It was a manic end to the week for Nigel Scullion, Minister for Indigenous Affairs, now acting Nationals leader.

Scullion spent Friday morning fastened to a Senate estimates seat, grilled by Labor and the Greens after cabinet opted not to support a referendum on establishing a permanent First Nations advisory body to parliament. Then, at 2.15pm, the High Court gave him a double promotion.

Lost between the headline-grabbing moments, Scullion was also pursued on hints he has been making that his controversial Community Development Programme (CDP) could be about to undergo significant redesign.

The CDP is a tough-love welfare program supposedly designed to meet the unique needs of the unemployed in regional and remote Australia. It is based on significant work-for-the-dole obligations, and has seen a massive spike in penalties, cutting the welfare provided to those on the program when they fail to meet requirements.

“Cutting people’s payments off … drives crime because they’ve got no money to get food and shelter — just the necessities of life,” one Western Australian police officer told a Senate inquiry earlier this year.

Critics of the scheme don’t see its severity as either an accident or a surprise: 83% of those who rely on it are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders.

“CDP is a racist government program that offends foundational Australian values of fairness and equality,” said Adrianne Walters of the Human Rights Law Centre. “It forces people in remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to work up to 760 hours more per year for the same basic income as people in non-Indigenous majority urban areas.”

Currently the subject of a racial discrimination complaint before the Human Rights Commission, the CDP was also named and shamed in a report by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Scullion argues the program has improved job outcomes and brought people back into contact with the welfare system, challenging “passive welfare”.

“In CDP around 90 per cent of serious failure penalties are waived as jobseekers choose to re-engage with the programme,” his office said in a statement. Yet he also now appears to subtly acknowledge the program hasn’t worked, telling estimates on Friday of a plan to trial a new “wage-based system … an award wage system”. In the hearing, Scullion’s department promised a full consultation and said they were shooting to begin pilot programs in June 2018.

When Scullion floated these reforms at the 2017 Garma festival, Greens Senator Rachel Siewert took note. “I was surprised and pleased,” Siewert recalled. “It seemed he’d got the message.” Months later, Siewert is pushing for more details.

Scullion’s office told Crikey the planned changes would bring back “two of the best elements of the former CDEP scheme”, a jobs-based program slowly run down by both major parties.

Surprise at the apparent turnaround, however, is quickly turning into frustration. “No one publicly knows anything about what he’s going to do,” David Thompson, head of the Jobs Australia — which represents not-for-profit providers in the sector — told Crikey.

In recent weeks, service providers were invited to a meeting in Darwin attended by staff from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. “They’re not letting on anything, which is a pain in the arse,” one person at the meeting said. Another person present praised the staff for appearing to genuinely want to listen.

Left with little to go on, groups including Jobs Australia and the Australian CTU are backing a plan developed by the alliance of land councils and Aboriginal organisations known as the Aboriginal Peak Organisations Northern Territory (APO NT).

The coalition proposes a total redesign of the CDP based on local leadership, major investment in communities, and the eventual creation of 10,500 jobs, to be funded by the governing and implemented by Indigenous organisations.

Scullion has met with the APO NT, briefly, though the group is far from satisfied.

“This is a frustrating situation where we have done the work and stand ready to participate in a complex policy discussion but we can’t get any commitment to a credible process that will involve us,” David Ross, an APO NT spokesperson, said in a statement.

Other Scullion critics have even less faith.

Experience tells me it’s going to be more of the same,” said Kara Keys, national campaign co-ordinator for the ACTU. “Scullion is not talking about a radical overhaul of this program, he’s talking about incrementalism so the political heat gets taken off him.”

“That’s why he’s talking in language like ‘wage-like’, ‘work-like’.”

This is the crux of the issue — will the reforms bring a voluntary jobs program that creates meaningful work, or will it simply be a slightly less punishing work for the dole regime?

If Scullion gives the APO NT anything like what it’s asking for, he’ll need to find a bunch of cash, and may have to reverse the government’s expanding use of welfare management.

That’s going to be about as popular in cabinet as the idea of a First Nations advisory body.