Aboriginal jobs program gets a dubious supporter

April 9, 2011
Melbourne protest against NT Intervention, October 29. Photo from MelbourneProtests Weblog.

ITEC Employment and its related entity Community Enterprises Australia (CEA) are preparing a submission to the federal government that will argue “the pendulum has swung too far in favour of the jobseeker”, in relation to changes to the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) on Aboriginal communities, The Australian said on April 2.

CEA is the largest CDEP provider in Australia.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the pendulum swinging “too far in favour of the jobseeker” meant, perhaps, that people were finding work.

In fact, under Labor’s changes to CDEP, many Aboriginal people in communities have been shifted from doing meaningful, essential community service work, funded by a Centrelink base rate plus hourly top-up wages, to receiving “income support payments”. These are effectively Newstart payments but recipients have to work for them (a more honest name is “work-for-the dole”).

The changes, introduced in July 2009, are part of Labor’s “reformed CDEP”: a way of keeping its 2007 election promise to not scrap CDEP as the previous Coalition government said it would. Instead Labor has taken control of CDEP out of the hands of communities and essentially turning it into a work-for-the-dole scheme.

Unlike CDEP, income support payments can be quarantined onto the Basics Card. As part of the NT intervention into Aboriginal communities, introduced in 2007, 50% of Aboriginal welfare recipients' payments were put onto this voucher-type card, which can only be spent on approved items such as food, clothing and medicine.

An amendment introduced last year supposedly made this policy non-discriminatory. But a recent Senate Estimates committee found that more than 92.4% of people currently on income management are Aboriginal.

Between April and June 2012, all those employed by CDEP before the reformed scheme was introduced in July 2009, will be moved onto an income support payment. When making enquiries about this to Centrelink, I was optimistically told: “Unless, of course, they have found a ‘real job’ by then.”

Labor has not created more meaningful, salaried, “real jobs” in communities. Swinging the pendulum too far in the jobseekers’ favour has not, it seems, meant government investment in community-controlled employment programs.

Despite the apparent pendulum swing, and despite Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s promise “to ensure that every Australian who can work, does work” in her speech to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia conference in February, no money has been found to, say, pay the garbage collectors in communities (currently working for the dole) the award rates they would be paid if they worked in Darwin.

Labor’s plan is for the eventual wind-up of the old CDEP, but keeping Aboriginal people on work-for-the-dole programs is all too convenient — not to mention cheap. Labor has no plans to create fully paid, equitable employment in communities.

CEA and ITEC Employment said the problem is “Centrelink is not penalising Aboriginal people in bush areas on the dole who avoid mutual obligations”, The Australian reported.

The job service providers’ submission will reportedly call for the “restoration of CDEP ‘wage-like’ payments.”

Many Aboriginal workers across NT communities, who have found themselves providing essential services for not much more than the Basics Card and loose change, are also campaigning against the scrapping of CDEP.

They argue that, rather than closing CDEP and shifting people onto unemployment, the money should be spent converting CDEP positions into salaried jobs at award rates.

However, Aboriginal workers campaigning for “Jobs with Justice” have not found an ally in CEA and ITEC. The job service providers said restoring CDEP “would allow providers to implement no work, no pay principles on the ground in the communities”, as opposed to the “‘weakened’ compliance regime” that is work-for-the-dole.

CDEP was an initiative led by Aboriginal communities in the 1960s and ’70s, in an attempt to combat the negative effects of so-called sit-down money (unemployment benefits).

However, coming from job service providers who stand to make much money from winning government contracts, and who are bemoaning the softening of penalties against Aboriginal people on welfare, we should be very cautious of this particular call defending CDEP.

Once again, discussion is focused on carrot-and-stick tactics for punishing Aboriginal welfare recipients.

This distracts from where the spotlight should be: the government’s complete unwillingness to work with communities to take positive steps towards creating real, fairly paid, community-controlled, employment.


CDEP is pretty adhoc as I worked with the program for 3 years to help kick start a business and the entity is going well however the cdep program has employed non indigenous peoples and I was told that these positions were koori specific .I also find that there is 35% of indigenous jobs are held down by nonindigenous people "HOW COME AND THE EQUATIY IS JUST NOT THERE'
Hi Angello, I wish query your assertion that CDEP was an initiative by Aboriginal people in the 70s. What is your source? Simon
The CDEP wasa federaly funded "work for the dole" scheme esablished in the early-mid 1970's in some Aboriginal communities. It was allegedly a stepping stone in to full-time employment , but successvie federal governments failed to support it. But it kept going up until a couple of years ago in some Aboriginal communities. The admin was usally handled by a local Aboriginal organsation, and I was lucky to wrok as part of the admin team. The howard government ( we all know his track record on Aboriginal programs) made it increasingly hard for community organisations to meet their specified quots, in some cases expecting to have 20 full-time jobs for Aboriginal jobseekers within three months, sometimes in communities of under 10,000 people. The unemployment rates were high back in 2006/2007, and CDEP participants were'nt included in the unemployment stats. There's heaps more if you want to know, bascially it was a great program that's been failed by consecutive federal governments for over 35 years.
Hi Simon It's true, of course, that CDEP was "started" by the then Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) (ie it wasn't part of the Department of Social Security to begin with). But maybe in the article above, the "initiative" refers to the fact that Aboriginal people, in the wake of the large job losses following the "Equal Pay" case, were returning to their homelands in large numbers, where there was no work. But, having been workers on stations for decades (albeit exploited, unpaid, etc), they were seeing the detrimental effects of younger generations being paid "sit-down" money to do nothing. They wanted the opportunity for work, to be paid to do constructive labour for their communities, but also recognised the communities were outside of the mainstream economy and there weren't any "real jobs" (ie capital to pay wages). I've done oral histories with many Aboriginal people from the time that who say this was the case, that older generations were calling for "work programs" etc on communities so people didn't have to leave country to meet the "job-searching" requirements of the unemployment benefits. An Aboriginal women who worked in the DAA at the time has also told me this was the case. Of course, the actual laws CDEP that started in 1977 would have ( I presume) gone through parliament after government working parties, discussion papers, etc- so in that case the actual CDEP program that eventuated wasn't necessarily "initiated" by Aboriginal people. BUt I've heard very clearly, from many sources, that Aboriginal people wanted- and called for- alternatives to sit-down money, government-supported employment programs that may assist training and entering the "mainstream economy" etc. CDEP has many success stories, despite its weaknesses.I think its failures lie with its implementation, limited government funding etc- not with the idea of a government-supported education & training program. Angelo.
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