The Australian, Harness goodwill to close the gap on employment

Release Date: 
23 January 2014

The latest figures reveal that the indigenous employment gap is getting worse, not better.

When prime minister Kevin Rudd made the apology to indigenous Australians in 2008, he invited indigenous and non-indigenous Australians to work in partnership to close the indigenous employment gap. Governments across Australia pledged to halve the gap within a decade - by 2018 - as the initial target.

We are now past the halfway mark towards the target but, while we should be halfway through meeting the pledge, the employment gap has widened.

We measure the employment gap by comparing the proportion of people of working age who have real jobs. The employment rate of non-indigenous Australians increased from 75 per cent to 75.6 per cent between 2008 and 2012-13, but the indigenous employment rate fell from 48.2 per cent to 45.9. The previous government pledged to halve the gap, but it widened by 2.8 percentage points. This breaks a positive trend in indigenous employment for the 15 years prior.

The problem has not been a decline in the actual number of indigenous people employed since 2008, but that job growth is not keeping up with population increase.

What do we do about this? The first step is to recognise that indigenous employment is the motor of reconciliation. People who are employed tend to have better health, housing and general wellbeing. Put simply, we must lift the indigenous employment rate to address our nation's greatest social inequity.

Second, we cannot expect to significantly improve employment outcomes by doing things the same way. A tweak to existing programs and policy settings will not rapidly change the employment trajectory. We need to be prepared to reconsider everything we are doing today in relation to indigenous training and employment.

Much of the government's planned changes to mainstream employment services and welfare payments will make a difference to indigenous employment, particularly those living in urban areas. In addition, a full review of indigenous employment is under way, led by Andrew Forrest and supported by Professor Marcia Langton. The review has already undertaken consultations and meetings across the country and received hundreds of submissions.

The strongest theme that has emerged is the need to discard the practice that indigenous people are trained and retrained with no particular job in sight. We have met people with 10 or more training certificates to their name, but no job. Instead of training for training's sake, jobseekers need work-based training with employers who work in partnership with government to source indigenous applicants to existing jobs. In short, moving from supply-driven training to demand-driven training.

Sitting alongside this, submissions urge the government to radically improve the Job Services Network. The network is supposed to support individuals in finding and retaining work, but the system has failed indigenous Australians, who churn in and out of the system. Dozens of large businesses who want to employ more indigenous people no longer source applicants from the job network due to its lack of expertise and flexibility.

Perhaps the most important area that the Forrest review is considering is welfare. Indigenous leaders such as Noel Pearson and Galarrwuy Yunupingu have for years argued against the debilitating impact of passive welfare on their people. Yunupingu refers to it as "a poison".

This message has echoed across the nation. Many of the submissions to the review and the points raised in public meetings refer to its detrimental incentive on young people working. "Instead of a short-term safety net it has become a destination," the East Kimberley's Wunan Foundation says. "It has stifled initiative and work effort," according to North Queensland's Northern Project Contracting Group. The welfare rules have to change so that there is every incentive and support for able-bodied people to get into work.

In remote areas in particular, it has been pointed out that welfare and housing are closely connected. If a person stays in a remote community their family will receive a house which is free or almost free, whereas if they leave to get a job, they will have to tackle the tough and expensive private housing market. Housing should be an enabler of employment, not an impediment.

Many other issues have been raised: the role of large companies in bridging the gap, government procurement policies, the need for better schooling and full school attendance, among others. None of the issues is straightforward to address, nor has easy solutions. Forrest's report, due in April, will be vital in providing the policy framework for change to occur.

It is easy to be despondent in indigenous affairs and the latest job figures are cause for such emotions. However, the good news hidden behind the latest disappointing figures is the level of engagement and goodwill by corporations, indigenous leaders and others.

Corporations with tens of thousands of employees, such as Coles, have gone from a few dozen indigenous employees to several hundred in two or three years, and there's every chance they will employ thousands of indigenous Australians if we improve training and jobs policy. Indigenous leaders across the country are wanting to try initiatives and take responsibility for problems that they can address. Governments of all colours across Australia are wanting to make a difference.

We have perhaps never had such goodwill in the community and a desire to make tougher changes for the better.

If we get the policy settings right and can work co-operatively together, then there is every reason to be optimistic.