Every quarter since 2006, the Australian Government Department of Employment has published job seeker compliance data. The latest release shows that in the September 2016 quarter, 54,997 financial penalties were applied to a group of around 34,000, mainly indigenous, job seekers in the Community Development Program (CDP) — a labour market program that operates only in regional and remote Australia.

Each quarter since the Australian government launched the CDP on July 1, 2015, the number of financial penalties has increased. What is more, since the CDP started, its 34,000 CDP job seekers have incurred more penalties than all of the 760,000 mainly non-indigenous job seekers in the non-remote “jobactive” program combined, as can be seen in the following chart.

Most of these penalties are applied for failing to attend Work for the Dole activities. These are called “no show, no pay” penalties and, as the following chart shows, these, too, have been trending upwards exponentially since the CDP started in July 2015.

Each no show, no pay penalty results in the loss of one-tenth of an individual’s fortnightly income support payment. Miss two days, then two days are lost. Miss three days and a job seeker may be subject to a serious penalty for persistent non-compliance, which can last up to eight weeks. Since the CDP was put in place, 170,000 no show, no pay penalties have been applied to CDP participants. This is a direct result of the federal government’s decision to apply harsher conditions to unemployed people in remote areas than those that apply to the rest of the country.

A few weeks before these data were published, the Turnbull government released the annual prime minister’s report on Closing the Gap. It was shown that only one of six gaps was closing and that the employment gap between indigenous and other Australians was widening.

There was universal condemnation of our inability as a nation to improve the circumstances of indigenous Australians, and much hand-wringing about how we must do better.

Yet the Commonwealth’s CDP has contributed directly to impoverishing remote indigenous communities. The program requires people to turn up five days per week to work for the dole, without the dignity of a pay packet or the likelihood that paid employment will come as a result of their efforts. And, despite the government’s statements about doing things “with” people not “to” them, this program has been implemented as a one-size-fits-all solution, without consultation, and with the condemnation of many indigenous community members.

Make no mistake, living on welfare in remote Australia where goods and services are expensive means living in poverty. Every payment missed takes a toll on the family budget and the health of family members. This employment program is demeaning, disillusioning and further impoverishing indigenous job seekers and their families.

The official response from a spokesman for Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion, reported in The Australian, is that CDP is getting job seekers into work and off welfare. It is argued that many have been placed into work, and 4200 outcome claims have made by providers under the program. Unfortunately, the government has not seen fit to publish its data on a regular basis, nor has it made any comparative information available. And the suggestion that these “outcomes” are really making a difference to economic opportunities in remote communities simply ignores the long-term structural changes that are needed.

Over a decade ago, the Australian government was warned that abolition of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme — which was run by community-controlled organisations — would lead to rapidly escalating levels of unemployment and greater welfare dependence. Sadly, this prediction has come to fruition; people have been shifted from productive part-time work to unemployment, and unproductive work for the dole that is regulated by an expensive, and centralised, surveillance apparatus.

If the Australian government wanted to design a program that aimed to impoverish nearly 30,000 unemployed indigenous Australians living in regional and remote Australia, where there are few mainstream labour market opportunities, it is hard to imagine a more effective way to do this than CDP.

And yet despite the evidence of extraordinary and escalating breaching levels under CDP, demonstrating that this “employment” program is failing, policymakers seem to be incapable of responding. One cannot help but wonder if the response would be different if such levels of breaching occurred for the 760,000 on jobactive.

The current CDP contracts come to an end in mid-2018. In a normal government cycle, this would be the time that the government consults with stakeholders, and considers whether the program design is really achieving its ends. But there is no sign of any interest in an open review of this program. The government simply dismisses evidence of penalties and of distress in affected communities.

It is time for some serious independent review or parliamentary scrutiny of this policy debacle, led by, and with the proper engagement of affected indigenous communities. In the process, there should be an opportunity to revisit the earlier, more successful community-controlled CDEP scheme. This scheme operated between 1977 and 2013, until it was abandoned for ideological, rather than evidence-based reasons.

In the meantime, in the name of Closing the Gap improvement, there are simple things that can be done immediately to dramatically reduce the application of financial penalties. For a start, CDP should not have to run five days per week. Otherwise one might legitimately ask, is this a program to create employment or to punish and impoverish the unemployed?

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW