but I can't see any culture of evaluation or proper scrutiny.

"We all know that there's some very difficult problems in Indigenous affairs and it's going to take that level of maturity and accountability to address it, not blind ideology."

That issue of accountability and scrutiny is not lost on the overwhelming majority of academics who recently attended a conference organised by the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, out of the Australian National University in Canberra.

The core complaint at the conference was a refusal on the part of the Howard government to supply data and information to enable researchers to test the claims being made in the Quiet Revolution.