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Making a living differently

16 December 2016

The abolition of Community Development Employment Projects has undermined economic renewal in remote Indigenous communities


Hybrid economy: opposition leader Bill Shorten with artist Samuel Namunjdja (left) and linguist Murray Garde at the Maningrida Arts and Culture centre during the 2016 election campaign. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

Hybrid economy: opposition leader Bill Shorten with artist Samuel Namunjdja (left) and linguist Murray Garde at the Maningrida Arts and Culture centre during the 2016 election campaign. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

“Abolishing CDEP was a well-intentioned mistake and CDP is our attempt to atone for it.” So said Tony Abbott in a recent exchange with journalist Amos Aikman in the Australian. CDEP was the Community Development Employment Projects scheme, which replaced unemployment benefits in a growing number of Indigenous communities after it was launched by the Fraser government in 1977. CDP, or the Community Development Programme, is a work-for-the-dole scheme that pays participants far lower hourly rates than under CDEP.

The Howard government began dismantling CDEP in 2004 despite official statistics and case studies that demonstrated its benefits for Indigenous individuals, communities and organisations. The government’s intention, according to employment minister Joe Hockey, was “to move people off welfare and into ‘real’ employment.” Put this way, his statement misleadingly portrayed CDEP as solely an employment program, ignoring its important role in community development, and erroneously defined CDEP participants as welfare recipients.

CDEP was conceived to assist people in remote communities where labour supply greatly exceeded demand. It was designed to operate as a community development and employment program managed by community-based organisations and local councils.

Purpose-built for remote Indigenous Australia, CDEP expanded rapidly, especially after the Aboriginal Employment Development Policy was launched in 1987. By 2004 more than 35,000 Indigenous people (as well as some non-Indigenous spouses) were participating in the scheme within 265 community-based Indigenous organisations. From the late 1980s, the scheme expanded geographically into regional urban and even metropolitan Australia, where it was abolished on 1 July 2007. The dismantling process then travelled back to remote Australia, with CDEP programs finally ending on 1 July 2015.

CDEP also migrated bureaucratically, from Indigenous-specific agencies (the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs and then the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, 1977–2004) to a series of mainline agencies, and ended up by its moment of demise with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, an agency that was assessed, even by the Abbott government’s handpicked Commission of Audit, to lack capacity in Indigenous affairs.

The Howard government believed that robust labour markets existed in the more populous regions to which CDEP had expanded, and that no discernible barriers (apart from the scheme itself) existed for Indigenous employment in mainstream jobs. Even if that were true, the abolition of CDEP right across regional and remote Australia was reckless, to say the least. (Even in the more densely settled areas, evidence suggests that the abolition of the scheme saw more participants end up on welfare than in jobs.)

In the short term, “real” employment couldn’t be conjured up magically in remote settlements where labour supply had grown rapidly but economies remained remarkably stagnant. Partly, the stagnation reflected structural factors, and partly cultural factors were at work, but it mainly reflected a lack of government assistance of the kind that underwrites most development in remote Australia.

After the dismantling of ATSIC, CDEP was unilaterally redefined from being a multipurpose, flexible Indigenous-specific program to being solely a labour-market program. But this redefinition softened as it became obvious to the Abbott and Turnbull governments that the warnings about the absence of jobs in remote places were empirically well-founded. And so the jobs-focused Remote Jobs and Communities Program, which had replaced CDEP in July 2013, was replaced by the CDP on 1 July 2015.

CDP purportedly focuses more on “work-like activity” for community benefit, but in its first sixteen months of operation – as an analysis of official information by ANU researcher Lisa Fowkes shows – it has been far more effective in penalising participants for breaching its draconian attendance requirements than in engaging them, five hours a day, five days a week, in work for the dole.

On the ground, this well-intentioned mistake has destroyed emerging and often remarkable forms of plural Indigenous economy that had been carefully incubated over many years. Take, for example, the hybrid economy of a group of 300 Kuninjku-speaking people in Western Arnhem Land with whom I have worked for decades. These people came into contact with the Australian colonial state relatively late, in the 1960s, when they moved to the government settlement of Maningrida. In the 1970s, unhappy with conditions there, they moved back to their ancestral lands to live at outstations. This was not a “lifestyle choice” of the kind lamented by Tony Abbott, but a necessity for survival.

At outstations, Kuninjku enjoyed land and resource rights and the critically important assistance of a regional outstation resource agency, the Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation, or BAC. They were able to fashion a sustainable economy for themselves based on a combination of self-provisioning, arts-and-crafts sales, and access to government payments, which only included unemployment benefits after 1980.

In that year, BAC applied for access to CDEP in preference to the payment of unemployment benefits. In the absence of formal employment at outstations (apart from a handful of part-time teacher assistance and health assistance jobs), the application failed. Unemployment benefit was paid instead, without activity testing, as a form of minimum income support.

BAC gained access to CDEP in 1989, and quickly became one of the largest and most successful development corporations in remote Australia. With CDEP and the growing scale and capacity of BAC, the Kuninjku’s hybrid economy flourished. People were able to engage in more arts production brokered to global and domestic markets by Maningrida Arts and Culture (a business arm of BAC), hunt, fish and gather food on their land, and enjoy a degree of basic income security without income testing or activity testing. Some Kuninjku people moved to Maningrida and took up employment in CDEP-subsidised work as community rangers or arts workers. By 2008 about one hundred Kuninjku artists were collectively earning over $1 million a year from the sale of their art; combined with CDEP and other transfer payments, and with returns from self-provisioning, that income provided them a reasonable livelihood.

Up until the 2007 Northern Territory Intervention, Kuninjku continued to expand this hybrid economy based on what they do best: hunting and fishing for bush food, and producing art inspired by tradition for tourist and fine art markets. These skills also expanded into community ranger work in natural resource management and paid carbon farming based on prescribed burning informed by customary practice.

This growth was assisted by relatively unconditional income support from CDEP and the remarkable development efforts of BAC, largely underwritten by CDEP. It was based on the Kuninjku people’s own focus on combining the resources guaranteed by land rights and native title laws with their own skills, reflecting economist David Ricardo’s theory of “comparative advantage.”

In 2003 I had an opportunity to appear before the now defunct Ministerial Council for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, where I argued that CDEP should be maintained alongside enhanced development support for people, like the Kuninjku, pursuing productive livelihoods on their land. I recommended a policy approach that maximised participation in all sectors of the hybrid economy, aligning with Indigenous aspirations, without undue entanglement in policy rhetoric about economic independence or equality.

These views were ignored by politicians and officials in Canberra, who were busy devising new employment programs for remote-living Aboriginal people without regard to Ricardo’s theory or the realities of life in these very remote regions. After the 2004 election, with CDEP transferred to the employment portfolio, I warned that abolishing the scheme could see unemployment rates skyrocket from 7 per cent to 76 per cent in very remote Australia. I again highlighted the need to reconcile CDEP policy reform rhetoric with the challenges of outback reality.

Since 2007, the erosion and ultimate abolition of CDEP has effectively demolished the Kuninjku hybrid economy. It has also greatly weakened BAC, the organisation paid to deliver CDEP to about 600 participants on their ancestral lands. During the global financial crisis, national Indigenous art sales plummeted by 50 per cent; for Kuninjku, the decline was even greater, and more sharply felt, because this was their only point of substantial productive engagement with market capitalism. There was no industry assistance package on offer to bolster the visual arts sector, no assistance to artists as their incomes declined rapidly, just the relentless governmental commitment to abolish CDEP.

Tony Abbott suggests that CDP atones for this destruction and loss of household income. In reality, CDP fast-tracked this destruction and now ensures that people like the Kuninjku are prevented from re-establishing a productive economy that effectively and sustainably combined capitalist and customary forms.

Under CDP guidelines, able-bodied Kuninjku people aged eighteen to forty-nine years are required to work twenty-five hours a week for Newstart payments; they are frequently “breached” – their payments suspended – for non-attendance at “work-like activity.” Their arts income has been greatly reduced, as has their capacity to engage in self-provisioning that requires access to relatively expensive equipment like vehicles and guns. And if unemployed Kuninjku individuals earn extra income beyond $50 per week, which they often did when on CDEP, they will now be subject to the social security income taper. Far from atoning for the destruction wrought by the abolition of CDEP, the new CDP ensures that people are further economically disadvantaged and diverted from vital livelihood activity like hunting.

These reforms, along with a suite of other measures in recent years – many apparently conceived to force Indigenous Australians into large towns and the mainstream market economy – are impoverishing Kuninjku in a way that I have not witnessed since I first worked with them in 1979. At times during my recent visits people have told me that they are hungry and ask for food, a request I have not received in the past, and one that is extremely demeaning for proud hunters.

How might Indigenous Australians such as the Kuninjku be afforded proper opportunities to make a decent living as they choose? The reintroduction of CDEP and the payment of compensation for this most egregious transition would be a start. But it is important to avoid the trap of focusing too narrowly on CDP; such reform must be just one element of a broader shift in policy approach to decolonisation and self-determination, which must accommodate the fundamental Indigenous economic right to live regionally and remotely and make a living differently. •

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