There are cheery posters around the door of the East Kimberley Community Development Employment Projects Program (EK CDEP) office featuring smiling cartoon people saying “CDEP is changing on July 1: Ask Us for Details”.

The posters refer to the federal $202.4 million promised over the next five years to reform CDEP and the Indigenous Employment Program (IEP).

Inside the Kununurra office, the staff are working hard making sure participants from CDEP service providers that have lost their funding are properly transferred onto the EK CDEP books. It’s no small task as EK CDEP manages several hundred CDEP participants spread over three remote areas (Kununurra and surrounds, Warmun and surrounds, and for Halls Creek and Ringer Soak).

They are trying to avoid the shouting that will ensue if anyone falls between the cracks, but despite their best efforts they are still bracing themselves for a storm. They’ve lived in the top end long enough to know that reshuffles like these rarely run without a hitch.

These are short term worries though, underlying them is a typical top-end mixture of hope, concern and bemusement about the logic behind the government maneuvering and what it will mean for the next generation of Indigenous locals.

EK CDEP is reaping the rewards of its hard work over the last few years. Hard work that saw it win the title of 2008 Employment and Training Provider of the Year in the East Kimberley Aboriginal Achievement Awards and exceed its “job outcome” targets. It is one of a handful of CDEPs that will still be operating after the July 1 cut-off date that will see 4000 Indigenous Australians moved off CDEP wages and onto Centrelink payments and many* CDEP service providers across Australia defunded.

The few* “reformed” CDEPs still operating after July 1, and after the extended cut-off of March 2010 that has been granted to some CDEP participants, will still be working against a ticking clock. The Federal Government has signed three year contracts with them but said that when those contracts expire, on June 30 2012, they won’t be renewed. After that date CDEP will be a thing of the past.

In all likelihood, all that will remain will be the Job Readiness training programs that are currently run by some CDEPs and that will then be run by other service providers, that may involve the same people operating out of the same premises but with new branding.

CDEPs first appeared in 1977 as a progressive solution to the problem of welfare payments being perceived as “sit down money” that obfuscated the need to work. Arising out of consultation with Indigenous people, CDEPs brought together government-funded community development, income support and employment creation that was vital in remote locations that didn’t, and in many cases still don’t, have functional labour markets.

The CDEP story isn’t all rosy though. In many cases the system was being rorted, and calls were made for its structure to be reviewed to attach payments to work done rather than hours attended (especially in circumstances where it was difficult to check on who was and wasn’t at work), and to strike a better balance between workplace rights and responsibilities.

Mal Brough and Joe Hockey took aim at the CDEPs in the NT intervention plan in 2007. They were frustrated by the fact that CDEP earnings could not be quarantined (‘income managed’) in the way that the dole could be.

Despite the benefits that may flow from the government’s micromanagement of how Indigenous people spend their money, the closure of the CDEPs has been called “just plain dumb” by ANU academic Jon Altman.

He said that while the name CDEP was being retained in the new ‘Reformed-CDEPs’, the changes being brought in were far more than cosmetic.

Green senator Rachel Siewart echoed Altman’s views saying that: “In the face of rising unemployment rates during the global economic downturn, it makes no sense to move people from meaningful work onto the dole when there is little real prospect of them finding work.”

Siewart also raised the issue that “for some workers, particularly among the men, the loss of their CDEP jobs and their status as ‘breadwinners’ for the family will be devastating.”

Despite these objections the change is happening and in the EK CDEP office the CEO and directors are reviewing the requirements of their new (and final) three year contract and looking for ways they can make the best of the new challenges.

The new contract requires them to have two streams operating. The first will provide training, this is easy as the organisation already has a Work Readiness training program up and running; incorporating literacy and numeracy essentials, as well as popular topics such as ‘how to do internet banking’ and ‘what are your rights and responsibilities at work’.

The second stream is about community development and the new emphasis is not so much on developing infrastructure that will be good for communities, but developing human capital within communities. How this is actually going to play out is less clear.

CEO of EK CDEP John Vos said that while most of the communities in the East Kimberley already have community plans, the challenge he and his team now face is finding ways to help the communities look at what they need to do to in order to get from where they are to the realisation of the goals of their own planning documents.

He said: “The work is now oriented around developing, rather than simply maintaining, communities.”

At this stage, it’s a plan based on assumptions about what indigenous people want, and how it is going to play out is anybody’s guess. In order for this not to be something inappropriately imposed on communities EK CDEP is launching into a consultation process that will take months to complete.

While Altman has “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” – in the face of the reforms the crew on the ground at the EK CDEP is rolling with the punches and trying to remain optimistic.

Vos described the reform as “a new broom, sweeping through the system and bringing with it some exciting opportunities.”

In particular he is eyeing off a slice of the $53.6 million allocated for the establishment of 400 new traineeships in government-funded service delivery, to complement the creation of jobs from CDEP activities and to create 60 additional ranger positions in remote communities.

He can see the potential of the area and his team is looking at ways to knit together community aims, appropriate skills training and meaningful work opportunities that could involve toad and weed control, ranger work, eco-tourism and a return to significant Indigenous involvement in pastoral work on their own stations and others.

This means negotiating the community development aspects of new CDEP projects through discussions with local Aboriginal Committees, Community Representatives and Traditional Owners and building stronger working relationships with local Employment Service Providers, which are also dealing with new contracts and directives.

While these new moves have the potential to help Indigenous people who are employable (or close to job-ready), big questions remain about those who are too damaged by alcohol, violence and other patterns of dysfunction (also called ‘barriers to employment’) to fit into workplace life.

The obvious concern, hanging like a foreboding cloud over the sunny north, is that the old CDEP system may have been masking how many of these people there really are, and the big question is how will they react to the shifting sands.

*(FaHSCIA is being tight lipped about exactly what is happening with the CDEP Programs. I called the department on Tuesday morning asking for precise numbers of how many CDEPs were being defunded, reformed and extended until March. Communication and Media Branch Manager Brian Quinlan initially said that none were being defunded. Challenged with the name of one that had been, he promised the figures ASAP but, despite several phone calls, we were still waiting at deadline today. He did confirm on Tuesday, though, that 4000 was an accurate figure for the number of CDEP participants being moved to Centrelink payments).