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Wednesday, 13 March 2013
Page: 2038


Mr CROOK (O'Connor) (11:28): I rise today to address the issue of closing the gap in Indigenous employment levels in my electorate of O'Connor and to express my disappointment that since May 2012 this government has recklessly undermined the progress of established Indigenous employment agencies. In May 1986 the Southern Aboriginal Corporation established its headquarters in Albany in my electorate of O'Connor. In its relatively short history the Southern Aboriginal Corporation has been recognised by both the Nyungar and the wider community as the most appropriate body to represent the interests of the Nyungar people in the Great Southern region.

Since the establishment of the reformed Indigenous Employment Program in early 2009, the Southern Aboriginal Corporation, in partnership with local industry and business, have established a proven track record in placing Indigenous Australians in training and employment under the Indigenous Employment Program. As proof of their success, the Southern Aboriginal Corporation has consistently exceeded key performance indicators set by government for the Indigenous Training Program and employment goals.

In May 2012, with no prior warning, the Southern Aboriginal Corporation were advised by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations that a moratorium was being placed on new funding for Indigenous Employment Program projects until further notice. With the same communication, DEEWR advised that the new initiative, called the Remote Jobs in Communities Program, was about to begin, targeting 59 very remote Indigenous communities. The locations designated by DEEWR as remote were partly based on Australian Bureau of Statistics maps. However, they excluded some areas previously identified as remote.

On 6 February 2013, as the Prime Minister was making her Closing the Gap statement in this chamber, my office was attempting to explain to our local Southern Aboriginal Corporation why the Indigenous Employment Program funding to their proven and incredibly successful employment program for Indigenous people in the south of my electorate had been halted. The Minister for Indigenous Employment, the Hon. Julie Collins, said in a media release on 20 June 2012 that the Indigenous Employment Program had delivered almost 33,000 work and training commencements in 2011-12, which is 15 per cent higher than the program's target. She also said that the Indigenous Employment Program is one of the most successful programs helping Indigenous Australians to get the training they need to get a job and supporting them to keep it.

In light of these statements by the minister I find it extremely difficult to understand why DEEWR are withholding, or redirecting, funds away from the Southern Aboriginal Corporation for this program. After nine months of inaction, in February 2013 DEEWR advised that the moratorium had been lifted. Their communication again created uncertainty, this time by indicating that there would not now be increasing pressure on Indigenous Employment Program funding and applications would need to be considered with new processes to be advised later in 2013.

With no indication available to date of what DEEWR's new criteria or priorities will be, a local Indigenous employment agency is once again left in limbo, with one extremely valued member of the Indigenous Employment Program team having to be retrenched recently and with the potential for more job losses to follow soon. In addition, potential business partner employers are now also feeling the uncertainty, and the vital momentum and hard-won trust that has been built with these businesses over many years is quickly being lost—once lost, it will be very hard to win back.

There is currently no locally based provision of Indigenous Employment Program services in WA south of the Perth metropolitan area. This is essentially the same region which contains no areas designated as remote, and therefore it will not be part of the Remote Jobs in Communities Program arrangements either. The current situation seems largely inconsistent with the concept of Closing the Gap and is made more alarming by the fact that the area comprising Nyungar country in my electorate has been overlooked for inclusion for support under the new Remote Jobs in Communities Program initiative. There is an obvious concern that the majority of the Indigenous Employment Program funds are now being redirected to areas designated as remote under the new Remote Jobs in Communities Program boundaries. Recently DEEWR advised the Southern Aboriginal Corporation, off the record, that the chances of new Indigenous Employment Program projects being accepted are quite slim because the money is very tight—surprise surprise—and a very large financial commitment has already been made to the Remote Jobs in Communities Program.

At 24.9 per cent, the unemployment rate for Aboriginal people in the Great Southern region of Western Australia is considerably higher than the 17.9 per cent Indigenous unemployment rate across the whole of WA. Individual towns in the region fare even worse, with recent statistics for the regional centre of Katanning showing Indigenous unemployment is at a staggering 27.8 per cent, compared to the non-Indigenous rate of 4.6 per cent. Demographically, the Great Southern region also contains the state's poorest populations, according to the ABS statistics. These figures clearly demonstrate an area of need for additional support. Are we defining remote as the distance removed from a capital city, or are we talking about geographical proximity in relation to economic and employment opportunities? The question becomes more perplexing when you consider the example of South Hedland, with its immediate proximity to the opportunities provided by the resource giants BHP Billiton and Fortescue Metals and by all the associated development. How can South Hedland be considered remote under the DEEWR definition for the Remote Jobs and Communities Program, while smaller towns in the Great Southern, with extremely limited opportunities for employment, are not being included? It appears remoteness has become an arbitrary factor, and one that has very little bearing on the actual access to opportunity.

We have just heard the member for Bowman, Andrew Laming, speak. He made some very valid points and I would urge members of this House, if they are seriously interested in what is happening in the Aboriginal communities, to run their eyes over that speech. The Great Southern region, the area I have just referred to, is 2,000 kilometres away from the furthest part of my electorate out in the lands. I was very fortunate a couple of years ago to attend what they call the Desert Dust Up, where all of the regional and remote schools come together and have three days of sport and education. I was very fortunate to sit on the grass one evening alongside some Aboriginal women who were really concerned about the CDEP program. They were really concerned that their communities were at a total loss with the CDEP program.

The member for Bowman referred to Alice Springs as the bottom of the waterfall; now that is a very good analogy, but I would just like to add a few more communities to that. The town I live in, Kalgoorlie, is also the bottom of the waterfall. What is happening is that young people are leaving remote communities—the control of their parents and their elders has been taken away—and they are coming to towns where they can get access to grog and ganja and can sniff petrol. Out in the lands they are dry camps—we have Opal fuel out there; I would like to thank Warren Snowdon for his efforts in ensuring that Opal fuel is delivered into regional and remote areas of concern. But the simple fact of the matter is that the CDEP program must be reconsidered. The notion of a one-size-fits-all scenario simply does not work. We need to re-empower these remote Aboriginal communities with the CDEP and let the elders in the communities take control of their children. As the member for Bowman said: all of these communities are self-empowering. Give them the opportunity and they can make a huge, huge difference. I would urge the appropriate ministers to reflect on that and reflect that the CDEP program did work. Is it perfect? Possibly not, but I think that there are lots of programs that come out of this building that are not. CDEP was certainly one that was working: it was making a difference. It was giving employment in these remote communities; it was giving the people a sense of purpose and it was giving the communities a sense of purpose. It needs to be reinstated.

I urge the minister to consider that if the current government is truly committed to Closing the Gap surely it makes good sense to support and encourage those local organisations and initiatives which are clearly making a positive contribution towards this goal. The Southern Aboriginal Corporation is one of those, it has been doing it in spades. I would urge that the minister review this.