Sit-down money: Pointless jobs for the dole


p2138-utopia-ampila-michellBy ERWIN CHLANDA
“It is clear that Community Development Programme (CDP) is not working,” thunders the NT’s Labor Senator, Malarndirri McCarthy.
Left: Michelle Holmes, one of the best known Ampilatwatja artists for her paintings, extending her skills to ceramics. The art centre wants to use CDP but is facing obstacles.  Photo from our archive
“It’s not working for remote area job seekers, it’s not working for remote area economic development, it’s not working for community development and it’s not working for the Government.
“It is not a program that creates jobs or economic development,” she says.
In the Utopia and Sandover region My Pathway, a big national company, made up of a group of 10 entities, is the provider of a CDP scheme.
In a nutshell this is how it works: To continue to receive the dole, recipients are required to do work for 25 hours a week – five hours a day.
My Pathway organises that work, and gets a fee per participant, the size of which depends on his or her background.
If he or she finishes up with a job and sticks to it for 13 weeks, My Pathway gets a bonus, and if the period is 26 weeks a second bonus, $1900, is paid.
The My Pathway operation in the Sandover region is huge – 22 staff and up to 500 participants, according to Regional Group Manager Leigh Pollard.
The centre of operations is a complex leased from the Barkly Regional Council where some participants learn trade skills such as carpentry and concreting. They produce some items principally for use in the complex, such as BBQs and shade structures.
Activities elsewhere seem to be minor – a concrete job in the store and fencing a softball ground, for example. As it doesn’t have a blade of grass to protect the purpose of the fence is unclear, yet another one is planned, around a football oval, that is also without grass.
p2138-utopia-shopThe problem of CDP there – and possibly elsewhere – is that very few participants move on into full time work (and hence go off the dole).
And secondly, making meaningful the 25 hours a week they are obliged to work whilst being in the scheme.
The Ampilatwatja school principal, Elizabeth Milne, says local staff employed at school come from MyPathway.
Right: Store at Arlparra, established as a resource centre for the Utopia homelands, but becoming a community in its own right. Bush stores are one source of local employment. Photo from our archive
Mrs Milne describes the arrangements with MyPathway as an “excellent established routine”.
She says: “Our local staff play an important role in the life of the school and are employed in a variety of areas, for example, assistant teachers, grounds staff and cleaning.”
The school’s nutrition program is run by the Barkly Regional Council, offering the children breakfast, fruit mid-morning and a cooked lunch.
Mrs Milne says: “We do not have CDP participants at this point.”
Steve Dawkins, the Barkly Council’s Director of Community Services, says there are four Indigenous staff in the nutrition program, all of them sourced from My Pathway.
He says the council has a “good working relationship” with My Pathway.
There are no CDP participants doing their five hours a day stints involved with the council.
This brings the total of participants we could find having moved into employment to eight.
That would leave up to 492 doing compulsory work which appears to be largely of very limited benefit to anyone.
The Artists of Ampilatwatja Aboriginal Corporation belongs to that sparsely occupied Aboriginal private enterprise sector that is consistently making money, has earned for Central Australia international fame in contemporary arts, has managed to keep off its back the dead hand of Indigenous organisations including the Central Land Council, and is run mostly by women.
Caroline Hunter has managed the Ampilatwatja art centre since it was resurrected in 2010. Currently she is gearing up for several artists to mount a show in the Australian embassy in Berlin.
The financial affairs of bush-based art groups are subject to public audit but those of its members are less transparent.
No matter how much in demand their works may be, Aboriginal artists have one thing in common: They are attached to their pensions, says an insider.
p2138-utopia-ampila-wkshpThat inevitably lands the artists in the realm of Centrelink and well-meaning jobs for the dole systems. And this is thoroughly counter-productive.
Left: A ceramics workshop at the Ampilatwatja art centre, with visiting lecturer Suzi Lyon from Charles Darwin University and highly reputed artist Colleen Morton. Photo from our archive
Rather than putting brush to canvas they are sidelined into crocheting circles or some other hardly lucrative activity for five hours a day, five days a week, devoid of prospects.
That is notwithstanding that the Australian Government’s fact sheet on CDP makes it clear that “remote-area Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art centres can work with CDP Providers to assist job seekers build their skills and gain work experience that moves them along a pathway to employment.”
This includes “but is not limited to” job seeker work experience placements in the art centre, activities leading to products on consignment to sell through the art centre, as well as, for example a beautification, landscaping or cleaning activity.
“In most cases, the art centre will be eligible for remuneration to cover some costs,” says the fact sheet.
Yet Ms Hunter has tried for the past two and a half years, without success so far, to get  women from My Pathway for their five hours a day obligatory work stints.
“I provided 12 names and as yet only have one placement as of October this year,” she says.
The art centre could well act as a CDP provider, she says, and receive funds currently going to My Pathway which has been of no help to the art centre.
Meanwhile Senator McCarthy is scathing about CDP: “It is a punitive program that punishes people, families and communities.
“In the NT there were over 74,500 financial penalties imposed in the previous financial year – that means people and families who were receiving little to no income for periods of time.
“The impact of this on health, education, community safety is huge.
“CDP isn’t working, the Turnbull Government’s handling of Indigenous policy and issues is in chaos and it’s Indigenous Australians who are paying the price.”
Although Senator McCarthy isn’t proposing remedies, her outrage is understandable.
The numbers of financial penalties for CDP jobseekers give the term shamejob a whole new meaning.
NSW has a population of 7.5 million and Queensland 4.7 million, a combined population of 12.2 million. The two states between them recorded 32,861 “no show no pay” penalties in the CDP system.
The Northern Territory has a population of 212,000 and recorded 62,829  “no show no pay” penalties.
That’s a penalty for every 3.4 people, compared to every 371.2 people for NSW and Queensland combined. The ratio for “total financial penalty events” is similar.
That means the NT is 110 times worse in terms of compliance. Comprehension becomes difficult. Brainlock sets in.
This is where a two-months CDP investigation by the Alice Springs News Online has gotten to so far:
• A resident well acquainted with CDP initiatives in Finke and Santa Teresa described the scheme as a haven for rorting taxpayers’ money and achieving little in terms of job creation and getting people job ready.
p2155-ampilatwatja• The organisation running the scheme, Catholic Care, vehemently rejects the claims but denies us access to records and fails to respond to specific questions.
• CLP Senator Nigel Scullion, the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, refuses to be interviewed on the subject.
• The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, which forks out for the scheme, offers bland responses and leaves most of 17 specific questions we put to them without an answer.
According to the Federal Government, of the 37,000 job seekers supported by Providers, more than 80 per cent are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.


  1. And those ethical providers of VET training and third stream solutions are scared off because they are required to report on attendance (including personal details / excuses etc.) and thereby are co-opted into a punitive system based not on evidence, but on punitive ideology. Most of those ethical operators have long gone. Leaving the field to the MY Pathways [style of operators]. Their line of command leads right back to Queensland.

  2. Doesn’t any scheme that introduces the concept of MUTUAL OBLIGATION, even one that may have implementation flaws, provide some hope for the future? Surely another 40 years of sit down/free money, with the attendant social meltdown, is unthinkable.

  3. I’ll say what a lot of people think but may not write: Some people don’t want to work, why would you if the money comes in anyway?

  4. It’s always profoundly disappointing to read stories of this nature but not at all surprising. Today we have Labor Opposition NT Senator Malarndirri McCarthy attacking the failure of the Community Development Program (CDP) for which NT CLP Senator Nigel Scullion is responsible as Minister for Indigenous Affairs.
    Over three decades ago essentially the same story was played out in the media but the roles of the respective political parties were reversed: “The Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) is floundering in many areas of the Northern Territory, CLP Senator Bernie Kilgariff told the Senate last week.
    “He claimed in some settlements, Aborigines are listed as being in the workforce and are being paid accordingly, but in reality not attending work or carrying out their duties.
    “This is causing a great deal of discontent among those Aborigines who are working for their pay,” the Senator said. “They are angry that others are receiving the same amount of money for doing nothing.
    “In this situation the CDEP is nothing more than another form of unemployment benefit,” he said.
    “Senator Kilgariff said he had asked the Federal Government what plans it had for encouraging increased Aboriginal employment in the remote areas and has suggested that funding for employment be channelled into areas such as fishing, garden plantations, animal husbandry and abattoirs.
    “He said lately funds had been unavailable for such projects despite their ability to be high employment initiators” (CDEP ‘floundering’, Centralian Advocate, October 12, 1983).
    The CDEP program was stoutly defended by Labor MLA Neil Bell, Member for MacDonnell, who “this week attacked comments made by Territory CLP Senator Bernie Kilgariff on the Community Development Employment Programs for remote Aboriginal communities.
    “There are certainly problems with administration of CDEP’s [but] the CDEP schemes are an attempt to address the short-term and long-term effects of epidemic unemployment on these communities’, he said.
    “He said the public should be aware CDEP schemes were funded essentially out of money which would otherwise have been paid out in unemployment benefits. He said the schemes were a valuable form of job creation” (Centralian Advocate, December 16, 1983).
    So, here it is, exactly 33 years to the day between publication of Neil Bell’s comments and the latest story on Alice Springs News Online – and there has been no shortage of similar stories on the same and related themes between the decades.
    Nearly two decades ago I had my own personal experience of working on the CDEP. I witnessed and recorded first-hand the deliberate rorting and corruption of the program administered by the (subsequently defunct) Arrernte Council of Central Australia but there was no response from any of the government organisations (including police) or mainstream media (notably the ABC) about the information I presented to them (His life on jobs for the dole – On one occasion I confronted one person about this situation, only to be rebuffed “if everyone else can do it, why can’t we?”
    It’s particularly telling that Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion now maintains a studied silence on these kinds of issues. This wasn’t the case in 2008-9 when, as an Opposition senator, he was at the forefront of a Senate inquiry into Centrecorp chaired by then Shadow Attorney General George Brandis: “The News has been covering the Centrecorp controversy in 44 reports and comment pieces since April 1998, and a dossier of Alice News reports was a substantial part of the briefing NT Senator Nigel Scullion gave Senator Brandis” (Alice Springs News, November 8, 2008).
    (The subsequent report on Centrecorp would rank as one of the greatest exercises in white-washing I’ve ever seen).
    Senator Scullion was also vociferous in his criticism of the NT Government at the time: “Billions of dollars in Federal funding earmarked for Aborigines and disabled people has been misspent by the Territory Government, a Federal politician said.
    “And he has called on his colleagues to join him in his strident demands for an inquiry to find out where the money went.
    “NT Senator Nigel Scullion last night said he had ‘deep suspicions’ the Territory Government had misspent the funding.
    “[He said] There is more than $2.5 billion in GST revenue being given to the Territory Government. The spending of this money should reflect the Commonwealth Grants Commission formula.
    “There are also other grants which are tied – the money is specifically for indigenous and disabled Territorians. But I’ve been looking around and I can’t see that there’s anything different or that anything’s been improved for them” (Centralian Advocate, September 5, 2008).
    Conveniently, the NT Government was then Labor including Malarndirri McCarthy, Minister for Children and Families (amongst other portfolios). How the wheels turn!
    All this endless circularity reminds me of the dialogue between two US paratroopers depicted in the episode “Carentan” (Band of Brothers, 2001) when 1st Lt. Harry Welsh jumps into a foxhole with Pt. Albert Blithe, who had earlier been traumatised in battle.
    Welsh: What happened at the aid station today?
    Blithe: Doc Roe, he called it hysterical blindness.
    Welsh: It’s a game, Blithe. That’s all. We’re just moving the ball forward one yard at a time. Nothing but a game.
    Blithe: What is, sir?
    Welsh: This. The whole thing. Just a game.

  5. Well said Bob. Well past time to be rid of the sit-down money concept. Money-for-nothing does nothing for the self-esteem of the people nor for their future advancement.

  6. I can remember when this position (CDEP coordinator) was one person and returned a much better result for much less money and provided proper jobs that brought money into the community.
    The end result was that a good coordinator worked themselves out of a job as the people were trained up to run themselves.
    So this appears to give credence to the saying “Big is not always beautiful”.

  7. One reading of this piece and the comments would lead to the conclusion that government followed through on rhetoric from four years back that there was a work obligation accompanied by penalties.
    My observations from a coupla delivery services was that there was negligible “work-like” activities or penalties for non participation. Purely a going through the motions exercise from minister to staff to recipients.
    Maybe a coupla sites got busy with penalties – Arnhemland?, others? Interesting to do a research project on regions that followed through with penalties.

  8. CDP purports to “provide a combination of work like experiences and vocational / non-vocational training linked to a job” however IMHO the CDP/CDEP programs remain symbols of Commonwealth activity which reduce self-education, self-improvement and actual paid employment opportunities.

  9. I wholeheartedly agree with the comment from Bob Beadman.
    However, I also wholeheartedly agree with the comment Noel Pearson made at the launch of Paul Keating’s new biography when he damned the “racism of low expectations”.
    That’s the trap. Can our politicians avoid it? Can their statutory functionaries like the land councils avoid it?
    Maybe, but they haven’t yet.

  10. There should never have been meddling with the Community Development Employment Program, the proper CDEP.
    At least it worked, maybe not perfectly all the time, but it provided opportunities for enterprise development and jobs creation that were Aboriginal controlled and managed through their own organisation, not some foreign (to the community) and unknown entity enforcing punitive measures that are not working with no real results.
    All control has been taken out of Aboriginal hands. Is it any better now? NO – in fact its worse. There are big gains and benefits for others out of all this except for Aboriginal people themselves.
    Aboriginal people have become like a commodity. Some years back, I said to a minister if CDEP was removed, there would be a huge drift to town, as people would become aimless.
    My view was scoffed at by the minister at the time. She said I was looking at things through rose coloured glasses.
    As for rip offs and rorts by Aboriginal organisations, we hear about allegations of rip offs and rorts allegedly perpetrated on superannuation schemes and the like, almost every other day.
    Not to say, there should be a blind eye regarding alleged rorts or rip offs by Aboriginal organisation either.

  11. As a fresh-faced young lad newly-arrived in the Alice from the city down south in 1967, my first job in the NTA District Office was to implement the Training Allowances Scheme in the remote communities of Central Australia, as far up as Hooker Creek.
    With my Darwin colleague Brian Chin, who implemented the scheme in the Top End, over the next five years I saw the development of the scheme’s job-creation attempts in all of its spectacular futility.
    The politics of it all was fascinating. Liberal Minister William Wentworth introduced the Training Allowances Scheme to keep union influence and agitation out of a challenging and fragile work environment.
    In the form of below-award training allowances, a bonanza of cash money began to flow into communities like never seen before. To paint rocks white on the roadside.
    Then the Whitlam Labor government came to power, and the creek-flow of cash become a flooding river of gold. Still painting rocks white in the brave new era of outlying home camps and Toyota Dreaming.
    I saw the mind-boggling scams, the cover-ups, the hare-brained community projects dreamed up in Canberra, the practical difficulties facing community staff, the sheer lack of worthwhile “jobs”, the challenge to stay honest and optimistic, the rampant political correctness attitude that demanded good people keep their mouths firmly shut or lose their jobs.
    For a naïve young white city boy who came to Alice fired up to work with Aboriginal people after meeting the incomparable pastor Doug Nicholls, it was a culture shock to beat all culture shocks.
    I can say now, with the benefit of a lot of years that have flowed under the Causeway Bridge since then, that I feel for all Aboriginal people in those communities, together with their community staff and the fair dinkum community-based job creating agencies who face the reality every day.
    I take my hat off to them all. I am so thankful that I had the privilege to be there at a unique time, to see the reality.
    Back down here in the Big Smoke, I can see that the city mob generally, including the majority of politicians, would not have a clue about what makes remote communities tick. Not even the foggiest.


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