Apr 10, 2014

Closing the gap on work: a misframed debate that needs new thinking

How do we get more Aboriginal adults into the workforce? Old thinking needs to be thrown out -- Tony Abbott needs a radical new agenda, writes indigenous academic Jon Altman from the Australian National University.

"For the gap to close we must get the kids to school, adults to work and the ordinary law of the land observed. Everything flows from meeting these three objectives."
But as Prime Minister Tony Abbott noted in handing down his first Closing the Gap report in February, the goal of halving the gap in employment outcomes between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians within a decade (by 2018) was failing -- the gap is widening. Fifty years ago there was no notion of indigenous economy; assimilation was in vogue. In 1964, Donald Horne in The Lucky Country noted that all the governments concerned with Aborigines were committed to assimilation. Things changed quite dramatically after the 1967 referendum deleted section 127 of the constitution and allowed indigenous peoples to be included in "reckoning the number of people of the Commonwealth". While initially in 1971 only 116,000 indigenous people were enumerated, by 2011 this number had grown to 548,000, a growth of nearly 500%. This was not a population that was disappearing. The availability of data provided a means to quantify an increasingly visible indigenous economy; it also rendered indigenous employment participation statistically visible. In 1987, the notion of statistical convergence for indigenous and other Australian was first proposed by the Hawke government -- the Aboriginal Employment Development Policy sought statistical equality by the year 2000. And failed. More recently, from 2008 we have seen the hegemonic dominance of Closing the Gap discourse introduced as an element of the national apology and including targets like the goal to close the employment gap halfway -- the same gap that Abbott laments is widening. Indeed, the following chart, which tracks some outcomes from 1971, suggests that statistical disparity is relatively intractable. Some things were better then than now ...

Ratio of indigenous to non-indigenous employment and income outcomes (1971–2011)

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