ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON NOTICE - Question No. 477

I rise also to speak to question on notice No. 477 in support of the statements by you, Madam Deputy President. It seems to me that the minister should not hide his talent under a bushel. He obviously has many things on his plate and he has great intentions, but in this place you actually have to translate that into written form by way of legislation or by way of policy and written documentation. So I would encourage the minister, with his best intentions—and I've had several discussions with him, and I know that he has the best intentions—to translate that into writing so that the rest of us can be privy to what we cannot perceive without him putting things in writing.

The issue of breaching rates and the way the CDP has been rolled out in these communities is a hugely significant one. Let us just look at what's happening in my state of Western Australia, as has been mentioned, particularly in the Ngaanyatjarra lands. The Ngaanyatjarra Council and Aboriginal Corporation represents the interests of around 2,000 Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Pintupi traditional owners who reside in the 12 member communities of the Ngaanyatjarra Council, the largest of which is Warburton. We've heard about Warburton today.

I've seen the impact of CDP and the way it has been rolled out on my visit to Warburton, and I know when the committee visits Kalgoorlie for the hearings we'll learn more. Warburton, the largest community in the Ngaanyatjarra lands, was established as a Christian community in 1934. Warburton is located 1,000 kilometres from the two nearest regional centres, Alice Springs in the Northern Territory and Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. Warburton has approximately 500 Aboriginal residents and more than 50 agency staff.

In a very clear submission from the Ngaanyatjarra Council to the Senate committee investigating the CDP they've said:

… the work done through the CDEP has been replaced by 'work for the dole'. This is not paid work but serves to establish and maintain entitlements to welfare benefits. The required number of hours has increased from 17 to 25, and the penalties for any breach of conditions (usually absences) can lead to a suspension of benefits lasting nearly two months.

The design of the CDP is explicitly based on an assumption that a regime of incentives and disincentives, if sufficiently punitive and applied over an extended period of time, will eventually teach Ngaanyatjarra people the value of regular work. History suggests there is no basis for this assumption. In practice, CDP requires adults to meet their income support obligations by undertaking work-like activities, often relatively meaningless tasks and under strict compliance arrangements. This is a hopeless vision of life on the Lands.

The chairman of the council, Mr Dereck Harris, wrote in his covering letter:

We now find ourselves in a situation where desert people cannot feed their families. People don't know what they can do to fix this problem. They feel frustrated and helpless. This is bad because people move to places that have a Centrelink office and many get into trouble when they're away from their own country.

The predecessor to the CDP program, the CDEP, was introduced into Warburton in 1979. It was not perfect, but it was adapted to the needs, interests and concerns of the community, as Ngaanyatjarra Council described it. The main advantage of CDEP was the flexibility it gave to community administrators. It was relatively easy to fill vacancies in the CDEP workforce, respond to emergencies, reprioritise jobs and so on. The strengths generally outweighed the weaknesses. In addition to funding municipal services, CDEP programs focused on housing renovations and maintenance that often occurred under the supervision of a non-Aboriginal tradesman that not only kept housing stock in order but provided practical on-the-job training. Workers were paid to assist in the development of outstations and infrastructure and work on restarting the cattle industry. Thus, five decades after the foundation of the mission, the CDEP program offered, for the first time, the possibility of full employment, albeit in circumstances and on terms that took account of some of the powerful cultural dynamics that characterise Ngaanyatjarra cultural and social relations.

The contrast of the present situation with the CDP program is stark and worrying. As Ngaanyatjarra Council again puts it:

Now, the communities in the Lands are forced to fit into a centralised welfare system where the administration of income support is the responsibility of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, the Department of Human Services and Centrelink. It is dependent on the use of the telephone and internet, unreliable technologies in remote locations, the failures of which place huge pressures on participants and the staff attempting to support them. The CDP and the Ngaanyajtarra Lands are a bad fit.

Not only has CDP destroyed the sense of agency among Ngaanyatjarras that had been fostered over decades, CDP threatens the very viability of the Ngaanyatjarra Lands communities.

These are extremely worrying concerns. The Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee is undertaking a hearing into the CDP program. We'll be hearing from community members and providers in Kalgoorlie, Alice Springs, Papunya, Townsville and Palm Island. We'll also be hearing from academics who have studied the ways in which this program has been rolled out across Australia. The submissions we have received are tending to emphasise the points that have been made already about the program by Ngaanyatjarra Council. This goes to the heart of what meaningful work looks like in our remote communities.

While the CDEP scheme of the past was not a perfect program, it provided some sense of meaningful work and contributed to local communities' development. It allowed for community access to surplus funds. This is sadly lacking in the way that the CDP was designed and is now being delivered. I'm hoping that the committee hearing process can point to a new direction for the rollout of work programs in remote communities. I'm hoping that any such reform program can deliver meaningful work, award-wages equivalence and the promotion of work entitlements such as superannuation and annual leave. I hope these are in the minds of the minister. The sooner we get clearly from the minister what he intends to do about this particular space we'll be better off, and those people who rely upon the services will also be better off.

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