The relative economic status of Indigenous people in Western Australia, 1991-96

Author/editor: Taylor, J
Year published: 1998
Issue no.: 157


Census data remain the primary source of information on the economic status of Indigenous Australians in Western Australia, 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 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 ABS experimental population estimates derived from reverse survival procedures. This has the effect of properly aligning time series data. This problem affects any analysis of aggregate data for Western Australia, though it especially relates to the population counted in Perth. Elsewhere in the State, intercensal change is affected less by this census error.

These issues aside, a key question for policy arising from an examination of census data is whether growth of the population identified by the census question on Indigenous origins has resulted in an alteration to the absolute and relative level of Indigenous economic status in Western Australia. The results suggest that this is not the case.

  • The number of Indigenous people recorded as employed has risen, employment rates have been consistently higher and unemployment rates have been lower leading to a closing of the gap in these indicators with the rest of the population.
  • However, these achievements, especially in rural areas, are shown to be largely related to sustained expansion of the CDEP scheme as well as 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 only just sufficient to keep ahead of population growth and the true level of Indigenous employment has been static for some time at barely one-third of that recorded for other Western Australians.
  • 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 unkown and in need of urgent research. As it stands, there are 27 Job Network member agencies registered in Perth, 12 in Southern Western Australia and 15 in the balance of the State. Of these, only two (one in Perth and one in Derby) are Indigenous organisations leaving the whole question of dedicated services for Indigenous job-seekers open for scrutiny and analysis.

In terms of anticipating where opportunities in the private sector will be generated, an important consideration in Western Australia is the remote rural location of much of the Indigenous population:

  • some remote communities benefit from export-oriented activities such as mining, pastoral and tourism ventures, but these are typically very localised, capital intensive rather than labour intensive, highly resource dependant and subject to market fluctuation; and
  • for most an import substitution model embracing activities such as construction and maintenance, retailing, transport, media, land restoration and management, recreation and horticulture is most appropriate.

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.

Finally, even if sufficient new work in excess of growing demand were to be generated, it is important to note that the enhancement of occupational status, and not just labour force status, will be necessary to meet policy goals. This places the policy focus firmly in the realm of skills development.

ISBN: 0 7315 2592 2

ISSN:1036 1774

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