Cape York Institute (CYI) shares the Commonwealth Government’s commitment to abolishing the Community Development Program (CDP) and welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Remote Engagement Program discussion paper.
To prosper, Indigenous Australians must have the opportunity to be a part of the national and global economy, powered by real jobs and a strong and agile workforce. For the past 40 years, successive governments have focused on “reforming” the welfare system rather than addressing the single most important barrier to employment: the paucity of waged jobs in remote Indigenous communities. The ineffectiveness of this approach is now apparent. The Indigenous employment rate increased only slightly from 48.2 per cent to 49.1 per cent between 2008-2018/19 compared to 75% for the non-Indigenous population. During this time, the target to halve the gap in employment outcomes within a decade was not met in any state or territory and in all jurisdictions (except for the Northern Territory and New South Wales) Indigenous employment declined (Closing the Gap Report, 2020)
CYI is concerned that the proposed Remote Engagement Program will tweak CDP rather than overhaul
it. The Discussion Paper barely mentions real jobs and instead focuses on preparing people for jobs
through “work like activities”, “training” and “work experience”. This approach is not new. It has failed
to lead to improved employment outcomes for over fifty years and we shouldn’t expect any different
this time around.
If we really want to improve employment outcomes in remote communities, we must shift away from
“employment programs” to actual employment. Until we do this, Indigenous people will continue to
make up a disproportionate amount of Australia’s underclass, with little hope of moving upwards
through sustained effort.
Why Employment Programs Fail
Architects of employment and community development programs have long embraced the simplistic
view that high unemployment in remote Australia is an entrenched behaviour that can be modified
through a blend of incentives and obligations. The chain of employment and community development
programs (from CDEP to CDP) have focused solely on “moving” people out of welfare with no flight path or destination in sight.
As a result, employment outcomes in remote Indigenous communities have barely improved since
2008, whilst the cost of administering programs like CDP have ballooned to $291 million (Zaines et al.,
2021). Ten years on and six successive employment programs later, a mere 35% of remote Indigenous
people are employed in real jobs. Not only is the gap in employment outcomes between Indigenous
and non-Indigenous Australians widening, decades of revisiting the same ineffective programs have
failed generations of remote Indigenous Australians, and the economic, social, and human cost is dire.
Community Development Engagement Program (CDEP)
Although CDEP offered award wages, it remained a de-facto work-for-the-dole program (Norris, 2001);
and an estimated one-fifth of the entire Indigenous workforce was employed underneath it in
government engineered part-time jobs (Hunter & Taylor, 2001).
This artificial economy stifled opportunities for local entrepreneurship and economic investment by
providing a cheap workforce to the many government services and agencies in remote communities.
Further, the program did not support mobility, denying participants the basic benefits of mainstream
employment (Cape York Institute, 2007).
The decision in 2007 to replace wage-payments with employment benefits (managed through
Centrelink) further entrenched participants in compliance-centred work-for-the-dole programs without
providing real jobs.
Job Network introduced active competition between employment providers, hoping to stimulate the
creation and take up of job opportunities, but it too failed to improve employment outcomes and was
quickly replaced by the Rudd Government’s version of the same work for the dole scheme: Job Services
Australia (JSA). This political experiment then continued with the creation of the short-lived Remote Jobs Communities Programme (RCJP) in 2013.
Remote Jobs Communities Program (RCJP)
RJCP represented an ideological shift from solely addressing sit-down welfare (the key concern under
CDEP) to a more progressive focus on improving Indigenous economic engagement and employment
Theoretically, the reforms were a positive step: locally driven, outcomes-focused and a ‘doing away’
with the old regime of ‘training for training's sake’ and perpetual dependency on work-for-the-dole
‘solutions’ to Indigenous unemployment and economic disengagement.
However, the 2013 federal election caused the pendulum to swing back towards a simplistic
behaviourist approach to ending ‘sit-down welfare’, involving more sticks than carrots, which
represented another missed opportunity to tackle the root cause of unemployment in remote
community: a lack of real jobs.
Community Development Program (CDP)
The introduction of CDP in 2015 resulted in the Commonwealth Government doubling program
spending (from $5000 to $10 000 per person or $1.6bn over four years) without a commensurate
increase in employment outcomes (National Audit Office, 2017).
The budget for mentoring and well-being was removed, and providers were incentivised to keep
jobseekers in activities rather than employment. The programs detrimental effects are well
documented, with research confirming that CDP fails to offer activities that lead to real jobs and that
many providers offer irrelevant training such as 3D printing courses, confined spaces training and art
classes that will never lead to real jobs (Many Pathways Report, 2019).
The staggering failure of successive government programs to create real job opportunities and provide
a stable economic floor calls for the development of policy approaches to passive welfare that allow
Indigenous people to fully participate in the Australian and global economy.
Remote Engagement Program Response
Since 1977, there has been some type of employment program in remote communities, none of have
lifted the real employment rate. The introduction of these employment programs coincided with a shift
in national policy away from full employment towards a natural rate of unemployment of around 5%.
This shift not only dislocated Indigenous people from the mainstream economy but created a growing
underclass of long-term unemployed and underemployed across Australia. The disastrous results have
been borne out in Cape York with communities experiencing an unemployment rate of around 70%.
The lack of jobs is in part due to a lack of Government investment in land tenure reform, infrastructure,
local procurement strategies and quality education which would increase private sector investment.
However, the biggest contributor is the Government’s reluctance to use its fiscal capacity to create jobs
where the private market has failed.
To make matters worse, communities have been flooded by passive government services; the most
deleterious being passive welfare. The predominance of this approach has eroded people’s capabilities
and confidence to the point where they either can’t compete for the small number of jobs on offer or
are seen as too risky to employ. This situation has been exacerbated by work for the dole programs that
do little to secure full time-employment.
Given the lack of a jobs market in most remote communities it is essential that Government use its
fiscal capacity to fund real jobs. Until we do this, the situation will not change in remote communities.
As outlined by Minister Wyatt in the Remote Engagement discussion Paper, governments have ‘adopted numerous approaches over many decades to address unemployment in remote Australia and found that ‘what works in cities and densely populated regions does not work everywhere’.
The problem we need to confront is Government’s obsession with funding employment programs instead of creating real jobs. This policy choice reduced productivity across Australia and led to devastating social consequences including crime, violence, mental health problems, addiction and hopelessness.
The Closing the Gap agreement commits Governments to giving Indigenous peoples a greater say in how programs and services are delivered to their people. The Commonwealth Government needs to uphold this principle by funding and creating real jobs in partnership with local communities. No amount of tweaking with CDP will fix the current problems. Instead, CDP must be overhauled in a way that:
- Empowers people, increases individual agency and responsibility and participation in the community,
- Builds regional and local indigenous authority and ensures Indigenous leadership and shared decision-making,
- Provides entry level local jobs that are meaningful and effective in a remote context where labour markets are thin,
- Ensures EC leaders, regions and local leaders are engaged in co-design and decision-making right from the commencement of the design process and at all key points and levels during (1) the national policy and program design and (2) the regional and local procurement and implementation of the Remote Engagement Strategy,
- Builds the right wage and system incentives for people to be in jobs, training or education with secure financial support and management involving our people exercising their agency and responsibilities,
- Articulation of these jobs into, or provision of alternative full-time pathways into jobs, or orbiting pathways into external based job opportunities and back into our communities to replace non-Indigenous people,
- Deliver services in an integrated way that provides capability building and empowerment among our people, e.g., education and training and wraparound services,
- Incentives and case management services to tackle social dysfunction, tackle domestic and family violence and wraparound supports to address intergenerational trauma and dysfunction,
- A jointly designed monitoring, evaluation and adaptive learning framework that measures job and social and economic development outcomes and success as well as participation and outputs, and
- Independent oversight of a future RES to ensure it is geared to success (Empowered
If the Commonwealth Government is serious about Closing the Gap it must start with guaranteeing jobs to the structurally unemployed. We must recognise that employment is the foundation stone of functional communities and the starting point for successful reform. As Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen observed “poverty is the depravation of opportunity”, and so the starting point to overcoming poverty is guaranteeing people the opportunity of a job.