On July 23, Mal Brough and Joe Hockey announced the end of the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) in the NT. I’ve never been a big fan, as it has often been used to pay individuals who are doing real work and so should be paid real wages with all the entitlements that go with that. This was a surprise as just in February the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Joe Hockey, had said this,
CDEP will continue to operate in remote areas and in regional locations with weaker labour markets.
Which was in relation to the abolition of CDEP in other areas, the rationale for which was to,
replace Community Development Employment Projects in strong labour markets with genuine access to real jobs.
One wonders at the economic miracle that has occurred in remote NT communities in the past 6 months that has turned them into “strong labour markets”.
Of course no such thing has occurred. This is just policy, and bad policy, on the run. The Federal Government has discovered an impediment to one part of its’ welfare ‘reforms’. The measure to quarantine part of peoples welfare payments could not be done with CDEP. CDEP payments are made as wages, not welfare, so the Commonwealth lacked the power to quarantine them. The answer – scrap CDEP in remote communities, despite having reaffirmed its role just 6 months ago.
This is a depressing example of the Federal Government resorting to knee-jerk responses to problems caused by its’ preceding knee-jerk responses. Having dreamt up a quick welfare ‘reform’ fix, it finds that this can’t be implemented because of the prevalence of CDEP in remote NT communities, so with a flourish of the Ministerial pen, CDEP is no more. This is an act which speaks of a worrying historical ignorance. CDEP was introduced by the Fraser Government in 1977 in response to the rise in unemployment caused by the move to award wages for Indigenous Australians. This encounter between thinly populated remote Australia and the ‘real economy’ was a rather negative one. The current government, in its’ haste, confusion and ideological blinkers, is reaching for a ‘real economy’ answer to CDEP, when CDEP was in fact the answer to the real economies impact on Indigenous employment. Jon Altman summed it up in 2005 when there were rumours of the end of CDEP,
to eliminate the CDEP scheme would see the unemployment rates jump from 7% to 76% in very remote regions and from 17% to 46% in remote regions
The Ministers have announced that work-for-dole and STEP (Structured Training and Employment Projects) will replace CDEP. However, the transition process is far from clear and CDEP provides extra financial support that is vital to creating the jobs that they do. The providers, mostly community councils, receive around $3,400 per participant per year plus a small weekly admin fee, which they use to purchase capital equipment eg, a garbage truck. In one community I know well, this means an extra $400,000 a year to provide essential services and jobs. The Governments plan seems to be to increase the involvement of Job Network providers to run the new programs. This is a dubious move. In the community above, the Job Network provider is Mission Australia. They have no office, no vehicle and no clue, and have created about 0 new jobs in the year they have been at it. In their defense, they only have one worker doing 20 hrs a week. At another community with a more successful Mission Australia presence, they have been placing many people in work…..but into CDEP positions!!
The situation at Robinson River gives some idea of the difficulties the small remote communities will be facing with this transition from CDEP.
The shortcomings have been noted by many, including the excellent Jane Simpson and Jon Altman at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research. The Local Government Association of the NT is also informative, given that it is many of their members who will be at the pointy end of this policy decision.