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Many people have been searching for the reasons behind John Howard’s abolition of the C.D.E.P programs. None was given when it was announced as part of the NT Emergency Response. It has been assumed that it was done, in part, so that 50% of people’s income could be “quarantined”, something that could not be done with wages, but only with Centrelink payments.

But as a measure to protect children against child s-xual assault, it makes no sense at all. Until recently, C.D.E.P programs employed 8000 of the 15,300 Indigenous people employed in the Northern Territory. Although 1655 — 2000 “real jobs” were promised in place of the lost C.D.E.P jobs, that leaves more than 6000 Indigenous people potentially thrown out of work, or nearly 40% of the working population. Almost every study of child s-xual abuse states that high levels of unemployment are one of the main structural causes of increased levels of child s-xual abuse in communities.

There may be, however, a more nefarious reason behind the Howard Government’s abolition of the C.D.E.P programs, which employed so many in the remote communities of the NT

Mal Brough has stated that while some of the workers from the abolished C.D.E.P programs will be found “real work”, most of them will be “transitioned onto income support with the normal participation requirements” to seek training and employment.

The Government also announced that there would be progressive removal of “remote area exemptions” from Newstart Allowance requirements, so that recipients must engage with Job Network and other mainstream services, and either train or seek employment. The trouble is that 70% of the Indigenous population of the N.T. live in remote areas where such training and employment opportunities are extremely scarce, especially now that the C.D.E.P. programs have been abolished.

It would appear that thousands of ex-C.D.E.P workers must now leave their communities to seek training and employment in larger centres in the N.T. Once they have left, they will not be able to move back to their communities while on Newstart because their payments would be cut off for up to 26 weeks, as Newstart regulations state that you cannot move from an area of lower unemployment to an area of higher unemployment.

Unable also to find work on their communities, if only 1,655 -2,000 jobs of the 8.000 that were there, remain, they, and their families, will presumably have to leave their communities, and their spiritual, linguistic and physical links with their traditional land. They would be unable to permanently reside there for the duration of their working life. People’s social links with their communities will be broken. Relatively few Aboriginal people reach the old-age pension age that would enable them to retire there, and poor health at that age could deter them from moving so far from hospital services.

For the Howard Government this would seem to be an economically attractive option – as opposed to injecting the funds needed to create a healthy, sustainable infrastructure in the communities where 70% of the Aboriginal people of the N.T. now live.

Robert Manne wrote recently in The Monthly, comparing Noel Pearson and Howard:

Pearson supports land rights and native title. Howard is hoping for their erosion. Pearson supports genuine, not phoney, Aboriginal self-determination. Howard supports assimilation, in fact if not in name…Pearson’s life has been dedicated to the struggle for the survival of the remote Aboriginal communities. There is no reason to suppose that Howard would be concerned if they all eventually collapsed.

In abolishing C.D.E.P Howard has found a powerful tool to achieve his end. The experience of Mutitjulu community may well be a foretaste of what is to come across the N.T. Elders Dorothy and Bob Randall wrote recently:

We welcome any real support for Indigenous health and welfare and even two police will assist, but the Howard Government declared an emergency at our community over two years ago—when they appointed an administrator to our health clinic—and since then we have been without a doctor, we have fewer health workers, and all our youth and health programs have been cut.

Eventually this destruction of the communities could create “Terra Nullius” on the Aboriginal lands of the NT, and when the traditional owners can no longer prove continuous association with their land and sacred sites, there may be no legal barrier to those lands being taken back from their Indigenous owners.

With the abolition of the C.D.E.P programs we have lost thousands of jobs for Aboriginal artists, rangers, and Indigenous health and youth workers who are desperately needed to help protect Indigenous children.

Australia stands to lose far more than this in the long term – Indigenous languages and culture that are inextricably linked to Aboriginal people living on their land, the vital and irreplaceable heart of our country.

Peter Fray

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