Since 2007, the Commonwealth government has initiated major policy and program change in remote Indigenous housing and employment, primarily and directly in the Northern Territory but also, more indirectly, elsewhere. In conjunction with a major housing construction and refurbishment program, Indigenous community rental housing built in the previous three decades has been pushed to change to a public rental model. A similarly long running Commonwealth Indigenous ‘workfare’ program, the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) Scheme, has also been pushed to change, from a wages-for-part-time-employment model to an activity-for-income-support model.
This research asks whether this policy change is evident in census data for the Northern Territory and other remote areas. It compares 2001, 2006 and 2011 census data for different geographic areas, asking whether there were changes evident between 2006 and 2011, reflecting policy and program change, which were not so evident between 2001 and 2006. By looking at different remoteness and Indigenous geographies used by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the research also enquires into which geographies are most able to identify the effects of policy change, including variability of effects between regions and localities.
The research looks first at housing: dwelling numbers, tenure and household size. It notes that there has indeed been a major tenure change towards public rental among households with Indigenous persons in remote areas. However, this change has been variable across regions and localities, in some of which considerable Indigenous community rental housing persists. Changes in numbers and size of Indigenous households are harder to see, but have also varied somewhat by region and locality. Geographic variability, both within the Northern Territory and in comparison with other remote areas raises interesting issues about both the regional and federal dimensions of policy change. While policy change in remote Indigenous housing has been largely driven centrally, by the Commonwealth, its effects as evident in the census can be quite variable in different localities, regions and sub-national jurisdictions.
The research then turns to employment and labour force status. For a similar range of geographies, census data from 2001, 2006 and 2011 are used to calculate unemployment and labour force participation rates, plus employment/population ratios, both including and excluding CDEP for Indigenous persons aged 15 years and over. The demise of CDEP does seem to have led to an increase in Indigenous unemployment rates in remote areas where CDEP was formerly a significant proportion of regional Indigenous employment. However, employment of Indigenous people in these regions seems to have held up quite well. This pattern, if substantiated in the detailed analysis, will call for some interpretive thought and sophistication. Perhaps there was something in the ‘substitution services employment’ critique of CDEP, and in the line that CDEP kept Indigenous unemployment rates artificially low. But equally, employment/population ratios among Indigenous people in remote areas remain low (around 30 Per cent or less), so there are still important remote-area-employment policy issues to be debated even after the demise of CDEP.
To further that debate, the research may return to a distinction between policy realism and policy conservatism that Jon Altman and I made in relation to CDEP back in 1991. The interpretive analytic discussion of this census evidence from 2001 to 2011 will also rely more generally on a distinction between policy realism and policy aspiration. Government policy is always aspirational: it tries to change social and economic circumstances. But in doing so governments can also become unrealistic about what is possible. The virtue of examining census evidence both before and after some concerted attempts at policy change is that it helps us think harder about what aspects of socio economic circumstances governments either can, or cannot, realistically hope to change.
This research is based on census data available from Indigenous community profiles on the Australian Bureau of Statistics website. It is thus also a demonstration of what can nowadays be done by anyone with a basic understanding of statistics, plus a willingness to get to know a website and create and manipulate excel spread sheets. There is no great statistical, programming or other technological sophistication involved in this research, which could hopefully encourage others to have a go at doing similar exercises for other regions and localities in which they have an interest.