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Welfare to work: the Indigenous challenge

By Peter Shergold - posted Wednesday, 22 June 2011

As a senior public servant I became increasingly frustrated that too many government initiatives, always well meant and often well implemented, simply ended up compounding the problem of passivity and learned helplessness. Welfare programs that were intended to alleviate social exclusion were delivered in such a way as to reinforce a sense of dependence and marginalisation. I came to the view that a safety net can save people when they're falling but it can also entangle them when they try to climb out.

My years of building frustration at the unintended consequences of public policy have meant that too often in the years since I've been at CSI I've sounded like a broken record (to use a vinyl-age metaphor). My recurring theme has been the need to support people who, even at a time of low unemployment, remain welfare dependent: support them financially to address their multiple needs but also support and incentivise them to become self-reliant.

At present the vast sums spent on benefits too often entrench the poverty the payments are intended to eradicate. Surely it's far better to spend the money on providing assistance to help them get off benefits? People – citizens – need to be given the chance to take full control of their lives. It's a viewpoint which, in their own persuasive ways, Toby Hall and Patrick McClure have recently blogged about for CSI.


It's an issue that was central to the Federal Budget.

Recently I was delighted to host an AMP lunch for The Smith Family. The evidence they presented was clear. Over 500,000 children aged less than 15 still live in jobless families. They are significantly more likely to struggle through education without help. Partly it reflects low family income, partly limited expectations. Whatever the cause it's an indictment on our society (and ineffective policies) that the proportion of low social-economic status youth making it to university has stayed stuck at around 15% of intake for more than a decade.

Nowhere can the adverse consequences of 'sit-down' money be seen more clearly that in Indigenous affairs. Work is the path to dignity, self-reliance and economic opportunity. Education is the key. Yet time after time publicly-funded training has led to little sustainable employment, inevitably feeding cynicism amongst Indigenous participants. Go-round-in-circles training has become not a solution but part of the problem.

It is absolutely clear that to provide Aboriginal people with a real chance to find a job, earn a wage and support their family, the delivery of training has to be tightly bound to the experience of work. Employers need to guarantee Indigenous job placements but training needs to guarantee that there are people willing and able to take up the opportunities.

It is disappointing but not unexpected that many job vacancies have not yet been filled because of a lack of appropriately skilled applicants. Andrew Forrest, in last month's Yakety Yak in Perth, evinced pride in the 4,200 Indigenous workers who have found sustainable employment but he was very aware of the challenges still ahead.

Here's my take. Training needs to be delivered in a short but intensive manner. Most importantly, it needs to be tied to the actual job requirements of employers or industries. The workplace is hard yakka. Certified training alone is not enough. Work-readiness is equally important.


That's why I so strongly support a new policy paper put out by GenerationOne last Friday. Its goal is to ensure that skills and training provisions are better aligned to demand for Indigenous employment and, by doing so, to assist Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders to become permanently attached to the labour force.

I encourage you to read the paper and provide feedback. Comments can be posted electronically on the GenerationOne or via the address.

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This article was first published on the Centre for Social Impact blog.

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About the Author

Peter Shergold is the Macquarie Group Foundation Professor at the Centre for Social Impact (CSI) at UNSW.

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