Mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest had an opportunity on ABC’s November 1 screening of Q&A to defend his record on Aboriginal employment. He didn’t do very well.
“You can see that through Generation One, a real challenge to fill those jobs, because we've proven for all time that corporate Australia — in fact every Australian — isn't racist”, Forrest said.
“We do love our first Australians. We do want to help them as much as we can but we can do it without just throwing money, and I believe I could do more.”
In August 2008, in a press conference with then-prime minister Kevin Rudd, Forrest launched a campaign for 50,000 Aboriginal jobs in the private sector, something that Rudd called the “missing piece of the puzzle” saying “government-only” solutions couldn’t work.
Then on October 24, a national advertisement was televised with Aboriginal leader Charlie Perkins’ granddaughter asking for support for the right of Aboriginal people to have the same access to jobs and education as the rest of Australia.
This noble goal is a huge task. The 2009 census said only 46% of Aboriginal people over 14 were employed. But will “Generation One”, as the campaign is known, succeed?
Many involved in the Aboriginal rights campaign don’t think so, and analysis reported in the November 4 Sydney Morning Herald supported their criticisms.
It said: “A report published [on November 1] by the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research found the scheme had achieved less than 6 per cent of its goal, with about 2800 indigenous people employed in the stated time frame.”
The report’s author Dr Kirrily Jordan said: “The Aboriginal Employment Covenant is not actually offering any new training.
“What it is offering is securing job promises from employers and, basically, referring people on to the existing government training programs.”
On Q&A, Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said the Senate estimates committee believed that of the jobs created, only 252 lasted longer than 26 weeks.
Missing from Generation One’s campaign (apart from real outcomes) is any criticism of current government policies that actively discourage and block the possibility of real jobs for Aboriginal people.
Aboriginal leader and campaigner for jobs with justice Barbara Shaw said on October 27: “The way Generation One are carrying on is disgusting, a real slap in the face. They come through town with a fancy road-show while hardworking Aboriginal people are being thrown out of work by the intervention or are now working for the Basics Card. Is this the future for the next generation in ‘proscribed areas’?
“We are sick of the broken promises from government and big corporations. Two years ago, Andrew Forrest and Kevin Rudd promised us 50,000 jobs. But our people living under the intervention have seen nothing.”
In the Northern Territory, as part of the major, wide-reaching federal government “intervention” into Aboriginal communities, Aboriginal employment patterns have changed dramatically.
Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP), while not perfect, provided flexible work for Aboriginal people and needed municipal and social services.
Historically, CDEP workers received welfare payments plus “top-up” — wages for the hours worked. Changes to the program since the intervention was introduced in 2007 mean that those same workers are working up to 16 hours per week for a mere $115 cash and $115 on the Basics Card.
Money on the Basics Card can only be spent on priority items in government-approved stores.
They have been told that if they don’t comply, they will lose their welfare payments.
NT Aboriginal leaders say that there are Aboriginal people in communities who have the training to build much-needed infrastructure and provide vital services — people who want to work. But they are repeatedly knocked back in favour of outside contractors — non-Aboriginal people paid real wages.
Generation One, behind which stands one of Australia’s richest men, can’t pledge a commitment to Aboriginal employment while ignoring this ongoing racism and exploitation — not without reeking of hypocrisy.
Corporate Australia is not interested in maintaining these communities. Its main interested is how much profit, if any, can be made in and from Aboriginal communities.
This is why many of the jobs opportunities Twiggy talks about will be in, or subsidiary to, the mining industry, rather than basic service provision on Aboriginal communities.
Corporate Australia, and the government that represents it, have no interest in real, community-controlled Aboriginal employment in jobs and services that will empower these communities, lifting them out of poverty while maintaining a commitment to Aboriginal culture and self-determination.
The barriers to employment for Aboriginal people are many. They include racism and discrimination, access to education and training, and historic disadvantage. These barriers won’t be addressed by corporate feel-good schemes to draw Aboriginal people into low-paid work for mining companies. They won’t be addressed by paying Aboriginal people with ration cards and spare change to provide vital community services.
Companies should set Aboriginal employment targets — and be compelled to by law. But this is no substitute for what is really needed — government investment in infrastructure, and training Aboriginal workers to build and maintain that infrastructure to ensure sustainable, healthy wealth-serviced communities, under Aboriginal control.