The relative economic status of Indigenous people in New South Wales, 1991 and 1996

Author/editor: Taylor, J
Year published: 1998
Issue no.: 173


Census data remain the primary source of information on the economic status of Indigenous Australians in New South Wales, and certainly the most comprehensive. However, some care is required in their interpretation for public policy purposes. In particular, it should be noted that any change in characteristics observed between censuses does not necessarily apply to the population identified at the start of the intercensal period. In fact, because of the identification of a greater than expected Indigenous population in 1996, change to the original 1991 population cannot be adequately established. What can and should be done at the aggregate State level is to estimate characteristics for the original population using Australian Bureau of Statistics experimental population estimates derived from reverse survival procedures. This has the effect of properly aligning time series data. While this problem affects any analysis of aggregate data for New South Wales, it especially relates to the population counted in Sydney.

These issues aside, a key question for policy arising from an examination of 1991 and 1996 Census data is whether there has been any improvement in the absolute and relative level of Indigenous economic status in New South Wales during the 1990s. The results suggest mixed outcomes:

  • The number of Indigenous people recorded as employed increased, the employment rate was higher and unemployment rate lower leading to a closing of the gap in these indicators with the rest of the population.
  • However, these achievements are shown to have been largely related to sustained expansion of the Community Development Employment Projects scheme, especially away from the cities. Also contributing was enhanced Indigenous participation in employment-related labour market programs under the now defunct Working Nation initiatives.
  • Growth in mainstream, or non-program linked employment, was insufficient to keep up with population growth and the true level of Indigenous employment has been falling as a ratio of that recorded for rest of the State's population.
  • The relatively low income status of Indigenous people has remained effectively unaltered and welfare dependence remains high.

Sustained dependence over the decade to 1996 on programs for economic advancement raises further pressing issues in the context of new directions for Indigenous economic policy. These are:

  • the shift in CDEP to focus solely on providing employment and skills development, with non-working participants becoming clients of the social security system;
  • the freeze on further CDEP scheme expansion given that this has absorbed much of the excess labour supply in the past;
  • orientation towards private sector activities as the primary source of future employment growth; and
  • replacement of the Commonwealth Employment Service by contracted employment provision agencies and the dismantling and restructuring of government employment assistance.

Just what effect these new arrangements will have on employment outcomes for Indigenous people is unknown and in need of urgent consideration. As it stands, there are 27 Job Network member agencies registered in Inner Sydney, 22 in Western Sydney, 27 in South Western Sydney, 21 in North Sydney and the Central Coast, 21 in the Illawarra and South Eastern New South Wales, 25 in the Riverina, 23 in the Hunter and North Coast and 21 in Western New South Wales. Many of these involve the same State-wide agencies servicing multiple branches, but only one (in Redfern) is an Aboriginal organisation. This leaves the whole issue of dedicated services for Indigenous job-seekers open to question.

In terms of anticipating where opportunities in the private sector will be generated, an important consideration in New South Wales is the greater concentration of Indigenous people in rural and often remote locations as well as in economically depressed country towns. For most of these places, the most likely avenues for stimulating jobs growth follow from an import substitution model embracing activities such as community services, construction and maintenance of housing and infrastructure, retailing, transport, media, land restoration and management.

As for residents of Sydney and other cities, despite being closer to the hub of private sector activity, they remain under-represented in many of the industries that employ large numbers of metropolitan workers. In particular, the retailing, manufacturing, hospitality, finance, construction and transport industries. This lack of penetration in leading employment sectors raises questions about the effectiveness of job programs and the prospect that a wider range of industry strategies targeted at typically metropolitan employment sectors may be required. Clearly, some focus on the special needs of city-based populations is necessary, given the much larger population presence in the cities than previously indicated.

It is important to ask how the broad strategy of raising employment levels might be targeted to suit particular regional and local circumstances. An initial requirement is for detailed regionally-based quantitative assessments of the supply of, and demand for, Indigenous labour for different economic activities that either exist already or that may be created at the local level. Only then can the appropriate mix of resources for enterprise development and training be appropriately channelled.

ISBN: 0 7315 2608 2

ISSN:1036 1774

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