Searching for the ‘real’ economy on Cape York
The Cape York Welfare Reform Evaluation 2012 is a thorough 369-page document that is the culmination of an extraordinary reporting process: there are now eight reports on the website of the Department of Families, Housing, Communities and Indigenous Affairs, totalling over 1000 pages.
Even before it was made public, the evaluation was subject to a highly politicised debate about whether the Queensland government would continue to support the trial for a further two years beyond 2013. The trial is described as:
“Cape York Welfare Reform (CYWR) is a package of policy reform designed to address the deterioration of social and economic conditions in Cape York Indigenous communities that has occurred over recent years. The CYWR is being trialled in the four Cape York communities of Aurukun, Coen, Hope Vale and Mossman Gorge.”
Initially the Newman government argued continuation of the trial did not represent good value for money and inequitably favoured just four communities on Cape York above others. But heavy political intervention and pressure in The Australian caused the government to cave in and reverse its decision.
In releasing the report publicly on the cusp of Easter Friday, Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin noted: “An independent evaluation of the Cape York Welfare Reform trial has found that significant gains in the four participating communities are making a real difference in the lives of Indigenous people living in the cape.” The minister acknowledged the progress being made but said there was still more to do.
Subsequently, on May 3 the Australian government committed an additional $24.5 million, on top of $100 million from 2008, to continue the trial for two more years. The next day, in an opinion piece in The Australian, ”Lives spared, futures bettered”, architect of the trial Noel Pearson praised the Gillard government in general and Macklin in particular for her principled and unstinting support. He also provided commentary on the evaluation that had been largely absent in the media.
It is arguable whether Pearson is the ideal commentator on his creation, especially given that he is one of only three members of the board of the Family Responsibilities Commission, the key institution created by the trial. But it caught one’s attention that in a rare moment of reflexivity the politically astute Pearson admitted, as does the evaluation, that some things had gone well and others had not. In particular, he focused on employment and economic development as areas where the trial had mixed success. This is largely linked to the course that community development employment program reform has taken, with most people on CDEP merely shifted to Newstart.
A major plank of the Pearson project going back to his original treatise Our Right to Take Responsibility in 2000 is to shift people from passive welfare into real jobs in the real economy. In 2007, during the trial blueprint From Hand Out to Hand Up, people participating in CDEP were represented as being on welfare and sitting on a “welfare pedestal”, a comfortable poverty trap that was abstractly illustrated with detailed modelling. Most of the 832 CDEP participants of 2007 have now been knocked off this pedestal, but the crucial question is: what has been their destination?
It is necessary to trace the origin of the notions of the real economy and associated real jobs, the imagined destination of CDEP participants and the unemployed alike. And information from the 2011 census can be analysed to get a sense of the labour market situation in the four trial communities of Aurukun, Hope Vale, Coen and Mossman Gorge.
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