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Would you risk losing your home for a few weeks of work?

Indigenous land management jobs have been a popular, growing area of employment in recent years. AAP Image/Peter Eve

Tony Abbott is spending this week in North-East Arnhem Land, part of his long-held hope “to be not just the Prime Minister but the Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs”. We asked our experts: what stories does the PM need to hear while he’s in the Top End?

If you were unemployed and living in a small community with few jobs around and someone offered you a month of work, you’d jump at the chance – right? Not necessarily, if you didn’t want to risk being left worse off or even homeless as a result.

Weighing up whether to take casual work is a common dilemma facing unemployed or underemployed Australians. In the communities we often work with across the Northern Territory, Indigenous people are sometimes approached to work as short-term consultants with industry, government bodies or researchers like us.

Yet such job offers can be riskier – and costlier – than you might think.

Take the example of Lisa (a real person, though not her real name). She recently turned down an offer of four weeks of work because, with no ongoing job prospects, she couldn’t have afforded the six-week break after the job ended before she could start claiming unemployment benefits again. Indeed, if she told Centrelink she had a short-term job, they would cut her payments immediately, usually several hungry weeks before her new pay cheque arrived.

More importantly, she could lose her welfare-linked house, as she had seen happen to friends. Better to stay on the dole for now and do a bit more training, than risk losing the roof over her head.

A Centrelink video on reporting employment income.

(Editor’s note: The Conversation contacted the Department of Human Services to ask about the rules and waiting periods for payments being reduced or cut, which you can read here.)

Signs of change in the Territory

Administrative rigidity is one of the reasons Indigenous employment rates in the Northern Territory have changed so little in recent years. In both the 2006 and 2011 censuses, the proportion of working-age Indigenous people in some form of employment remained at about 36%. This is in a job market where over 80% of non-Indigenous people have jobs.

During his stay in Arnhem Land this week, Prime Minister Tony Abbott will no doubt be asked about Indigenous employment. Canberra, as it has for generations, maintains the fond view that Indigenous people will eventually be drawn into the tax-paying workforce on the same terms as non-Indigenous workers. And for demographic reasons that drive rapid Indigenous growth in Australia’s capitals, their wish is probably coming true for Australia as a whole.

But are there signs of change in the NT where Indigenous people make up 30% of the population? The answer is a tentative yes.

While proportions of people in employment are unchanged, the nature of that work has changed. In 2006, 45% of Indigenous employees in the Territory were paid through [Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP)](, a federal government scheme run primarily for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote, rural and urban areas. This scheme encouraged people to do practical community development work, rather than just receive the dole.

The CDEP program is gradually being phased out, covering just 18% of Indigenous employees in the Territory in 2011, but other sources of employment have taken up the slack. Indeed, growth in non-CDEP jobs between the 2006 and 2011 censuses was 69%, way above the population increase of 6%.

Earning a living from a living culture

Some interesting patterns are emerging in where jobs are growing in the NT.

While most jobs remained government-funded, the numbers of Indigenous people employed in mining and construction have increased, possibly because mining companies have adopted deliberate Indigenous employment targets. So too did the numbers employed in the cattle industry and forestry, where there have also been programs actively supporting greater engagement.

Another big increase has been the number of people saying they were earning a living from culture-based industries.

The NT has the highest proportion of professional artists anywhere in the world because of the demand for Indigenous art. Despite a dip after the Global Financial Crisis, art centres have developed new products and markets so that the industry is thriving, albeit with ongoing government support for art centres.

Numbulwar’s Red Flag Dancers at the Top End’s annual Garma festival. Pictures provided courtesy of the Mulka Project.

Importantly, unlike Lisa’s intermittent offers of short-term work, art sales easily fit into a portfolio of income sources that do not interfere with the welfare payments that fill gaps between sales.

This category also includes cultural and natural resource management. Indigenous rangers manage fire and control weeds and feral animals. Such jobs have proved enormously popular because they also get people out onto country and allow them to pass on cultural knowledge to their children.

There is also strong support from the wider Australian public for government to fund Indigenous natural and cultural resource management, so there was great relief that these programs survived the recent budget intact.

Bureaucracy is choking work opportunities

Population movements also suggest that the potential Indigenous workforce is changing. While Indigenous people are highly mobile, and some list their “place of usual residence” as their traditional country even though they may rarely get the chance to live there, this practice is declining.

Instead, there is a gradual shift from remote sites to large communities; from these to larger towns like Katherine and Alice Springs; and a shift from these places to Darwin.

But change is slow and policy will need to change still further if the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous employment is to close. Or perhaps we need to change practice as much as policy.

Australian National University academic Jon Altman suggests that CDEP could most usefully be replaced by “basic income grants to individuals to promote productivity, enterprise and risk-taking”. Indeed, it could be argued that unemployment benefits could be rebadged as basic income grants were they not so heavily bureaucratised that they inhibit enterprise.

So perhaps the solution to improving Indigenous employment is to look at greater flexibility.

In developing countries, a key feature of individual and communal resilience is a diversity of income sources. People who have a portfolio of income sources are more likely to prosper than those relying on just one.

Instead, the way Australian welfare payments are delivered actively discourages Indigenous people in remoter parts of the country from developing income portfolios. People like Lisa – capable, smart and keen to work – are punished for seizing short-term job opportunities that can build their CVs, expand their skills and give them the pride that can come with employment.

Rather than withholding welfare benefits for six weeks, we should be making it easier for her to say yes to a diverse mix of work – fostering entrepreneurial behaviour rather than driving dependency.

Further reading in this Abbott in Arnhem Land series:
Welcome to my Country: seeing the true beauty of life in Bawaka
‘PM for Aboriginal Affairs’ Abbott faces his biggest hearing test
Well-connected Indigenous kids keen to tap new ways to save lives
How crowded homes can lead to empty schools in the bush
Indigenous Australia’s rapid rise is shifting money and votes

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