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Jul 1, 2011

The massive indigenous employment gap stagnates

How much more evidence that indigenous employment policies are not working will the Gillard government need before it changes its disastrous policy, write Professor Jon Altman and Dr Nicholas Biddle from the Australian National University.

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For most Australians, the global financial crisis is either something that is happening overseas (look at all those Greeks rioting) or a scare that never really came to pass (what were we all so worried about anyhow?). The Aussie dollar is higher than many people can remember, stock prices are up from their GFC-low and the unemployment rate is currently at about 5%. We are now back to talk of skills-shortages and infrastructure bottlenecks. For one group of Australians though — the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population — economic circumstances aren’t so rosy.

Last year we published an article in Crikey titled Rudd Overpromises on Indigenous Unemployment. This was based on labour force data released for the first time since the election of the Rudd government in November 2007 and more importantly the setting of Closing the Gap targets in February 2008. Looking at indigenous employment levels at the national level, we found that during the first two years of the Rudd administration (when the GFC was having its biggest effect on Australia) the indigenous unemployment rate had increased from 13% to 18%, the employment gap was growing rather than declining.

In the article, we suggested that this growing employment disparity might be due to three factors: insufficient focus on indigenous employment support in the aftermath of the GFC; the hasty abolition of the CDEP scheme in regional Australia; and over-reliance on Andrew Forrest’s Australian Employment Covenant to deliver 50,000 jobs in two years.

We were surprised at the time that the media gave scant coverage to these official statistics that, besides the five-yearly census and the six-yearly NATSISS, provide the only means to hold the Council of Australian Governments accountable for its admirable target, to halve (not eliminate) the employment gap between indigenous and other Australians within 10 years. We were also surprised to receive criticism from Senator  Mark Arbib for our use of official statistics to highlight shortcomings in the Rudd government’s performance on indigenous employment creation.

Senator Arbib suggested that the ABS Labour Force Survey was an unreliable instrument for measuring change in Indigenous employment levels, which begs the question of why it is then published? In fact as we informed Senator Arbib this survey instrument is reliable especially if one tests for statistical significance using information of standard errors provided by the ABS.

On Wednesday the ABS again published the LFS now providing new information on the employment situation in 2010. The summary statistics (and the attention in the media) are again extremely disappointing. Between 2009 and 2010 the indigenous unemployment rate (for those aged 15-64 years) increased from 18.1% to 18.2%, an increase that is not statistically significant suggesting basically no change. This figure can be compared to the non-indigenous rate of 5.1% (compared to 5.5% in 2009). The indigenous unemployment rate is 3.6 times the non-indigenous rate and the gap is definitely not falling. The employment/population ratio for indigenous Australians has also remained relatively fixed at 47.7% in 2010 and 47.7% in 2009. The gap there has also not budged in the last year.

These findings are extremely worrying for prospects of halving the employment gap by 2018. We are three years down the 10-year track and the employment gap appears to have stagnated. Imagine the political ramifications of a national unemployment rate of over 18%!

Yet again these official statistics indicate that one of the major gaps in indigenous policy is between the Rudd and now Gillard government’s rhetoric that the situation for indigenous Australians is improving and the statistics provided by their own data collection agency.

It raises important questions about whether the Closing the Gap employment target has any policy integrity and more importantly what the Australian government should be doing differently. The Prime Minister might promulgate a national narrative of “jobs, jobs, jobs” and an indigenous policy dogma of “education, education, education” as if the two are automatically linked, but clearly in practice closing employment gaps requires more than just discourse and piecemeal provision of publicly underwritten work, a little here, a little there.

Here we return to our suggestions last year.

First, as we suggested then and our colleague Kirrily Jordan highlighted recently the Australian government may have been over-reliant on the promises of Andrew Forrest and the AEC to create 50,000 indigenous jobs in two years. There may be a need for a more active hands-on role for the Australian government in generating private and public sector employment.

Second, it borders on unconscionable for the Australian government to abolish the CDEP scheme in regional Australia and to effectively abolish it in remote Australia under such dire labour market circumstances. The CDEP scheme is an active workfare program that generates employment, enterprises and community development. Other ABS data has shown that those on the CDEP scheme are happier and healthier than those who are unemployed. It is ludicrous to drive people from this program into passive welfare in the name of creating proper jobs that are either not eventuating or not being taken up.

It is our strongly held view that setting abstract employment targets for some future date, “reforming” CDEP in the name of imagined proper jobs and relying on the promises of mining magnate Andrew Forrest and the AEC board is all too easy, but to date has proven futile in actually reducing employment gaps. There is need for some hard policy work to be done here: where do indigenous people hold competitive advantage in the labour market? What are the structural and institutional barriers to employment creation on a region by region basis? And what are indigenous aspirations, for employment and for livelihood, and how might these be maximised. Addressing such questions will require hard policy work but in our view such work is now more essential than ever if indigenous gaps, be they in livelihood outcomes or employment statistics, are to be reduced; and if investments are to be targeted to deliver appropriate forms of employment generating development.

How much more evidence that indigenous employment policies are not working will the Gillard government need before it changes its disastrous policy course founded too much on rhetoric and ideology and not enough on the hard reality of how hard it is to create livelihood opportunity especially in regional and remote Australia and to address historical legacies of neglect experienced by too many indigenous people.

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17 thoughts on “The massive indigenous employment gap stagnates

  1. SBH

    In the NT Aboriginal, prior to the election of the Labor Government remote schools didn’t teach up to year twelve, towns like Borroloola were bifurcated by a river during large parts of the year with many people cut off from the school by the wet. At Nguiu the only secondary school was a catholic school which routinely achieved poor results, when a census properly counted the Aboriginal population at Wadeye they found there were three times as many children living there as the school could accommodate. the effort to recruit, train develop and retain teachers (let alone aboriginal teachers) in the NT is not sufficient to retain skilled people and leads too a huge rate of churn which in turn mitigates against good teaching, when the Federal Government piloted linking school attendance to welfare it did so in 6 schools five of which had attendance rates very close to or exceeding the state/territory average and one which was well above and in my own jurisdiction at a lesson about remote Aboriginal life, one little girl informed her teacher gleefully “I’m an Aborigine.” only to be told that the teacher had been referring to ‘real’ Aborigines. In the TAFE context, Aboriginal learners have higher rates of enrollment than non-Aboriginal learners because the RTO get more money to train Aborigines, but the training is rarely linked to employment.

    So, in that context, if you mean, how can we expect to close the gap when our education system routinely, indeed systematically, fails Aboriginal children then yes, education has something to do with employment.

  2. SBH

    Yes David I could comment on the Auditor General’s report that says that the implementation of the Koorie education strategy ‘Wannik’ has been mishandled and led to substantial failure to bring about change. Or I could comment on the interlinked causes of disadvantage of which education is but one. Or I could quote from internal research which shows that even the children of well educated, middle SES group Koories suffer disadvantage disproportional to non-Aboriginal children. Or I could recount the devastating stories of people with school-aged children who were taken from their loving caring families and put into homes and the effect that continues to have on them and their views about white institutions, including schools, to this day. I could even comment on the substantial, cross-Government effort to address the problems Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders face and the recognition of how difficult and complex the problems and their solutions are.

    What I won’t do is blame Aborigines for being lazy, feckless, stupid, welfare grasping victims which seems to be de rigeur for people who are in denial about why the gap exists.

    Simple questions for complex problems – yes, it enrages me when comfortable, ignorant, bigoted white people trot out simplistic tendentious falsehoods like ‘why don’t they just get a job (go to school, wipe their noses, stop drinking etc etc etc)’. And yet despite that approach just not working people keep trotting it out. At it’s worst this approach characterises all Aboriginal men as drunken child molesters and Aboriginal mothers as lazy and careless parents. At its ‘best’ it leads people to dismiss this terrible human and societal problem as ‘Oh, they’re just like that’. It’s a childish approach.

    Where’s the humanity in blame? Especially blame so misplaced.

  3. SBH

    Or let’s look at it another way and bring it back to the two recent articles subject.

    It’s not about education and training. Forrest gets companies to ‘pledge’ jobs. All Aborigines need to do is get the appropriate training. Simple right? Except that as a group Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are over trained. That is they tend to have more training enrollments and completions than white learners and yet they can’t get jobs. So it’s probably something other than their level of training.

    Forrest’s model won’t work. It won’t work because it, like so many other failed policy ideas, sees Aborigines themselves as the problem. They need to learn more, be better trained, get work-ready skills, live closer to jobs, get off the grog, learn about white society and so on. White society and employers never ask themselves what they need to do to make their workplaces acceptable for Aborigines.

    What an outrageous concept I hear from the cheap seats, why should we change? Anyway I’m not a racist myself….. Replace disabled, woman, migrant in that idea though and see at a glance how change to accept those people into a white male workplace has benefited our entire society. If you don’t think it has there’s no helping you.

    We should change for two reasons, one to recognise a historical wrong done to this countries first people. Secondly because it brings intrinsic and unknown benefits to integrate Aboriginal knowledge and culture into our workplaces just as it did when we broadened our immigration base, made laws that allowed women to get and keep jobs and that allowed disabled people to do more than be cared for.

    And lets just be a bit honest here, you’re trying to cloak your original comments as just… you know… being even handed, other people suffer disadvantage and they get by, what’s wrong with Aborigines. Well Aristotle easily dispensed with the pretense that justice means treating everyone equally. It doesn’t justice means treating people fairly and unequally. In the end your mind set is one of blame, it’s something they need to change, something that’s wrong with them. Why do we not remove the beam first?

  4. John Bennetts

    It’s not about blame. That may be your perception, it is about understanding.

    To infer that it is entirely to do with racist attitudes by employers in general and me in particular is simpy not justifiable without more than SBH’s own prejudice regarding the situation.

    It is about causes. I agree that racism may well be one cause, but has this been demonstrated? No, it has not. It certainly has not been demonstrated here that aboriginality is the only or even the primary cause of aboriginal unemployment.

    I object to simplistic attempts to allocate blame and thus avoid seeking reasoned analysis and practical solutions to the issue of unemployment, either of aboriginals or others. It does nobody any good to play with racism in any form. If that is the issue, then let’s address it in all of its guises.

    However, it’s not about racism – it’s about unemployment.

    For the record, I employ out of my own private money two young lads who coe from a family with a long history of unemployment, poor educational outcomes, reliance on assistance schemes and the incredibly complex and soul-destroying side effort which is needed to keep receiving public support in its several forms. Both now also have a second day per week with a friend of mine: They are off the dole. Both have learning issues: I have arranged for reading and other assistance. Both have complex private issues, legacy of circumstances beyond their control but with the appearance of being of their own making.

    I recount this as an indication that I am prepared to put my effort and money where my mouth is. The work they do is not essential – I choose to do it now, in part because I choose to continue to support these two young men as they transition towards being able to earn what they need to survive and to build a better future. One of them is close to being (I hope) offered full time work in a friend’s manufacturing business. The other is acquiring skills relevant to construction laboring, perhaps as an excavator operator – he shows some promise in that.

    The single most important skill is that of adjustment of their busy lives that they have made by themselves, lives made busy with activities which have occupied their years of unemployment. After well over half a year, they are now both finding it much easier to find room in their lives for regular workdays – this was very hard for them at first and took time to develop.

    Why am saying this? Why do I come here talking about myself? Be assured that it is not about blowing my own trumpet – it is about demonstrating that I recognise a little of the complex nature of unemployment, especially of long term unemployment, and that I in no way suggest that unemployment is about fault or blame.

    There are now new fences, minor landscaping, clearing and other tidying-up jobs that have been completed around my hobby farm that have been done well in the past 8 months, and that gives me satisfaction in a physical, material kind of way. That is not the only reason for my satisfaction, nor does it explain why I have continued to find work long after the original tasks were completed.

    Beyond material pleasures, there is a sense of real achievement when I consider the many positive changes, physical and attitudinal, that I see in these two employees. These blokes are clearly happier, more motivated, they have acquired some skills and are now positive and a little more realistic about their future prospects. They now arrive on time all the time for their two or three days per week, working for me or for my friend. They now plan their lives around work instead of fitting work into the schedule of unemployment. I have high hopes for their futures and will be sad when the time comes for me to let them go, although hopefully to other and better work. Neither was ready for 5 or 6 days per week last year. Now, I would have no difficulty recommending them for full time positions. That is the kind of progress which cannot be measured in education levels or by counting certificates of academic attainment.

    Coming off long term unemployment is hard work, of that there is no doubt. Racial background can never be a complete and adequate explanation for something as complex as unemployment. The full range of factors must be considered.

    Why have I been attacked and labelled as a racist for thinking this way?

    SBH: If you try hard, you could find me and see what I am talking about, first hand. I’m not an ogre or, as you so indelicately stated, an F-wit. I also care about these matters, as you clearly do also, but I try to look beyond stereotypes of race and F-wittedness.

    Next time, before you hastily shoot the messenger, I suggest that you try to understand the message.

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