• Supervisor Jason Wanambi inspects a coffin made by local men at the Milingimbi Mens Shed in the Aboriginal community of Milingimbi, as part of the CDP launch (AAP)Source: AAP
Aboriginal people obliged to participate in group work for the dole activities will continue to have to attend the meetings, despite the devastating potential of spreading COVID-19 and mounting criticism for the NIAA to overturn the decision.
Shahni Wellington

17 Mar 2020 - 5:05 PM  UPDATED 17 Mar 2020 - 5:05 PM

Aboriginal people continue to be at risk of losing their welfare payments if they choose not to turn up for the work the dole program amidst the Coronavirus outbreak.

On Tuesday morning, The Guardian reported that a letter from the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) - which is the government department responsible for Aboriginal programs and policy - maintained that "mutual obligations" would stay in place for the Community Development Program (CDP).

There was speculation over Tuesday that the NIAA would overturn the obligations placed on CDP participants and make them exempt from obligations for 14 days, even without evidence of a medical certificate, with further plans to be made according to appropriate the health advice.

Some mutual obligations require 25 hours a week of activities to still receive their payment.

The letter to CDP providers, received on Monday according to The Guardian, explained that participants or areas affected by Coronavirus would be considered on a "case-by-case basis" or could contact Centrelink to discuss a “major personal crisis exemption”.

The NIAA confirmed on Tuesday afternoon that mutual obligations will remain in place.

A spokesperson for the agency told NITV in a statement that "mutual obligations apply to all Australians, not just Indigenous Australians and job seekers in remote areas."

The decision comes after a range of medical experts, including the Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy, identified Aboriginal communities to be some of the most vulnerable populations susceptible to Coronavirus.

NITV News has contacted the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, for comment.

Opposition pressure

Indigenous Labor representatives went on the front foot to criticise both the agency and the federal government on Tuesday. 

Senator for the Northern Territory, Malarndirri McCarthy, called on the Prime Minister and the Minister for Indigenous Australians to immediately suspend the program requirements during the global health crisis.

"We have had providers refuse to go and provide activities, refuse to go and do any kind of programs in our communities, and rightfully so, because they're concerned about their own staff.

"But what happens is that if those programs are not provided, then all of those 33,000 participants will be breached, there will be no funding, no money coming in... And it is not the ideal circumstance in a situation where there is already risk when people are wanting food and wanting to feel safe," said Ms McCarthy. 

Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, echoed the sentiments and said the government needed to prioritise the health of remote communities. 

“At a time when travel to remote communities is being restricted, it is completely inconsistent to force people to participate in group activities.

“This isn’t just about people who are ill or required to self-isolate, it’s about limiting risk for the whole community including those who are sick and older," Ms Burney said in a statement. 

“Many CDP activities are of questionable benefit at the best of times - and they should not be a justification for putting some of the sickest and most vulnerable people in Australia at risk.”

The Australian Greens also called for the suspension of mutual obligations under Centrelink programs, including Community Development Program, Work for the Dole and ParentsNext.

Coronavirus: 'Really think' before travelling to remote communities
The Northern Land Council has backed the NT government's decision to restrict non-essential travel to remote locations, while the state's health professionals have called for better distribution of information.

As of Tuesday afternoon, only people who have recently travelled from overseas or have been in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case and experienced symptoms within 14 days are advised to be tested.
If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor, don’t visit, or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.
If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.