Dramatic drop in Indigenous people’s workforce participation in local government is a result of changes to a key Commonwealth program, expert says.
A forthcoming report will warn of a “major decline” in the numbers of Indigenous Australians working for local government in the Northern Territory and Queensland, and a drop reported in all states except Tasmania and Victoria.
Indigenous people make up 1.7 per cent of the local government workforce today, down from 6.6 per cent in 2006, according to the Local Government Workforce and Future Skills Report produced for the Australian Local Government Association.
Government News understands ALGA will be releasing the report later this month.
The report, which draws on Australian Bureau of Statistics data from 2006 to 2016 as well as a survey of councils, shows that local government Indigenous employment varies substantially across states, with the NT and Queensland having the highest rates of participation.
Alex Lawrie, a researcher at the Institute of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Technology, Sydney says that the substantial decrease in Indigenous workforce participation over the last decade is a result of changes to Commonwealth policies.
While local government remains the only level of government to exceed COAG targets for Indigenous employment, the decline in participation is a cause for concern, Mr Lawrie says.
He points to the impact of the removal of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) program in 2009, which aimed to boost Indigenous employment.
“As soon as we tie the hands of local government by removing support programs such as CDEP then we start to move backwards in terms of on the ground outcomes,” Mr Lawrie told Government News.
Census data analysed by the institute shows a marked decline in Indigenous workforce participation as a result of changes to the CDEP, Mr Lawrie says, with almost 1,400 positions vanishing, and rates of participation almost halving.
“There’s no denying the changes to the CDEP have resulted in a very substantial reduction in the number of Indigenous Australians employed by local government,” he said.
Although the CDEP was replaced with the Community Development Program (CDP) program, Mr Lawrie says that it is unclear whether any councils have taken on new Indigenous employees under the revised program.
“It’s an almost bewildering situation where the data shows the CDEP was providing large numbers of local jobs for Indigenous Australians in their communities, and then it’s been closed down. Now the data from the 2016 Census shows those jobs just aren’t there anymore.”
The report to ALGA says that councils believe the falls in Indigenous employment in councils across Australia could also be a result of the withdrawal of government funding for housing maintenance in the Northern Territory and the removal of key recurrent grants in Queensland.
Councils must set example
Reinstating federal programs such as the CDEP and developing partnerships between all levels of government is essential to help higher levels of government achieve national policy goals to close the gap, Mr Lawrie argues.
Councils are well-placed to employ Indigenous Australians and need to set an example in promoting economic participation, he says, but the Federal Government needs to support these efforts.
“If we want to improve wellbeing in communities across the country, particularly in regional and rural areas where Indigenous Australians make up a larger share of the community, then we need to invest in local government,” he said.
“There needs to be an acknowledgment of the role of councils in being a policy conveyer belt for higher levels of government. The levels of Indigenous employment achieved under CDEP shows councils can be effective partners in achieving national policy goals, but making wholesale changes to those types of programs really ties the hands of councils and things have now gone backwards as the data shows.”
The report to ALGA, which was commissioned by the Local Government Workforce Development Group, recommends the national peak lobby the Commonwealth to reform grant funding.
Under the recommendations, the LGWDG would monitor participation rates and develop strategies if the decline continues.
A spokesperson for ALGA told Government News that “much of” the decline in Indigenous local government employment is likely a result of changes to the CDEP, as well as the Commonwealth’s decision not to renew the National Partnership Agreements on Remote Indigenous housing.
The LGWDG has been asked to look further at the issues raised in the report, the ALGA spokesperson said.
A spokesperson from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet told Government News that employment rates under CDEP and CDP are “not comparable” as under the CDEP participants were “technically classified” as being employed despite the fact they were participants in a job seeker program.
The Department also said that the CDEP was replaced by the Remote Jobs and Communities Program. Government News was told by the Department that 29,000 jobs have been facilitated by the CDP, including positions in local councils. The Department declined to comment on the number of Indigenous employees employed under this program.
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