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The Relative Economic Status of Indigenous Australians: 1986-91.

Much of the research agenda of CAEPR (Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research) has been set by the Aboriginal Employment Development Policy initiated in 1987. That policy aims to bring the Australian indigenous population into a state of 'equality' with non-indigenous Australians, according to a number of statistical measures of labour market status, income and occupational/industrial distribution. The very least of CAEPR's ambitions is to measure the degree of progress towards these explicit program targets, and to identify obstacles to their achievement, usually by making sophisticated use of Census data.

The significance of Taylor's monographs 5 and 6 is that they attest: (a) the importance (but ambiguous impact) of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme in determining indigenous economic status by 1991; (b) the depth of regional variation.

Though there is a long-standing trend for the indigenous population to become more urban, it remains more 'rural' than other Australians (1991 32.8% compared to 14.6%). As well, there has been a disproportionate expansion of the indigenous working age population. Reducing the rate of unemployment for indigenous Australians has therefore been more difficult than for non-indigenous.

There was a slight convergence in the overall rate of employment of the indigenous and non-indigenous populations, but Aborigines were still 0.51 and Torres Strait Islanders 0.77 of the non-indigenous figure (1.0) in 1991. The rise (1986-91) in the rate of employment was better for females (5.8%) than males (2.7%). But the female participation rate rose by 5%, while remaining the same for males. These changes were most pronounced in rural areas. Indeed, indigenous job growth has been 'predominantly a rural phenomenon involving mostly part-time work with an increasing emphasis on labouring and para-professional jobs in community services' (5, p.46) - a reflection of the importance of CDEP, he infers.

The Northern Territory showed one of the most marked reductions in indigenous unemployment rates from 35% (1986) to 25% (1991); the national fall was 35.3% to 30.8%, and in ACT, Victoria and Tasmania, the rate of indigenous unemployment actually rose. However, this is the context of low (by national standards) labour force participation rates.

Taylor finds a marked South-East versus North-West divide (with rural NSW falling into the North-West) in measures of employment, unemployment and labour force participation rates. He attributes the difference to regionally different histories of what he calls 'economic marginalisation' (the term is not explained and may be circular) and to regionally differentiated cultural choices: attachment to remote lands, intermittent supply of labour. Because these regional disparities are evident in the labour force status of indigenous youth, they are likely to persist.

Much of the employment growth 1986-91 can be attributed to the spread of CDEP. The Northern Territory was the fastest growing CDEP zone, the numbers involved expanding almost six-fold (compare Qld, five-fold, national 3.6 fold). The Northern Territory was the only State/Territory where CDEP accounted for all employment growth. Nationally, CDEP jobs accounted for 58% of job growth, from 1986 to 1991.

Indigenous Australians tend to be concentrated in certain industries. The Northern Territory shared with Western Australia the highest index of industry concentration in 1986; in 1991, the NT had by far the highest index and the highest rate of increase of that index in the five years, reflecting the impact CDEP participation, according to Taylor.

Indigenous employment also tends increasingly to be part-time, a tendency most pronounced in the Northern Territory and South Australia, with the Eastern States (except Qld) providing the greatest contrast.

Skills and qualifications for indigenous Australians increased at a much greater rate (across a range of levels) than for other Australians, but among indigenous Australians an increasing rural/urban gap became evident. This can be seen particularly in the contrast between the Northern Territory and other States/Territories. Again, CDEP seems a significant factor.

'Mean employment incomes for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders have increased at a considerably slower rate than for other employed Australians' (5, p.43). Where they have increased most, it has increased the gap between male and female incomes. The ratios of indigenous to non-indigenous mean incomes showed wide regional variations. The Northern Territory ratios were much lower than the national average indigenous ratios and only a little more than half the indigenous ratios in major urban parts of the ACT, Tasmania and Victoria, where indigenous people are, relative to non-indigenous people, the best off. The Northern Territory shows the greatest contrast between indigenous and non-indigenous incomes.

CAEPR researchers define 'welfare dependency' differently from the government, including all transfer payments by the Commonwealth government to indigenous citizens, not just the payment of Unemployment Benefits. Welfare dependency persisted 1986-91. That is, the proportion of all indigenous incomes deriving from employment rose only slightly, despite the rise in the proportions employed. To the extent that job creation was CDEP-driven it did not generate higher incomes. The regional pattern of 'welfare dependency' is similar to the regional pattern of income level; the Northern Territory and Western Australia showed the least proportion of indigenous income arising from employment. 'The income returns from employment for indigenous people are likely to fall increasingly behind those for the rest of the population, at least in certain regions', predicts Taylor (6, p.62).

Taylor shows that Australian government policies are not moving indigenous Australians towards 'economic equality', as it is usually measured, with other Australians. His admirable monographs are limited to these terms of reference, however, hardly glancing at the political and cultural conditions of 'self-determination' - to which CDEP may be contributing.

Jones begins Monograph 8 by carefully specifying his criteria of need: 'housing adequacy (overcrowding)' and 'after-housing poverty'.

'Overcrowding' means one of the following conditions is not met: parent(s) with separate bedroom; non-dependent children and other household member (unless married) have separate bedroom: maximum of two dependent children per bedroom. All 'improvised dwellings' are taken to be 'overcrowded'.

From 1991 Census data, Jones can show which household types have the highest and lowest proportions of 'overcrowded' dwellings. He thus calculates the housing need (number of extra bedrooms required) of a number of discrete categories of indigenous families/persons. Other variables considered are: major urban/other urban/rural; owning/buying/renting; government/private landlord; State/Territory; (ATSIC) regional council (Jones gives 'within State/Territory' comparisons, before ranking all 36 regions). Twenty-three figures and twenty four tables.

'After housing poverty' refers to the adequacy of income not spent on housing for buying essential goods and services. Jones calculates the proportion of households in a number of categories which are below the 'after housing poverty line' (AHPL) and the proportions of households in poverty before housing costs are taken into account. Calculating the effects on these proportions of rehousing borders, related adults and second and third occupant families, Jones concedes that households will not necessarily welcome such rehousings: the difference between thought experiment and social process remains in sight. His variables are tenure, household type, and three kinds of regional variation. Nine figures and eighteen tables.

Regional variations show the same northwest versus south-east pattern demonstrated by Taylor in CAEPR Monograph Six. The bedroom shortage is greatest in the 'north-west', but the more urban the household, the more its poverty is attributable to housing cost.

After comparing indigenous and non-indigenous households in 1991, Jones then shows that there has been little change in indigenous housing need between the 1986 and 1991 Censuses.

Finally, Jones compares his Census-based results with those of an ATSIC survey conducted in 1992. The ATSIC survey did not standardise criteria of need, but allowed local 'reference group' opinion its weight; and it indicated more need than Jones measured. Jones asserts that his Census-based measure, as well as being cheaper than ATSIC's survey, is 'more reliable and more credible'. The credibility of this claim will be determined as much by the political prestige, as by the rigour, of his methodology. Jones' monograph, almost disarming in its scrupulous objectivity, is a pointed intervention into ATSIC's inter-regional politics of needs assessment.

Monograph 7 is a reprint of a November 1993 seminar series. Jeremy Beckett opens it by giving the cultural and historical background to the Murray Island case. At the direction of the High Court of Australia, the facts of the plaintiffs' case had to be tested before Justice Moynihan in the Queensland Supreme Court in 1989. Beckett shows that while Murray Islanders were in no doubt about the force of 'custom' in validating their rights of land ownership, they were not in agreement about the particular claims asserted. Mabo, having lived on the mainland for most of his life since age 15, found his own claim disputed by other islanders.

Moynihan's findings gave the High Court grounds for recognising the common law force of 'native title', but, as Beckett argues, they also exposed the problem (shared by anthropology and indigenous people) of holding simultaneously to the historicity and authenticity of 'custom'. Frank Brennan's paper takes this story further. He highlights the High Court's incredulity at the cases made for individual ownership, and the Justices' withdrawal (after last minute amendment of the plaintiffs' case) to a ruling recognising communal ownership whose substance or 'incidence' is open to further political and/or judicial determination.

Henry Reynolds draws attention to one feature of the High Court's revision of Australia's legal history: that native property rights were extinguished portion by portion, not wholesale in the acts of British sovereignty over the continent. The High Court judgment thus put the onus on the Crown to show that extinguishments have taken place, and it also separated the issue of 'sovereignty' from that of property right. (Now that the Native Title Act has shifted the onus of proof back to those asserting native title, will we see the reassertion of the argument that 'sovereignty' is logically and politically the prior issue for indigenous Australians?)

While the High Court refused to entertain debate about Australia's sovereignty, its Mabo judgment benefits indigenous claims to a greater degree of self-government, argues Garth Nettheim, among 'Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples that retain a sufficient degree of social cohesion'. Citing encouraging Canadian precedents, he gives examples of recent regional agreements - 'treaties under another name'.

Jon Altman asks whether land will underwrite the emancipation of indigenous Australians from welfare dependency. Reviewing the economic impact of land rights in the Northern Territory, he concludes that for an estimated three quarters of indigenous Australians, it will not. Their primary economic need is jobs and/or enterprises which land ownership may or may not help them to secure.

Though this book precedes Mabo's legislative denouement, the issues remain current. An excellent multi-displinary text for advanced students in indigenous studies.

TIM ROWSE University of Sydney
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Author:Rowse, Tim
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1995
Previous Article:Native Title Act 1993: Implementation Issues for Resource Developers.
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