Are the Gaps Closing? - Regional Trends and Forecasts of Indigenous Employment

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Abstract

This paper examines the extent to which Indigenous Australians have shared in the large expansion of the Australian workforce as revealed by a comparison of 2001 and 2006 census results and whether there have been any associated general patterns. As such, it provides the first comprehensive assessment of possible impacts of federal Indigenous employment policies introduced just prior to the 2001 Census and it contributes to the policy discourse on 'closing the gap' between Indigenous and other Australians. Conventional census measures of labour force status are established for each of 37 Indigenous Regions with a particular focus on changes in full-time private sector employment. In line with the policy focus on gap analysis an attempt is made to estimate future job requirements using a projection of the Indigenous working-age population to 2016. This reveals a need for more than 117,000 additional jobs to meet current government targets.

1. Introduction

Improving the mainstream employment prospects of Indigenous Australians has been a key strategy of successive Federal Governments for many decades. From the Aboriginal Employment Development Policy of the Hawke Labor Government in the 1980s to the focus on Practical Reconciliation of the Liberal/National Howard Government and now the emphasis on 'Closing the Gap' of the Rudd Labor Government, the integration of a greater proportion of Indigenous Australians into the mainstream labour market has been seen as the most effective way of reducing Indigenous socioeconomic disadvantage. For the most part, census data remain the most effective way of tracking progress towards this end.

For analysts of Indigenous employment, results from the 2006 Census were eagerly anticipated as the 2001 Census came too soon after the establishment of the Indigenous Employment Policy (IEP) in mid-1999 to allow sufficient time for any assessment of its possible impacts on Indigenous labour force outcomes (Hunter and Taylor, 2004). Over the years since that census, the full panoply of IEP measures have been in place with the particular aim of facilitating an expansion of private sector opportunities for the Indigenous population. Over the same period other significant labour market policies have been enacted - most notably a shift in emphasis away from community development aspects of the original Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme towards the preparation-for-mainstream employment focus of the current CDEP program. All these policy changes occurred during a time of strong economic growth and rapid employment expansion. There were around 800,000 additional people counted as employed in the 2006 Census compared to 2001, an increase of almost 10 per cent. The 2006 Census, therefore, allows us to consider whether Indigenous Australians shared equally in this expansion.

While many studies have pointed to sporadic improvement in Indigenous labour market outcomes (DEWR, 2002, 2003; Altman and Hunter, 2003; Hunter and Taylor, 2004; ABS, 2008a; SCRGSP, 2007, 2009) these have been national-level partial analyses only and heavily reliant on sample survey or program data that do not always provide direct comparison with the rest of the workforce. By contrast, the census yields a fully comprehensive set of labour force data that provide for such comparative analysis at disaggregated levels of geography. Of course, the census has its own limitations to do with population coverage (Taylor and Biddle, 2008) but it remains the key resource for Indigenous labour market analysis. Thus, it is the outcomes for Indigenous people that are revealed from census to census in both absolute and relative terms that shed most light on the net effect of policy and the economy on changing economic status. While results from 2006 suggest that a combination of the IEP and favourable economic conditions led to an improvement in employment outcomes for Indigenous adults, closing the gap in labour force status with other Australians against the timetable set by current policy settings is another matter altogether because of disproportionately high growth in the Indigenous population of working-age. …