Just as Don Quixote tilted at windmills, attacking imaginary enemies, Nigel Scullion has been jousting with remote indigenous unemployed people, thousands of whom are rejecting his Community Development Programme (CDP), which launched in December 2014.
It appears that both Scullion and CDP are in deep trouble.
The CDP, which came into effect on July 1 last year, replaced Jenny Macklin’s Remote Jobs and Communities Programme, which Scullion said had “failed local communities because it was not geared to the unique social and labour market conditions of remote Australia”.
But was the CDP better? A recent ANU report to which I contributed is scathing of CDP’s performance.
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Scullion’s response in a media release,”Facts don’t back up ANU Report on CDP” were twofold.
First, he challenged the data upon which our report was based, even though these were published by his department.
Second, he attempted, Territory-style, to shoot the messenger focusing his attention on lead compiler Dr Kirrily Jordan: “It is disappointing that public debate is being dominated by urban academics like Dr Jordan whose professional experience is limited to being an academic in east coast universities.”
Jordan’s expertise, like that of other academic contributors to the report, is based on substantial fieldwork, in her case on the Pitjantjatjara Lands.
And the ANU where she is employed, like the Australian Parliament where Scullion sits and his officials reside, is not on the east coast but in uplands Canberra.
This was a style of cowboy engagement I had hoped might have disappeared with Northern Territory ex-chief minister Adam Giles.
A second round of scathing critique followed with the release of Scullion’s answers to questions on notice from the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee.
This new set of figures highlights two things.
First, just 2760 26-week employment outcome claims were made by providers in 2015–16. This means that during the first year of CDP, only 2760 out of a total of around 35,000 participants held a job for six months. It is not clear what the jobs were and if these participants were indigenous or not.
There are 60 CDP regions, so that means an average 45 employment outcomes per region. Such low numbers are not surprising, as jobs are very hard to come by in remote Australia.
Second, in 2015–16, there were 127,504 financial penalties levied on 20,409 participants. About 90% of those penalised were indigenous. Each penalty “event” costs participants a minimum $50, or one-tenth of their fortnightly welfare payment.
These facts indicate that CDP and its surveillance system is much more efficient in getting participants penalised than in getting them into 26-week jobs; participation requirements are too onerous and unfair. Some 18,325 indigenous people are reported to have copped a financial penalty on an average of seven out of 26 paydays in 2015–16.
Make no mistake, for anyone living on the dole in remote Australia, where recent research shows basic foods are 60% more expensive than in Darwin, any penalty just further deepens the precarious position of people already living in deep poverty.
How did this policy disaster come about?
It started two years ago when in response to the failure of indigenous people to engage with RJCP requirements to work 15 hours a week for the dole, Scullion decided to increase this requirement to 25 hours a week, five hours a day, five days a week in order to be eligible for the dole.
Recognising that there are highly constrained opportunities for formal employment in remote Australia, Scullion also decided that these 25 hours of work would be undertaken in “work-like tasks” like ground maintenance, cleaning and tending market gardens. Indigenous people have a term for these tasks too: “bullshit jobs”.
Despite the decade-long conservative critique that demonised and then demolished the popular Community Development Employment Projects scheme (CDEP) as a destination, Scullion’s proposal is that CDP becomes just that, but for pay now limited to welfare entitlements and reminiscent of the colonial 1960s, when indigenous people did not yet qualify for award rates of pay.
Many indigenous people now long for the previous CDEP, when workers were classified as employed and paid award wages, as well as some semblance of community control and institutional flexibility that allowed for greater engagement, more work, more pay, and better economic and social outcomes for participants and their communities than welfare.
This is all very thoroughly documented in a recently published book Better than Welfare?, to which I also contributed, edited by the very same Kirrily Jordan traduced by Scullion.
There are two key lessons from this policy debacle that is doing economic violence to indigenous communities and families and subjecting thousands of individuals to the bureaucratic torture of welfare breaching.
First, undertake due diligence of jobs availability before introducing an employment program that looks to paternalistically discipline indigenous labour. Deploying the tired trope of indigenous dysfunction and making assumptions about behavioural modification will not magically create jobs.
Second, never scrap a program until you have proof that the new one is workable let alone superior.
In the midst of heated public debate, the Australian National Audit Office quietly announced that it will undertake an efficiency audit of CDP. The objective of the audit is to assess the effectiveness of the transition from RJCP to CDP, including whether the CDP is well designed and administered effectively and efficiently.
By the time the ANAO reports in September 2017 I suspect both the harmful CDP and the quixotic minister who introduced it will be gone.