If Only Cash Could Fix Culture

Is this a leg-pull among bored pollies, bureaucrats and Aboriginal Industry bigshots? The feds have earmarked $8 million to create a “high-quality First Nations-led national Aboriginal Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Support”. Excellence indeed, when across the Australian continent every key indicator of the kids’ safe upbringing is going in hellish directions. (See Part 1 and Part 2 of this series).

This “high-quality” Centre for Excellence is supposed to be Aboriginal-designed to boost Aboriginal-led research “grounded in Aboriginal knowledge and theoretical frameworks” (whatever they are) and “build an evidence base” for the kids and parents. The urgency time-scale — while chaos reigns outback — is 2023-25 with funding to 2027.

The latest news on the Excellence Centre is within an Aboriginal themed and decorated document that emerged in January from the Department of Social Services. It is tactfully christened “Safe and Supported – the National Framework for Protecting Australia’s Children 2021-31. First Action Plan 2023-26.” It starts lugubriously (my bolding):

We acknowledge that Australian governments have been complicit in the entrenched disadvantage, intergenerational trauma and ongoing institutional racism faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The Excellence Centre is somewhat cumbersome, being a joint venture of the feds, the states and territories, the National Voice for Our Children (SNAICC) and ATSI Leadership Group, Families Australia, and the steering group of the National Coalition on Child Safety and Wellbeing, with input also from the National Children’s Commissioner Ms Anne Hollonds. A scoping exercise has started on Aboriginal representatives “giving in-principle support” to designing the Centre for Excellence for their communities “with appropriate governance and support to direct community-based research”. After the scoping, “jurisdictions will consider and work towards agreeing ongoing funding arrangements” (p31). The plan includes this woozy finale:

Support the review and evaluation of initiatives and knowledge sharing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations. Timing: 5 years (2023 to 2027)

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth is sprinkling an extra $30 million of these feel-good initiatives for Aborigines, according to the Family Matters report on children in care. (One initiative bears the sad acronym of HIPPY).[1] For example, the feds will spend $2 million over four years to fund “a national advocate” for the kids, the role being “co-designed with First Nations partners”. At $500,000 a year, that should keep the new panjandrum and his/her courtiers in reasonable comfort.

Those amounts are all flea-bites in the great federal-state spending splurge on the children-in-care crisis (additional to all other special Aboriginal programs). Literally on the back of an envelope, I totted up $6 billion being thrown at the care problem over a span of around five years.

In discussing the nitty-gritty at state level, the Family Matters report also has to confront the intractable issue of “who’s a real Aborigine” – a dilemma glossed over in all the Voice referendum’s “Yes” advocacy. Family Matters appears to seek maximisation of Aboriginality. It wants practitioners to be trained in “culturally safe” ways to “explore cultural identity” of child clients, who must not be “de-identified” without checking with Aboriginal communities. It says:

Current practice for identifying [Aboriginal] children is extremely poor. Families are not being properly engaged in conversations about identity. This is resulting in children’s identity being ignored or inaccurately recorded… the accurate recording of the identities of children and young people is essential to fulfilling cultural, legal, policy and practice obligations.(p54)

Current general identification practice varies wildly among states. Beset by fakery and corruption, the South Australian system[2] is now happy with a mere statutory declaration that someone “believes” to the best of their knowledge that they are Aboriginal. But in NSW there is ruthless application of the three-part test for accessing Aboriginal scholarships and similar perks. For example, one or both parents must be Aboriginal and the applicant must provide written endorsement from a suitable Aboriginal body using its common seal on original documents. Heavy penalties apply for wilful mis-statements.

In Tasmania, where one Aboriginal faction claims more than half the supposed 30,000 Aborigines there are fakes, the report’s data go haywire compared with other states.[3] Recently, it said, the Aboriginal status of 30 per cent of Tasmanian kids in care was “unknown” but hard work by the Child Safety Service has somehow got that “unknown” 30 per cent down to 2 per cent. (p77-8). The report implies that most of the “unknowns” in care became Aboriginal.[4] (Whether any living Tasmanian is dinki-di Aboriginal is an interesting question).

Family Matters provides a rare glimpse by states of the chaos and dysfunction surrounding Aboriginal child-care policies. It’s noteworthy that none of the pieties of Labor administrations and their green allies are reflected in grass-roots improvement – and conservative-led states do little better. For example, while Victorian Premier Dan Andrews spends bucketloads (I’m talking nine-figure sums) on his farcical State Treaty, the report says,

The over-representation of Aboriginal children in care in Victoria continues to escalate year after year, and our communities do not have time to wait…(p76).

It continues that Victoria

stands out as having by far the highest rate of entry for [Aboriginal] children to out- of-home care (36.5 entries per 1,000 children), though this decreased significantly from 39.8 entries per 1,000 children in 2019-20. (p25-6)

Victorian legislation requires a ‘cultural plan’ for all the kids in care, but at December 2021 the rate was only 63 per cent. (p80).

 It’s hardly a shortage of money problem: Premier Daniel Andrews has sunk an extra $160 million since 2018 into “Wungurilwil Gapgapduir: Aboriginal Children and Families Agreement” to reduce the in-care levels, on top of all other Aboriginal funding. At June 2020, Victoria had the highest rate of Aboriginal children on long-term or permanent care orders; at 80.1 per 1000 children (p82). That’s about one in 12 kids. The latest rate for Victorian Aboriginal kids in care is 21.9 times the non-Aboriginal kids rate (p81).

Here’s a snapshot of other state Aboriginal child-care scenes, the variables being how acute the disaster is, and how rapid the deterioration.


The kids “were 13.8 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be in out-of-home care. This is well above the national rate of 11.5 times for the same period. Of the children in out-of-home care, 48.5 per cent have been in care for five years or more. This is an unacceptable rate of over-representation that must be addressed.” (p57).


WA Government figures (p29 and 83) show the Aboriginal kids in out-of-home care in the past decade rose a massive 90% (non-Aboriginals, up 20%). Aboriginal kids now comprise a shocking 57 per cent of WA’s removed kids .

From 1977 to 2020 the rate of kids coming into the WA care system rose every year, but in 2021 there was finally a minor reduction of 2.8 per cent. None-the-less Aboriginal kids were 19 times more likely to go into out-of-home care than other kids. For kids in care, the numbers rose annually from 1996 to 2020 and then fell in 2021 by just 26 kids, or 0.8 per cent (p83).

The WA government the same year announced an extra $114 million for child protection, “to protect vulnerable children and their families so they can thrive.” (p83).

The federal government in 2019-20 allocated $5.2 billion over four years to 2023 to its Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS), involving grant-making across the country via a peak Aboriginal body. The WA government reported $230 million a year in federal IAS money for family support for early childhood and schooling. There was another $410 million for a “Safety & Wellbeing” program against violence, grog and drugs, along with support for the “social and and emotional wellbeing of First Nations Australians.” (p85).


The report is scathing about the NT, where Aborigines are 31 per cent of the population. Of kids in out-of-home care, 91 per cent in 2021 were Aboriginal, a 14-times rate of over-representation. The rate had increased from 11.5 two years earlier. (p65-66).

The NT’s reform plan for kids in care ended in 2021 “yet it remains unclear how the plan has improved outcomes”. The plan was supposed to phase out “extremely expensive” purchased care support but in fact use of it rose for four years straight. The rate of kids placed with non-Aboriginal carers has also risen with “no clear future plan” from the NT government.  “The lack of accountability, transparency and independent scrutiny of reporting by the NT Government on their own progress against major reforms is of significant concern,” the report said. (p64).

As usual, fancy-name government schemes to connect kids to their culture failed to deliver. The NT one was called “Safe Thriving and Connected Strategy” but 56 per cent of the kids had no current cultural support plan, and for kids in first year of care, 68 per cent had none.

The report on the NT concluded, “Aboriginal communities are tired of the countless reports and strategies outlining plans for action. Aboriginal people and communities want to see these actions progressed, and accompanied by robust monitoring and evaluation to show what is working and what needs further improvement.” (p65)


In Queensland in 2021, one in 20 Queensland Aboriginal kids were in out-of-home care and they spend high numbers of years there. Only 194 of the 4822 Aboriginal kids were involved with formal efforts to get re-united with family. (p68).

Queensland has the second-lowest rate of over-representation of kids in care, but they are still 44 per cent of all the state’s kids in care. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of kids rose by 757 to 4911. Only 22 per cent of them were placed with kin (nationally, 31 per cent), while 36 per cent were placed in non-Aboriginal homes with no kin. (p71).

Queensland special spending on kids in care (titled “Our Way”) involves a sizeable $535 million from 2017-26.


In NSW, the report accuses authorities of swapping kids into permanent guardianship and adoption orders, to cosmetically reduce numbers in “out-of-home” care. NSW topped states for these guardianship rates, at 18.7 per 1,000 kids in 2019-20, or 11 times the rate for non-Aboriginal kids.

 Government support services were under-resourced leading to many kids being placed with non-Aboriginal homes.

In the 2022 NSW budget, an extra $99m went to six new Aboriginal child centres and support. (p60-61).

To conclude, literally hundreds of Aboriginal statutory and NGO “voice” organisations have been operating for half a century and correlate with an ever-growing crisis in Aboriginal child-care and family dysfunction. I don’t see how adding a Canberra-based Voice will turn around this horrific situation.

Tony Thomas’s new book from Connor Court is Anthem of the Unwoke – Yep! The other lot’s gone bonkers. For a copy ($35 including postage), email tthomas061@gmail.com 


[1] Home Interaction Program for Parents and Youngsters (HIPPY)

[2] Mark Koolmatrie: “Too many are feeding off our native title bounty – Now is the hour when our indigenous community calls on South Australia’s Marshall government — and other governments — to help lead us away from the corporation management system that has led to widespread corruption, incompetence and nepotism.” Some family members of the Adnyamathanha Traditional Lands Association (ATLA) royalty trust have received only a few hundred dollars every few years, while ATLA has been receiving more than $3m a year for 12 years from the Beverley uranium mine in the Flinders Ranges.

[3] For example, in 2021 just 11% of Tasmanian Aboriginal kids in care were placed with Aboriginal kin, the lowest rate among states and contrasting with 31% nationally. The rate of increase of the Tassie kids in care was what the report calls a “staggering 49.1 times larger” than the percent increase (0.9%) in the population of Tassie Aboriginal kids.

[4] The report says the added certainty “will support and enable targeting of culturally responsive practices.”

6 thoughts on “If Only Cash Could Fix Culture

  • NarelleG says:

    Part 3 – great stuff again Tony.
    Thank you for doing the hard yards so that we can share on sm.

  • Blair says:

    “We acknowledge that Australian governments have been complicit in the entrenched disadvantage, intergenerational trauma and ongoing institutional racism faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. ”
    Governments in Australia?
    The 1967 Referendum allowed the Commonwealth to make laws for Aboriginal and Torres St Islander prople for the first time..

    • Daffy says:

      I guess governments have been complicit, particularly the ones that didn’t enforce child protection, rape and assault laws disinterestedly. The other ones in the gun should be those that handed out ‘sit-down’ money. Humans need to work, to create, to contribute to the commonweal. We are not made to sit around, smoke weed, get drunk and die young after a life of fatal self-indulgence.
      OTOH, the governments that stayed the course and protected Aboriginal (or part-Aboriginal) children should be congratulated for their massive and largely effective rescue efforts.


    Another fine blaze of inconvenient truth which, guaranteed, won’t be found along with the ‘comforting’ buckets of appeasing cash thrown at the apartheid industry. The sad irony is that this foolishly spent money is destroying the dignity of the people whose lives it is ostensibly meant to improve.

  • John Cook says:

    I thought of Utopia (the TV series) after Tony’s first few sentences,
    How all those groups will work together, other than to pencil-in the next meeting date, is beyond me.

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