It wasn’t long ago that Prime Minister Turnbull, like other Coalition leaders before him, expressed a commitment to working with Indigenous people, not doing things to them. The design and implementation of the current Community Development Program reveals his complete failure in delivering on that commitment.
A Senior Manager of an Indigenous Community Development program (CDP) recently commented:
“We are only in this program because it was forced on us – there was no alternative”.
Another CEO of an Indigenous CDP provider recalls… “When the CDP program first started, PM&C undertook to go and have community meetings to explain to community members what the program was all about. It never happened”.
With respect to building a genuine partnership in order to deliver an effective transition to CDP, the Prime Minister and his government has failed to deliver for some of the most vulnerable Aboriginal people across the country – the unemployed, their families and their communities.
A group of Australian senators recently called for an inquiry into the appropriateness and effectiveness of CDP and its terms of reference.
Such an enquiry into the current CDP must consider an immediate reset of the program’s agenda, design and execution.
The enquiry must hear directly from CDP participants and communities to create a new way forward. We must listen to community in order to develop a program that makes sense and helps, not a program that leaves people even more desperate and hopeless.
Communities across the Northern Territory and Western Australia have consistently raised their concerns about a system that has seen their people go into more debt, without food to feed their families, in rental arrears and struggling with a reporting process that excludes rather than includes.
There may not perhaps be a more compelling reflection on the program in its current state, than that of the Deputy Commissioner of WA Police, Stephen Brown.
It was in March this year, that Deputy Commissioner Brown told the national broadcaster about what he saw first-hand during one of his visits to the Ngaanyatjarra Lands in Western Australia. His description includes Aboriginal families fleeing their homes, going south and living on the streets of Kalgoorlie-Boulder. This distressing image coincides with the growing number of children in State care in that regional centre, which has risen by more than 50% (from about 100 to 150 in the past year).
Deputy Commissioner Brown also shared with the ABC that many children in the Nagaanyatjarra Lands are committing burglaries out of sheer desperation and poverty. This tragic outcome is not surprising when it’s found that the most substantial gap in the CDP program can be found in its lack of attention to youth.
Service providers have commented that heavy handed compliance strategies appear to be discouraging youth participation, with no incentives for young people to engage, and little flexibility to develop specific programs and initiatives to attract young people to the program.
In the first year of CDP, more than 146,000 financial penalties were applied to the income support payments of its approximately 34,000 participants. In contrast, the more than 750,000 participants in the equivalent program that operates in non-remote communities received just over 104,000 penalties.
Over a 1.5 year period between July 2015 and the end of 2016, an increased 201,651 financial penalties were applied to CDP participants. This includes over 45,000 ‘No Show No Pay’ Penalties for non-attendance at activities a growth from the previous quarter.
These figures reveal a simple message. CDP participants are struggling to access the program and there is clearly a problem with the process. There is, in sum, a system wide program failure that needs to be investigated immediately.
Remote and regional communities right across the country are asking for the current Community Development Programme to be replaced by a scheme that is place based and community driven. Communities and service providers working within them are asking for genuine partnerships with governments, employers and Indigenous led organisations to create real opportunities in remote communities that empower, rather than exploit.
While Work for the Dole is intended to be ‘work like’, it falls drastically short. Participants are paid at a rate far less than the award wage for similar tasks, and have none of the rights of workers in similar jobs.
People with disabilities are not receiving the assistance they need. Under CDP, poor assessment systems and lack of access to services mean that many people with significant disabilities, poor health and other limitations are being required to participate at a level beyond their capacity.
Under CDP, decision making is highly centralised in Canberra. Despite the involvement of many local Indigenous organisations in delivery, they are treated as arms of government that can be directed, rather than partners who should be consulted.
Remote and regional Australia deserves a program that moves us from short term to long term thinking. Aboriginal people have the right to a program that moves from being coercive to strengths based, from Canberra controlled to Indigenous led.
A wider cultural change needs to occur for us to make a meaningful and lasting difference in the lives of those Aboriginal people who are looking for work, or are trying to re-connect with employment programs despite the multitude of challenges they face. From top down, we need a program that involves decision making and input that values and respects the community that it is trying to help, and from the beginning.