The news that the federal government is planning to further gut the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) program comes as no surprise to anyone with a passing interest in Indigenous affairs.

Last week, the COAG trials and the ‘bold experiment’ in ‘whole-of-government’ service delivery (aka Amanda Vanstone’s ‘quiet revolution’) were officially declared dead. So what better time to embark on more ‘radical reform’?

This is a government that has well and truly abandoned the principles of sound public policy in favour of frenetic activity. Watching the Howard government reforms in Indigenous affairs is like watching a drunk take a piss ­– sooner or later, he’s bound to hit the bowl. Surely?

CDEP first came into operation in the late 1970s; contrary to popular belief, Aboriginal people were ‘working for their dole’ long before the rest of the country. The program saw a lot of Aboriginal people, particularly in metropolitan areas, find meaningful, stable work. It is still widely regarded as one of the best Aboriginal programs ever created.

But like any large program, it wasn’t perfect in larger centres (such as capital cities), some Aboriginal people tended to languish on CDEP and resist moves into mainstream employment. Strangely, Aboriginal people preferred to work with other Aboriginal people. After 25 years, CDEP was at best in need of gentle reform. No such luck.

With the abolition of ATSIC, the government set about making sure CDEP would soon follow. Aboriginal organisations were defunded and CDEP contracts were handed over to mainstream Job Network Providers. The rules of CDEP were ‘tweaked’ so that when you found a job through the CDEP, you were actually financially worse off as a result. Thus, you had no option but to get the hell out of CDEP.

The ‘reform’ enabled Minister for Employment, Kevin Andrews to boast just one month ago that the federal government changes had doubled the number of people moving off CDEP. That’s a bit like boasting you moved 10,000 people out of public housings by bulldozing their homes.

Yet, today we learn the changes aren’t quite working, and that the government will now need to abolish CDEP in metropolitan areas and large rural centres. The logic is quite perplexing. The Australian  reports: “A discussion paper outlining the plan says that CDEP has been more successful in remote areas than in urban areas and regional centres in finding mainstream work for its participants.”

A more ridiculous ­and wrong­ statement it’s hard to imagine. CDEP in remote areas overwhelmingly didn’t move Aboriginal people into mainstream employment because there was (and is) no mainstream employment to move into. Decades of government neglect and zero government investment in communities like Wadeye and Palm Island have seen to that.

The only place where CDEP actually got outcomes was metropolitan areas and large urban centres, where ‘real economies’ actually exist. If anything, the government should abolish CDEP in the bush. That would force it to actually invest in those communities and participate in the creation of employment and wealth, a responsibility it has thus far shirked.

But it seems there’s no such plan. Of course, that doesn’t mean remote communities will be left to rot – expect even more ‘reforms’ to be unveiled soon. It will likely involve government offering Aboriginal people cash and other incentives to abandon their remote communities and move to larger centres.

Like every other reform in Indigenous affairs, this latest round is aimed at destroying Aboriginal identity and assimilating Aboriginal people into mainstream society. And like all before it, it will fail.

Aboriginal people will not assimilate, no matter where they’re forced to live or work. They will not abandon their communities or their culture. They will not leave their land. And no John, most won’t join the Liberal Party or the Bennelong Society either.

Peter Fray

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