“If you go back to the stolen generation it is true many Aboriginal people were stolen from their families but there was also a large proportion who would have perished if they weren’t removed from the environment they were in at the time…My point is those people were given an opportunity, they weren’t just given money.” So said Fortescue Metals Group CEO Twiggy Forrest in 2008. Forrest is one of Australia’s richest men and creator of “GenerationOne”.
GenerationOne is a corporate-funded campaign, ostensibly aiming to “close the gap” in employment outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
But behind the gloss lurks the federal government’s punitive Indigenous employment policies. These policies are promising “opportunity” but in reality are inflicting a contemporary agenda of assimilation with the same ferocity as the policies of child removal.
GenerationOne is a new front for the Australian Employment Covenant (AEC), launched by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Forrest in October 2008 and backed by other corporate moguls such as James Packer and Andrew Fox.
The AEC offers training subsidies to corporations pledging to employ Indigenous people, and ties these positions into Jobs Services Australia run through Centrelink. The AEC committed to creating 50,000 jobs for Indigenous people in two years. These promises sounded hollow then and now look like a sick joke.
A report by Dr Kirrily Jordan from the ANU, released in October, found that the AEC had achieved less than 3000 job placements in two years. Many of these jobs would have gone to Indigenous people through pre-AEC programs.
Recent questioning in the Senate by Greens Senator Rachel Siewert revealed that only 252 job placements were confirmed to have lasted beyond 26 weeks (the period of intensive government subsidy).
Andrew Forrest says that approximately 25,000 jobs have been “pledged” by corporations and government’s across Australia. But the vast majority of these positions do not yet exist, and, as Kirrily Jordan points out, “those pledges are for jobs that will arise in the normal course of business over time.”
The AEC and GenerationOne are key planks of an assimilationist government policy framework that is about dismantling Aboriginal communities and organisations and blaming Aboriginal people themselves for social problems such as unemployment.
As Forrest claimed on Q&A in November, “You can see that through GenerationOne, a real challenge to fill those jobs, because we’ve proven for all time that corporate Australia—in fact every Australian—isn’t racist”. This from a man whose company won a court case in 2009, FMG vs Cox, establishing that there is no serious obligation to negotiate with Native Title holders before mining on their land.
The AEC has replaced Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) as the government’s premiere Indigenous employment strategy.
CDEP focused on employment providing services within Aboriginal communities and was administered by Aboriginal organisations.
In contrast to the AEC’s fictional 50,000 jobs, at the height CDEP in 2005, more than 35,000 Indigenous people were engaged in the program.
Wages were substandard and CDEP workers were denied key rights such as superannuation. But rather than build on the strengths of CDEP and improve conditions for workers, the Howard government began to abolish CDEPs alongside the NT Intervention in 2007.
The results have been devastating. Indigenous unemployment has gone from 13.8 per cent in 2007 to 18.1 per cent in 2009. Remote Aboriginal communities across Australia relied on CDEP for the delivery of basic municipal services. With the program set to close down entirely in June 2011, many face collapse.
Kirrily Jordan’s report revealed that AEC jobs were overwhelmingly concentrated in major capital cities. The AEC’s website shows that only 26 jobs are available in the Northern Territory, almost all of them in Darwin.
The AEC explicitly seeks to “mainstream” Aboriginal people through forced migration from their communities into urban centres. In October, Indigenous Employment Minister Mark Arbib assured the Senate that the government was up to this massive task of social engineering: “The issue that you are raising, which is people in remote areas being mobile enough to move from, say, Yirrkala down to Melbourne to take up a job through the AEC, is extremely difficult… [but] I am confident that we will see further improvement, because we are making the connections now that allow for better channelling of people into jobs.”
GenerationOne is whitewash over the rapidly deteriorating employment conditions for Aboriginal people. We can’t rely on the “goodwill” of Forrest and Co; Indigenous employment targets need to be forced on the corporate sector by law. And we need a serious fightback demanding public investment in employment schemes under Aboriginal control—starting with resistance to the NT Intervention and the jobs massacre taking place across remote Australia.
By Jasmine Ali and Paddy Gibson