… but she surely gets it wrong when she suggests that 60% of working age Aboriginal men in remote NT have no income
UPDATE, October 16, 3.30pm:
Former NT Coordinator-General of Remote Service Delivery, Olga Havnen, has suggested that the half or more of men of working age in remote communities who are “not in the labour force” have no income. “Not in the labour force” (NILF) is a statistical category based on international definitions of ‘labour force’ and used by the Australian Bureau of Statistics to measure how many people do not have jobs (whether full-time or part-time) and are not looking for a job. The Alice Springs News Online has asserted that it is not a measure of income and that it beggars belief that so many men in remote communities would be without income.
In response to comments received on this issue, including from Ms Havnen (see below), the News asked the ABS for a layman’s definition of NILF and a statement on whether it can be seen as reflecting anything about income. We were directed to this general statement on their website:
“Persons not in the labour force are those persons who, during the week prior to Census Night, were neither employed nor unemployed. They include persons who were keeping house (unpaid), retired, voluntarily inactive, permanently unable to work, in gaol, trainee teachers, members of contemplative religious orders, and persons whose only activity during the week prior to Census Night was jury service or unpaid voluntary work for a charitable organisation. ”
Examples of “non-labour force occupations” are “housewives, students and pensioners” – “people whose sole occupations include those above, are coded in the Census as ‘not in the labour force’”.
We asked Centrelink about income support for those “not in the labour force” and about their efforts to ensure that everyone in a remote community is covered by some form of income support. They don’t publish data at a community level. We were directed to electorate data published by DEEWR (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations), DIISRTE (Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education), and FaHCSIA (Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs).
While it doesn’t give breakdowns such as age, gender, community size, this data, dated March 2012, does paint a picture. It shows that in Lingiari (all of the NT outside of Darwin and Palmerston, with a population of roughly 80,000) there were, for example, 6636 people receiving the disability support pension. This figure is not far behind those receiving Newstart (7462) who are classified as in the labour force, that is they are unemployed and looking for work.
A significant number of people – 2415 – were receiving ABSTUDY (a student allowance for Aboriginal people). The News speculates that some men, though probably small numbers, would also receive parenting payments (2505 partnered and 2451 single) and carer payments (718).
Centrelink made the following statement about its “remote outreach”:-
- We work very hard to ensure people living in remote communities are aware of the range of payments and services available through Centrelink, and stay connected through frequent visits.
- In the Northern Territory, we have 10 Remote Service Centres, and more than 80 Agents and Access Points providing Centrelink services.
- Outreach teams, comprising Customer Service Officers, Social Workers and Indigenous Services Officers, visit very remote communities regularly, with most seeing an outreach team once a month (and sometimes more, depending on need).
- While ultimately some people may still choose not to make a claim for payment, our outreach officers have a strong presence in educating communities about assistance, helping people stay connected and referring to other programs of assistance.
By KIERAN FINNANE
Olga Havnen, whose position of Coordinator-General of Remote Services was terminated by Minister for Indigenous Advancement Alison Anderson last Monday, appeared to be among friends when she spoke to her first and only report in Alice Springs on Friday.
Donna Ah Chee, Acting CEO of Congress, introduced Ms Havnen (pictured at left), referring to “the events of this week” and pointing out that Ms Havnen was here “in her own personal time”. Des Rogers, who stood for Labor against Ms Anderson in the last election, said it was a “sad day” when she was “dismissed” and that it would put Aboriginal people back significantly, “possibly by 20 years”. Paddy Gibson, spokesperson for the Stop the Intervention Collective, had already put out a media release against her “sacking”: “No report has pulled together such a comprehensive and clear account of where the untold millions are going – and it’s not to Aboriginal communities,” he said in the release.
Ms Havnen herself did not speak about “the politics” around the release of her report until later, when she again made a point about the “extraordinary difficulty” she had had in getting access to data that would have made her report “much more robust”. She was aware that NT Government agencies had compiled a 17 page critique of the reliability of her data. Her response to that was why didn’t they give her the data they had when she asked for it. She said she was not worried about losing her job, but was really worried about the absence of an “ongoing arm’s length independent monitoring role”. It would be “a little optimistic” to imagine that governments or bureaucracies, even with the best of intentions, are capable of being “self-monitoring and self-critical”.
Without scrutiny and someone out there to “call things honestly”, the big risk is getting to the end of the Stronger Futures decade and finding that not a whole lot has changed. “Guess who’s going to get the blame?” she asked, warning of the possibility of “donor fatigue” setting in: “And I can tell you now we can’t afford that to happen.”
Men ‘not in the labor force’ have no income?
Broadly, she may well have a point. However, in her presentation there was a glaring example of a mishandling of data. That was around the question of labour force participation, with her rolling into one those Aboriginal men not in the labour force (NILF) and those not having an income. This was more than a case of passing confusion as she returned to underline her point later in the session.
Her report makes clear that we do not know how many people, who describe themselves as ‘not in the labour force’, may also not have an income and she recommends that we find out. To her sympathetic audience on Friday she said NILF “means you’re not registered with Centrelink, you’re not at school, not at work, you’re not engaged in any sort of mainstream activity basically.
“In the NT the rates of NILF for Aboriginal men for the last 20 years have been in the order of 60%. So if you’ve got 60% of Aboriginal men of working age who have no income, think about it for one second, what impact do you reckon it has on a household or a family?
“And what connection do you think that might have to the level of violence or to crime? This is not rocket science, I have no evidence base to make those assertions, but you just think about it in a logical kind of manner … maybe this has got something to do with what is going on at the moment. I went back over the last four Census collections, and I’ve looked at towns like Tennant Creek, Wadeye, Maningrida and so on, that rate has not changed.
“The question in my mind is, why is it that men are not wanting to participate. Is it that they are actually choosing not to register with Centrelink and not have a source of income? It may be that the system itself is too difficult and challenging. It may be that people engage with the system and then drop out of it. Whatever it is, I think we need to understand this and deal with it. But at the moment there is absolutely no public policy response to this particular issue. And I can tell you now there can be no suburb anywhere else in Australia where you would have 60% of men of working age not engaged. So the fact that this has been around for such a long time and nobody has paid any attention to it, to me is just mind-blowing.
“So a big recommendation in my report is that I think we need to understand this a whole lot better … talk to them, find out what the hell is going on [did she ever talk to anyone who had no income and try to find out why?]. It may well be that people are actively choosing not to participate, because it’s just too hard, they don’t like all the humbug, dealing with strangers, don’t like talking about personal information, it can be a multitude of reasons why this is going on, but the fact that it’s existed for 20 years and nobody is doing anything, I think is a disgrace.”
Nobody challenged Ms Havnen on these statements, despite it beggaring belief that 60% of men in remote NT would have no income. There are indeed Census stats for people who report that they have no income. In the Central Desert area, for example, the 2011 Census reported around 5.6% of men aged 15 and over as having nil income (a long way from 60%).
In question time Mr Rogers returned to the “60% of Aboriginal men not getting Centrelink or not engaged”. He put it down to too many women and not enough men working in the agencies and traditional Aboriginal men in particular not being prepared to talk to women.
Another person wanted to know the source of Ms Havnen’s data on the issue. “The ABS”, Ms Havnen replied, and far from taking the opportunity to clarify the distinction between “NILF” and “nil income”, she simply suggested that the Census data may be “completely out of whack” but “given what we know about the undercount of the ABS data, if I’m talking about a 60% rate that is reported by ABS, I guarantee you it would be a much higher level than that”. She also did not clarify that the 60% was for the 15 to 24 years age group. The overall rate for men aged 15 to 64, as stated in her report, is 45%.
NT, a very different part of Australia
Putting this aside, Ms Havnen spoke on Friday with fluency and feeling for more than an hour. For ‘insiders’ the introductory remarks traced familiar ground. She stressed how different from anywhere else in Australia is the remote Northern Territory, with its 650 discrete Aboriginal communities (most of them very small), but also its “not insignificant” number of towns with majority Aboriginal populations, particularly in the Top End.
In the remote areas of the Territory the population has doubled in the last 20 years, she said, and it’s a very young population. In contrast to the national picture of an aging population, in remote NT 45% of the population is under 20 years. Most people are “unaware” of these facts, she said.
She gave detail about the NT’s high level of dependency on the Commonwealth for funding – 81% of the government’s funds come from the Commonwealth. While its per capita share of GST money is the highest in the country, due to its levels of disadvantage, this money is not tied, and thus the government does not need to spend it on alleviating disadvantage (a fact well-reported on this site over the years).
She showed pie charts of how the massive expenditure in the wake of the Intervention has been divvied up, expressing her surprise at how little – in contrast to the portion spent on bureacracy – has gone to the areas of Early Childhood Programs and Family Support Services, given the focus on children that triggered the Intervention.
While agreeing “completely” with Ms Havnen’s focus on early childhood, Ms Ah Chee (pictured at right) later made the point that we also need to be putting “a microscope” on nought to three years age group, given that 80% of children’s brains have been “wired and developed” by the age of three. She said a lot of investment in primary prevention for that age group would see reduction in risky behaviours in adolescents, a lowering of the incarceration rate and so on.
Ms Havnen reiterated her criticisms of the data that gives account of government expenditure, that focusses on dollars and cents and enumerating activities and personnel but not producing evidence of impact and effectiveness. For example, she asked, has the provision of extra police in remote communities made them safer. There’s information out there about perceptions of safety, but it’s difficult to find “hard data”, she said.
Ms Ah Chee later commended Ms Havnen’s “extremely important” focus on outcomes, saying that the Aboriginal health service sector had been working for a number of years on developing “key performance indicators” that will enable them to compare outcomes across the NT between each health service and the NT averages. This will allow them to see how effective their investment is into various services.
Ms Havnen acknowledged progress with the provision of housing but there’s “a hell of a long way to go”, she said, and expressed the view that the Federal Minister Jenny Macklin and the general public have no real sense of “the quantum of need”.
As examples of the difficulty she had in gaining access to data held by NT Government agencies, she said she had made numerous unsuccessful requests for data that she knows exists about low birth weights and failure to thrive amongst children in remote NT.
NT public servants’ change of attitudes ‘heartening’
She acknowledged some good things, such as the amount of money being made available to address the problems and what she sees as a change in attitudes throughout the NT public service compared to 10 years ago. She found a higher level of awareness amongst public servants about what is going on, and a more positive attitude with people genuinely trying to make things better. This was “heartening” and “a sign of maturity”.
By contrast, she found the fragmentation and duplication of services “distressing”: “You wouldn’t run a business this way.” She gave an example of “aged care packages” being delivered to a small community outside of Katherine. There are eight pensioners receiving the services from a total of seven service providers who drive in and out from Katherine. What couldn’t local people do, out of what was being provided, she asked – things like ‘meals on wheels’ and personal care. “It leaves me gobsmacked,” she said. (More examples and less reproduction of program descriptions and allocations might have been a way to go in her report.)
Overall there is too much focus on crisis response and too little on local capacity building, a concept which is simply not understood, she said. The focus is always on the training of individuals, but international development work stresses also organisational and community-wide capacity building.
Ms Ah Chee said her sector was “absolutely frustrated” by program fragmentation. She saw it as a Commonwealth issue around the competitive tendering process: “We really do need to get the Feds to ackowledge that this is a real problem for Aboriginal community-controlled organisations,” she said. The big international NGOs “need to work in partnership and not competition with our organisations”.
Ms Havnen did not want to criticise the Department of Children and Families, but she said the system is designed around a (massively expensive) response to physical and sexual abuse, while the greater need is in the areas of neglect and failure to thrive. If the focus doesn’t change, the system will become completely unsustainable.
Reiterating a major theme in the media coverage of her report, she said there is no robust scrutiny of the Not For Profit sector, for which she advocated a national accreditation system.
In speaking to her recommendation that a population and mobility study be done, apart from casting doubt broadly on ABS data about remote communities she proposed that such a study should ask what people’s aspirations are about where they want to live, so that governments can do some forward-planning. She mentioned the example of a woman from a remote community who wanted to move to Darwin for the sake of her children’s education but could not stay because of the high rents.
Violence ‘not just an Aboriginal problem’
On her recommendation about improving community safety, she expressed her horror about the high level of violent assault experienced by Aboriginal women – their hospital “separations” for assault are 69 times higher than for other women. Ms Haven believed one would not see such a situation even in armed conflict. “This whole Intervention was about making women safer,” she said, “and I’m not convinced this is happening.” However, violence is “not just an Aboriginal problem”, she said as 45% of all hospital admissions in the NT are for assault. There’s a “much bigger and wider societal issue around violence”.
Youth programs are “a dog’s breakfast”, she said, with lots of gaps as well as lots of duplication. She wants to see regional mapping of what’s there and what’s needed and the development of long-term youth plans. She referred to the cost of keeping young people (60% of them on remand) at Don Dale – $590 per day per child – and suggested the money could be much better spent, describing teenage boys as “our most vulnerable”. (She did not get into what was to be done about youths facing serious criminal charges, nor look at the expenditure on the youth justice system compared to other areas). She praised highly the achievement of Clontarf in getting boys to stay on at school. At Casuarina Secondary, thanks to Clontarf, a cohort of 40 boys are about to move from Year 10 into Year 11, previously unheard of, she said.
She welcomed the “substantial commitment” to the NT by the Stronger Futures package but echoed her critique of past Commonwealth allocations and priorities. For example, the allocation of $75m plus to regulating alcohol she said would be mostly going to the NT Government to pay for things like “compliance, signage and inspectors”, and very little into rehabilitation – she described this as “insane”. About 57% of the total would be controlled by the Commonwealth – her critique of the widespread use of NGOs to deliver the various services it chooses to fund has been well-covered. To a question from someone in the NGO sector she suggested that there could be a “honest broker” role for them, they could say to governments who asked them to deliver programs that they would only do so in negotiation or partnership with Aboriginal communities or organisations. There is a lot of “best practice” evidence about this way of working in the international development sector, she said.