The Politics    Wednesday, October 4, 2023

An audit of facts

By Rachel Withers

An audit of facts

Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians Jacinta Nampijinpa Price at Parliament House, Canberra, September 2023. © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Why are vague calls for yet another spending “audit” being treated as a serious alternative to the Voice?

The “No” campaign has zeroed in on its latest ambiguous, conspiratorial distraction: an audit of the money spent on First Australians. Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price has vowed to launch a probe into Indigenous funding, as the “No” camp quotes totally inaccurate figures and buys into insinuations that too much is spent on Indigenous Australians. “We’re going to do what we haven’t done yet,” Price told an event on Monday, to loud cheers. “We’re gonna find out where the billions of dollars are being spent.” The suggestion that such an audit hasn’t been done before is false. As very few reports note, the National Audit Office conducts several reviews in this area each year; there were 22 while the Coalition was in office. Labor recently made changes, following an audit that highlighted “clearly deficient” safeguards from the Morrison era. The Coalition has been rather vague on this proposed audit, despite its constant call for Voice “detail”. Opposition Leader Peter Dutton was unable to say yesterday what it might look like, or how it would differ from previous audits. The “Yes” campaign is trying to educate people on the Voice, with leaders seeking to explain why it is needed. But how are people to focus on the merits of a Voice when vague calls for yet another spending audit are treated as a serious alternative?

It is clear to anyone who has been paying attention to this debate that the call for an audit is about implying too much is being spent on Indigenous Australians (Price, it’s worth remembering, has said that there aren’t any ongoing negative effects of colonisation, suggesting such spending isn’t necessary). Misleading figures have been flying around, with “$40 billion” quoted in many quarters, most notably by veteran singer Kamahl and Sky News commentator Peta Credlin – the real annual spend is more like $6 billion, experts say, with 82 per cent of the Productivity Commission’s estimate going towards things received by all Australians, such as Medicare. (One wonders if the inordinate figure Price has spent on business class flights counts towards that total.) As Nine’s David Crowe told RN Breakfast, funding is a big part of the “No” campaign’s fear and doubt strategy, with questions over funding morphing into conspiracies that Aboriginal people are “living large”, as host Patricia Karvelas suggested in reply.

Of course, it’s fair to question whether money could be better spent and whether it is achieving its intended outcomes. It is important that funding goes where it’s most needed, as Dutton told reporters yesterday. But it is curious that a group so concerned about efficient spending is not interested in a Voice, which, as “Yes” leaders constantly point out, is all about ensuring more efficient spending, through listening to Indigenous peoples about their needs (as Crikey’s Bernard Keane observes, conservatives no longer seem all that interested in reducing the power of government). Price is dominating this debate, writes The Australian’s Paige Taylor, “despite the fact the voice proposal was partly conceived as a way to end decades of waste and misdirected funds”. As former WA treasurer and Voice supporter Ben Wyatt argues, Price is simply arguing for more of the same. “The No position lacks any intellectual foundation other than they will continue to do the same, but, apparently, with more determination,” he told the paper. “The No position has some odd faith that the status quo, that puts deep faith in the institutions of government doing exactly the same thing, will somehow deliver a different outcome.”

Wyatt doesn’t say it, but he might as well have: claiming that yet another audit will fix this, from the party that just conducted two dozen of them, is, as the witticism goes, the definition of insanity. But it doesn’t matter to Price and co whether these arguments make sense – only that voters feel a sense of personal aggrievement at the money being spent – wasted – on Indigenous Australians. There is no doubt a small amount of money in this area is being misspent, as it is many areas of government policy, and sometimes for personal or political gain. But as Uluru statement architect Megan Davis wrote on social media this morning, “the ‘audit’ response is status quo”, which is exactly what “No” seeks to maintain.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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