A Senate Committee report says the government's remote work-for-the-dole scheme is driving communities further into poverty and 'should not continue in its current form'
19 Dec 2017 - 2:25 PM  UPDATED 21 Dec 2017 - 11:41 AM

The Senate Inquiry report has called for a complete overhaul of the government's 'unfair' and 'discriminatory' Community Development Program (CDP), saying it is "causing real harm to people." 

Under the controversial scheme, remote job seekers are expected to work up to 25 hours per week - three times longer than city-based jobseekers to receive welfare. 

"The committee is of the view that CDP cannot and should not continue in its current form," the report states. 

"The evidence has shown that CDP is causing real harm to people engaged in CDP and the remote communities in which they live." 

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The report also states that at the heart of these issues are the harsh penalties being applied to participants.

Since the CDP began, in mid-2015, the number of financial penalties "applied to unemployed people in remote communities has risen rapidly as a result of non-attendance."

The nation's peak social security organisation backed up these findings. In a submission to the inquiry, the National Social Security Rights Network, said: "One of the main drivers of the current problems are the more onerous mutual obligation requirements which apply to CDP participants, compared to other job seekers nationally. As a result, penalties for failure to attend activities have skyrocketed under CDP." 

The senate inquiry made 22 recommendations, including; 

  • The immediate replacement of the current compliance and penalty system 
  • Reduction in the number of hours remote unemployed people must work 
  • Not penalising participants after 8 weeks if they repeatedly miss appointments
  • A Centrelink dedicated telephone hotline after complaints of long wait times; and  
  • The development of a new program in consultation with First Nations people so that people doing real work in their community can be properly paid 

The CDP employs around 35,000 participants, about 84 per cent of whom are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, often living in discrete remote communities or small outstations. 

Around a dozen Indigenous organisations made submissions to the inquiry many of which stated the CDP was 'confusing,' lacked consultation and 'was not wanted' in their community. 

The Tjuwanpa Outstation Resource Centre Aboriginal Corporation, which administers the CDP to some of its 37 outstations in the Western Aranda region in the Northern Territory, said the ability of the program to provide long-term solutions to joblessness is at the nub of the issue. 

"It is unrealistic to expect any program in itself to provide solutions to joblessness and to achieve appropriate social, economic and cultural outcomes," its submission read. 

The Corporation says the cycle of government programs is all too familiar. 

"Every time there is a change, community members tend to become less engaged in the process, anticipating that the current system will last only until the government changes the rules again. Each program lasts for as long as it takes to realise that it is not the “silver bullet” that was envisioned at the design phase. And the cycle repeats itself." 

Palm Island Mayor Alf Lacey put this question to the committee, asking what a future without change for these people and communities would look like. 

"Seriously, have a thought for those participants. Do they do CDP for the rest of their lives? Do their children do the next cycle coming through and do CDP for the rest of their lives?," he asked.  

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said the design of the CDP is 'flawed and often nonsensical." 

"People on income support in remote Australia were being fined for not showing up to hygiene classes and 3D printing training, it is farcical," she said. 

"As it stands, the CDP is extending poverty, not reducing it, that needs to be fixed." 

Government senators issued a dissenting report dismissing much of the report's negative portrayal of the consultation and community involvement of the CDP. But agree it presents an 'accurate appraisal of the social and economic challenges facing remote communities.' 

In a statement, Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion rejected the report as partisan and inaccurate. 

"Unfortunately, this report is another example of Labor’s approach to social policy - doing and saying what is needed to fend off Greens’ candidates in inner city seats rather than doing what remote communities want and need," he said. 

"Of the 46 organisations or individuals who appeared before the enquiry, only around 35 per cent were Indigenous organisations based in Community Development Program areas. Even more concerning, only one of the public hearings of the enquiry took place in a Community Development Program Area." 

Mr Scullion said the lack of direct feedback is reflected in the report's findings, which he says is based on anecdotal reports rather than proper evidence. 

"For example claims by Labor Senators that Indigenous communities will go hungry this Christmas despite there being no evidence of changes to the revenue of remote community stores." 

But Labor were 'deeply disappointed' with Minister Scullion's response. 

In a statement, Senators Jenny McAllister, Pat Dodson, Sue Lines and Malarndirri McCarthy said Mr Scullion’s response to the inquiry has been outrageously cynical.

"The Minister has claimed that only one of the public hearings of the inquiry took place in a Community Development Program Area," the statement read.  

The report states that three of the hearings took place in a CDP region including Alice Springs, Papunya and Palm Island. Kalgoorlie also sits within one of the regions impacted by the CDP.

"His response to the inquiry is insulting to all the organisations and individuals who gave substantial and significant evidence to the Senate Committee, telling of disrespectful consultation,  poor program design and unfair penalties that has led not to jobs, but to poverty, pain and hunger." 

On the same day, Senator Scullion released a discussion paper outlining three proposals for change; a new wage-based model, the CDP Reform Bill from 2015 and an improved version of current CDP. 

“The CDP has supported remote job seekers into over 21,000 jobs and overturned the failures of Labor’s Remote Jobs and Communities Program (RJCP) which saw attendance under the program drop to 6 per cent," Mr Scullion said.  

“However, more needs to be done to maintain the momentum to get people into work." 

Professor Jon Altman has been researching the government's remote work programs since 1977 when the Fraser Government's Department of Aboriginal Affairs introduced the Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) in remote communities.  

Mr Altman made a submission to the inquiry saying the program is an 'unmitigated disaster'.

"[It is] in clear contravention of decent human rights standards, it should end immediately," he told NITV News. 

"It is shameful that the Turnbull government plays politics with the lives and livelihoods of remote living Indigenous Australians in such a callous way, because they can and just so as not to lose face for presiding over probably the least successful program in the modern policy era."  

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