The Rudd government is committed to a self-imposed and ambitious target of creating 100,000 new jobs for Indigenous Australians in the next ten years to halve the existing employment gap. As part of its employment creation strategy it has launched the next iteration of its proposed reforms to the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) program. These reforms are couched broadly under the umbrella of the revamped and extremely complicated Universal Employment Services and the less complicated discussion paper Increasing Indigenous Economic Opportunity released on Tuesday.

The harsh reality masked by this complex proposed reform package of Indigenous employment programs is that from 31 March 2010 the CDEP program, a community-based employment creation and economic and community development program established in 1977, will disappear.

Much of the proposed changes in the discussion paper aim to administratively streamline a number of programs already available under the Indigenous Employment Program, while also adding new elements like migration assistance, mentoring, and work readiness training.

But the most far reaching reforms are to the CDEP program. In 2007 the program was abolished by the Howard government in urban situations. The logic for this reform was that robust urban labour markets made the program unnecessary.

Now the continent is divided into arbitrary regions that have ‘established’, ’emerging’ or ‘limited’ economies. The CDEP program in regional Australia where there are ‘established’ economies is to be abolished from 1 July 2009. However, the program in remote Australia, with about 20,000 participants, is being retained, despite calls for its wholesale abolition by powerful Indigenous and media voices as the Reformed CDEP program (that I term here the RCDEP program).

The change in nomenclature conceals quite significant changes to the program that will placate those seeking its abolition. The revamped program will become multi-streamed, possibly to make some distinctions between different circumstances in ‘emerging’ and ‘limited’ economies. One stream will be called Community Development, the other Work Readiness Service. Within the former there will be Community Development Projects and Community Capacity and Support; within the latter Work Readiness Training and On-the-job Work Experience. It is unclear if any one RCDEP can have elements of all streams to reflect multiple community objectives; and who will decide which streams an RCDEP is participating in?

There are some fundamental aspects of RCDEP that stand out. On the surface a raft of measures will be made available to provide foundation and basic work skills and vocational training, as well as on the job training where people will work for wages. And a range of community development projects will be supported with the proviso that none substitute for services that should be provided by Australian, State/Territory, or local governments, there will be no cost shifting onto RCDEP. And assistance will be provided to local organizations to provide support to RCDEP participants reminiscent of the Hawke government’s Enterprise Management and Community Management Training Schemes and more recently Rural Transaction Centres.

The discussion paper is replete with unanswered ‘elephant in the room’ type issues. In remote Australia what private sector or public sector ‘proper’ jobs might RCDEP participants fill? Will jobs offered by governments be properly remunerated or merely part-time jobs as are currently being offered for a range of positions under the NT intervention previously funded by CDEP? Will government’s support proper economic development for remote communities? (A ‘new’ Indigenous Economic Development Strategy is foreshadowed in the discussion paper.) Is there capacity to deliver employment and training services of adequate quality in remote Australia and will short-term wage subsidies result in permanent employment opportunity? Will people take up voluntary mobility assistance to seek mainstream work?
Three features of the revamp stand out as fundamentally altering innovative aspects of the existing CDEP program, irrespective of its success in generating additional employment and income.

The first is the proposal that RCDEP will only be able to access income support payments like other welfare recipients. Under some misguided notion of equity, CDEP participants who can now work extra hours and earn extra income without being subject to the disincentive effect of the welfare income taper (earn extra, receive progressively less and less) will be prohibited from doing so in future as RCDEP participants.

The second is the proposal that RCDEP participants will be treated no different from those in the current Work from the Dole program. Unfortunately there is no evidence that this program has worked in the last 12 months since being introduced in the Northern Territory in remote communities as part of the intervention. One has to ask if what is proposed is just a full circle return to July 2007 when the Howard government proposed to abolish CDEP in the Northern Territory so as to be able to quarantine (now ‘income manage’) people’s incomes.

The third is that CDEP organizations that provide support for a diversity of economic and community development projects will lose capacity and scale. This will have deleterious affects on many successful initiatives established in the national interest like the Indigenous Protected Areas program, Australian Customs and AQIS service level agreements and the new Working on Country program.

I have argued long and hard that successful CDEP organizations with track records over many years should be replicated and supported, not jeopardized by radical reform with uncertain intended and unintended consequences. My empirical exemplary practice model is the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation in Maningrida, remote Australia’s largest and probably most successful CDEP organization.

The proposed reform of the CDEP program might assist to close the employment gap, if RCDEP participants remain classified as employed like current participants. It will also dependent on whether the government will allow increase in participant numbers after 1 July 2009. The employment gap might close, but regrettably other gaps, in income status, well-being and self esteem between Indigenous and other Australians, might widen.