By ERWIN CHLANDA
The Federal Government’s jobs for the dole Community Development Program (CDP), widely used in remote Central Australia, is being roundly condemned in written submissions to the Senate’s Finance and Public Administration Committee.
Academics, social workers and politicians described it as punitive without having positive results, it was brought in without adequate consultation, it is wasting time and money on bureaucratic processes most people don’t even understand, and it encourages urban drift.
Many commenting to the Senate committee, which conducted hearings in Alice Springs yesterday, say CDP should be dropped and an initiative similar to the Community Development and Employment Programme (CDEP), which CDP replaced, should be brought back.
Others say an Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) should be considered, or a private enterprise model ranging from bush foods, traditional medicines, art to storytelling may be the solution to the oppressive unemployment in the bush.
Member for Namatjira Chansey Paech (pictured above) says CDP is a “broken system, a national disgrace.
“It entrenches the poverty and disadvantage already felt by regional communities. I have heard first-hand the stories of constituents who struggle with the program.
“It is a highly punitive system, which does much to further disadvantage those who rely on it in remote communities.
“[It has] highly uncompromising rules, a payment structure conducted through Centrelink and a bureaucratic system that is highly disconnected from [its] context. Many aspects of the framework seem to be in direct conflict with the realities of living on community.”
If the program “is permitted to proceed as it has done, there will be a very real risk of forcing people to move to town, away from their country and their homelands, seriously affecting health and wellbeing,” writes Mr Paech.
Fred Chaney (pictured), Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs from December 1978 until November 1980, and Bill Gray, secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs between 1988 and 1990, say “the process that led to the design of the CDP must be rated a failure.
“There is little evidence, if any, that the Government initiated a credible or transparent process by which Indigenous input was obtained or used in the design of the CDP.
“Within remote Australia there is a lack of a labor market upon which Indigenous job seekers can rely [but] we have seen for many decades that it is no solution to advocate that job seekers must leave their communities to find work.
“We would point to the CDEP as an example of how an employment scheme could be made to work for the benefit of remote communities. Since its inception in 1977 through to its demise in 2015, CDEP was the most effective program of its kind providing award wages for jobs that remote communities saw as contributing to their advancement.
“Paradoxically, CDEP was demonised by its critics as being no more than a soft welfare scheme to justify sit down money, with governments of both persuasions moving to close the CDEP in favour of what has proven to be a very poorly designed program (RJCP/CDP) which puts all participants into the welfare rather than an employment system.
“We have yet to see any evidence to this point in time that would suggest that CDP is going to provide a long-term solution to joblessness in remote Indigenous communities.
“In fact, some studies would suggest that a growing number of participants are removing themselves from the scheme and that the number of penalties imposed under CDP have grown to very high levels in the past six months.
“Worryingly, there are increasing numbers of young people who have disengaged from the scheme for a range of reasons which have yet to be closely evaluated or understood.
“CDP is a very prescriptive scheme which is characterised by a myriad of rules, procedures and data gathering, all of which makes it one of the most opaque, unintelligible and confusing programs currently operating in remote communities.
“The administration of CDP is totally reliant on the dictates of the IT system and other inputs that are required to inform that system.
“Recent studies indicate that providers are swamped with the demands of the IT system which prevents them from engaging productively with participants at a local level in any meaningful way.
“In addition, the CDP requires the operational input from DHS (Centrelink) for a range of assessments and decisions which has led to intense confusion,” write Mr Chaney and Mr Gray.
“The CDP caseload, while representing only 5% of all job seekers, currently accounts for over 60% of all reported No Show No Pay failures.
“Put bluntly, it is impossible to explain Commonwealth policy across the Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and now Turnbull Governments other than as assimilationist in intent designed to use compulsion to require remote Aboriginal people to fit into a metropolitan framework of work or welfare. The unstated purpose seems to be to drive Aboriginal people into towns and cities.”
Peter “Strachy” Strachan, Remote Engagement Liaison Officer at the Charles Darwin University’s Alice Springs campus, says CDP should be recognised as “an employment programme – and cease using its misleading descriptor, or change its emphasis”.
He recommends “immediate, necessary changes to the activities and payment regime … consider options for long-term income maintenance to break the poverty cycle, recognise the real costs in transitioning remote Indigenous people into ongoing gainful employment, economic and enterprise development”.
Mr Strachan (pictured) writes funding should be expanded “to include demonstrated opportunities for individual and micro business income generation and professional and staff development for regionally significant Indigenous organisations”.
He says CDEP was community controlled and voluntary; allowed flexible work arrangements; had a real community development focus and provided work opportunities when the labour market was small or non-existent.
He says “a respected local Indigenous person described consultation as it is practised as ‘being seen to be doing something’.
“He refuses to engage any more with consultation opportunities because he sees it as futile.
“Aboriginal people also tell me of the frustration with so-called consultation which is rarely done in plain English and even more rarely in local language. Yet the change ‘proposed’ directly impacts the lives of those attending, not the lives of those in the Toyotas who drive in and later that day drive out.”
Laura Egan (pictured), Founder and CEO of Enterprise Learning Projects (ELP), put to the committee that private enterprise is the answer: “For many Aboriginal people living in remote Australia, the western market economy is a foreign economic system – one introduced relatively recently, and vastly different to a system that prospered over tens of thousands of years.
“Many people have not had the opportunity to learn how to navigate this new system effectively and it has left them shut out, unable to participate in ways they deeply desire. Many people have ideas and aspirations for engagement in the economy, they simply don’t know how to progress them.
“Because CDP does not embrace enterprise, it cannot empower Aboriginal people in remote Australia to explore and develop their ideas.
“ELP has demonstrated a successful enterprise model that has exposed hundreds of Aboriginal people to enterprise learning opportunities, and generated income for people – through bush foods, traditional medicines, art, storytelling, and harnessing cultural assets – while continuing to live on their traditional lands.”
Tangentyere Council says: “The outcomes of employment programs must not be judged against employment outcomes alone.
“Strategies should not be underpinned by punitive approaches that increase disadvantage and poverty amongst Aboriginal families. Above all else mutual obligation and activity requirements for Aboriginal people should not be set at an unrealistic level.”
Tangentyere says the requirement of 25 hours per week of work for the dole for Aboriginal people living in remote and very remote areas is too high [and] significantly higher than that expected from urban job seekers engaged with Job Services Australia programs.
“There is some concern that the Commonwealth and Territory may see and opportunity to reduce funding for a range of programs including municipal and essential services on the basis that work for the dole can undertake much of this work with no additional financial resourcing (or limited financial resourcing).”
Liza Balmer, Acting CEO of the NPY Women’s Council, writes she does not advocate the abolition of CDP: “Anangu shared examples of CDP projects that have improved community infrastructure and amenity. Some participants expressed pride and a sense of achievement and gained satisfaction from the activities they are mandated to undertake.
“However, the CDP scheme unfairly targets people living in remote communities. The hours participants are expected to do and the penalties for breaches if they don’t complete their mutual obligations are harsh, unreasonable and unjust compared to JobActive, the work for the dole scheme in urban and regional settings.”
Inge Kral, from the Australian National University, says: “CDEP was a far more effective system than CDP in dealing with the large and diverse labour surplus context in remote Indigenous Australia.”
She recommends “that CDP be dissolved in favour of a locally-controlled, wages and grants-based system that incorporates the positive features of CDEP.
“This is in line with global interest in Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) in comparable situations where there is an over-supply of labour combined with marginal chances of participation in full or part-time wage labour employment that may lead to a potentially serious poverty trap.”
Dr Kral quotes Professor Jon Altman (pictured), from the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, who in his own submission to the committee about “situations of few or no formal employment opportunities or prospects” says: “For the past 30 years I have been an advocate for a UBI in such situations.
“It is noteworthy that with emerging concerns about the likely decline of formal employment in the future due to automation and artificial intelligence there has been a global growth of interest in UBI.
“Australia seems reluctant to pilot UBI or to realistically countenance the possibility that the labour market situation will decline in the short to medium term. This strikes me as a very high risk and limited approach to public policy making.”
Lisa Fowkes, Research Scholar at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, ANU, reports about what she has been told by a CDP manager: “We basically spend three days at the end of the month solid data auditing – but none of it is auditing around did we help this person find a job?
“It’s simply ‘is this person in the right activity, at the right time.’
“For example if someone is on income support then maybe they don’t put their form in, and they drop off income support for 10 days, then we are not going to get paid for them because they are not going to do [work for the dole] – we would exit them out of the activity so that we get basic payment for that period.
“It helps our attendance rate as well. But that doesn’t achieve anything in terms of having a real meaningful difference in someone’s life.”
Janet Hunt, Research School of Social Sciences College of Arts and Social Sciences, ANU, writes: “There is clearly a level of change fatigue in Indigenous communities, so it may seem wrong to argue for more change, but it seems essential to transform the CDP to something that would really engage people and contribute to their communities’ and their own wellbeing.”
Dr Hunt says there are two key principles for the change process: “It must be properly negotiated with Aboriginal and other participants and their organisations [and] it must be carefully planned and introduced in a phased manner so that people are clear how the changes will occur and are given adequate time to prepare for and implement them.”
Kirrily Jordan, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, ANU, says the impacts of closing CDEP and implementing CDP have been “devastating for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, communities and organisations,” including the loss of appropriate support for job creation and enterprise development; the introduction of a program that is much less responsive to community needs; a widespread sense of anger and frustration at being ignored in policy processes; a dramatic over-application of income penalties; increased poverty and financial stress; and a reduction in the ‘social determinants of employment’ including family and community functioning.
Dr Jordan says the reforms to CDP that were proposed in 2015 “would not solve the existing problems in the scheme and would create significant new ones. The community consultations about these changes, carried out in 2016, were inadequate and did not allow for free and informed consent”.
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By ERWIN CHLANDA