Did I hear the Prime Minister correctly in the leaders debate at the National Press Club on Sunday, congratulating his government for having produced 39,000 more jobs for indigenous Australians? That is a lot of jobs!

I checked the transcript:

“Here in Reconciliation Week on the land of the Ngunnawal people which we acknowledge here in Canberra, we note that our policies supporting Indigenous entrepreneurship have had the result of creating 39,000 more jobs among indigenous Australians …”

I started investigating.

The Coalition’s policy to “Develop Indigenous Business Opportunities“, released on Friday, May 27 — on the day celebrating the anniversary of the 1967 referendum — similarly states: “In the last three years, we have secured jobs for more than 39,000 Indigenous men and women.” Here, we are referring to people, not jobs.

That is a lot of people.

I discovered something a little different in a document tabled on May 5, 2016, in budget estimates by the Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion just before Parliament was prorogued for the long election campaign: “More than 39,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have started a job through programmes just in my portfolio alone.”

There is quite a difference between starting a job through a program and creating a job by supporting indigenous entrepreneurship. Scullion and Turnbull are talking about very different pathways.

What were these 39,000 jobs that have been started?

In the Prime Minister’s Closing the Gap Report of 2016 the following was stated:

“Between 1 September 2013 and 31 December 2015, Government employment programmes … have facilitated more than 36,000 jobs for Indigenous Australians.”

This was subsequently translated by Scullion: “Since I became minister we have provided 50 jobs to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People every single day. Every single day.”

What was the source of the jobs provided to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, updated presumably from February’s 36,000 to the present 39,000?

The original figure of 36,000 was obtained by adding together administrative data for a number of employment programs. The office of the Minister for Indigenous Affairs has broken these down as follows:

  • 12,647 positions in the Remote Jobs and Communities Program (now called Community Development Program) that operates in 60 remote regions;
  • 10,699 in tailored assistance when employers apply for government funding to connect Indigenous job seekers with sustainable employment;
  • 5430 in a now defunct Indigenous Wage Subsidy program;
  • 3639 through the Andrew Forrest inspired network of Vocational Training and Education Centres;
  • 2718 through the Indigenous Youth Career Pathways program that provides school based traineeships;
  • 547 through the Indigenous Cadetship Support program that links full-time undergraduate students with employers who give them work placements and employment once they finish their studies; and
  • 327 through the Employment Parity Initiative that targets companies with a strong track record in indigenous employment and can commit to a minimum of about 400 jobs for Indigenous Australians.

I want to raise three concerns with these rubbery figures.

First, it is not possible to say how many individuals were placed in these 36,000 positions; one individual might have been placed in several, a likely scenario given that the period in question is nearly three years. Shifting between 36,000 jobs and 36,000 people placed in jobs is highly misleading.

Second, what constitutes a sustainable job? The best that the government does is report 26-week outcomes — of which there were 16,648, not 36,000 — and even 26-week outcomes are not necessarily sustained employment.

Third, what has entrepreneurship got to do with the purported 39,000 placements through government programs?

In December 2015, the Productivity Commission, in its assessment of the performance of the National Indigenous Reform Agreement, reported that employment gaps between indigenous and other Australians have increased rather than narrowed, and it warned that the negative impacts of demand influences could mean closing the employment gap is unachievable.

The Closing the Gap: Prime Minister’s Report 2016 in February this year stated that the target to halve the gap in employment outcomes between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians within a decade (by 2018) is not on track.

By May 29, standing on the contested land of the Ngunnawal people, the Prime Minister of Australia reports 39,000 more jobs have been created through Abbott/Turnbull government initiatives that have supported indigenous entrepreneurship.

Telling such porkies at the start of National Reconciliation Week is neither respectful to the reconciliation process nor helpful in addressing the enormous challenges that indigenous Australians face in finding sustainable employment.

I am not even sure that such blatant deception will prove a vote-winner.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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