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Indigenous public service applicants left in limbo as employment numbers fall

Date

Noel Towell

Hundreds of young indigenous graduates trying to get a start in the Australian public service have been languishing for months in employment limbo, waiting for the Abbott Government to allow departments to offer them jobs

Applicants for the popular Indigenous Pathways program are the latest group to be left in the lurch, waiting for Public Service Minister Eric Abetz to give his permission to let the departments hire.

Deadlines for making offers to indigenous hopefuls have been extended twice since applications closed three months ago and one advocate close to the process spoke of “bitter disappointment, frustration and distrust” among the prospective public servants.

The applicants, including some of Australia's brightest young indigenous graduates, have endured an arduous application process, including travelling to Canberra, sometimes from remote locations around the nation.

Indigenous Pathways, along with cadet and trainee programs, has helped recruit more than 700 indigenous employees into the public service since 2006 and the latest available figures, from 2012, show nearly half of Aboriginal public servants were recruited through the schemes.

But the bureaucracy’s efforts to “close the gap” have stalled with indigenous public servants quitting at a much faster rate than their non-indigenous colleagues, the latest data shows, and the bureaucracy's bosses still do not know why.

The proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees has been in steady decline in the service since 2002 and is now below the government's target of 2.7 per cent.

Indigenous employment in the service was 2.3 per cent, or 3846 workers, in June 2013, down from a high of 2.8 per cent in 2002.

Research is under way to try to understand the higher churn rate among indigenous workers and the bosses of some of the larger departments have formed the “diversity council “ in an effort to improve performance.

Mining boss Andrew Forrest, to whom the Abbott Government increasingly turns for advice on indigenous affairs, recently demanded recruitment targets of 4 per cent across the public sector.

But applicants for the 2015 Indigenous Pathways, like participants in the mainstream APS graduate program, have been told that no offers will be made until Senator Abetz’s office signs off on them.

A spokeswoman for the minister had little to say about when, if ever, the applicants might receive offers.

“Final decisions have yet to be made,” she said.

One advocate who has mentored a would-be recruit through the process and asked not to be identified, said the graduates were bitterly disappointed that the pathways program had stalled.

“So much for the APS 'Closing the Gap' commitment,” she said.

“The really sad thing about this whole sorry mess is that these are young, bright-eyed, aspiring Aboriginal people who have succeeded at university, proven their intellectual rigor and are ready to take their place as professionals.

“They are now left with bitter disappointment, frustration and distrust for the system and the government that is charged to bring indigenous social disparity to a close.”

“After completely committing to this process, after being encouraged by the APSC and government departments, they still wait.”

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