In early October, the Federal Labor Government announced major changes to the CDEP (Community Development Employment Programs). The changes have been met with outrage from affected Aboriginal communities.

While a reformed CDEP will remain in operation in remote communities, the changes will dramatically affect regional and rural communities where CDEP has been the only mechanism to establish small local economies and generate income in areas where few other genuine employment opportunities exist.

Prior to the 2007 federal election, when the Howard government moved to scrap CDEP, Labor promised that CDEP would stay.

In fact, in 2007, Peter Garrett and Jenny Macklin praised Aboriginal communities for utilizing the scheme to ensure whole communities benefited. Peter Garrett stated: “We certainly recognise that there are a number of important employment positions that are at great risk and jeopardy as a consequence of Mr. Howard’s actions and policies. We want to make sure that people have the opportunity in their communities to continue good purposeful and meaningful employment.”

Then shadow Indigenous Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin, said, “Getting rid of CDEP in the remote Northern Territory communities will actually make communities, parents and children more vulnerable”.

CDEP was abolished last year by the Howard government because it could not quarantine the income of people on CDEP “wages” under its intervention policies.

Even in remote areas Labor says new CDEP participants will be paid income support (not “wages”), so they will not be exempt from the compulsory welfare quarantine.

The government’s proposed cuts to CDEP will dramatically affect Aboriginal communities across the board. One hundred and twenty Aboriginal people in the Illawarra Lands Council’s CDEP project are facing unemployment.

Despite winning a Merit Award at the recent NT Landcare Awards for their land management achievements, the Tjuwanpa Rangers from Hermannsburg, west of Alice Springs, face closure. Central Land Council director, David Ross, said the ranger group was set up after traditional owners called for more work opportunities for their young people.

“This group which once worked,” he said,”are now on work for the dole. They are embarrassed and humiliated.  They have to register with Centrelink…their hours restricted and their hard-earned income reduced and quarantined.”

Job losses

Labor’s pre-election promises are forgotten. Labor now maintains that their CDEP reforms are part of their national campaign to “close the gap” in employment between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. But NT Labor MP Warren Snowdon could only identify 200 federal and state government CDEP positions that might potentially become full time jobs.

In 2004, nationally there were nearly 40,000 participants in CDEP programs spread across 250 organisations, accounting for nearly a third of employed Aboriginal people.

Professor Jon Altman, the Director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University, argues that abolishing CDEP may actually see Indigenous unemployment double from its current rate of 14 per cent. He also points out that the government’s own review reported that 1300 people in the NT had found employment through CDEP, particularly in programs like Working on Country.

But facts are not about to get in the way of Labor implementing the intervention. The abolition of CDEP in non-remote areas like Alice Springs is part of the push to mainstream and disperse Aboriginal people and communities. There are indications, euphemistically called “mobility support”, in the government discussion paper, that even in remote areas, the reforms to CDEP will be used to push people out of their communities. Similarly the new employment programs in non-remote areas will require people to move to accept jobs.

The announcement by the NT government that they will no longer fund outstations fits neatly with the federal government proposal to cut off funds and services to communities declared to be “unviable”. The NT government has also announced that lessons will be taught in English for the first four hours at the NT’s nine bilingual schools.

But, Yananymul Mununggurr, Chief Executive Officer of Laynhapuy Homelands Association, in north-east Arnhem Land, told ABC radio last month, “… yes, we do have these small out-stations, or homelands, but governments should understand that those homelands are more to us, that we connect to the land, the land is our identity, our language and our culture…if you go out to the homelands now…you will get the message that we are not moving…”

By Jasmine Ali and Lauren Mellor

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