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«Coombs’ Bastard Child: The Troubled Life of CDEP 2012 Nugget Coombs Memorial Lecture Wednesday 3 October 2012 Mal Nairn Auditorium, Casuarina ...»

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When Labor was elected to government in December 1972, Aboriginal land issues began to progress through the Woodward Royal Commission. But relations between Coombs and the new minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Gordon Bryant, were not easy. Labor and Bryant established a Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs, which as we have seen above was not Coombs preferred organisational model. Bryant also began moving towards a national elected Indigenous advisory body, while Coombs was much more focused on building up local and regional Indigenous organisations and leadership.

The two ministers with whom Coombs seems to have worked most cooperatively as Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs were in the last three years before his retirement from that position in December 1976: Labor’s second minister for Aboriginal Affairs from October 1973, Senator Jim Cavanagh and the first minister in the Fraser Coalition government, Ian Viner.

Cavanagh, as Coombs saw it, by agreeing to a charter for the Council, also began to respect its ‘independence’, while he also worked with ‘energy and dedication’ alongside it (Coombs 1978: 23). Viner in 1976, as Coombs saw it, had a much ‘changed basis’ of Coalition policies with which to work on the issues of Aboriginal identity, culture and land, which Coombs even suggested represented a ‘bipartisan consensus in the Federal Parliament on Aboriginal affairs’ (Coombs 1978:24). But Coombs also noted Viner’s ‘competence, concern for Aborigines and an untiring capacity for work’, all of which ‘made possible a cordial working and personal relationship’.

Writing of his nine years as Chairman of the Council, two years after he had

retired from the position, Coombs summed up the experience as follows:

It was doubly pleasing to us that the council was able to end its life, which in its political and administrative context had frequently been stormy, in so harmonious a manner and in the knowledge that a substantial degree of national consensus had been reached, at least on the political level.

Frequently the council had felt that its involvement in Aboriginal affairs had meant a constant stream of disappointments and frustrations interrupted only occasionally by minor achievements. Yet to look back over the period… is, I believe, to be convinced that real progress has been made. We may not have advanced far along the road towards a society in which Aboriginal Australians will receive the justice and respect to which they are entitled but the way ahead is clearer and the instruments of change gradually become more effective (Coombs 1978: 25).

From the Council to the Birth of CDEP I have dwelt on Coombs years as Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs not just out of historical interest, but because they reinforce perhaps the strongest theme of this lecture about the CDEP scheme; that, within government, organisation matters. Which department of government owns a program, and which does not, is of very great significance. There are, as Fin Crisp noted back in 1972, ‘ideals, ideas and policy-approaches’ which come to be ‘the departmental line’ of particular organisations within government and when these ‘clash’, the interdepartmental politics which ensues is ‘frequently very lively’ and also a process of ‘prolonged attrition’(Crisp 1972: 186, see also Painter and Carey 1979). This is a perfect brief summary of the history of CDEP from an intra-governmental perspective.

Within a month of finishing with the Council for Aboriginal Affairs, Nugget Coombs became involved in advocating for something like CDEP as a consultant for the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs, that organisation which he actually thought should not exist. As a newly appointed visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, Coombs undertook a study of The Pitjjantjatjara Aborigines which he subtitled A strategy for survival. Having described ‘The physical environment’ and ‘The spiritual environment’ of the Pitjanjatjara, Coombs turned to ‘The social environment’ and in particular to the role of ‘work’ in both ‘The central settlement’ and the newly emerging ‘Decentralised communities’. Coombs noted that particularly Pitjantjatjara men had been ‘encouraged to expect employment’ both during the ‘establishment period’ of decentralised communities and previously in the central settlements. However, ‘in the current year’, Coombs wrote, ‘funds for such work’ had ‘dried up’ and community advisers had become ‘active’ in ‘assisting Aborigines to apply for unemployment benefit’ (Coombs 1978: 202). Coombs noted that benefits were ‘in due course, usually received’ though frequently after delays, but that in ‘most communities Aborigines preferred to see their projects continued and to work part-time for wages’. However he also noted, in a somewhat contradictory vein, that ‘generally Aborigines have been content to accept the ‘sit-down’ money without working’ (Coombs 1978: 202).

Coombs referred to this complex of issues around work and unemployment payments as a ‘critical question’ on which policy ‘should be resolved promptly’.

He elaborated as follows:

While there does not appear to have been any general policy decision, the practice appears to be growing of endorsing applications for unemployment benefit from

Aborigines in these areas. The following aspects of the situation are relevant:

1. Unemployment benefit probably provides as much, if not more, income than Aborigines would earn from wages if work was freely available and they were able to choose freely between such work and unpaid leisure for their own pursuits.

2. Although work for wages is not now generally available a. There are socially important tasks to be undertaken of the special work projects type;

b. Aborigines could be trained to reduce the need for scarce and more expensive white employees.

3. Until recently unemployment benefit was not expected in most Pitjantjatjara communities.

4. It seems irrational to pay men to be idle when socially valuable works are being terminated.

I believe it would be rational and practical to solve this policy issue in the following


(a) periodically (quarterly) officers of the Department of Employment should visit Aboriginal communities in remote areas and assess, in consultation with the community and Department of Aboriginal Affairs, the employment prospects and the probable number of eligible unemployed;

(b) a grant should be made, through the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, to the community on a quarterly basis equivalent to the unemployment benefit which would have been received by those assessed as likely to be unemployed;

(c) the community should be authorised to use this grant to employ its members on approved work projects – on a basis which would provide them with an average of three or four days’ work a week;

(d) Aborigines from these communities should then be regarded as ineligible for unemployment benefit on the grounds that paid work is available to them within their own community;

(e) The Department of Aboriginal Affairs should supplement these employment grants to cover material and equipment costs for approved projects provided that a

reasonable contribution was made by the community to these costs (Coombs 1978:


There is so much worthy of note in this long quote from Coombs, written in February 1977 and first circulated as a Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies Working Paper.

First, note the numbered point style, the preferred policy advice style of public administrators and governments. This page of numbered point material was embedded in a document which was otherwise written in the flowing narrative style preferred by academics. Coombs evidently knew how to move between these two styles, and worlds, even in a single document.

Second, note the impeccable internal construction of the policy advice. A current emerging ‘practice’ is identified and a policy problem articulated; the newly-established but ‘irrational’ payment of unemployment benefits to Aboriginal people in remote areas. Then a solution is articulated which is both ‘rational and practical’; a ‘grant’ made to ‘the community on a quarterly basis equivalent to the unemployment benefit which would have been received by those assessed as likely to be unemployed’. Note here also the very precise, but slightly arcane, bureaucratic language.

Third, note the intended use of the quarterly grant to the community; to ‘employ its members’ on ‘approved work projects’ for ‘three or four days’ work a week’.

Fourth, note that government departments are identified and allocated particular foreshadowed roles. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs will make the basic grants and also supplementary ‘employment grants to cover material and equipment costs for approved projects’. The Department of Employment will ‘visit’ communities and, ‘in consultation with the community and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs’ will assess ‘the employment prospects and the probable number of eligible unemployed’. Knowing what I do about this issue and period, I am also struck that the Department of Social Security nowhere gets a mention. This, I argue, reflects Coombs finely honed skills in the bureaucratic arts.

Although he doesn’t tell us, when writing in February 1977, Coombs knew that in 1976 there had already been an interdepartmental working party report on Aboriginal employment which had, among its terms of reference, to ‘consider the impact of the payment of unemployment benefits to Aboriginals living as communities’, including any ‘unsatisfactory social problems’, and to recommend ‘any necessary changes’ (IWP on Aboriginal Employment 1976: v).

That working party had six named members, three of whom were from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and one each from the departments of Employment and Industrial Relations, Social Security and Education. The working party report estimated the current size of the ‘Aboriginal workforce’ in 1976 at 35,000, roughly 50 per cent of which was ‘currently unemployed’ (IWP on Aboriginal Employment 1976: 1).

In response to the particular term of reference about the impact of unemployment payments on ‘Aboriginals living as communities’, readers of the working party report were given a dot-pointed, three page history lesson on the original legislative exclusion of ‘Aboriginal natives’ from the provisions of the social security act and their legislative inclusion from 1959.

This it argued had presented the Department of Social Services, later Social Security, with a ‘dilemma’:

If it did not pay the pensions and benefits which were now freely available to Aboriginals it would leave itself open to charges of discrimination. On the other hand if it did pay there could be some serious social implications for which the Department would be criticised (IWP on Aboriginal Employment 1976: 26).

The history lesson continued by explaining that in the early 1960s, ‘as an interim measure’, Aboriginal pensioners in these communities were only paid ‘a small portion’ of their social security entitlement direct, while the remainder was paid to a third party on their behalf. This ‘procedure had overtones of the old policy of paternalism and discrimination’, so ‘progress towards full direct payment’ was promoted during the late 1960s; along with some further legislative change which in 1966 removed all references to Aborigines from the social security legislation. The potted history also noted that it was only since May 1973 that unemployment benefits were widely paid to ‘Aboriginals residing on missions and settlements’ as prior to that time applicants were only paid ‘if they were willing to accept work outside the mission or settlement and were taking active steps to obtain such work’ (IWP on Aboriginal Employment 1976: 27-28).

The ‘conclusions’ to be drawn from this history and two pages of tentative reflections on the ‘Impact of Payment of Unemployment Benefits to

Aboriginals’ living in communities were that:

The Department of Social Security is in a situation where it cannot refuse unemployment benefit to people who are qualified to receive it but when these people are Aboriginals, residing as communities in remote areas and for whom significant work may never become available, the payment of unemployment to them represents welfare of the worst kind – a handout which increases their dependency on others and undermines the application of the Government’s policy of self-management (IWP on Aboriginal Employment 1976: 31).

The ‘Working Party’s considered opinion’ was, therefore, that ‘the only real long term solution’ was the ‘creation of useful employment’ so that ‘a realistic application of the “work test” ’ could then be made to ‘Aboriginal applicants for unemployment benefit’ (IWP on Aboriginal Employment 1976: 31). To this end it recommended an effective doubling of an ‘Employment Development Scheme for Aboriginals’ run by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs from about $15m or $16m to $30m per annum (IWP on Aboriginal Employment 1976: 19-22).

On the specific idea that ‘unemployment benefit should be paid, not to the individual beneficiary but to the Community Council to be used to fund work projects, etc. within the community’, the interdepartmental working party report

identified ‘two major drawbacks’:

(a) charges of discrimination would be made against the Department of Social Security if an attempt were made to redirect payment of the unemployment benefit to the Community Council without the approval of individual beneficiaries within the community; and (b) employment funded by using unemployment benefit would disqualify the beneficiaries for further unemployment benefit in that they would no longer be unemployed (IWP on Aboriginal Employment 1976: 31-32).

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