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Welfare to Work, or Work to Welfare?

The Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee, chaired by Senator Cory Bernardi, is holding an Inquiry into the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Community Development Program) Bill 2015. Professor Jon Altman made a submission (no. 8) to the Inquiry and was invited to give further evidence in a public hearing on 19 February 2016 at the Monash Conference Centre, Melbourne. These are his opening remarks.

In Parliamentary debates recorded in Hansard on 13 August 2007 Senator Bernardi noted ‘Let us be frank about this: the self determination of Aboriginal communities simply has not worked’. Today nearly 10 years on we can sadly state unequivocally that what has followed, at least in terms of Indigenous employment programs, has worked far less effectively than key institutions from the self-determination era like the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme—that first the Remote Jobs and Communities Program (RJCP) and now the Community Development Program (CDP) were/are supposed to have replaced and improved. Sometimes I am at a loss to understand how ‘in the name of employment improvement’ successive Australian governments have managed to so effectively move remote living Indigenous people from work to welfare.

As someone who has researched economic development in remote Indigenous Australia for nearly 40 years now, I observed a slow and steady improvement for the first 30 years and then a sharp decline in the last decade that has left people less employed, less engaged, more despondent, and poorer than ever: the modicum of economic empowerment that the CDEP scheme gave numerous community based organisations and thousands of their members has been eliminated and people now experience higher unemployment and increased welfare dependency.

This is not just my observation, it is reinforced by others like the august Productivity Commission in its report published just last December that employment gaps are widening, that this widening cannot be explained away by the abolition of CDEP, and that associated with the employment gap is a widening income gap. Indeed, the Explanatory Memorandum for the Social Security Legislation Amendment (CDP) Bill 2015 tells us that Indigenous participants in the current CDP are breached at twelve times the national rate. Unsurprisingly this is interpreted by political and bureaucratic architects of the program as due to some moral shortcoming of participants rather than fundamental problems with the scheme they have devised—particularly the requirement to work 25 hours a week for the dole in what Senator Scullion has termed ‘work-like activities’ imposed on many who have experienced the relative halcyon days of CDEP wages; or to train for jobs that the Productivity Commission tells us are likely unavailable to Indigenous folk in sufficient number owing to a series of demand-side factors.

The latest proposal to paper over what has been a disastrous bipartisan Coalition and ALP reform process seeks to experiment with a new form of CDP in four regions out of 60. This proposal looks to devolve responsibility for implementing a ‘no show no pay’ regime to community organisations and purports to restore aspects of the CDEP scheme. One response to this proposal might be: give it a go, surely it cannot be worse than the status quo. But another, more considered response that I canvass in my submission is that it might make things worse, both for so-called job seekers—I say ‘so called’ because sensibly many do not seek jobs where they do not exist—and for community-based providers. In ‘the name of community empowerment’ we will see greater ministerial and bureaucratic oversight and ‘in the name of eliminating poverty traps’ we will see new ones created.

What I propose instead is a fundamental rethink that is not focused on some utopian commitment to close employment disparities sometime, maybe, but focuses on the livelihoods and wellbeing of Indigenous people who live remotely, often on their ancestral lands.

I argue that this Bill should be sent back to its authors, some of whom will be giving evidence after me, with clear instructions to seriously consider the workability of what they are proposing; and to actually match policy reform with the best aspects of CDEP, about which there is a massive evaluation literature.

In the name of wellbeing and livelihood the government could do a lot better if it reinstituted CDEP to the 35,000 people and nearly 300 organisations that benefited from its operations; and if it considered some form of Guaranteed Basic Income for those who live where there are no mainstream labour markets.

I am in rare agreement with Noel Pearson’s observation at the National Press Club last month that the current policy framework is heading for a train crash in which Indigenous people will inevitably be the casualties. Nowhere is this clearer than in employment policy, where we are in desperate need of some innovative and radical thinking sadly lacking in this Bill.

– Jon Altman

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