Another failure in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs

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’.

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20/09/2015Ken What hope is there that whitefellas responsible for managing employment arrangements for Indigenous peoples living in their traditional ‘country’ could do it in a culturally sensitive way? Particularly conservative whitefellas! When you have the likes of our previous Treasurer pejoratively distinguishing between ‘lifters’ and ‘leaners’; when the Western work ethic is the accepted norm; when ‘working hard’ and showing productiveness is admired; when the working week as defined by industrial relations tribunals is the standard; it is easy to see how Indigenous work practices are frowned upon, and Indigenous people are characterized as unreliable, even lazy as they accept ‘sit down’ money. This disparity between Western work values and Indigenous cultural values is central to the misunderstandings that arise as whitefellas attempt to provide meaningful employment for Indigenous folk. In a sense, it resembles the disparity between the belief systems of different religions, or the disparity between the belief systems of scientists and creationists. The best we can hope for is that public servants assigned to this area are sensitive to Indigenous culture, and insist that the ministers whom they serve accept Indigenous culture too. Is that possible? Thank you for another thoughtful analysis.


21/09/2015Ad The big problem in the past few decades has been the emphasis on neo-liberal economics. That applies to our society as a whole but has even less relevance when applied to a different culture. When the Department of Aboriginal Affairs was first created in the 1970s, it had an emphasis on social issues and on 'community development'. That changed in the ensuing decades and public servants became program and money managers: that was okay as long as the Aboriginal people were still at the centre and able to determine what they wanted to do with the money. But then that was also taken away, leading to the situation we have now. Unless politicians and public servants are willing to start discussing issues in terms of the 'social' rather than the 'economic', there wil not be a change. At the moment, even social issues are usually seen as having an 'economic' solution - so the argument that people need jobs and that will reduce alcohol consumption. Aboriginal people already have solutions for some of these issues if only politicians and public servants would listen to them and work with them.


22/09/2015Ken Thank you for this damning wrap of the abject failure that has marked European attitudes and actions towards our indigenous peoples. A matter of shame. In the late 60's when Don Dunstan was Attorney-General in the SA Walsh Government, he first introduced the term 'integration' into the discourse about Aboriginal people. Until then the prevailing notion was that indigenous people would be 'assimilated' and cease to be an embarrassment to White society by simply disappearing. (It was said with satisfaction that blackness could be 'bred out' much more effectively with Australian natives than with Negroid people.) (Before that of course was the view that Aboriginal people were doomed simply to die out and all that could be done for them was 'turning their pillows'!) The distinction between assimilation and integration was well made, and partly as a result, South Australia has probably the least worst record of acceptance of Aboriginal people of all States. But I know of places where racism is open and very much alive. Port Lincoln, for example, where some of my own blood relatives live. Biggest joke to them is to speak of *Aborigynes*, so funny. At the time of Dunstan's AG tenure, my GF, who was a Social Worker, went to a meeting between Don and a group of Aboriginal people representing their communities. She reported back to me afterwards that when the meeting ended, one of the older women said to her, "Ohhh he's got a lovely face hasn't he!" That loveliness was much more than skin-deep, and that's what the old girl meant. Traditional Aboriginal people are very sensitive to insincerity when they see it, and Don was always honest. Bloody Hell I'm soft. Tears rolling down my cheeks remembering Don. (NTM my GF! :~) ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ TwitterVerse Turdball's like a racehorse - High gloss,pretty face - But now on a racecourse Show pony can't race! Sing along to: …


22/09/2015TT Your story about Don Dunstan rings lots of bells. In my own experience, Aboriginal people almost seem to have a sixth sense about sincerity. To put it in the vernacular, they seem to be able to pick a fraud/fake at twenty paces. I have witnessed it myself but don't pretend to understand it. It seems a skill beyond my normal skills of picking such people. I have been the beneficiary of such assessments when my superior,who was doing all the talking,was dismissed and the people chose to speak to me. It is fascinating and interesting to witness.


24/09/2015Well Comrades, So much for Abbort. I still can't quite believe that it's over, it seems like a bad dream still haunting us but it also seems long ago. How did he happen to Australia? We - Ad astra and everybody on TPS - knew his measure here in 2010, even before that, yet the Media stolidly refused to criticise him, attacked *J*U*L*I*A* incessantly on his behalf, sold the country down the sewer. Well he's gone now. That's the hat-trick of the Government's power triangle: A Abbort, B Bishpig, C Credlin. D Dutton next. He's a loose cannon in a position to do a lot of harm to a lot of people, including his own Party. A potential sacrifice for Turdball, like a Gecko's tail that can be dropped still wriggling while the reptile escapes. Morriscum is another very vulnerable. As yesterday's 730 showed he is out of his depth with his new role of Treasurer. He resorted time and again to talking over Sales' attempts to keep him on track, he's adrift on a raft of problems with no way of avoiding the rapids because the Abbort Government has so closed its options. He seemed surprisingly unable to cope when Sales presented him a list of facts showing Abbort's failures on virtually every marker for economic performance. Twitter went viral saying how rude and out of touch he was. I think he looks like a disaster, soon. Then of course there's Sinodinos, and worst of all Brough, "Special Minister of State" who is, amazingly,*still* 'under investigation' by the AFP for his part in the Ashbygate Affair - a matter of unparalleled chicanery in Australian politics, and one which has had enormous consequences for this society. Brough may yet go to gaol, and I hope he does. And Pyne with him. Well it seems to me that the shine is already wearing off Turdball, while Bill Shorten is actually benefitting from the change in leadership. Turdy has to engage, where Abbort was a cut-&-run fighter. The sugar-hit was to be expected, but it wasn't very big and it will not last. I'm looking forward to the fight!


25/09/2015This explains why Labor has concerns about ChAFTA. We should have realised from Abbott's over-the-top xenophobe comment that Shorten's concerns were valid. 1. China FTA and a diplomatic appointment. Bob Kinnaird. 23/09/2015 the committee hearing on 7 Immigration official who cleared up one of the key pieces of ‘misinformation’ about ChAFTA that DFAT and the government have been happy to let run. After persistent questioning from Labor MP Kelvin Thomson, DIBP’s Mr David Wilden conceded that at present labour market testing (LMT) applies to 457 sponsors nominating all Chinese nationals in Skill level 3 (mainly trades), engineering and nursing occupations; and that once ChAFTA enters into force, they will not be subject to LMT in these occupations. The officials should have added (but did not) that once ChAFTA enters into force, the Australian government will permanently give up the right to apply labour market testing to Chinese nationals in all other occupations in the standard 457 visa program as well. Currently these other 457 occupations are LMT-exempt simply by Coalition government policy written into a legislative instrument providing LMT exemptions on occupational grounds. Before ChAFTA, these ‘occupational’ LMT exemptions could be changed by any Australian government at any time. But after ChAFTA, the 457 LMT exemptions for Chinese nationals become exemptions due to Australia’s ‘international trade obligations’ and are effectively irreversible.

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25/09/2015Folks Australia's 28th Prime Minister has been replaced, and most of the nation is breathing easier. No doubt there will be analyses of his prime ministership in the coming weeks, but how many commentators will expose this man for what he was: a destructive political operative, and a vindictive bully of his opponents? I have just posted on [i]TPS Extra[/i] my appraisal of his political legacy. It may be the last thing I will write about this man. It is titled: [i]How has Federal politics come to this?[/i]:


25/09/2015TT In relation to Abbott, the word most used in response to an ABC online poll was 'relief' and I think that says it all. I agree with your assessments of Dutton and Morrison. And like you, I am amazed that Sidodinos and Brough are in the ministry. Especially Brough. Although Turnbull appears to have sold out to the Right of his party on a number of issues, they have also sold out to him. I have little doubt he will remind them of that if there are rumblings -- they have basically accepted a more moderate image purely in an attempt to win the next election. I have a gut feeling that if the Right is to reassert itself, it will not be until after the next election (whether the Liberals win or lose).


25/09/2015Casablanca Do you know whether that information about the China Free Trade agreement got a run in the mainstream media? (I don't recall seeing it, but my MSM contact is very limited) If not, it's another case of biased reporting in favour of the government.

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26/09/2015Folks This morning, I added to my contemporary piece on [i]TPS Extra[/i] the image of Abbott's infamous attack on Julia Gillard at the public rally where he stood in front of a placard labelling her as 'Bob Brown's Bitch', not so much to remind you of Abbott's shameful behaviour, which I'm sure you will recall vividly, but to refresh your memory of who was standing close to him. Go to and scroll down and take a look. You will see that his two female supporters, like Abbott, have now disappeared from centre stage. Perhaps there's a lesson there!


26/09/2015Tony Abbott's First Interview Since Being Dumped: I'm Too Young to Retire HuffPost Australia. 26/09/2015 13:35 AEST In his first interview since being deposed as Prime Minister, Tony Abbott has said he is too young to retire and will consider his future over the next few months while he serves as a backbencher in the Australian parliament. He also defended his legacy, saying he had laid the foundations for the Coalition to be re-elected at the next election. Tony Abbott's pension. The myth that won't die Peter Martin. September 25, 2015 - 5:00PM Some stories are too good to die, like the one about Tony Abbott's prime ministerial pension. Apparently he would have been able to get one if he had been in office for just three more days....I'll set the record straight.
T-w-o take away o-n-e equals?