Academic journal article Journal of Australian Political Economy

Closing the Employment Gap through Work for the Dole? Indigenous Employment and the CDEP Scheme

Academic journal article Journal of Australian Political Economy

Closing the Employment Gap through Work for the Dole? Indigenous Employment and the CDEP Scheme

Article excerpt

The Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme has been a unique feature of the Indigenous employment landscape since the late 1970s. Radical for its time, and still almost unique globally, CDEP has sought to combine job creation, income support and community development goals. While there is evidence it has improved outcomes for some Indigenous Australians, in recent years it has been strongly criticised as a barrier to Indigenous participation in the mainstream (non-CDEP) labour market. Especially since the abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) in 2004, successive Commonwealth governments have progressively wound back the CDEP scheme, culminating in recent changes that may see it transformed from a community managed work program paying the rough equivalent of award wages into a 'work for the dole' program within the social security system. While the implications of these changes are strongly contested, this paper draws on fieldwork on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in remote South Australia to suggest that the unintended consequences may be a greater incidence of welfare passivity and reduced support for remote-living Aboriginal people to find non-CDEP work.

The article begins by introducing the CDEP scheme and its origins in the 1970s. Section two then briefly summarises the conflicting assessments of CDEP over the years, highlighting critics' concerns that the scheme has discouraged Indigenous engagement with alternative employment. In section three the article outlines a series of major changes to the program since 2007. Of particular importance here is that the changes to CDEP have often been portrayed by policy-makers as efforts to increase Indigenous participation in non-CDEP work. Section four identifies the current arrangements for CDEP which are seeing the progressive phasing out of CDEP wages. The next two sections turn to the specific case of CDEP on the APY Lands. Section five briefly outlines the history of CDEP in the region and the key operating procedures of the current CDEP provider. Section six then reports on primary research--including administrative data and interviews with Anangu (Aboriginal) people from the APY Lands--to provide some cautious reflections about the possible outcomes of phasing out CDEP wages. In particular, it suggests that this change may be creating a disincentive for Anangu to participate in the CDEP scheme and, contrary to the government's stated intent, undermining efforts to increase Anangu engagement with paid work. This raises complex questions about the role of CDEP, and other state-sponsored programs, in seeking to transform remote-living Aboriginal people into so-called 'responsible' wage-labourers. However, while the desirability of such a transformation can be debated, for the Anangu interviewed in this study the alternative to participation in CDEP or other waged work was invariably seen as destructive welfare dependency. For this reason, they were concerned that the current changes to CDEP would be detrimental to their communities.

The Community Development Employment Projects Scheme

The CDEP scheme is one of the most longstanding features of the Australian Indigenous policy landscape. It was introduced by the Fraser Government in 1977 as a creative response to a complex challenge--the potential for long-term welfare dependence in remote Aboriginal communities where the recent introduction of unemployment payments coincided with a lack of local jobs (Altman, 1997; Altman and Nieuwenhuysen, 1979; Sanders, 1988, 2004).

Its genesis is in the novel circumstances of the early 1970s in which the Whitlam Government had introduced two significant changes. One was the replacement of 'training allowances' with higher award wages for Aboriginal people in remote communities, with the unintended consequence of increasing Aboriginal unemployment (Altman, 1997:1-2). The other was the introduction of a policy guideline stating that remote-living Aboriginal people did not have to move to areas with more robust labour markets in order to demonstrate their availability for paid work. …

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