The federal government has denied reports it is considering an overhaul of one of its most successful Indigenous policies, the ranger program.
Reported in The Guardian by Helen Davidson, 19 July 2016
According to a leaked internal document from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C), reported by Crikey on Friday, a review is under way of the successful program and major operational restructure is being considered.
However the Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion, has rejected the report, labelling it misleading and inaccurate, and accused Crikey of publishing without contacting his office. He said a formal investigation into the leak and any potential criminal offences was under way.
According to Friday’s report PM&C was exploring stricter rules around the employment of rangers, with time limits on positions and only allowing the employment of people registered through the Community Development Program(CDP), ahead of the next funding round.
The Indigenous ranger program trains and employs Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to care for land and sea country.
One slide, seen by Guardian Australia, reveals a push for the responsibility and accountability of rangers to be devolved to community organisations, to limit participation with a ranger group to a maximum of five years, and queries whether employment should be mandatorily linked to the CDP.
In a response to the Crikey article, Scullion said there were no plans to limit ranger numbers, that the document was internal and without formal status. He said he had “absolutely no intention” of transitioning the program back to a work-for-the-dole scheme.
“The Coalition has never suggested limiting ranger positions to Community Development Program jobseekers or placing any limit on how long rangers can be employed,” he said.
“The Coalition has outlined its clear commitment to the Indigenous ranger program until 2018. No options about how it might operate beyond 2018 have even been put to me, let alone decisions made.”
In May Guardian Australia reported the government had quietly released a glowing report on the program, just days before the election was called. The report – commissioned by PM&C and published online – was not accompanied by any announcement or press release, and had been sitting with the department since February. It found an almost threefold social return on investment.
At the time a spokesman for Scullion dismissed suggestions it had been sat on, and said PM&C commissioned the report and decided when to post it on its website.
He did not say – as Crikey reported it was told on Tuesday – that the report had been commissioned without Scullion’s awareness or approval.
The current funding agreement for the ranger program expires during this term of government in 2018, and the Coalition has consistently refused to provide any commitments on its future beyond 2018, despite a concerted campaign to double the funding of the program and extend it for 10 years.
Federal Labor, the Greens, and independents including Jacqui Lambie all gave election commitments to support some or all of the Country Needs People campaign demands to boost the program.
Patrick O’Leary, spokesman for the Pew Charitable Trust, said the federal and Northern Territorygovernments needed to provide clarity on the future of the program.
“We’re coming up to a phase where the roadmap forward is going to be really important to be clear on,” he said.
O’Leary said Indigenous and environmental policies needed more of a long-term focus than others, and called for a strong commitment.
“We encourage all political parties there because it’s a long-term investment that gets the result.”
The Northern Territory Labor leader, Michael Gunner, on Tuesday said ranger groups were crucial “if we are to understand the impacts of climate change and create new and innovative ways to give our ecosystems the best chance to adapt”.
He said the reports on the potential changes to the federal program were “extremely concerning”.
Gunner made the comments as the NT Labor party announced a $14m ranger policy ahead of the August election, including $4.1m for grants of up to $100,000 for Indigenous ranger groups, and a $2m annual land management and conservation fund.
The chair of Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation, Rarrtjiwuy Melanie Herdman, called for the Country Liberal party to match its commitments.
“We have worked really hard to set up our Indigenous protected area and ranger groups but there’s more to do,” she said.
“Our rangers are maintaining the land, managing threats, spraying weeds, eradicating crazy ants, rescuing turtles, clearing ghost nets and this kind of funding boost could help us get the extra equipment we need to get those jobs done.”
On Monday Scullion was reappointed as Indigenous affairs minister. There had been speculation he would lose the portfolio after a controversial time in the ministry, including the implementation of the government’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy.
The overhaul of Indigenous program funding had sought to streamline a budget reduced by about $500m into five key policy areas. The program saw a huge oversubscription for funds and widespread confusion and anger over the process among organisations.
On Tuesday Scullion said he looked forward to continuing on as minister and urged crossbenchers to “listen closely to the wishes of Indigenous communities”.
“My absolute commitment is to work with Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to improve the lives and opportunities available to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” he said.
PM&C has been contacted for comment.