A just program for Indigenous employment


As part of the former Howard government's Northern Territory "intervention", the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) was abolished. The Howard government had planned to abolish it across other states on July 1 this year.

Then-Aboriginal affairs minister Mal Brough dismissed the program as an obstacle to real employment. The abolition of CDEP was one of the few aspects of the intervention that Labor criticised at the time.

Following his election victory in November, Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced support for CDEP's continuation. The scheme will also be re-introduced in the NT.

Many Indigenous people have welcomed CDEP's reprieve, hoping that government promises of a "reformed CDEP" might lead to real development opportunities for remote Indigenous communities. However the program is unlikely to be able to close the vast employment gap between black and white Australia.

The CDEP scheme was established in 1977 after the introduction of award wages led to a dramatic drop in the number of Indigenous apprentices. CDEP's aim was to provide skills and training initiatives for Aboriginal people, and was something of a precursor to the "work for the dole" scheme.

While the idea of a scheme focussed on Indigenous employment and training sounds good — and CDEP programs give communities an element of control over which projects are undertaken, and their cultural appropriateness — in practice its application is uneven. In some communities, CDEP may be the only way a program can access funds to provide lasting worthwhile training — such as in cultural heritage work. In other cases, participants may be paid minimum wages for work that, in towns and cities, would be done by the council — such as garbage collection.

Once enlisted in the program, participants have to work each week — regardless of availability of employment — or they get only the base rate, which may be as little as $90 "sit-down money". There's no sick pay or job security. It very rarely leads to salaried jobs and the "development" aspect of it is often non-existent due to a lack of training resources. While some participants may remain in the program for years, playing a socially useful role running an arts centre or providing aged care, others are reduced to turning up at the community office/school/store each day asking if there's any work, as pay day approaches and they realise how few hours they've managed to clock up. This has been the reality of CDEP in remote communities.

Before the election, Rudd promised to modify CDEP to encourage development in remote communities. The ALP said it would provide funding for an extra 300 Aboriginal rangers and provide extra training to improve their qualifications to a landcare certificate. There was also discussion of increasing joint CDEP and business ventures, particularly in the mining industry. The long-term CDEP support for Aboriginal art cooperatives would also be maintained, and more training aspects, particularly in IT skills, would be introduced.

While these advances are good, there are some caveats that could undermine the policy. Some of the business partnerships proposed involve the government subsidising industry to employ Aboriginal workers, effectively a handout to business. The focus on big business partnerships will undermine the capacity of local communities to control development arising from these schemes. For example, a November 5 ALP press states that "Sixty per cent of Australia's mine sites are located next to remote Indigenous communities, providing real opportunities for local employment" — giving an idea of where the real priorities lie.

The policy fails to tackle the main cause of poverty and disadvantage in remote Aboriginal communities: the lack of basic infrastructure. An employment and training program that addressed inadequate housing, schools and hospitals could involve training Indigenous staff to build, maintain and manage such infrastructure. This could encourage self-sustaining, self-managed communities, moving away from a reliance on white contractors who fly in for short-term projects. Addressing such basic necessities as housing would also have a flow-on effect to education outcomes and health.

Infrastructure projects such as this, under community control, could ensure culturally appropriate outcomes: houses people want to live in. Such a program would need to pay real wages and offer security so that people would dedicate themselves to it. Apart from building programs, it could also lead to local schools that teach Aboriginal children in their own language — a method that most education theorists argue is the best for developing overall literacy.

A broad, community-based program should focus on public works and public service rather than substitute for a lack of employment opportunities and basic public services. It would be essential in actively closing the gap in Aboriginal infrastructure rather than bribing the corporate sector to employ Indigenous people and hoping the "trickle-down" will lead to real development.


IN CONVERSATION WITH BRUCE PASCOE: The Climate Emergency & Indigenous Land Practice


Zoom panel featuring Bunurong man Bruce Pascoe, award-winning Australian writer and editor, author of Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?

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