Question Time – Indigenous Employment

March 25, 2015

Senator DAY (South Australia) (14:40): Mr President, my question is to the Minister for Indigenous Affairs. Minister, whilst I am encouraged by news yesterday out of my home state that, in order to open up job opportunities, penalty rates have been reduced, this will not, however, benefit people elsewhere in Australia, particularly those in remote regions. On this point, I note that an Aboriginal person, for example, living in a remote region can hunt kangaroos, turtles and dugongs; enlist in the armed forces; get married; have children; buy a house; and vote. But they cannot take a job under terms and conditions which they decide are best for them.

Minister, the social costs of unemployment amongst Aboriginal people—poor health, depression, substance abuse, crime, domestic violence, teenage pregnancy and even suicide—are so horrendous. Why are they not permitted to make up their own minds about getting a job?

Senator Cameron interjecting

The PRESIDENT: On my left. Senator Cameron.

Honourable senators interjecting—

The PRESIDENT: Order! On both sides.

Senator SCULLION (Northern Territory—Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) (14:42): I thank Senator Day for the question; I would like to also acknowledge his 40-odd years working in remote Indigenous communities. First of all, there should be no distinction between the wages and conditions available to our First Australians and to any other worker in Australia. For those issues in South Australia, changes in the hospitality industry within Adelaide should certainly be available in other areas like the APY lands. I understand that these are processes at a state level. Hopefully, if those matters are good for them in one state, they should be good for individuals in another.

The focus of this government in Indigenous employment in remote areas is to ensure that we seize every single opportunity to transition people into training and, ultimately, real sustainable employment. That, of course, was the whole focus of the Forrest report, Creating parity. We have a strong, coordinated employment strategy to ensure that Indigenous people are able to take up job opportunities. So from 1 July this year, major reforms to employment services in remote communities will end passive welfare and give people a pathway to real jobs. Twenty-nine vocational and training centres are going to end training for training’s sake.

The employment parity initiatives to help big employers get to employment parity of three per cent, which I announced last week, will create 20,000 jobs. By 2020, three per cent of new government contracts will be afforded to Indigenous businesses. And by 2018, three per cent of Australian Public Service employees will be Indigenous. We have made a good start. Since September 2013, 23,100 Indigenous Australians have been assisted into employment under our new job programs.

Senator DAY (South Australia) (14:44): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Minister, rather than shuffling young Aboriginal people through the job services industry that, in the words of Noel Pearson, ‘subjects them to bureaucratic straitjackets and red tape that kills innovation and social entrepreneurship,’ why doesn’t the government consider trialling community based exemptions to let young Aboriginal people negotiate employment opportunities which suit them?

Senator SCULLION (Northern Territory—Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) (14:44): I again thank Senator Day for his question. Any ideas, including yours, Senator Day, deserve consideration on the basis that they get support from the community. This government have made it clear that getting Indigenous adults into work is one of our highest priorities in improving the lives of our first Australians.

That is why we have reformed remote employment services. From 1 July this year, job seekers in remote communities will be able to participate in continuous work-like activities and meaningful work experience. Senator, I assure you that it will not be people standing around with shovels or painting rocks. It will be genuine activities that equip people either to take on real jobs that, as Marcia Langton said in the Australian, do exist in remote communities or, where they choose, to move to take up employment opportunities.

These reforms will include $25 million invested each year to build local businesses which will underpin the local economy, create jobs and offer opportunities for job seekers to get practical work experience. (Time expired)

Senator DAY (South Australia) (14:46): Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. In the last census, Aboriginal unemployment was given at over 20 per cent. Warren Mundine has said: … allowing people to languish on welfare and dismissing them as being unable to work is not treating them with dignity When will the government restore their dignity and allow them to enter the workforce under terms and conditions which suit them?

Senator SCULLION (Northern Territory—Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) (14:46): The government believe that everyone who can work should work. If jobs are not available then people need the opportunity to undertake meaningful activity that builds their skills and contributes to their community in the longer term. That is why we have reformed remote employment services. Employment gives people financial independence, control over their lives and the ability to provide for their family’s future.

Combined, our Indigenous employment initiatives have the potential to change the face of our workforce and our country, to create vibrant, thriving Indigenous businesses that ensure that our workforce reflects the strong diversity and strength of our nation. It is everyone’s task to ensure that we close the employment gap between Indigenous Australians and the rest of our country, once and for all.

IMAGE: from the Australian newspaper story, “Indigenous stockmen back in the saddle where the wild cattle roam”, 27/10/2012

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