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Welfare stretcher at bottom of cliff

By Sara Hudson - posted Thursday, 9 October 2008

The federal Government has announced that it is reforming the Community Development Employment Program, an Aboriginal work-for-the-dole scheme. But there's an air of déjà vu. The Howard government axed CDEP in cities and regional areas just last year.

As a result, the number of CDEP organisations dropped from 212 to 153 during the past 12 months. The Rudd Government's proposal to halt CDEP in non-remote Australia is just a continuation of the previous government's policies and is nothing new.

What is new, however, is that from July 1 next year new CDEP participants will receive income support or welfare payments rather than CDEP "wages". This clarification is important. CDEP is welfare, not proper work. CDEP has been referred to disparagingly as "sit down" money, as many participants are paid for doing housework, mowing their own lawns or for doing nothing at all.


Because of a legal loophole some CDEP participants were able to receive Newstart allowance or parenting payments on top of their CDEP wages, thus receiving up to $2,000 a fortnight. The result is that in some areas employers have struggled to fill job vacancies because they couldn't get the Indigenous people on CDEP to do the work.

The other problem was that because CDEP participants technically earned a wage they couldn't have their payments quarantined as part of the federal government's emergency intervention in the Northern Territory. Giving some people but not others in similar circumstances full access to their welfare payments is patently unfair.

Having the same participation requirements for people on CDEP as those receiving income support is a vital change. According to the Government's recent discussion paper on proposed reforms to CDEP, the percentage of people moving off CDEP into real employment has increased by only 7 per cent in the past four years from 5 per cent in 2004 to 12 per cent today.

The conversion of CDEP positions that support the delivery of government services into properly paid jobs is a good move, but the vast number of people languishing on CDEP will need a lot of training and support to meet real job responsibilities. At present, CDEP workers in administrative positions in local government offices or working as teacher aides or health workers are used to working only two or three days a week. Many of these positions are only notional as the workers lack the literacy skills needed to do the job properly.

The federal, state and territory governments have signed up to an ambitious target of halving the gap in employment outcomes during the next decade. But what gap are they talking about? Present employment figures for Indigenous Australians count CDEP as employment. If you take CDEP out of the equation, then the real unemployment figure for Indigenous people is closer to 40 per cent.

But even this masks the situation in remote, fringe and ghetto areas because it averages employment trends across all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and includes those who live in mainstream society with similar labour force and employment participation as other Australians.


If Indigenous employees living in mainstream society are removed from the equation, the percentage of Indigenous people aged 15-64 who are unemployed rises to more than 80 per cent.

The Rudd Government needs to be aware of the real gap that exists between Indigenous people living in remote Australia and their non-Indigenous counterparts. School principals in remote communities have argued that some Indigenous young people are starting high school seven to eight years behind their non-Indigenous peers.

A large proportion of the Indigenous employees recruited by Rio Tinto during the past six years have required substantial entry-level support for employment. Only a very few candidates meet Year 8 literacy levels, let alone the Year 10 levels needed to comprehend the Occupational Health and Safety standards required for employment.

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First published in The Australian on October 8, 2008.

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About the Author

Sara Hudson is the Manager of the Indigenous Research Program at the Centre for Independent Studies and author of Awakening the 'Sleeping Giant': the hidden potential of Indigenous businesses.

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