July 2019 Guest Speaker, Lara Watson

Lara acknowledged that we met on the country of the Ngunnawal and paid her respects to elders past and present. She herself is a Birri Gubba woman from central west Queensland.

Lara is the ACTU’s Indigenous Officer and has worked for two years with the ACTU’s First Nations Workers’ Alliance. She spoke about the federal government’s “Community Development Program” (CDP), a work-for-the-dole scheme which was launched by Tony Abbott in 2015. The CDP has its roots in the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) scheme, established in 2003, with similar programs running in remote communities since the 1970s.

The FNWA is an alliance of union members, trade unions and union-like organisations giving CDP people a voice. Lara reports the work of FNWA to the indigenous committee of the ACTU. So far it’s just her! She covers the whole country. She relies on national unions to get information out.

The CDP is the work-for-the-dole program which only operates in remote Indigenous communities, some regional towns with high Indigenous populations and is different from JobActive the work-for-the-dole program covering everywhere else. The CDP is a racist and disfunctional scheme. The worst aspect of it is the punitive measures in place for infractions of its rules. It features aggressive job provision services run by private Job Service Providers. 

Lara mentioned a case of a young bloke who was “breached” [i.e. in violation of the rules, so not paid] for eight weeks for refusing to operate a drop saw with no protective clothing or gear.  When you are breached for eight weeks you get no money coming, not even the social security payment that the rest of Australia can rely on if suddenly finding themselves out of work.

Dan Conifer’s coverage of all this has been brilliant, on the ABC.

4 October 2018: AM, on ABC radio: Sabra Lane interviewed Dan Conifer: He tells her that hundreds of dollars in fines are being dished out under the CDP scheme, and there are proportionately more fines issued in places with higher numbers of indigenous participants.
Dan Conifer: In Arnhem Land on average each person was issued 15 penalties last year, worsening poverty in some communities. The federal government is paying over $250 million a year to run the scheme.

The CDP participants are not considered “workers” so they have no access to union rights etc., and no legislative cover. So the FNWA acts as a union for them, and rolls out basic union training. By their third or fourth visit most people are very keen.

The government says 5,000 people have moved into full-time work, and 15,000 jobs have been created. But they’re only 13-26 week jobs, although these are counted as “full time”. CDP workers often don’t know that their jobs end so soon and are devastated to be told when the time is about to expire.

Before the Northern Territory Intervention, communities controlled their own councils. Today the Intervention still goes on, and people have no control of their lives, it’s very demoralising. People are hopeless in the face of this.

Warren Mundine [who stood for the federal seat of Gilmore for the Liberals in May 2019 but lost to Labor’s Fiona Phillips] is one of the architects of the CDP. Mundine’s job service company delivers the CDP program. [He stepped down as chairman of the company in February 2019 after a perceived conflict of interest.]

In the May election there were large swings to Labor in electorates with a lot of CDP program people. Voting is still a newish concept in the last several decades, and the FNWA takes these swings to indicate that people were voting to end the CDP.

Lara was impressed by the people she meets on her rounds (especially the aunties) who hope that the future is not polarised into black and white, but based on a sense of common humanity and the idea that what is good for one is good for all.

So, what can the Vintage Reds do? Lara asked people to share FNWA news in social media.

Update 14 May 2021: the CDP scheme has been scrapped, effective later this year. It will be replaced by a voluntary scheme, rather than this mandatory one.

From the Guardian, 13 May:

“The Morrison government has heard what communities & stakeholders have said about the CDP,” [the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken] Wyatt said. “This new program will be co-designed with Indigenous communities, CDP providers, key stakeholders, business, & state & territory governments to better fit the changing job market & meet the unique needs of job seekers in remote communities.”

The remote work-for-the-dole program has been called punitive & modern-day slavery by critics. The federal government’s own 2019 review found 36% of participants said their communities were worse off under the scheme.