Yesterday, employment data for 2008 and 2009, the first two years of the Rudd government, were released. And the figures suggest that rather than delivering on their ‘closing the gap’ pledge, the Australian government might have exacerbated the expansion of the indigenous unemployment gap it has committed to halve.

In early 2008 the incoming Rudd government made its national apology to indigenous Australians and with rhetorical flourish the prime minister launched the Closing the Gap policy framework. This admirable document includes six statistical targets to either reduce or eliminate life expectancy, mortality rate, educational and employment gaps between indigenous and other Australians.

Quickly the Council of Australian Governments was coaxed to adopt this framework later incorporated into the National Indigenous Reform Agreement (Closing the Gap).

A key target is to halve the gap in employment outcomes between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians within a decade. This will require an estimated reduction in the gap in the employment rate (the employment/population ratio) from 24% to 12% through the creation of an estimated additional 100,000 jobs in 10 years, or 10,000 jobs each year. A neat indicative trajectory provided at Schedule G ‘Progress towards the Closing the Gap targets’ illustrates how this statistical outcome is to be achieved.

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An early warning was provided to the government in April 2008 that trends from 1971 to 2006 showed that this goal was unrealistic and possibly unachievable; the warning was ignored.

The annual ABS publication, Labour Force Characteristics of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians: Estimates from the Labour Force Survey is the key instrument available to track the employment situation of indigenous people. Data is available annually going back to 2002, although the release for 2008 was delayed due to issues with benchmarking.

For a government that has committed to a managerial evidence-based approach to policy making the data released yesterday provides an early opportunity to use official statistics to gauge progress in closing the employment gap at the national level. The ABS is careful to warn that all labour force survey estimates are subject to sampling errors that require some caution in interpretation, hence our national focus.

Some headline information provides a damning indictment of the COAG strategy. Consider the following:

  • The unemployment rate rose substantially from 13.8% of the indigenous working-age population in 2007 to 18.1% in 2009
  • The employment/population ratio (the employment rate) fell from 50.4% in 2007 to 47.6% in 2009
  • The estimated number of indigenous people employed decreased from 163,200 in 2008 to 161,200 in 2009, a decline of 2,000
  • The gap in employment percentages between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians of  23 percentage points in 2007 increased to 24.4 percentage points in 2009
  • The increase in the gap in unemployment rates was even greater, growing from 9.6% in 2007 to 12.6% in 2009.

The indigenous sample in the labour force survey is relatively small. Apart from the rapid rise in the unemployment rate, it is difficult to tell with complete certainty whether the other differences are statistically significant. Indeed, due to cuts to the ABS’s budget ensuring statistical certainty has become more difficult, precisely when government accountability for indigenous outcomes is supposed to improve. What we can say with certainty is that the government is a long way short of the 10,000 additional jobs needed to be on track to halve the employment gap by 2018.

One might charitably blame the deterioration in indigenous employment on the global financial crisis, but such an explanation would at best be partial. In fact owing to the nation building and jobs plan of early 2009, non-indigenous employment levels have hardly deteriorated. Yet despite warnings that recently recruited indigenous people might warrant special assistance and be the first dismissed, the Australian government did nothing special for those arguably most vulnerable to the GFC.

Indeed, it is likely that through two of its own policy interventions the Australian government might have exacerbated the expansion of the employment gap.

First, in August 2008, the prime minister quickly jumped to endorse the goal of the Australian Employment Covenant (the Forrest Plan) to generate 50,000 new private sector jobs in two years, or 25,000 annually, and to underwrite it with training support. This was despite statistically-based warnings that such targets were fanciful, a claim that is sadly vindicated today with only an additional 400 jobs in total (public and private) evident in 2009 compared to 2008.

Some of the worst outcomes are evident in resource-rich Queensland and Western Australia where the indigenous unemployment rate exploded to 20.8% and 20.7% respectively in 2009, from a more modest 12.7% and 11.1% respectively in 2008. In the space of a year, Western Australia went from having one of the best indigenous unemployment rates to one of the worst. The current dispute between the government and mining companies over the Resource Super Profits Tax demonstrates the potential risk for indigenous people associated with state abrogation of responsibility for meeting its employment targets to the corporate sector.

Second, in December 2008, at the worst possible time, the Rudd government committed to continue the Howard government attack on the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP), a workfare program that provided flexible employment opportunity. This program had been indiscriminately abolished in urban Australia in 2007; then the new government expanded the abolition program to regional Australia from July 1, 2009 to remote mainland Australia from July 1, 2011 and to the Torres Strait from July 1, 2012. The predicted dire consequences of the abolition of CDEP without provision of a matching number of proper jobs has again, sadly, been proven correct: indigenous unemployment rates of 19.4% in major cities and 20.5% in regional areas bear testament to this poorly considered ‘reform’.

There is no need to have sympathy for the Australian government and its risky reform agenda — it has been warned time and again. We have much more sympathy for indigenous Australians. The negative effects of the COAG National Indigenous Reform Agreement on them have been clearly exposed by the labour force statistics. Indigenous Australians would not be surprised by these findings; many, especially in regional and remote regions where community organisations retain some voice, have been lobbying minister Jenny Macklin about the deterioration of their employment situation.

Unfortunately, indigenous people are used to grand promises and subsequent failure — Closing the Gap is little different from Bob Hawke’s failed promise of employment equity by the year 2000, or John Howard’s failed promise of practical reconciliation and equality in employment outcomes (by when, cleverly unspecified).

There is an urgent need to move beyond performative employment goal setting, be it by the Australian state or by elements of the corporate sector, or by both in unison. Such action is costly and damaging and perpetuates a climate of policy failure.

Instead we suggest hard policy work is needed to determine more realistic targets and better targeting of a suite of programs tailored to the diverse circumstances and aspirations of all indigenous people. The current highly technical COAG approach is clearly not working; the Australian state needs to enable community — and regionally-based employment action based on what is currently successful.

This will require more investment in development and a rapid policy backflip on the abolition of CDEP, before 2011 when thousands more in remote Australia will shift from workfare to welfare, once again widening the employment gap.

What is currently occurring is unconscionable; the supposed project of employment improvement based on top down, centralist and, ultimately, ideologically-driven policy making is not decreasing indigenous unemployment and associated poverty and despair, anomie and social cost. Official statistics tell us the employment gap is probably widening.

The Australian nation should demand better and, brandishing ABS factual evidence, hold the Rudd government and its bureaucratic machinery accountable.