Timing, as they say, is everything in politics. Here’s a Churchillian Kevin Rudd at the Monday launch of the National Australia Bank’s Reconciliation Action Plan, a program run by Reconciliation Australia which aims to convince corporate Australia to help blackfellas through the creation of real jobs:

Lighting the candle of hope is one thing. Building a bridge called respect between indigenous and non-indigenous communities is another thing. Crossing that bridge and then embarking on the practicalities of reconciliation — that is something else.

It is indeed. All we need now is a “bridge too far” and a “fork in the road” and we’ll have the makings of a small village.

Now here’s the State of the Service Report, the annual Australian Public Service report card, released last Thursday. It’s not as flowery, but it’s just as interesting:

The representation of Indigenous Australians [in the APS] fell slightly during 2007-08.

That’s right, while Kevin Rudd is waxing lyrical to corporate Australia about the merits of hiring a blackfella, the ‘corporation’ he’s in charge of – the APS – is driving them away. And at record rates.

The proportion of Indigenous workers as a percentage of the total APS workforce is now the lowest it has been in more than a decade. It’s lower than it ever was under Howard, and he was the master at whipping the black worker.

From 2007 to 2008, the APS grew by about 5,000 workers (to 160,000). At the same time, the number of black workers shrunk by 49 — from 3,108 (2.2 percent of the total workforce) to 3,059 (2.1 percent).

Granted, Rudd is only responsible for part of the period (December 2007 to June 2008), but it adds up to seven months, which is more than half. He should also have performed better, given Labor’s pedigree on this very issue.

Shortly before Paul Keating was booted from office in 1996, his government instituted a series of reforms to ensure a boost in the number of black workers being engaged by the APS. Keating’s actions were sparked by a landmark report from the late 1980s (the Miller report) which showed that in order to engage Indigenous people in the ‘real economy’ and lift them from poverty, it was crucial for government to lead the way by employing more black workers.

The net result was that by the time Howard arrived, two black workers were joining the APS for every black worker that left: that’s an “engagement to separation rate” of 2:1. A good thing, and it led to significant growth.

It took Howard just four years to turn it around. The 1999-2000 State of the Service report revealed that Indigenous workers comprised 4.5 percent of total separations from the APS, but just 1.4 percent of engagements.

In 2005, the government realised it was in some trouble — the percentage of the workforce that was black had peaked at 2.7 percent, but was now down to 2.2 percent. So in August, Howard announced a major push by the government to fix it.

So how ridiculous did it all get? Well, the Department of Transport and Regional Services (DOTARS) launched a ‘cultural diversity program’ to attract more black workers. It ran for three years, and by 2005 DOTARS had managed to more than double its black workforce … from one to almost 2.5 workers.

And how did the Howard government go across the board? In 2004, there were 2946 Indigenous employees in the APS. Today, there are 3059.

The million-dollar question, of course, is how much did this farce cost the Australian taxpayer? Well, $6.4 million for the plan Howard announced, but individual government departments also blew their own money (God knows what DOTARS’ three-year cultural diversity program cost).

The truth is some “tens of millions of dollars” was expended for a net gain of just 113 black workers over four years, or about 28 workers each year. Can you imagine the blood bath if an Aboriginal organisation had wasted money like that?

Which brings us back to Kevin. Many of the Howard rats who presided over this farce have jumped ship. But quite a few remain. They should all be hung drawn and quartered.

All up, it’s a pretty disappointing picture, particularly given the “passion” of ALP members on this very issue while in opposition. Here’s former shadow spokesman on Indigenous Affairs, Senator Kim Carr following the release of the 2005 State of the Service Report, which revealed a mass exodus of black workers:

The government claims the whole thrust of their Indigenous Affairs policy is to bring Indigenous people into the mainstream economy. The (State of the Service Report figures) make a lie of those claims. This reflects the tragedy of the administration of Indigenous Affairs under this government. It is setting us back 30 years … the whole Howard government approach is characterised by an historical trend backwards.

Indeed. And the good news is that with Labor retaining the NT intervention and driving workers out of the APS, it appears to be only slightly worse.

Kevin Rudd can wax lyrical about “building bridges” and then “crossing them” all he likes, but can I respectfully suggest there needs to be less “lighting of candles of hope” and more “setting of fires under the a-ses” of some Canberra folk.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey