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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.

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 comments

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17 thoughts on “The massive indigenous employment gap stagnates

  1. David Hand

    Doesn’t education have relevance to the aboriginal unemployment rate?

  2. John Bennetts

    I wonder what the unemployment rate is amongst all those who, from choice, live tens or hundreds of miles away from substantial communities.

    I wonder what the unemployment rate is amongst all those who come from communities and families with a history of unemployment spanning generations.

    I wonder what the unemployment rate is amongst those who had poor attendance records at school and those who did not progress beyond Y7.

    I wonder…

    …Why few articles are written in the popular press about those factors which are associated with unemployment and what can be done about them, rather than publicly stigmatising Australians according to racial background and thus achieve nothing except to perpetuate negative and race-based stereotypes.

  3. SBH

    John Bennetts you complete f*&wit, you don’t wonder, you blame

    Half of Victoria’s Aboriginal population live in Melbourne, one of the biggest job markets in Australia. They have high rates of unemployment, at about the same as the national Aboriginal average. I could go on but why bother your mind is made up and nothing will change it because you would rather blame Aboriginal people (just like you probably blame refos, dole bludgers and single mothers)

    I’ve replied to you so I can make the point to more open minds that may read this that when you correct for other factors such as location, socio-economic status education, parents education etc etc etc being Aboriginal means in this country that you suffer massive disadvantage compared to your fellow citizens. Disadvantage that makes you poorer sicker die younger and more likely to end up in gaol.

    Even if you think this is because of some kind of personal choice you made, how in the name of god can you not want to deal compassionately with fellow citizens in such strife? How in the name of mammon could you not want to change the situation so that Aborigines pay tax rather than get welfare? In short – what on earth is wrong with you?

    After 200 years of blaming lazy, welfare crippled blacks, don’t you think its about time we white folk started taking responsibility?

  4. David Hand

    SBH,
    You should tone it down. Your vitriol is unnecessary and offensive.

  5. SBH

    Well I’ll make you a deal David, when people stop blaming Aboriginal people for them being unemployed, sicker, poorer etc etc etc, I’ll tone it down. As for vitriol..well one swallow does not a summer make nor one summary offense, vitriol make. Either that or you need to look at the definition of irony.

    Although it is funny how you get offended by a word (suitably altered to mitigate offense) but aren’t offended to the point of strong language at least, that some of your fellow citizens have third world lives.

  6. David Hand

    OK, SBH, I’ll take your deal.
    As I was saying, doesn’t poor education have something to do with high aboriginal unemployment?

  7. 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.

  8. David Hand

    OK, I take your point about the under-investment in education in remote aboriginal communities. Of course, it’s not an easy policy to manage as you point out regarding the recruitment and retention of good teachers in those communities.

    Actually I think that was one of the points made by John Bennets that you seemed to fly into an apoplectic rage about.

    Perhaps you might comment on the half of Victoria’s Aboriginal population that lives in Melbourne. They don’t get cut off from their schools by a flooded creek and there are plenty of educational opportunities for them. Do you think they are educated but discriminated against or is their educational achievement poor?

  9. 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.

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