What is wrong with this paragraph from a report in July
regarding the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander work-for-the-dole scheme?
A Territory community’s work for the dole program is about to collapse, with accusations a Sydney-based company stands to keep receiving funding while nothing happens on the ground and jobs hang in the balance.
Yes, another Aboriginal project is in danger of collapse. And, yes, the government appears to be doing nothing. But the big one that is ‘wrong’ to me is the reference to ‘a Sydney-based company’. What is a Sydney-based company doing running a work-for-the-dole scheme in a remote Northern Territory Aboriginal community? How does it effectively manage the scheme from 4000kms away? The fact the report suggests that the scheme may be about to collapse, even though the Sydney company is still receiving funding, indicates to me that perhaps it cannot manage from that distance.
That is a result of a process begun in the Howard years, and continued unfortunately during the Labor years, that put many services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities out to a bidding process (not formally but effectively a tender). Even though Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community organisations could bid to provide services to their own community, or even to all communities in a local area, bids from distant organisations often had a price advantage. Ability to deliver the service to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in a culturally appropriate manner was part of the considerations but price was still a driving force — a government attempt to constrain funding.
In those circumstances, much depends on the people assessing the bids. In my day, many public servants working in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs would have said that the condition regarding the ability to deliver the service in a culturally appropriate manner was paramount and as long as the price wasn’t outrageous that would over-ride pure price considerations — in economic terms, we were prepared to pay a premium for appropriate services. Many younger people who have grown up in decades of neo-liberalism and economic arguments of ‘price efficiency’ may take a different view.
The scheme that report refers to is now known as the Community Development Program (CDP) and is a result of a long history going back to the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) program in 1977. And there is a slightly longer history necessary to explain how CDEP came into being.
For a long time many Aboriginal people in remote areas had been employed in the cattle industry but were paid what was called a ‘training wage’ or ‘allowance’. In 1965 the then Commonwealth Arbitration and Conciliation Commission ruled that Aboriginals should be paid award wages under the Cattle Station Industry (Northern Territory) Award 1951
. Were the station owners happy to pay award wages? Of course not, and the result was widespread unemployment for Aboriginal people in northern Australia. At the time Aboriginal people could not receive unemployment benefits if they were living on missions or reserves (which many stockmen would have returned to after losing their jobs) and there was still a ‘work test’, which basically meant that work had to be available but one was unable to obtain it — that continued to mean that many living in small remote communities where there was no available work were not eligible for benefits. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had only become eligible for social security benefits in 1966 and the requirement regarding missions and reserves wasn’t removed until 1976. But with so many then unemployed, and as the rules changed and the number eligible for and receiving unemployment benefits grew, the elders, in particular, became concerned about this ‘sit down’ money and the social problems it was causing in communities. So in 1977, CDEP was introduced.
Under CDEP, an amount equivalent to the unemployment benefit that otherwise would have gone into a community, plus a component for on-costs, was paid to the local Aboriginal organisation and people could then earn the equivalent of their dole by undertaking local work — the original work-for-the-dole scheme. Over the years a number of problems arose.
One was that CDEP was used to provide work in municipal services such as waste disposal, generator maintenance, road maintenance within the settlement and so on. That has led in more recent years to the commonwealth government demanding that states and local government take on that role as they do for other citizens. The jobs still need to be done but the commonwealth is insisting that the cost is met by the states (it is that which gave rise to the decision in WA to consider closing many small, remote communities).
Another was that as CDEP was expanded beyond remote areas, some Aboriginal organisations used CDEP labour to support the development of local businesses (as was intended under the original guidelines). In small regional towns the non-indigenous businessmen felt that gave Aboriginal businesses an unfair advantage. Unions were also concerned that non-award wages could be paid for work that was covered by awards. Under Keating, the new rule was that CDEP should be paid at award rates (where an appropriate award existed) and people work only as long as was required at the award rate to earn the equivalent of the dole. That also meant they were covered by normal industrial conditions, including health and safety, payment of superannuation, and so on. If organisations or businesses had the money, they were allowed to provide ‘top-up’ wages for extra work, without the person losing their CDEP entitlement.
CDEP had also expanded into urban areas where it was meant to focus on preparing people for mainstream work. The rationale, however, was that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people would be more likely to use an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service than go to a job centre. Under Howard that was abolished. Eventually CDEP was again restricted to remote areas but that was also abolished in the NT during the intervention. When it was brought back, it returned to being a straightforward work-for-the-dole scheme and was rejigged as the Remote Jobs and Communities Program (RJCP) under which people worked 16 hours a week for their Newstart allowance. Many people left the scheme (some received other welfare payments) and the ‘sit down’ money problem was re-created. That has now been rejigged again as the CDP in remote areas.
What have all these changes achieved? — very little.
The original idea was to provide some work in areas where there was little or no work available; it could provide activities that would combat social problems (such as ‘night patrols’); and projects could include economic ventures, town management activities, social advancement and environmental improvement.
In considering work in remote areas, it is interesting to note that non-indigenous people in remote areas have the lowest unemployment levels of any location in Australia, lower than urban and regional areas. That arises from the fact that most whitefellas don’t stay in remote areas unless they have work — as soon as the work ends, they leave. Aboriginal people, on the other hand, are bound by their culture and the need to maintain ‘country’ to remain there. That is why it is so difficult when governments talk about the need for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be in employment. Jobs are scarce in such areas. I have personally witnessed examples where communities took on more people in the available positions than was actually necessary: that led to the funding for the positions being spread over more people so that they each received less than they were entitled to — which also led to problems, with people complaining of being underpaid. They were being underpaid but it was a genuine attempt to provide work to as many people as possible and keep young people in the community.
As CDEP moved between departments its purpose changed: at one time being little more than a welfare program, at another taking on stronger employment aspects. A more detailed political history of CDEP is provided in an address by Will Sanders here
What seems to have been lost in many of the changes are the social benefits of the original scheme.
By the time ATSIC was managing CDEP, it was viewed as the one program over which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities actually had some control. All the talk of self-management meant little when the use of almost all of the funding that went into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities was governed by external decisions. CDEP allowed communities to make decisions about what work they would support, what work they viewed as important for their community — in some communities it could include undertaking traditional activities. (Many Aboriginal artists in the NT were receiving CDEP ‘wages’ before it was abolished.)
With the bidding process and organisations from 4000kms away winning contracts to provide the services, support for the social aspects of the program seems to have disappeared. We are almost back to a 1930s ‘guardianship’ model where we seem to believe that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities cannot make decisions in their own self-interest and cannot manage money. That has been a Liberal mode since the Howard years. When Herron came in as the first minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs in the Howard government, ATSIC was directed to audit every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation to see if they were ‘fit and proper’ bodies to receive government funding. The new government believed there was waste and inefficiency, if not outright rorting. Only 60 out of 1,122 organisations were found to have breached funding conditions and the majority of breaches were for minor matters such as late submission of financial returns (there was no identified fraud): it was pointed out that the conditions were often so detailed that it was difficult not to breach some of them but 95% of organisations had managed it. The audit had been conducted by an independent organisation, KPMG, but it was not the result the government had wanted. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner later compared the outcome
of that audit to an audit of mainstream companies:
In contrast, “a 1997 survey of company fraud showed that roughly half the 490 large Australian companies surveyed had experienced significant fraud in the last two years”.
The audit also recommended
… training for administrators of Aboriginal organisations for example, in financial management expertise, but noted that budget cuts imposed on ATSIC in the 1996‒1997 Commonwealth budget had resulted in the termination of the Community Training Program, significantly reducing “the capacity of ATSIC to fund management training in organisations”.
So even for what problems there were, the government had effectively cut the capacity to do anything about them. The approach underlay the government’s attitude to CDEP — it could not understand why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations should have control of the money and, as shown earlier, the current approach means that money is again often controlled by outsiders.
Under the new CDP, people will be required to work 25 hours each week: a Christmas shut-down, some holidays and cultural leave are now included but weren’t in the original proposal. The CDP model pays lip service to ideas coming from the community but still insists getting people into jobs is the key outcome. I just do not see that there will be enough jobs. During the mining boom, which was seen as a possible source for Aboriginal employment in remote areas, I pointed out that modern mining is not labour intensive and even if every single mining job (including management positions) in remote areas was given to an Aboriginal person there would still be thousands unemployed — mining was not the answer.
The current minister Nigel Scullion’s description of the new CDP
sounds eerily familiar to the original guidelines for CDEP:
In many communities there will be opportunities to establish businesses that can support the needs and desires of local people. Some communities will want activities that support critical issues like housing repairs and maintenance. In others, there may be a need to support older members of the community in aged-care facilities or their own homes, or to support children in school.
Even where jobs are available in remote areas, they tend to be jobs that rely on government funding, such as ‘shire’ work, environmental work, even work in schools. Yes, they are ‘real’ jobs but as we have seen so often their tenure can be precarious when governments change.
Most of these jobs are currently filled by people from outside of communities. There is no reason local people cannot be skilled up to take on these jobs.
Those words from Scullion
are true but they have been said since the 1970s. The reason that approach has not had great success in that time is that it doesn’t recognise the Aboriginal perception of work. A traditional Aboriginal person may see a job as a way of getting money to meet an immediate need: once that need is met, the job is superfluous until another need arises.
More importantly, our view of regular work, five days a week for 48 weeks (allowing for annual holidays), is not appropriate in the still traditionally-oriented communities. There is much traditional business to attend to and that can take time: and, in the event of a death, most, if not all, workers will stop work for a time as traditional mourning activities (‘sorry business’) take place. If there are important jobs that need to continue every day, Aboriginal people themselves know that they are better off having a whitefella in that job who does not have to stop work for as long: it is probable the person would be required to stop but would likely be excused from the full mourning period and, of course, is unlikely to be directly involved in the actual ceremonies of ‘sorry business’.
I have an example concerning an Aboriginal man I knew personally. He had worked as a town clerk in a predominantly Aboriginal community and he had worked as a teacher at a distant location. It was while he was teaching that a death occurred in his home community. He returned home for the ‘sorry business’ but was then found by the elders to be responsible for the death: his absence had led to him not performing his ceremonial obligations and this had broken the ‘balance’ between life, land and spirit, contributing to the death. He was exiled to the bush for six months — which obviously meant he was unable to fulfil his whitefella-work obligations. In such circumstances, how can we demand that Aboriginal people take on work as we see it? How well does an organisation 4000kms away understand such circumstances; how well can it respond in a timely way when ‘blackfella business’ has to take precedence?
The only real answer to this problem is a completely different model that does not put a whitefella-style job as the ultimate outcome; a model that recognises traditional lifestyles and accepts them
; that allows people to work when they want to but attend to traditional activities when they are obligated to. It would be a model that is entirely different to anything we have seen so far, that recognises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture as important enough to maintain. Perhaps recognition in the constitution will allow a basis to consider such a model but it will also require a change in mind-set of politicians and public servants.
The words of Canadian singer-songwriter, James Keelaghan, are an appropriate ending for this piece, and would make an apt plea by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to us whitefellas:
Take a walk under my skies
Try to see it once the way I do
If you look out through my eyes
You’ll find a different point of view
What do you think?
‘When will they ever learn?’ We have had a commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agency since the 1970s, now over 40 years, and still there are seemingly intractable problems. But are many only ‘intractable’ because they are viewed from a whitefella perspective? Is Ken right in suggesting that more attention needs to be paid to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspective?
Next week 2353 goes ‘where angels fear to tread’ to discuss the modern influence of religion in politics in ‘The silent majority’.