Another gap gets bigger

Canberra, February 8, 2005: Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Dr Peter Shergold at the Senate inquiry into the Administration of Indigenous Affairs in Canberra.

Canberra, February 8, 2005: Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet Dr Peter Shergold at the Senate inquiry into the Administration of Indigenous Affairs in Canberra.

KEVIN Rudd, and now Julia Gillard, have both committed to “Close the Gap” between black and white Australians. But in the area of black employment in the Australian Public Service, Labor is still failing its targets, writes CHRIS GRAHAM.

If you’re a fan of Yes Minister and Sir Humphrey Appleby’s ability to make white look black, and black look white, you would have enjoyed Peter Shergold’s performance during a Senate Select Committee hearing in February 2005.

Shergold was then the Secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet – the most senior public servant in the nation.

He was being grilled during the Senate Estimates Committee hearing by then Opposition Indigenous affairs spokesman, Senator Kim Carr, on a mass exodus of black staff from the Australian Public Service.

The annual State of the Service Report, compiled by the Australian Public Service Commission, had revealed Aboriginal people were walking away from the APS at record levels.

The report expressed concern that “a longer term trend of declining representation may be beginning to emerge.”

Shergold was having none of it.

Senator Carr: “You are head of the Public Service and you would be familiar, no doubt, with the State of the service report 2003-04 from the Commission. The last report said: “Indigenous Australians were the only EEO group whose representation fell in both absolute and proportional terms in 2003-04, revealing that Indigenous employment has not only stalled but is at serious risk of longer term decline from the high of 2.7 percent in 1999 (the figure was 2.3 percent in 2004)…. How do you account for that?”

SHERGOLD: “My reading of the State of the Service report and of the statistics from the Public Service Commission is a little different…. My take is that over the last 10 years the proportion of public servants who are Indigenous has been pretty stable. I think it is about 2.3 per cent now; it was 2.5 per cent in 1996. I suppose it pretty well reflects the representation of Indigenous people in the wider population.”

Except, of course, the Aboriginal population increased – rather than decreased – between 1996 and 2005.

Shergold continued to argue there had been a reduction in low level jobs across the public service, but, broadly, Indigenous employment was okay.

SHERGOLD: “I think you are seeing in the Public Service that there is stability in total numbers and in the proportion of the Public Service, but an increasing number of those Indigenous public servants are operating at a middle and senior management level. That is how I would read the figures.”

In fact, in 1996, when the Liberal-National Coalition came to office, there were 3,319 black staff in the APS.

Despite an increase in the overall size of the APS, by 2005 the number had been reduced to 2,770 – a loss of 600 workers.

On Shergold’s watch (and that of his predecessor, Max Moore-Wilton) Aboriginal recruitment had gone from two black staff joining the APS for every black staff member leaving, to two leaving for every one joining.

That’s not stable in anyone’s language.

And as it turns out, the APSC’s predictions of a longer term trend was right – since 2005, numbers have steadily declined. So that year, to arrest the slide, the government and the APSC launched the The APS Employment and Capability Strategy for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander Employees.

“The strategy is designed to support APS agencies to increase the representation of Indigenous Australians across the APS to achieve the COAG target,” the APSC report issued at the time noted.

“The Strategy was revised recently to ensure that it meets the expectations of the government’s ‘closing the gap’ agenda and continues to respond to the needs of Indigenous APS employees and their managers,” it added.

“The key objectives of the Strategy are to attract more Indigenous Australians to the APS, provide current Indigenous employees with opportunities for skills and career development across APS agencies, help agencies create and maintain supportive and culturally respectful workplaces, and support employers to enhance their agency’s skills in working with and sustaining Indigenous staff.”

But the strategy has delivered mixed results.

The 2010 State of the Service report, ironically, is using the same language as Dr Shergold in 2005 to describe black job numbers.

“The number of ongoing Indigenous employees rose slightly this year, from 3,266 to 3,307, an increase of 1.3 percent, and higher than the increase in the APS overall (0.4 percent).

“Proportional representation remained steady.”

However, the report has noted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employment remains lower against a number of targets.

“Indigenous representation is still lower than representation in the Australian community (2.5 percent) and also lower than the COAG target of at least 2.7 percent by 2015 for the Commonwealth public sector,” the report states.

“These figures clearly demonstrate that agencies will need to do more than they are currently doing. A business-as-usual approach will not achieve the COAG target.”

The report also sheds light on the performance of individual agencies.

Again, the outcomes are mixed – some agencies have had outstanding success in attracting black staff, while others have struggled.

Aboriginal Hostels Limited only has 369 staff in total, but 297 of them (80 percent) are black.

By comparison, the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) has almost 10 times as many employees in total, but has just two more black staff than Hostels.

Even so, FaHCSIA, with almost nine percent of its staff identifying as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, is well above the average across the APS.

Some agencies, however, remain above the APS average but have low numbers considering the functions they serve.

Almost one quarter of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS) are black, but that’s just 10 employees out of 44. The National Native Title Tribunal has just 15 black staff, out of 167 permanent employees.

Still, they’re doing better than a large proportion of agencies – 26 reported having no ongoing black staff at all, and a further 17 reported having only one.

The APSC report sheds some light on why that may be the case. While every Australian Public Service agency has a strategy to attract and retain recruits from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds (NESBs), almost one third of agencies concede they have no “effective” program to target Aboriginal Australians.

“Overall, there has been a decline in the proportion of agencies with an existing workplace diversity program this year (68 percent) from 2008–09 (71 percent) and 2007–08 (77 percent), a concerning trend given that it is mandatory for all agencies to have one,” the report states.

On the issue of retention, the latest report reveals that black staff stay for much shorter periods in the APS.

“Indigenous employees continued to have a much shorter length of service before leaving the APS than did non-Indigenous employees,” the report states. “During 2009–10, 16.8 percent of Indigenous employees who separated had less than one year’s service, compared with only 9.1 percent of non-Indigenous employees,” it adds.

“It seems that, while the APS is having some success in attracting Indigenous employees with a relatively high engagement rate, a substantial proportion of this group is leaving quickly—retention strategies are clearly less successful than employment strategies.”

Despite the poor performance of agencies and their programs, black staff are surprisingly upbeat about their employment and more so than white staff.

As part of the annual State of the Service report, staff are surveyed about their employment.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees ranked job security as the most important factor in their choosing the APS (87 percent), followed by their remuneration package (83 percent); and their interests/experiences matching their job responsibilities or the business of the agency (80 percent).

Career opportunities were also important (78 percent), followed by “making a difference” (76 percent), gaining experience (also 76 percent) and location (68 percent).

Interestingly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees were happier in their employment than non-Indigenous staff – 77 percent of black employees were more likely to be satisfied with their job than non-Aboriginal employees (68 percent).

Black staff were also more likely to agree that their agency is committed to creating a diverse workforce culture (77 percent) than non-Indigenous employees (69 percent).


• The representation of Indigenous employees and people with a disability in the SES remained low in 2009–10. At 30 June 2010, only 0.5 percent of SES employees identified as Indigenous…. The only diversity group that is increasing is those from a Non-English Speaking Background.

• Indigenous employees are concentrated in a small number of Commonwealth agencies. At June 2010, four agencies accounted for 59.8 percent of all ongoing Indigenous employees — Centrelink (1,036; 31.3 percent), DEEWR (345; 10.4 percent), FaHCSIA (299; 9.0 percent), and Aboriginal Hostels Ltd (297; 9.0 percent).

• Twenty-six agencies reported having no ongoing Indigenous employees, and a further 17 reported having only one.

• For Indigenous employees, the top three most important attributes for a job in the APS were job security (87 percent); remuneration package (83 percent); and their interests/experiences matching their job responsibilities or the business of the agency (80 percent).

• Indigenous employees were more likely to be satisfied with their job (77 percent) than non-Indigenous employees (68 percent).

* Chris Graham is a Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist, the former managing editor of Tracker magazine, and the former founder and editor of the National Indigenous Times. He’s now a freelance writer based in Sydney.

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