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First Nations policy priorities at the Brisbane City Council level

This content is from a post written by former Gabba Ward Councillor Jonathan Sriranganathan on 30th October 2023.

In terms of Brisbane City Council, there are three specific ideas in our local government policy platform that I wanted to highlight and explain...

1. A proposal for an Aboriginal cultural centre at Musgrave Park.

A Musgrave Park cultural centre has been an aspiration of many Brisbane-based First Nations residents for decades now, but neither of the major parties ever puts any funding towards it. I understand that at one point, a previous State Government administration HAD allocated a couple million towards it, but Campbell Newman then cancelled the project and reallocated the funding.1

The Greens policy for BCC says, “Funding should be allocated towards construction and ongoing staffing of a new Aboriginal cultural centre in or near Musgrave Park, South Brisbane, with the precise location and design subject to detailed consultation with First Nations community groups.

A funded steering committee of First Nations people should be established to guide the project and build community consensus around how it should be delivered and managed. Subject to further consultation with First Nations people, it would be preferable for the cultural centre to be operated by a publicly funded non-profit Indigenous organisation that is independent of local, state and federal government control.”

Different First Nations elders and community groups have slightly differing ideas about exactly where the cultural centre should go, how it should be designed and who should run it, so the policy leaves those questions open to further consultation and discussion.

An Aboriginal cultural centre would obviously be an amazing tourist attraction for visitors to Brisbane, but more importantly, it would serve as a space for local knowledge-sharing, truth-telling and historical education, cultural transmission and celebration, and as a linking point for other Aboriginal community-controlled service providers to connect with First Nations people.

The exact cost of building and operating such a centre would depend a lot on the design and specific aims and purposes, but considering that the land is already available, based on the costs of other recent library and community centre projects, it seems reasonable to imagine that construction might cost around $10 million, with an ongoing operating budget of perhaps $500 000 per year.

Ideally, we would be able to secure funding from state and/or federal governments to help support this project, but I think this project has been delayed for such a long time now that we’re at the point where the council should consider going it alone and funding it directly.

2. Free long-distance public transport services connecting to communities around South-East Queensland

Also in the Greens policy platform for city council is a commitment that: “Brisbane City Council should negotiate with First Nations community groups, neighbouring Local Governments and the State Government to establish and co-fund free public transport services connecting South-East Queensland communities with high Aboriginal populations (such as Cherbourg) to central Brisbane.”

The problem this is trying to address is that over the past two centuries of colonisation, Aboriginal families were repeatedly displaced, relocated and torn apart by coercive government policies. As a result, there are a lot of First Nations people who move regularly between Brisbane and regional communities like Cherbourg (3.5 hours’ drive northwest of the city) to connect with family, attend funerals etc.

Despite the strong demand for transport connections between Brissie and Cherbourg, there are no affordable public transport options. This means that First Nations folk who come to Brisbane for a funeral or other event sometimes get stuck in the city without an easy way to get home, and end up sleeping rough even though they might actually have a place to stay somewhere further out.

Part of the reason these regional communities to the northwest of Brisbane (both the ones that have majority Aboriginal populations, and the ones that are predominantly non-Indigenous) have such poor public transport is that they are pretty low socio-economic status with low levels of political engagement. So there just hasn’t been the political will to improve things, which means people are stuck driving, and if you can’t afford to buy/run a car, you’re stuck altogether.

This means people also find it difficult to access specialist support services in the city. Regional healthcare services are often really limited, but there are no affordable transport options to get to Brisbane.

So we want to explore setting up free daily bus services that run to these under-serviced parts of South-East Queensland. For example, you could start one bus that leaves Brisbane in the morning and comes back to the city centre in the evening, and run a second bus that leaves Cherbourg in the morning and returns to Cherbourg after lunch in the evening.

A free bus service running between central Brisbane and Cherbourg could include stops at key locations along the way such as Inala, Goodna, Blacksoil, Fernvale, Esk, Yarraman, Nanango, Kingaroy and Murgon. While Cherbourg is the primary destination, all those other regional towns would benefit dramatically from a free public transport connection to the city and to each other, even if it only comes a couple times per day.

Services like this couldn’t be funded and planned out by Brisbane City Council alone – they would require collaboration with the State Government and neighbouring regional councils to identify areas of need and negotiate access to bus stops etc.

I’ve had quite a few First Nations folk, and multiple social workers who work directly with vulnerable Aboriginal people, tell me that free public transport between Brisbane, Inala, Goodna and Cherbourg would be fundamentally transformative for a lot of people. It’s probably something that would take a little while to implement, and more research needs to be conducted to see if there’s definitely enough demand to justify a daily service, but it’s important to start thinking about.

3. ‘Paying the rent’ by directly allocating 1% of rates revenue to First Nations organisations

This idea is nowhere near as controversial or radical as certain conservative commentators have tried to make it sound. It was first suggested by the late Uncle Sam Watson during Greens local council policy consultations in early 2019.

This Greens policy for Brisbane City Council states: “In addition to maintaining and expanding funding for council-controlled First Nations programs and projects, 1% of Brisbane City Council’s annual rates revenue should be paid unconditionally to non-profit, Brisbane-based, First Nations-controlled community organisations operating in the fields of health, education, housing and crisis support, legal advice and restorative justice, news media, family reunion, and political advocacy. Organisations which receive this funding will have complete autonomy over how it is used.”

Brisbane’s annual rates revenue is $1.3 billion (the total budget is $4.3 billion, but rates is only one of several major sources of revenue). So allocating 1% of rates revenue would mean giving $13 million per year to Brisbane-based organisations like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Health Services, Triple A Murri Radio station, Murri Watch etc.

The most important aspect of this policy is not just the total quantum of funding (which would be quite significant for local Aboriginal organisations) but the fact that it’s unconditional – not tied to any particular project or program. For many non-profits, one of the biggest challenges of certain government funding streams is having to continually justify and explain how the funding is being used, and prove that they should continue receiving it. This adds a huge administrative burden for non-profits, and sometimes means that a big proportion of the funding they received is used up simply paying staff to document and explain what the money is spent on.

If organisations know that they can count on a certain baseline level of funding, that gives them more certainty and flexibility to plan ahead, without worrying every 12 months whether their funding will be renewed.

The funny thing about this policy is that nothing about it is particularly radical or unorthodox except its title - the fact that we’ve referred to it as a ‘pay the rent’ policy. The basic notion of giving money to Aboriginal-run community organisations is really common. That happens all the time.

But some people seem to feel particularly triggered by the mere reminder that Brisbane is built on stolen land, and are objecting to it on a purely ideological basis.

At the end of the day, allocating $13 million towards Aboriginal community organisations out of a $4.3 billion budget is a VERY modest proposal. In a context where the council is spending a whopping $110 million this financial year just on resurfacing roads and patching potholes, giving just $13 million towards Aboriginal-run organisations that provide frontline support in terms of healthcare, housing etc. seems like a very reasonable use of council funds.

On top of the above three proposals, there are obviously a range of other steps Brisbane City Council can take to support and empower First Nations peoples. Over the course of the council election campaign, we’re looking forward to hearing from local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander residents and community organisations about what the Greens priorities should be and what else you’d like us to look into.