A new report from the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR) casts doubt on the ability of current government and corporate policy to meet its goal of “closing the gap” between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal unemployment.
The CAEPR report looks at the goals and achievements of two private-sector initiatives: the Australian Employment Covenant and Generation One.
Generation One was launched in March this year. According to its website, it is “a movement to bring all Australians together to end the disparity between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in one generation — our generation”.
It comes at a time of growing public support for addressing Aboriginal disadvantage, reflected in the more than 83,000 supporters the website boasted as of December 1.
Generation One supports the goals of, and directs Aboriginal jobseekers to, the Australian Employment Covenant (AEC), which was announced in October 2008 by mining billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest.
The AEC aimed to create 50,000 jobs for Aboriginal people within two years. It was welcomed by then-PM Kevin Rudd, who said it signaled a major shift in approach to Aboriginal affairs, and that it was the “death of ideology”.
Rudd said: “This is no longer a question about can government fix all these problems. We cannot. Let's be upfront about it.”
It is perhaps no coincidence the federal Labor government was so enthusiastic about the AEC. The pledge for 50,000 jobs came as the government was announcing massive changes to Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP), which, it was estimated, would leave up to 35,000 Aboriginal CDEP participants out of work.
According to the CAEPR report, the covenant had three aspects: employers would commit to reserving a number of jobs (known as “covenant jobs”) for Aboriginal people; Aboriginal people would commit to one of the jobs for at least 26 weeks, and the federal government would provide pre-employment training necessary for that particular job.
But the AEC isn't creating new training. It simply identifies “employer need” then channels the jobseekers into existing (mostly government-funded) training programs.
In other words, the private sector is relying on government-funded training that might otherwise be provided for public and community employment programs.
The AEC steering committee is chaired by conservative Aboriginal commentator Noel Pearson and includes Forrest, Aboriginal academic Marcia Langton, retired Aboriginal magistrate Sue Gordon, chairperson of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce Warren Mundine and Rod Eddington, a director of News Corp and a board member of the conservative think tank the Centre for Independent Studies.
While Generation One and the AEC are private-sector initiatives, they increasingly reflect government policy — at the expense of government programs such as CDEP.
CDEP was a community-controlled employment project, that is now being phased-out and watered-down into a corporate-controlled work-for-the-dole scheme.
Senator Mark Arbib told a Senate Estimates committee on November 17: “The AEC is just one of the government's overall Indigenous employment policies.”
At the end of the original two-year timeframe, the CAEPR report said the AEC had secured 20,000 job pledges but only an estimated 2800 job placements — well short of the 50,000 jobs target.
Increasing bad publicity caused the AEC to back away from its original statements and claim it only ever promised 50,000 job pledges, not placements.
The bad publicity also seems to have inspired the launch of Generation One — to put a new face on the AEC. Like the AEC, Generation One was launched by Forrest. Pearson is also a board member.
Creating 50,000 more jobs — and placing Aboriginal people in them — was always going to be a huge task. The most recent census figures put the total number of Aboriginal Australians in paid work at 122,000. In the five years to 2006, considered a time of strong job creation, only 22,000 extra Indigenous people took on jobs.
So presumably reaching the 50,000 target would take a radical rethink of Aboriginal employment, huge government investment and creation of programs, training and jobs.
But the AEC simply builds on government trends, rather than breaking from the past.
In government reports about “closing the gap”, it has said it will rely heavily on the private sector to reach its targets, and has highlighted the AEC as a key factor in closing the gap.
The full details of government financial contributions to the AEC are not public. But we do know the government has committed $4 million to the AEC for start-up funding and a “long-term funding model based on the achievement of outcomes”.
Also, while 20,000 job pledges sounds impressive (albeit a far cry from the original goal), what does this actually mean?
Covenant employers sign up saying they will guarantee a certain number of jobs to appropriately trained Aboriginal applicants.
But, according to the CAEPR, this is not a legal obligation. The AEC sees it as more of an informal agreement that, if more than one person applies for the job, the employer will positively discriminate in favour of an Aboriginal applicant, provided they have the required skills.
In a way it works like an affirmative action scheme. But, as the report points out, jobs advertised under the AEC are presumably positions that need filling, so if no appropriately trained Aboriginal person applies within a certain timeframe, the job may be given to someone else.
So, even if 50,000 jobs were pledged, Aboriginal people wouldn’t necessarily fill them all. Quoting the number of jobs “pledged” rather than “created” under the AEC is misleading.
Generation One has said it aims to “change aspirations of Indigenous Australians”. But is the problem with Aboriginal disadvantage really about Aboriginal people’s aspirations?
Generation One and the AEC need to be seen in the context of government attacks on welfare rights. The program aims to ensure Aboriginal Australians “achieve their full potential as productive members of society” and show Aboriginal students “welfare is not an option”.
This complements most government approaches, which privatise job unemployment services and allow government to dodge responsibility for training, welfare or job creation.
For example, in the Senate Estimates hearing on November 17, Arbib said it was “extremely difficult” to get people who had previously been on CDEP in Yirrkala to move to Melbourne to take up an AEC job.
Generation One’s approach seems to be about changing (Aboriginal) attitudes so that such a move seems less daunting.
But what about the massive Aboriginal employment that could be created immediately in Northern Territory communities, simply through responding to community need and no longer bringing in white contractors to do work local Aboriginal people could do?
There is a strong desire to work in remote communities; some people have continued to turn up to CDEP jobs even when they know they won't get paid.
Most AEC jobs listed are not in areas of high Aboriginal unemployment. Most of the jobs in WA and the NT are in urban and regional centres, not remote areas.
When the CAEPR report was written, 90% of the 350 jobs listed on the AEC website were with Linfox — mainly as warehouse packers.
It’s clear the AEC has failed to deliver what it promised. But it is important to understand that perhaps the most damning thing about the AEC isn't that it failed to achieve what it set out to do — it’s what it did set out to do.
The AEC and Generation One do not openly, explicitly support Aboriginal employment and training programs on communities and homelands; they don’t use the corporate muscle backing the initiatives to pressure for massive immediate government investment into communities, and they do not speak out against the massive attack on Aboriginal employment happening right now in the NT.
The AEC and Generation One don't value Aboriginal culture, or the traditional, collectivist approaches that might see one wage being divided between five people, or the ties to country that might mean staying home is much healthier and more socially useful than moving to Melbourne to work in a casino — one of Generation One’s success stories.
By focusing on “changing aspirations” and “teaching that welfare isn't an option”, AEC and Generation One are ignoring all the thousands of Aboriginal people that do want to work on their country, with their people. It says the problem is Aboriginal people and if they change how they think, Aboriginal disadvantage will be addressed.
The Aboriginal rights movement needs to be able to put forward an alternative vision, of jobs with justice, community control, and full employment and services that are complimentary to — not at the expense of — culture and country.