For a budget that was, according to the Treasurer, ‘all about jobs’, the 2020-2021 Budget has remarkably few on offer for unemployed Indigenous workers.
Indigenous workers have been among the hardest hit by COVID job losses. While around 6 per cent of non-Indigenous workers joined the Centrelink queue between June 2019 and 2020, almost 50,000 Indigenous people started receiving unemployment benefits over this period, losing jobs or losing shifts.
This is around 20 per cent of the 245,000 Indigenous people in jobs in 2018-19, according to the latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Indigenous women and young people are likely to be strongly represented in the ranks of the newly unemployed. Women and youth aged under 25 are both majorities of the Indigenous workforce in the industries that were hardest hit by COVID-19.
Yet the 2020-2021 Budget contains no specific measures to help the unemployed Indigenous workers get back to work.
Indigenous job seekers will have to hope that employers chose them when taking advantage of the new JobMaker employment subsidy for young people, or that they can find work in the new infrastructure projects.
The Community Development Program (CDP) - a punitive work-for-the-dole scheme in remote areas - remains apparently unchanged since the tweaks which commenced in March last year. While the 2019 reforms were positive, there is little evidence to date that they are delivering employment in remote Australia.
The headline 1,000 Jobs Package, a wage subsidy scheme for employers of former CDP recipients, had only succeeded in funding 101 jobs by 31 March 2020.
One bright spot in the budget was the provision of $46.5 million for the Indigenous community-controlled sector’s ‘capacity building’, a negotiated outcome of the new National Agreement on Closing the Gap.
This funding, while not enough to meet the sector’s needs, is likely to lead to the direct creation of jobs, many of which will be filled by Indigenous workers. Other initiatives which will directly lead to Indigenous employment include modest funding for First Nations’ rangers in the Murray-Darling Basin.
These exceptions aside, the Indigenous employment strategy implied by the budget is one of supporting private businesses in the hope that they will hire Indigenous workers.
The Community Development Program (CDP) - a punitive work-for-the-dole scheme in remote areas - remains apparently unchanged since the tweaks which commenced in March last year.
There may be something to this idea.
During the boom between the last recession in 1994 and the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, the percentage of Indigenous 15-64 year olds in mainstream jobs rose from 31 per cent to about 48 per cent. But since then, the growth of Indigenous employment in mainstream jobs has stalled. Compounding this, the abolition of the former Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme caused remote employment rates to fall by at least 10 per cent.
But the current recession — perhaps the worst since the Great Depression — is a terrible time to be letting go of the rudder and hoping that business will provide solutions. Part of the reason for this is that structural racism and discrimination become more significant barriers in times of crisis.
Structural factors see Indigenous job seekers face the job market with fewer qualifications and less experience, on average. And the potential for racist employers to preferentially hire non-Indigenous applicants, while always an issue, is amplified in a time of recession when there are more applicants for every position.
The abolition of the former Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme caused remote employment rates to fall by at least 10 per cent.
If Indigenous workers are last hired and first fired, then the current crisis is exactly the time for direct government intervention. Yet there is little of that to be found in this budget.
Social security payments will therefore be crucial to sustaining Indigenous families.
The increase in the rate of unemployment payments (and several other payments) to $1,115 per fortnight in April was the most significant Indigenous poverty alleviation measure since Whitlam. Its reduction in September to $815 per fortnight puts the payment precisely on the poverty line.
On 31 December, JobSeeker will return to $565.70 per fortnight. Almost 40 per cent of Indigenous 16–64 year olds were receiving a boost to social security in 30 June 2020. Their incomes will fall to well below the poverty line if the government fails to raise the rate of payments permanently.
Without a significant change to Indigenous employment policy, prospects for the government meeting its Closing the Gap commitment to ‘increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 25-64 who are employed to 62 per cent’ by 2031 are bleak. This is one area covered by the new Closing the Gap agreement that is firmly the Commonwealth’s responsibility and cannot be hand-balled to state and territory governments.
But there is no sign of this among the mainstream focus of the 2020-2021 Budget.
Indigenous people are likely to have a long and painful period of high unemployment ahead.
- Francis Markham is a settler living on Ngunnawal and Ngambri land. An economic geographer by training, he is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University.