Census data remain the primary source of information on the economic status of Indigenous Australians in Victoria, 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.
These issues aside, a key question for policy arising from an examination of 1991 and 1996 Census data is whether there has been any change in the absolute and relative level of Indigenous economic status in Victoria. The results suggest mixed outcomes:
- The number of Indigenous people recorded as employed increased, the employment rate was higher and the unemployment rate was lower but the gap in these indicators with the rest of the population remained the same.
- Employment growth, especially in non-metropolitan areas, was largely related to an expansion of participation in the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme. 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 36 Job Network member agencies registered in West and Inner Melbourne, 35 in East Melbourne, 19 in Geelong, 18 in the Central Highlands, and 13 in Gippsland. Many of these involve the same agencies servicing multiple branches, but only one (in Mildura and also servicing Swan Hill and Robinvale) 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 might be generated, an important consideration in Victoria is the greater concentration of Indigenous people in rural and often remote locations as well as in economically depressed country towns. As for those in Melbourne, 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. For example, the retailing, manufacturing, hospitality, finance, construction and transport industries.
This lack of penetration in leading urban employment sectors raises questions about the effectiveness of job programs and the prospect that a wider range of industry strategies targeted at typically metropolitan jobs may be required. Clearly, some focus on the special needs of the city-based population is necessary given the much larger population presence in Melbourne 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 2609 0