Saturday, 19 May 2012

Community Development Employment Program

Here's another snippet from the far north-west, this time about something a little closer to my normal field of knowledge - the Community Development Employment Program or CDEP.  This program was once the jewel in the crown of Aboriginal employment programs.  First trialled in 1977, by the early 2000s the program catered for over 40,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander job seekers.

CDEP was basically a "work for the dole" program, introduced on Aboriginal communities at their own request long before there was any such thing in the mainstream social security system.  It allowed communities to convert unemployment benefits into wages and pay unemployed people to work on community projects.  An unemployment benefit is equivalent to a bit under half a full time wage for an unskilled worker, so participants were treated as having a part-time job, 16 hours a week.  It was a creative response to two pressing problems on those communities - extremely limited employment opportunities, and under-funded community infrastructure.  It got people working and engaged in their community, and made substantial improvements to services and infrastructure. 

The program was so popular and successful that it gradually migrated from Aboriginal communities to serve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in urban and regional centres and later served as a model for the Howard Government's "work for the dole" scheme. 

Yet in the bizarre, upside down world of 21st century Indigenous affairs, this program became one of the main targets of the Northern Territory "Intervention", initiated by Howard and his Indigenous Affairs Minister Mal Brough with the support of the then Labor opposition in 2007.  Brough was particularly outspoken in his criticism of CDEP, saying that it trapped Aboriginal people in unemployment.  He wanted to abolish the program and see it replaced by "real jobs" by which he meant mainly jobs in the private sector.  His Labor successor, Jenny Macklin, moderated the rhetoric but implemented virtually the same policy.

The result is that the scheme still exists in name, but the number of participants is greatly reduced and the administrative processes that backed it are in disarray.  One provider I talked to in the North-West told me their participants had dropped from over 1500 a couple of years ago to less than 200 now.  Nor are even those 200 participating as they used to.  The original scheme treated the payment as a wage and the employing body could enforce a "no work, no pay" regime.  Under what is left of the scheme, participants now receive a standard Centrelink payment and participation in CDEP activities is a condition of receiving their benefit.  These people live in remote communities.  Who is going to enforce this condition?

In talking to people about CDEP, it is clear that no-one thought it was ideal.  In a sense Brough was right.  The work ethic involved in the program was fairly relaxed - 16 hours a week of fairly undemanding work.  There was often little training, so people's skills didn't really develop.  For many participants there was no clear career path, no exit strategy into more rewarding or demanding work.  What was revolutionary in 1977 was no longer "state of the art" for 21st century labour market programs.

However, there was a huge hole in Brough's and Macklin's plan.  It was easy to wind back CDEP, but what would take its place?  Brough loved to talk about "real jobs" but neither he nor Macklin had any plan about where these would come from in remote, economically depressed communities.  They had no plan for how people who had worked 16 hours a week in unskilled, undemanding jobs would work full time in the open market.  They had no plan for anything much.  As the cliche goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

So what are those 1300 former participants doing now?  Well of course some, the most able and ambitious, have taken up some of the small number of positions available on their communities, or moved to Broome or Derby and found work.  A few work in the mining industry, raking in great money at the expense of splitting their families.  They probably would have done this anyway, although Macklin will undoubtedly try to take the credit.

However, a disturbing number, including the most disadvantaged of them, are doing nothing.  As one community leader told me, removing CDEP took away their reason to get up in the morning.  They still have the same income, courtesy of Centrelink, but they have nothing to do all day but sit around, drink alcohol and smoke ganga.  If they can get motivated enough they can take part in training, but given there are usually no jobs at the end many could not be bothered.  Depression is on the rise and youth suicide is on everyone's lips.

Meanwhile they watch (and I watched too) while people with white faces drive around their communities in twin cab utes, doing some of the $5b worth of housing construction and renovation being paid for by the Commonwealth Government in remote communities, or delivering essential services like water supply and rubbish collection.  The "real jobs", courtesy of Commonwealth contracting arrangements, are visible yet forever out of reach.

The tragedy is that it didn't need to be like this.  I've met plenty of people in these communities who are bristling with entrepreneurial ideas, and have the skills and drive to pull them off.  The only thing they lack is the capital.  They could easily be delivering these services themselves, and using them as a base to compete with providers in the towns. 

The catch is it would have taken time.  They would have had to build up slowly, walk before they could run.  The housing programs would have been delivered a year or two later.  There would have had to be a holding arrangement for municipal services to allow them to take up contracts.  Furthermore - shock! horror! - the government would have had to intervene in the market to guarantee them contracts as they got started.  It would have been hard.  Brough and Macklin wanted a quick fix.  They did indeed move quickly, but fix it was not.

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