The Labor government’s ongoing assault on Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) is devastating Aboriginal communities across Australia. But Aboriginal people are fighting back—uniting with unions and activists in a campaign to stop the huge loss of employment and demand “Jobs with Justice”.

Following his apology to the Stolen Generations, Kevin Rudd committed to halving the “gap” in Indigenous unemployment within a decade. But in the first two years of Labor government, the Indigenous unemployment rate rose substantially from 13.8 to 18.1 per cent.

The cuts to CDEP have played a huge role in this. CDEP never offered employment with proper wages and conditions—but it was a lifeline for Aboriginal people and organisations where government neglect has meant a chronic lack of economic infrastructure and public services.
Approximately 40,000 Indigenous people were involved in CDEP before the Howard government began to attack the program during its final term of government.

Howard first abolished all urban CDEPs in 2007. In the same year, he began to dismantle the program in the NT as part of the Intervention.

When they took office, Labor put a moratorium on further cuts. But they began a process of phasing out CDEP across the country.

CDEP ceased operating in “regional” areas such as Wollongong and Cairns in July 2009. In remote areas, workers continue to receive standard CDEP wages of $514 per fortnight for 16 hours work per week. This will cease completely in June 2011.

Anyone joining CDEP from July 1 2009 is still required to work 16 hours per week. But they only receive the Newstart allowance of $462 per fortnight through Centrelink, rather than being paid wages by their employer. They do not have the option of “top-up” hours.

In the NT, half of these Centrelink payments are quarantined onto a BasicsCard. This disastrous restructure of CDEP plays an important role for a government committed to policies of assimilation in Aboriginal affairs. CDEP used to provide crucial blocks of funding to Aboriginal organisations and community councils, which both serviced the community and provided political representation.

Gutting communities
Ross Norman is the CEO of Mapoon Council in Cape York, a community in the centre of the current furore over Wild Rivers (see p18). He explained that funding for CDEP was now in the hands of private contractors:

“Now we don’t put any CDEP people on because we can’t. [CDEP] is only about training, the employment part of it is gone. But training for what jobs? The fact is, with these remote communities our employment opportunities are limited.”

By cutting CDEP, the government is sending a message to Aboriginal people that the only way forward is through moving away from their land and integrating into the “mainstream”.
Ross Norman explains that his small community, which had 300 people before the cuts, is now bleeding, “Of the 74 people who had CDEP jobs 30 have moved out of the community.”

For Gurindji people in the Northern Territory, just a couple of dozen people remain on the CDEP that services their two communities of Kalkaringi and Dagaragu, down from 250. Without its former workforce Dagaragu is now a ghost town. The healthcare clinic, the old age care centre and brick-making factory have all closed. Life is already a grinding struggle, but when CDEP completely ceases in mid-2011 Dagaragu’s ongoing existence, like that of countless other communities, will be threatened. 

The Gurindji fought against being paid in rations and demanded their land at Dagaragu with the famous walk-off from Wave Hill station. Now they are fighting to survive as a community. Peter Inverway, a Gurindji man who was working on a building site for the BasicsCard, recently toured unionised work sites on the east coast to raise awareness about the campaign against the Intervention.

John Leemans is another Gurindji man reviving the spirit of the walk-off. He is organising a protest in the community on October 20 to demand an end to the NT Intervention and for serious investment in employment and community development.

Gurindji workers will then travel to Alice Springs to join a National Day of Action on October 29. The NDA has the support of the LHMU, CFMEU and MUA.

John told CAAMA radio, “Too many people have lost their jobs. Now they are making people work for the BasicsCard. What more harm are they going to do to us?”

“Everyone knows about the Wave Hill walk-off. Now the old people are seeing it’s going back to those days again. A lot of young people are very angry. We need to fight again”.

By Carl Taylor and Paddy Gibson

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