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Meeting Indigenous Employment Targets: ‘ Just Bums On Seats ’?. Elizabeth Ganter, ANU PhD Graduate 2010 Assistant Director, Research and Innovation Department of Business and Employment Presentation to HR Forum, SkyCity Casino, Darwin, 16 March 2011.

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Meeting Indigenous Employment Targets: ‘ Just Bums On Seats ’?

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Meeting Indigenous Employment Targets:

‘Just Bums On Seats’?

Elizabeth Ganter, ANU PhD Graduate 2010

Assistant Director, Research and Innovation Department of Business and Employment

Presentation to HR Forum, SkyCity Casino,

Darwin, 16 March 2011

Photograph courtesy of the NT Administration’s 1967 Report (Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers 1969:51)

A history lesson: check the past

Current target

10% Indigenous employment across the NTPS by 2012

  • Indigenous Employment and Career Development Strategy, Indigenous Economic Development Strategy

    = ye olde targets

    10% by 1982, 15% by 1985, and 20% by 1990

    Chief Minister Paul Everingham, 1980

What happened last time?

  • The only survey reported 10.5% Aboriginal employment in 1983 based on ‘establishment’; 10.5% drops to 7.8% on ‘actual’ staffing levels, the reporting convention since 1985

  • Measuring efforts fell away

  • Indigenous employment rate still 7.8% in 2007, ~ 25 years later

  • The target was never reached

What’s different this time?

A statistics lesson: count everything

  • 40% of 162 referrals were to former employees

    – consistent ratio at all stages of recruitment

  • >50% of former employees interviewed had gone to the Indigenous sector

  • >50% of current employees interviewed had returned from the Indigenous sector

So Indigenous careers in orbit NTPS Indigenous sector

What do these statistics tell us about how to reach 10% by 2012?

  • Best strategy is to keep the current Aboriginal employees

  • Draw in former employees

  • Recruit new employees

Interpretive research lesson: set boundaries

… but explore the inconsistencies - Central Australia

25% of interviewees, but not 25% in all categories:

  • LOWER RANKING - 12% of senior interviewees, 75% of interviewees who had never been senior

  • SHORTER STAYING - 50% of those who gone to the Indigenous sector

Key findings from the interviews

  • Aboriginal people want to enter & rise in NTPS

  • Most Aboriginal senior public servants self-identify

  • Historically informed: keen observers of government

  • Locally oriented: Most from NT, most work in region of origin

  • They take very seriously the IECDS invitation to contribute to government

  • Despite their seniority, many find contributing hard…

…connections undervalued yet can’t leave Indigenous programs – 80% in exclusively Indigenous programs, another 10% had responsibilities overseeing Indigenous programs; only 1 interviewee had extricated him/herself completely.

‘This is Jay. He does all the Aboriginal stuff.’

Jay, Darwin 2007

…can’t speak for all Aborigines, can’t explain that in workplaces– feel token, just there to authenticate what happens anyway

You’ll sit in meetings …– you’ll be talking about a certain place and about issues in terms of Indigenous people and then they’ll look at you and say, ‘What do you reckon?’

Spike, Darwin 2007

Just seek one Indigenous person’s point of view and you’ve got it!

Georgia, Darwin 2007

Because I’m a black woman, they just agree with everything I say. I could tell them the sky is grey. But it’s blue. How can it be?

Deborah, Darwin 2007

…can’t compete in policy writing – half the interviewees had not completed Year 12 but many had post-school qualifications

I write like I talk …. I wanna learn about – you know, that high level writing

Carly, Alice Springs 2007

Their reasons for leaving the public service?

Under-contributing.Seen as partisan, arguing

The eyes and ears of government ?…

Really you just walked around and had a look and went back to the office… You feel stupid. Davey

(never senior) Dwn 07

The only thing they’re doing different is that they’ve got the person sitting there

Julia, Darwin 2007

I know my stuff… thought it would have been seen as a resource…[I’m] better outside

Hanna, Darwin 2007

If you try and walk the tightrope, one group’s going to have a go at you. The Indigenous mob just criticise you. The other group

[bureaucracy] will go around you….

Bruce, Darwin 2007

Mentor left

Shut out – treated as policy subject

How interviewees saw their value


  • Self-aware, committed to government

  • Professional in the face of complex pressures

  • Grounded: able to develop & implement workable programs based on connections, practical knowledge & experience

  • Locally oriented: respect for places and communities, deep knowledge of the Territory

  • Diverse identities but Aboriginal Territorians

What do the interpretive data tell us about how to keep Aboriginal staff?

  • To reach targets, recognise the contributions that Aboriginal people see themselves making

  • Understand their sense of entitlement to work in the NTPS and help govern ‘our place’

  • Don’t assume they can speak for others but expect & resource their recommendations on Aboriginal communications

  • See arguing as engagement

  • Collaborate with Indigenous organisations

Hot tips for every workplace

  • Equalise the relationship: get to know each other

  • Value practical knowledge and community connections

  • Trust Aboriginal people’s judgement in Aboriginal relationships

  • Respect choices about the extent to which they want to be seen as ‘representative’

  • Expect high performance & give frank feedback

  • Assess and remedy insecurities about policy writing

  • Understand Aboriginal employees’ aims & career alternatives

Aboriginal employees want to be, and be seen as, good public servants not numbers

How can you make decisions about Aboriginal people when you can’t even talk to the people you’ve got here that are blackfellas?...

So that’s why I question whether we’re just numbers, we’re justbums on seats

Sarah, Darwin 2007

Post-script: the opportunity

  • By 2010, one-third of the Aboriginal senior public servants I interviewed had left the NTPS.

  • One had returned.

  • Most of the rest are still here.

To reach 10% by 2012, keep them!

Thanks to:

The interviewees

Darwin, Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine and remoter communities

Professor Tim Rowse

Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre

The Australian National University

– School of History, Research School of Social Sciences , Canberra – – North Australia Research Unit, Darwin –

Northern Territory History Grants Program

The Northern Territory Government

for research access and study leave

Mobile: 0400 124639

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