Yothu Yindi Foundation chief says Australian governments 'dining out' on Aboriginal misery

By Helen Davidson at Garma festival

Aboriginal people are prisoners to incompetence and maladministration by governments that spend on urban centres and tourists instead of tackling rampant disadvantage, the head of the Yothu Yindi Foundation has said.

Speaking at the Garma festival in northeast Arnhem Land, the chief executive of the foundation, Denise Bowden, took aim at the Northern Territory government and the commonwealth, which she said had responsibility for the NT, and for the “rivers of gold” that its GST formula sends to Darwin.

“For the moment the Northern Territory government is unwilling or unable to respond to the deep outrage around deeply flawed processes, decision making and funding models,” she said.

“The commonwealth created the system that is currently in play in the Territory and has sat by and allowed it to continue unabated, dining out on the back of Aboriginal misery.”

Bowden drew on a submission by the foundation to the productivity commission, which alleged that the NT government siphoned half a billion dollars earmarked for Indigenous spending to other areas, by taking advantage of GST funds delivered without requirements on how they are spent.

The Northern Territory receives a far bigger proportion of GST funds than the other states because of its high level of need.

Yothu Yindi’s analysis found that 68% of its $3.4bn was intended to benefit Indigenous people, but the NT government spent just 53%.

“The data shows time and time again that hundreds of millions of dollars in untied GST funds sent to state and territory governments to address Aboriginal issues are diverted to other urban priorities, or are spent on administration in Darwin or other urban centres,” Bowden said on Saturday.

“It makes me cry that we are prisoners to this incompetence and maladministration.”

She cited as an example the $300m spent by the NT government on Darwin’s waterfront precinct since 2006, and the up to $20m granted to the waterfront corporation annually to run a conference centre and tourist facilities, including a wave pool and artificial beach.

“Forgetting the hundreds of millions in capital costs, that’s an annual payment equivalent to 40 remote houses a year so local Darwinians and people visiting Darwin can enjoy themselves.”

Bowden accused the commonwealth of seemingly wiping its hands of a mess created “when it left the NT to a small group of inexperience administrators in 1978”.

“We understand the importance of tourism to the economy but meanwhile in the bush the housing crisis continues, the housing deficit grows, indigenous people are living lives characterised by poverty and neglect and despair,” she told the crowd.

“Another child is born to another overcrowded home. Another kid gets no sleep and can’t get to school. Another assault takes place in a house full to bursting point, and so on.”