The relative economic status of Indigenous people in the Australian Capital Territory, 1991 and 1996

Author/editor: Taylor, J
Year published: 1999
Issue no.: 175


Census data remain the primary source of information on the economic status of Indigenous people in the Australian Capital Territory, but their utility as a tool of public policy analysis is limited. This is because the economic characteristics of individuals who identified as Indigenous in 1991 cannot be re-calibrated in 1996. As a consequence, the fundamental question of whether circumstances for Indigenous people who identified in the 1991 Census were any better or worse in 1996 cannot be answered. The best that can be done is to estimate aggregate characteristics for the initial population using Australian Bureau of Statistics experimental population estimates derived from reverse survival procedures. This, at least, has the effect of properly aligning data levels for time series analysis.

It should be noted that, as long as the census question on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander origins remains the sole means of comprehensively defining the Indigenous population, it is possible that the numbers identified in this way will continue to rise steadily due to improved enumeration, changes in identification and the flow-on effects of inter-marriage. At a time of growing pressure for targeted service delivery that is cost-effective and based on demonstrated need, this prospect of an ever-expanding Indigenous population requires careful consideration.

Leaving aside these complexities of data collection, a key policy question that can be addressed from cross-sectional examination of census data is whether growth of the population identified by the census question on Indigenous origins has resulted in any improvement at the aggregate level in the absolute and relative economic status of Indigenous people in the Australian Capital Territory. Results from the above analysis regarding employment and income status suggest that it has not, because:

  • while the number of Indigenous people recorded as employed has risen, growth in employment fell behind growth in population and the level of Indigenous employment has been reduced to around three-quarters of that recorded for all other adults in the Australian Capital Territory;
  • the unemployment rate among Indigenous people is relatively unchanged at around two and a half times that recorded for all other adults in the Australian Capital Territory;
  • the relatively low income status of Indigenous people vis-a-vis others in the Territory has remained effectively unaltered mean Indigenous income is only three-quarters of the Territory average; and
  • income levels for Indigenous people who are employed have moved closer to the Territory average, though still lag behind. One consequence is a growing income gap between Indigenous adults in work and those dependent on welfare.

Against this background, the key economic policy issue facing Indigenous people is an orientation towards private sector activities as the primary source of future employment growth. This trend appears inevitable given the downsizing of public sector opportunities and the fiscal squeeze on many Indigenous organisations and areas of the mainstream public sector where Indigenous people have, to date, found an employment niche.

A parallel development is the replacement of the Commonwealth Employment Service by contracted employment provision agencies and the dismantling and restructuring of government employment assistance. As it stands, there are 11 Job Network member agencies registered in the Australian Capital Territory. None of these are Indigenous organisations, leaving the issue of dedicated services for Indigenous job-seekers open for question.

It seems inevitable that this privatisation of employment services will produce greater fluidity in the labour market circumstances of Indigenous people. As far as further engagement with the private sector is concerned, research based on the 1994 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Survey suggests that some of the issues likely to be encountered include a possible lowering of average incomes and the likelihood of less job security, more casual/part-time work and fewer opportunities for women and older people.

While numerically those Indigenous people recorded by official statistics as unemployed or not in the labour force in the Australian Capital Territory may not appear to be substantial, the emergent public policy issue is more to do with reversing the trend towards worsening labour force status both in absolute terms and relative to the rest of the population. Furthermore, the Australian Capital Territory as a statistical entity cuts across social networks. The actual number of Indigenous people serviced by the Canberra labour market is likely to be more extensive, with labour force characteristics more akin to those found generally in non-metropolitan New South Wales. Set against national projections of a need for substantial and immediate improvement in Indigenous employment outcomes simply to sustain the status quo, the development of regionally-focused strategies for addressing this issue has become a policy priority.

ISBN: 0 7315 2610 4

ISSN:1036 1774

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