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Scathing evaluation enrages Indigenous Affairs Minister

A pair of researchers from the Australian National University have raised the ire of a federal minister for daring to declare one of his portfolio’s flagship policies a “disaster” without considering the government’s much rosier view of the situation.

Minister for Indigenous Affairs Nigel Scullion took the unusual step of firing off a press release this week to issue a strikingly negative critique of an academic report published by the ANU Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research.

The reason being the report itself is quite negative about the Community Development Programme (CDP), which replaced the Remote Jobs and Communities Programme and the longer-standing Community Development Employment Program in July last year.

“We’re getting reports of people going hungry and not able to feed their kids,” said the report’s editor and CAEPR research fellow Kirrily Jordan, in a statement announcing the new publication.

“In some places there are reduced store sales, a big increase in those falling behind in rent, people are unable to pay back fines which puts them at risk of imprisonment, and we’re hearing about increased tensions in communities because of conflicts about money.”

The CDP increased the number of working hours required for most people to receive unemployment benefits to to 25 hours a week, up from 15 under the CDEP, for at least 46 weeks of the year. Work-for-the-dole requirements for urban dwellers under the jobactive program are much less onerous, and apply for only about half of the year, the report points out.

The researchers claim these changes have led to serious issues for people living in remote communities, because having higher obligations means penalties are naturally much more likely. The report found 146,000 financial penalties were applied in 2015-16 to 34,000 participants under the CDP, compared to 104,000 penalties for about 750,000 jobactive participants. There are other issues too, according to Dr Jordan:

“In a lot of these places people don’t have reasonable access to Centrelink. There’s often very limited  internet and phone coverage, so people who want to contact Centrelink are sometimes having to use the one or two community phones, often lining up for days on end to try to talk to someone.

“Even once they do get through they often can’t understand each other, so people are being penalised unfairly.”

But Scullion hit back at Jordan and her co-author Lisa Fowkes with a fiery press release claiming their report was not backed up by “facts” because it was written “without any input from his office or department” and so did not include a glowing endorsement from the minister.

If they had done so, Scullion says he would have pointed out significant progress in “engagement and participation rates” with “more than 7000” CDP participants, or 22% of the total, volunteering for the “work-like activities” it involves.

The report reflects on these claims and shows Fowkes felt the figures from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet showing increased participation should be treated with “caution” as they are “due at least in part to an administrative change and a variation in what information is recorded”.

The minister asserts that ending the CDP would result in “a return to passive welfare and disengagement” in remote Aboriginal communities, whereas Jordan and Fowkes argue “an urgent rethink” and a “whole new policy” is required. Scullion adds:

“Under the CDP, 85% of eligible job seekers have been placed in work-like activities, up from 45%at the end of the Remote Jobs and Communities Programme (RJCP). The CDP has supported job seekers into more than 11,000 jobs and achieved more than 3600 26‑week employment outcomes for job seekers in remote communities.

“The rate of job seekers actively participating in the programme has increased from less than 7% in July 2015 to 62% in November 2016 – reversing the failed arrangements of the former RJCP that facilitated passive welfare at the expense of community engagement.”

Scullion said financial penalties deducted from CDP welfare payments “because of non-attendance at CDP work-for-the-dole activities” amounted to about 1% of the total $400 million that the government estimates it provides every quarter to remote communities under the CDP.

The minister denied the “mutual obligation requirements” for remote job seekers were any more demanding than for other job seekers and said some financial penalties were often waived so they did not cause “undue” hardship. Penalties that suspend payments for eight weeks had been waived in over 90% of cases, he said.

Scullion supports having local providers deliver the CDP welfare program instead of Centrelink, and claims this “would address many of the issues the authors of this report raise but fail to acknowledge” in the new report.

But Dr Jordan is adamant the CDP is bad policy. “We’re saying here that a number of experienced academics and representatives of Aboriginal organisations feel the scheme is a policy disaster and an affront to human rights,” she said.

“People living in remote Aboriginal communities often get characterised as living ‘dysfunctional’ lives, when CDP is a clear example of people trying their best and being undermined by dysfunctional government policy.”

“Work needs to start on designing a whole new program. It’s so flawed and broken that they need to go back to basics and this time collaborate properly with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations and design a scheme that will work in a remote context.”

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is the associate editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.