Earlier this month, Department of Employment figures about the government's remote Work for the Dole scheme proved what critics have known for some time: the policy is failing. In Arnhem Land, people are buying less food since tough Work for the Dole penalties were introduced.
Successive federal governments have tinkered with remote employment programs since the 2007 scrapping of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP). At the time, many warned that scrapping the program would cause a significant proportion of the remote Aboriginal workforce to shift onto unemployment benefits. CDEP income was a mixture of Centrelink benefits plus “top up” wages for hours worked.
While the scheme was not without its problems, many predicted that without careful planning and a transition to real employment, the end of CDEP would simply mean many people being worse off financially, many important community roles no longer being paid for (or being done by outside contractors), and the now-unemployed ex-CDEP workers being shifted onto the new Basics Card.
The federal Labor government of the time replaced CDEP with the Remote Jobs and Communities Program. When I was working in Arnhem Land in 2011–12, service providers and Aboriginal workers were still trying to understand the new system and onerous reporting requirements.
In July last year, the federal Coalition government again “reformed” the system, creating the Community Development Program (CDP). Eighty percent of CDP participants are Aboriginal.
CDP requires people in remote areas to work for 25 hours a week to receive their full benefit. On June 8, the ABC said “work-like” activities might include “landscaping, community clean-up, walking children to school and housing repairs” Failure to participate can result in payments being suspended.
The government's CDP website says: “Flexible and focused on local decision making and local solutions, the CDP is an essential part of the Australian government's agenda for increasing employment and breaking the cycle of welfare dependency in remote areas of Australia.”
Anybody who has followed Aboriginal employment schemes over the past decade will recognise the rhetoric. There is nothing new in mantras about “increasing employment” and “breaking the cycle of welfare dependency” when it comes to Aboriginal people. Nor is there anything new in the now-cliche fact that most top-down initiatives in this arena over the last decade or so have made life harder for Aboriginal people.
Just 12 months after CDP began, there is evidence of the sort of impact the tough penalties — the suspension of payments — is having. The Arnhem Land Progress Association (ALPA), which runs some CDP programs in the Northern Territory and operates food stores across Arnhem Land, Cape York and the Torres Strait Islands, told the ABC there had been a 10% drop in fresh food sales and a 20% drop in meat and baby food sales since non-compliance penalties were tightened in January.
Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion has disputed these claims, saying that when people return to their activities they receive back-payments. But, for people just surviving on welfare payments in remote areas where food is more expensive, it is hard to see how getting back-payments at some time in the future would help keep food on the table each day. Daily shopping trips are the norm for people who live in often over-crowded housing without adequate food storage.
The government's own figures also indicate the scheme is doing more harm than good. Lisa Fowkes from the Australian National University told Radio National's AM on June 8: “In the last six months of last year, 37,000 people received over 50,000 financial penalties. That is more than double the number of penalties that had been applied in the previous six months,” before the new scheme was introduced.
She said: “"By the end of last year you were nearly twice as likely to have received an eight-week penalty as you were to have got a 13-week job”. Just over 6000 people had found work that lasted 13 weeks.
People in the remote CDP program make up just 5% of the national unemployment figures, Fowkes said, and yet had received more penalties than the 95% of unemployed people living elsewhere.
This year's federal budget included changes to most Work for the Dole programs which would mean that people would be on the dole for 12 months before being forced to work for their welfare payments. However, this change will not apply to the CDP, which is almost entirely made up of Aboriginal people. CDP participants, from as soon as they are unemployed, will have to work for their dole.
New Matilda reported Greens Senator Rachel Siewert as saying: “Having one change for the broader community but leaving unchanged harsh policies in Aboriginal communities smacks of discrimination that must be addressed. I urge the Minister for Employment and Minister for Indigenous Affairs to explain why these different decisions were made.
“Across the board we must move away from paternalistic top-down approaches to helping people into employment.”