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Wednesday, 24 May 2006
Page: 217

Mr SNOWDON (5:49 PM) —I am pleased to be able to make a contribution to this debate. A major piece of legislation passed last year was a key element of the government’s major reforms to Welfare to Work, and of course what we have got here is a clean-up exercise. Whilst we oppose many of the government’s welfare changes, we will be supporting the Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Welfare to Work and Other Measures) (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2006. This debate does give me an opportunity to talk about a number of issues to do with welfare, Welfare to Work and welfare dependency.

I particularly want to talk about the impact of these changes and the broader changes which the government is proposing to make in relation to the administration of welfare payments to Aboriginal constituents of mine in the Northern Territory and elsewhere in Australia. Most importantly, I am concerned about the changes which the government proposes to make, and is making, to the Community Development Employment Projects scheme.

We hear a lot in this place about reciprocal responsibility, mutual responsibility—words which are used interchangeably here—and the need for people to do something and not get something for nothing but actually work when they receive a benefit. It is well worth pointing out to this chamber, and indeed the other place if they actually listen, that Indigenous Australians were well in advance of the rest of the population when it came to the issue of mutual obligation. I do not think that is understood by this community; it is certainly not understood by this parliament.

Those of us who have had any long-term engagement with these issues will know, as I do, that CDEP was first introduced in 1977. I want to refer to a departmental document from 1979. This document talks about the nature of CDEP and the fact that the principles for CDEP emerged from discussions with Indigenous communities particularly in remote parts of the Northern Territory. The first CDEP scheme was at Barunga, just outside of Katherine, and then in the Pitjantjatjara homelands area of South Australia, an area that I started to work in in 1978. One of the first jobs I had to do was to look at the way in which the CDEP scheme was operating and review its operation and see what was happening in relation to those communities. We need to bear in mind what the scheme was created for. The departmental document says that the CDEP was:

... to respond to specific requests from communities for an alternative to unemployment benefits by paying for work done with a view to reducing socially deleterious effects of unemployment benefits particularly in remote communities.

If I were to put that in the context of this current debate and say that Indigenous Australians had come up with a program to do exactly that, I think that I would be cheered. I can imagine the rationalists on the other side of the chamber saying, ‘Goodness, they agree with us!’ We know that Indigenous people were prepared to make those sacrifices, those undertakings, those agreements with the community to work in exchange for receiving a benefit as far back as 1977. What we have seen recently is a demonisation of these people for being on CDEP. It is true that CDEP in part has changed over the years. Initially it was directed, as I said earlier, to remote communities. It changed in the eighties and the early nineties when, in a period of reasonably high unemployment, it became attractive for people in urban communities as an alternative to unemployment benefits when they could not find a job. I would have thought that that was a very laudable and commendable approach to be adopted by a community.

What we have seen recently is rhetoric coming from the government and others that there has been welfare dependency building up as a result of people being on CDEP. Bearing in mind, and I particularly want to address my remarks to communities in remote parts of Australia, the nature of the labour markets in those communities where there are no other options, when people go to the community and say, ‘I want to exchange work for a benefit’—in other words, they want to do something productive for the community and for themselves—I would have thought that that is far from being welfare dependent. That is actually part of the mutual obligation exercise that the government wants us to understand and which, of course, was part of what the Labor Party did in 1995 and 1996 when it introduced the concept of mutual obligation into the administration of other benefits.

In the case of CDEP, it was clear that the Indigenous community was well in advance of the rest of the Australian population when talking about working in exchange for a benefit. What we are seeing now is an argument being developed that the CDEP is about welfare dependency. What it is about in fact is people exchanging their labour for a benefit. Clearly, there are now issues with the nature of the labour markets in metropolitan areas about whether or not CDEP is operating effectively and appropriately and whether it should continue to operate. That is a valid discussion. But it is certainly not a valid discussion when it pertains to those people who live in remote areas.

We understand, when we look at the nature of those small area labour markets, that work options apart from CDEP are all but nonexistent. They are all but nonexistent for a range of reasons, but primary among those reasons is, of course, the lack of a private job market and, importantly, where jobs do exist, the lack of skills—the lack of skills comes from a lack of education, which in many parts of Australia, and certainly in the Northern Territory, has been a result of deliberate government action. Between 1978 and 2001, the conservatives in the Northern Territory government, who ran the Northern Territory for that period of time, deliberately chose not to invest in secondary education in bush communities for Aboriginal kids. You cannot believe it, but it is true. We are currently, I suspect, left with somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 young people between the ages of 13 and 18 who have had no access to any secondary education services. If you compound that by looking at a generation ahead, you can say that we are looking at tens of thousands, prospectively, who have no access to educational opportunity.

If you do not have access to educational opportunity and you go out looking for a job in the broader labour market then it is very likely that you are going to find it very difficult to get one. If you are lucky enough to get an interview and someone asks to test your skills base and you cannot read and write then it is very unlikely that you are going to succeed. Of course, if the prospective employer says, ‘Hang on, why don’t you go and do a pre-trade training course and come back and we will give you the job and even train you,’ they find that these poor, unfortunate individuals do not have the skills base necessary to get into the training course, because there are prerequisites and their skills are not sufficient.

We in this community have to come to terms with a couple of things. One is that, where people indicate their desire to work, as these Indigenous people have done, and they are prepared to do it in exchange for a benefit paid to them by the government, we should not, as a result of them doing that—by passing the work test by being categorised as being employed as a result of being on CDEP—blame them for being on CDEP. What we should say to them is, ‘We want you to move beyond CDEP and get into the broader labour market.’ We found that, in 1995 and 1996, when the previous Labor government had articulated training programs through New Work Opportunities and a whole range of other programs which were introduced during that period, CDEP participants were able to access all of those programs and move out of CDEP and, if they were able to acquire new skills, get into other jobs.

That all changed in 1996 with the election of the Howard government. All of a sudden, the access that people once had to the broader training programs that were operating within the education and workplace area were no longer available to them, partly because the government cut them. They no longer existed. We are now left with the situation where people are finding it very difficult to get jobs outside these programs. What is happening in many parts of Australia is that these CDEPs actually do provide a capacity to train people and provide them with opportunities to get into the broader labour market.

I know the Minister for Workforce Participation, who is sitting at the table, happened to be at Maningrida last week and she met with probably the most successful CDEP operation in the Northern Territory at Bawinanga that employs over 600 people. It has an income of $25 million—$10 million as a result of CDEP transfers from the Commonwealth and $16 million from enterprise development. That is based on the fact that this community, in this case Bawinanga, a corporation at Maningrida, has decided that what it wants to do is create opportunities for people—a very good thing to do. Yet we hear people being pilloried in a general sense for being welfare dependent. Of course, what they are doing is looking for opportunities. And this happens not only at Bawinanga but at other places across Northern Australia. We should not blame people for being on CDEP; we should say that maybe there are deficiencies in some CDEP operations. We might say that the labour market is very restrictive in some areas because of the nature of the local economy, but we should not blame people for being there. And we should not blame people for being on CDEP. We should see CDEP as a possibility for people. In the case of Bawinanga, as I am sure the minister now knows as a result of her visit: no work, no pay. If you do not turn up to work, you do not get paid. These are people who would otherwise be on the Newstart allowance. They volunteer to go on CDEP and accept the conditions—if they do not turn up to work they do not get paid. Can you imagine how many people in this parliament would do that?

When we are talking about change we need to understand that the government’s proposal to change, in this case, CDEP has long-term implications for the potential of people to get gainful employment both within the CDEP programs and without. I have always argued, since being in this place, that because of the nature of these small area labour markets you could see CDEP as providing the basis, the core, of the labour market within those communities and it was quite appropriate for people to do different jobs within the CDEP—in other words, they might start as a truck driver but end up acquiring new skills and managing a workshop. If the CDEP is able to impart those skills through workplace training, as it does in many places, and people are able to move up the employment scale within the CDEP, they should be commended for it.

Instead, what we see is people being pilloried. And we are now seeing changes introduced by the government which come into play on 1 July this year to change CDEP. There are around Australia 32,000 participants on CDEP. We know that some of the key changes which the government proposes to implement are that new CDEP participants aged 20 or under will be paid a youth rate consistent with the independent rate of the youth allowance. This will provide an improved incentive for young Indigenous people to complete their education—so say the government. I wonder. There will be many in this position in remote communities who not only will be not able to complete their education because they will not have an educational opportunity to take up but will also have dependants—some of them. Participants in CDEP urban and regional centres will be required to register with a Job Network member. New CDEP participants in urban and regional centres will be limited to 52 weeks—one year—participation to ensure CDEP becomes a stepping stone to real jobs. Selected high-performance CDEP organisations will be offered options for extended funding agreements for an additional year and relevant organisations will be notified prior to the 2006-07 submissions process and, reinforcing that, full-time students in receipt of Abstudy living allowances or other living allowances are not eligible to participate in CDEP.

What we need to understand about these changes, and others, is that the stakeholders were not involved in the deliberations. There was no informed process of discussion or consultation. The changes have been distributed by fiat by the federal government. I know that there is a great deal of concern. In fact, there was a meeting in Adelaide on Monday of last week where 66 CDEP organisations were represented and attended. I noted that there were some DEWR representatives there. In the same week, the Southern Barkley Aboriginal Corporation had a meeting at the policemen’s waterhole south of Tennant Creek. That is a four-hour drive out of Alice Springs and about a two-hour drive south-east of Katherine. These are remote communities. They had a meeting about these issues, and there were grave concerns expressed.

People from various communities across the Top End have talked to me. In particular, I am very grateful to the Kunbarllanjnja Community Government Council for the work that they did in responding to a questionnaire that I put to them about the changes in CDEP and how they would be affected. Kunbarllanjnja is an inland community about 250 kilometres outside of Darwin, just in Arnhem Land. One concern that has been highlighted is the burden which is going to be placed upon these communities. One of the guidelines requires CDEP organisations to develop plans with participants, who are not subject to compulsory Job Network registration, to identify the participants’ level of work readiness and set out a plan to move them into non-CDEP employment. The requirement for this particular guideline is, I have been advised, an additional burden for the CDEP staff to help all participants—some with severe literacy difficulties—to complete one of these reports.

The guidelines also say that the plan must outline what assistance and support the CDEP organisation will provide the participants. Understand that in these remote communities there are no training providers, there are no high schools. So who are they going to engage to improve the skill levels of these participants? How are they going to be resourced to ensure that they can provide the training that the government will now require them to provide? These communities want a clear explanation from DEWR as to the level and type of support that is expected of them.

Another requirement is that, wherever possible, young people should complete their education and be in a position to accept non-CDEP training and work opportunities. I wonder what happens in the minds of these bureaucrats. What do they understand of the communities they are dealing with? What do they understand about the educational attainment levels of these communities? What do we know about Kunbarllanjnja? We know that they do not have a high school. What we know about Maningrida, where Bawinanga is, is that they have had a high school only for the last 18 months. This serves a community of 2,500 people. By the way, Cyclone Monica demolished part of the school. We did not see the Commonwealth put truckloads of money in, as they did with Cyclone Larry. They put in $380-odd million as a result of Cyclone Larry and not a brass razoo into the Northern Territory as a result of Cyclone Monica. But that is by the way. This community was very adversely affected.

What we need to appreciate, and this is a point that I continue to make and will drive home as often as I possibly can, is that people should not be demonised for being participants in CDEP. People need to comprehend and understand the origins of this program. We need to appreciate that this was initially an exercise where Indigenous people said to the government: ‘We’re aware of the socially deleterious effects of unemployment benefits. We want our community to work.’ So when we are talking about remote communities—and there has been a lot of discussion about remote communities in the last couple of days—we need to understand that the people in remote communities who are on CDEP have done something which other Australians dared not do until it was imposed upon them by this government. They dared not do it, but these Indigenous Australians came to the government and said, ‘We will work in exchange for our benefits.’ I will raise this matter again at a future time. (Time expired)