Around the middle of 2016, disturbing data began to emerge about the impacts of Australian Government policy to tackle high rates of unemployment in remote communities.
The data showed the number of financial penalties being applied to unemployed people in remote Australia was increasing at an alarming rate. Those affected were participants in the Community Development Program (CDP), which commenced in July 2015. More than 80% of participants in CDP are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
Probably the most defining and controversial feature of CDP is its reliance on Work for the Dole, involving supervised, work-like activities. In CDP, if you’re aged 18-49, you must attend Work for the Dole for 5 hours every day, 25 hours every week, 46 weeks each year.
Work for the Dole isn’t unique to CDP, but the requirements are much more onerous and inflexible for participants than in non-remote areas.
So it came as no real surprise when the number of financial penalties being applied to participants rose rapidly because of non-attendance. CDP jobseekers represent fewer than 5% of the total group of jobseekers who are subject to income support penalties, but in the first 12 months of CDP they received 56% of all financial penalties, higher even than the number of penalties applied to non-remote job seekers in the mainstream jobactive program.
Another key factor driving the higher rate of penalties is the CDP funding model, which links payments to providers with participant attendance at Work for the Dole.
As you’d expect, such high rates of financial penalties are having negative impacts for individuals, their children and families, and for their communities more broadly. Reports have emerged of families going without food and reduced food sales.
It became clear that an alternative vision for remote employment services is needed. In August-September 2016, Jobs Australia ran a workshop with more than 30 stakeholder organisations, who were invited to identify the current challenges in CDP and imagine how things could be different and better. The principles for reform that emerged included:
Less onerous and fairer requirements, so most participants could meet them most of the time;
Simpler administrative requirements for participants and providers;
Participants having enough money to pay for necessities; and
Communities being empowered to make decisions about how the program operates locally.
At this stage Minister Scullion is refusing to acknowledge that there are too many financial penalties being applied through CDP, despite the alarming statistics. Instead he plans to reintroduce a Bill to Parliament that would see Centrelink functions transferred to CDP providers, which risks increasing the rate of penalties even higher. Any consultation that does occur is limited to discussions about tinkering with the existing program with a small group of hand-picked providers.
CDP is doing more harm than good. A new program is needed, developed through a genuine process of broad consultation and engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.