For the old people out bush, it all makes a sort of weird logic. It seems that life under Brough and Howard’s intervention will be very much like the old Mission and Government Settlement days—no doubt with white picket fence and all.

The word is out: there’ll be far less paid work, and the government will control personal incomes in ways that have nothing to do with preventing substance abuse, gambling or pornography purchases. It’ll be a perverse world, where it will be legal to buy a motor car with welfare money; but not spend your pension cheque at the local bakery.

Whatever the case, when it comes to replacing the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) and managing welfare incomes, it seems Howard’s government is lying to Aboriginal people on the 73 so-called “prescribed communities” — or it just doesn’t know what it is doing, and is desperately hoping the wheels won’t fall off the Intervention before the elections. Even the normally supine leader writer at The Australian is worried about managing CDEP “anomalies”.

And during these days of high politics surrounding APEC and George W Bush, it appears no one gives a damn what is happening out in the real bush.

In developments over the last week or so, different communities have been told different things, from guarantees that incomes will not be affected between now and 30 June next year, to being told to use up all their Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) leave entitlements “before Christmas” with absolutely no guarantees of work. At another community, workers being thrown off CDEP are heading towards Work for the Dole, while watching a government fencing contract being carried out by non-Aboriginal contractors from out of town.

One community has been told people can use their government-controlled “quarantined income” to buy motor cars; others have been told they can’t even use the quarantined income to shop at the local bakery.

A witness at the northern Arnhem Land community of Ramingining recounts a meeting with an Intervention squad:

It was interesting to be at a public meeting … with visitors from DEWR and Centrelink.

They told the assembled that CDEP would end there by Christmas and they would all be moved on to Newstart allowance; that they had to use up any holiday pay by Christmas (‘but not all at once’) and that Centrelink would be interviewing each and every Centrelink and CDEP recipient to organise how their quarantined 50 per cent of their benefits would be spent.

They called it “income management”.

The Centrelink rep read out a list of items the quarantined money could be spent on, including buying a car or motorbike and repairs—in fact someone can let it build up and get Centrelink to buy their car for them.

Meanwhile, health expert, employment broker and income management guru Major General David Chalmers was telling a somewhat different story in Alice Springs. The military head of the Intervention Task Force told people last Thursday that Aboriginal people on welfare would only be able to use a “special card” to shop at major chain stores such as Woolworths.

“They’ll agree with Centrelink where they’re going to want to spend it … but nonetheless there will be some restrictions on the flexibility of that 50 per cent.”

He said that people would not be able to use quarantined money to buy bread at a bakery: “If you want to buy bread at a bakery then you would use 50 per cent of your discretionary money to do that”.

Meanwhile the people of Robinson River are witnessing the collapse of employment at their Gulf community. Their successful all-woman welding and fencing crew, employed through CDEP, will now get to see out of town non-Aboriginal contractors complete an NT education department fencing job.

Major General Chalmers visited Robinson River last Friday and was told by locals not to scrap CDEP as they believed going on welfare was “shameful”. Local CEO Bill South told ABC radio:

When old Doreen George, who’s one of our CDEP workers—she’s actually supposed to be on a pension but she refuses to give up work—she went up to him just before he was due to leave and said please don’t let our community go backwards, and I reckon I detected a little bit of emotion there.

He reminded us on a number of occasions that he’s not the government, he can’t make the policy, the policy’s been made, the CDEP’s gone, and he couldn’t offer us anything, and I think he was slightly embarrassed about that.

And the more things change, the more they stay the same. In 1973 the then Federal Labor Government abolished the so-called “Training Allowance”, which employed all able-bodied adults on Aboriginal communities. The axing of the Allowance led to disastrous unemployment and welfare reliance, which led in 1977 to the establishment of the CDEP under Fraser.

The abolition of CDEP—on Brough’s own reckoning—will throw 6,000 people out of work. And Rudd, friend of the worker, seems happy to endorse it.