How work for the dole is working

There are misleading, nonsensical and outright false claims regarding the CDP. The government’s reforms are increasing the role of CDP to drive economic participation in remote Indigenous communities. 

By Nyunggai Warren Mundine, Executive Director of the Australia of the Australian Indigenous Chamber of Commerce

For decades the Commonwealth government has structured unemployment benefits for Aboriginal people in remote and regional areas through the Community Development Programme (CDP). The program has taken different forms, structures and acronyms over the years but the core idea that in Indigenous communities community members participate in work activities to develop the community and culture in return for welfare benefits.

A few years ago I became Chairman of RISE Ventures which delivers the CDP across five remote regions. I spend a lot of time in remote Australia, both in my role for RISE and in other capacities. On average I’m in a remote community every month and I always meet with CDP providers and participants. In the last few years I’ve had one-on-one conversations with hundreds of participants and met hundreds more, as well as with providers representing thousands. I have a first hand understanding of how CDP is operating on the ground.

So it both perplexes and frustrates me when I continually hear misleading, nonsensical and outright false claims regarding the CDP, some of which are reaching hysterical levels. Recent criticisms from ACOSS that job seekers (including reports of pregnant women) are going without food for days at a time were not only completely unfounded but also an irresponsible misrepresentation of how the program is delivered.

The inconvenient reality for CDP critics is the program is making solid progress in getting participants off welfare and into work and keeping them actively engaged in their community. It has supported remote participants into more than 23,500 jobs since 1 July 2015. On more than 8,100 occasions these job seekers have stayed in a job for more than 26 weeks. Any period of economic participation is good but 26 week outcomes are the most important because the data shows once a person has been in a job for 26 weeks they’ll likely remain employed for life.

RISE works closely with communities to run activities that meet the needs of communities and prepare participants for jobs. And this is working. CDP participants are actively participating, with the engagement rate now over 74 per cent – up from as low as around seven per cent under predecessor programs.

I’ve been a critic of CDP approaches in the past because I believed they masked the true levels of unemployment in remote communities, fostered the pretence that people were doing real work and even discouraged entrepreneurship.

But government policy is now much more focussed on economic participation. A good CDP provider can structure activities to reflect real enterprise and fill gaps in local demand for real goods and services. CDP can and should be a platform for commercial enterprises that can be spun off as independently owned small or micro-businesses operating in the local community to generate jobs and real economies.

The Indigenous Business Sector Strategy announced in February will formally pilot CDP providers as small business incubators. This is a great initiative. CDP can be a platform to launch businesses to meet that demand, particularly in conjunction with the Vocational Training and Employment Centres (VTECs) which train people for a guaranteed job. The Government is also increasing the role for local organisations in CDP provision.

I also welcome the Government’s announcement to introduce reforms to further support welfare recipients into jobs, including subsidised wages for 6,000 jobs if filled by CDP participants. The aim of providing strong incentives to employ local job seekers is to grow the size and capacity of the remote labour market and support local businesses.

What I rarely hear these critics talk about is whether the CDP is moving people from welfare to work or equipping them to do that. They seem fine with the idea of CDP participants being on welfare indefinitely and don’t seem to care whether CDP is providing a pathway to real jobs.

We see this mindset across the board. In the current debate over the level of Newstart, for example, ACOSS and others have called for an increase in the rate of Newstart by $50 a week. They’re missing the point. Newstart isn’t supposed to be a living wage but a temporary payment until people get back on their feet. The real issue here isn’t the rate of Newstart. It’s that people are on it for far too long. What Newstart recipients need is a job.

ACOSS avoids this by peddling the lie there’s not enough jobs. Don’t believe them. From my close involvement with VTECs I know finding the job is the easy part. The hard part is readying welfare recipients for that job and keeping them in it for at least 26 weeks.

A lifetime of welfare is a lifetime of poverty. Loosening restrictions or increasing payments doesn’t fix that. The only way you can fix it is getting people into a job. Raise Newstart by $50 a week and recipients will still be poor. You could double the payment and they’d still be poor. They’d also be even more entrenched in welfare. If the welfare naysayers really cared about poverty they’d be bending over backwards to get people into work. Everyone in this sector should commit to moving people from welfare to work as the number one priority.

Those making false claims about the CDP don’t have a plan for economic participation for Indigenous people. They seem to want to go back to the “sit down money” approach that has plagued Indigenous communities in the past and is responsible for most of the socioeconomic dysfunction we see in those communities today.

Everyone I meet and speak to in remote Indigenous communities want locals participating in work or training that will lead to work. The government’s reforms are increasing the role of CDP to drive economic participation in remote Indigenous communities. If Labor, the Greens, ACOSS and other peak bodies were serious about creating real, lasting and meaningful change in remote Indigenous communities they’d support them.

Edited versions of this article appeared in the Australian Financial Review and the Koori Mail.

Nyunggai Warren Mundine AO is Chairman of Rise Ventures and Chairman and co-owner of Real Futures

@nyunggai

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Comments

  1. Rod McLean says:

    Well said Warren, and well done. Those who would perpetuate welfare dependence need this sort of exposure.

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