At a time when it is pretending to improve conditions for people in the Northern Territory's remote Aboriginal communities, the federal Coalition government is phasing out the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEPs). The announcement was made in the May federal budget papers, but has also been integrated into the new NT intervention plan, announced by PM John Howard on June 24.
CDEPs were introduced as an income support and training scheme in 1977 after below-award training allowances were replaced by award wages, and employers in the NT drastically reduced the number of Indigenous apprentices.
CDEPs have been criticised for not providing "real jobs" on award wage rates. However, Jon Altman, the director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, argued in a July 24 Crikey.com opinion piece that the "beauty of the scheme is that it maximises individual choice; participants could work part-time for a minimum income or work full-time and overtime if they were income maximisers".
Indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough has promoted the concept of removing CDEPs in a typically Orwellian manner, arguing that CDEPs just disguise the real levels of unemployment in remote Aboriginal communities. He claims scrapping CDEPs will "mainstream" these communities by helping create "real jobs" on "real wages".
Altman points out: "ABS figures for the NT for 2006 show that the NT unemployment rate for Indigenous people was estimated at 15.7 per cent, more than three times the Australian rate of 4.9 per cent. But this rate includes an estimated 8000 CDEP participants as employed.
"If the total number of Indigenous people employed in the NT (15,300) is reduced by 8000 and between 1655 and 2000 'real jobs' are created ... by replacing all non-Indigenous employment with Indigenous workers, then the unemployment rate will still increase to at least 50 per cent."
The result of Brough's policy will be that most NT Aborigines currently employed on CDEPs will be forced into regular "work-for-the-dole" positions, which will mean they will do essentially the same jobs as before but for 20% less income.
Alice Springs CDEP manager Peter Cowan told the ABC on July 24 that "CDEP creates the only real jobs that have ever existed in [remote Aboriginal] communities... It's the only way communities could get jobs out there."
The Local Government Association told the ABC that Indigenous communities in the NT are living under a "dark cloud" of uncertainty as the Howard government continues to roll out its intervention plan. LGA president Kerry Moir said many in the communities feared they will not be able to find a permanent real job in such remote areas when the CDEPs are scrapped.
"I can see infrastructure [and] businesses collapsing. CDEP is not just about paying wages", he said. The LGA is calling on the federal government to reverse its CDEP decision.
On July 18, the Combined Aboriginal Organisation produced a response to the Howard government's NT intervention plan, which also included a critique of Canberra's handling of CDEPs. According to CAO, some 5000 artists and 400 rangers are currently funded by CDEPs in addition to childcare workers and nights patrols.
The CAO proposed that "the development of a stable paid work force within the communities should be supported through adequate and sustained funding of services including management of traditional lands, employment of local Aboriginal people to improve housing in the communities, support for local business and employment development initiatives, obligations and support for mainstream employers such as mining companies to employ local Aboriginal people rather than 'fly in-fly out' arrangements, and by assisting community members to live in areas where jobs exist but return regularly to their communities".
Part of the Howard government's NT intervention plan includes threats to "quarantine" welfare payments as a punishment for parents whose children have poor school attendance. Because CDEPs are administered locally, rather than federally, the government lacks the power to control payments in this manner. Scrapping the CDEPs will put Aboriginal parents in remote communities onto Canberra-controlled welfare payments.
In addition, Brough's talk of "mainstreaming" Indigenous communities actually means forcing their residents to leave them — to find employment elsewhere. Combined with the government's plan to seize control of these communities' land under "temporary" five-year leases, this will make it easier for the government to open up traditional Indigenous land to mining companies, thus rolling back the gains made by the land rights struggles of the last few decades.