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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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What seems to be happening here, is that the Department of Social Security is giving its fellow members of the Interdepartmental Working Party and the Commonwealth ministers to whom it is reporting a not-so-gentle lecture on the pitfalls of deviating from a rule-based social security system reflecting the legislation. The second major drawback is a beautiful circular argument, worthy of Joseph Heller and Catch 22 – if we use unemployment benefit entitlement to fund some employment for the beneficiaries, they will no longer be entitled to unemployment benefit, so we can’t. But the first major drawback is a much more substantial problem which reflects the fact that during the late 196Os and early 1970s the Department of Social Security did face a growing stream of Aboriginal applicants for unemployment benefits from remote areas, who did have a history of work and could demonstrate some willingness and capability of undertaking other suitable work (Sanders 1985). Judging some of these applicants ineligible, through various interpretations of the rules for unemployment benefit, the Department of Social Security had been accused of discrimination - and it could foresee more such accusations ahead if it agreed with the Minister and Department of Aboriginal Affairs to go down the path of using Aborigines’ unemployment benefits entitlements to fund Aboriginal employment. The Department of Social Security wanted nothing to do with this community grants idea.

Nugget Coombs must have been attuned to this intra-governmental dimension of the Aboriginal employment and unemployment issue in remote areas. As Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs in 1976 he would have had access to the Report of the Interdepartmental Working Party on Aboriginal Employment and he would have read it with at least the same sensitivity to issues of departmental differences of perspective as I remember reading it as new graduate interested in the inclusion of Aboriginal people in the social security system in the early 1980s and as I re-read it now. 4 As a consultant to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in early 1977, writing about employment and unemployment policy issues of critical relevance to the Pitjantjatjara Aborigines, Coombs was showing himself once again to be a fine practitioner of the bureaucratic arts of clarity and pragmatism in policy advice. Here he was advocating a new program and role for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, while studiously not even mentioning the objections to that program idea of the Department of Social Security. This was the tactical equivalent of advocating land rights for Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory based on traditional occupancy while not mentioning the implacable opposition to this idea of the Northern Territory Administration within Department of the Interior. Coombs knew all about the way in which government departments could become repositories of certain perspectives on the world, guardians of departmental lines which could not be easily shifted. Departments with different lines needed to be worked around as much as confronted by imaginative policy practitioners, such as Coombs.

Coombs success in 1977, with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Minister Viner, in obtaining the CDEP scheme against the resistance of the Department of Social Security, must have seemed easy compared to his earlier fight to obtain Aboriginal land rights based on traditional occupancy in the Northern Territory against the resistance of the Department of Interior. But it was, nonetheless, a strategic inter-organisational battle. The battle was hard to see if you just relied on Viner’s announcement of the CDEP scheme to the Commonwealth Parliament in May 1977, where the Minister for Social Security was warmly acknowledged as a co-establisher of the Interdepartmental Working Party on Aboriginal Employment whose 11 month old report was now being tabled in the Parliament, if anyone wanted to read it (Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates House of Representatives 26 May 1977, 1921). But of course the news of the day was what the government was doing in response to that report and this was, among other things, establishing ‘community development employment projects’, or CDEPs, for ‘Aboriginals who live in remote or separate communities where normal job opportunities are inadequate’ Admittedly I had a proclivity as young graduate for seeing interdepartmental conflict, having been trained at Sydney University in the late 1970s by two of the best scholars of Australian interdepartmental politics (Painter and Carey 1979). Their work drew on Nugget’s other major public service role in the mid1970s, as Chairman of the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration. So almost wherever you looked in Australian government administration in the 1970s and saw inter-departmental issues, you would also see the name of HC Coombs.

or, in another formulation, ‘who do not form part of the open labour market’ (Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates House of Representatives 26 May 1977, 1921-1922).

The ‘basic outline and guidelines’ for CDEPs which Viner tabled in the House of Representatives had that same beautiful dot –pointed policy style seen, for that one page, in Coombs’ The Pitjantjatjara Aborigines: A strategy for survival. This time four numbered dot points set out ‘Factors which led to the Development of the Program’, another four identified the ‘Objectives of the Pilot Program’ and then eleven more set out the ‘Guidelines’ (Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates House of Representatives 26 May 1977, 1922). The essence was the payment of grants to ‘Aboriginal community councils’, or even possibly ‘clan groups’ to ‘provide employment to unemployed members of an Aboriginal community’ in ‘projects… specifically requested by a community’.

The ‘employment to be undertaken’ was to be ‘agreed between the individual communities and the Department of Aboriginal Affairs’ but projects could include ‘economic ventures; town management activities; social advancement;

and environment improvement’. The amount of grants to communities ‘should not exceed the total entitlement of individual members to unemployment benefits as determined by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in consultation with the Department of Social Security’, though grants could also be made ‘for the purchase of materials and equipment required for the implementation of a particular project’. A participating community would be ‘encouraged to establish its own method of remuneration for its members’ provided ‘all unemployed community members’ were ‘given the opportunity to participate’ and anyone who did participate was ‘guaranteed a minimum income approximating his normal unemployment benefit entitlement’ (Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates House of Representatives 26 May 1977, 1922).

These last quoted phrases suggest to me that there was some attempt made to accommodate some of the Department of Social Security’s concerns that it would be charged with discrimination over the program, but it was very clear that this was to be a Department of Aboriginal Affairs program. The Department of Aboriginal Affairs was mentioned six times in the guidelines in relation to the amount of the grant, the type and implementation of employment projects, the remuneration of participants and the evaluation and monitoring of the ‘effectiveness’ of projects. Besides the one mention of the need to consult with the Department of Social Security over the amount of the basic grant, the other department mentioned once in the guidelines was the Department of

Employment and Industrial Relations which would:

provide/arrange vocational training to assist Aboriginals to participate in the project or where desired to obtain normal employment outside the community(Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates House of Representatives 26 May 1977, 1922).

CDEP was clearly a major win for the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and had Coombs’ imprint all over it. Minister Viner, in his covering speech to parliament, mentioned Coombs by name saying that he was presently ‘consulting with some communities to provide advice on projects’. 5 Viner also related CDEP to ‘the Government’s policy of encouraging Aboriginals to manage their own affairs’ and reinforced that each participating Aboriginal council would be ‘able to determine the projects it undertakes and how it allocates its labour’. But ‘to assist in the elimination of social problems within communities’ Viner noted that his department would be encouraging the inclusion of ‘youth activities’ and ‘alcoholic rehabilitation measures’ as well projects like ‘afforestation’ and ‘the destruction of pests’ which ‘improve the physical and social environment’(Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates House of Representatives 26 May 1977, 1921).

This amount of detail about the gestation and birth of CDEP may seem unnecessary naval gazing about the internal workings of government. What matters, I hear you say, is whether this program is a good idea or not. I disagree.

To understand and be effective in policy processes we need to attend to some of this intra-governmental detail. I am absolutely committed to the idea that talking generally of ‘the government’, or even worse ‘the state’, as an actor, as many people do even in universities, is very unhelpful for creating understanding. I think of government more as an arena or a stage, like Shakespeare’s world. The players or actors are, at one level, all individuals – and I have spoken of Nugget Coombs in this way. But I also think it does make sense to talk, at some level, of corporate actors. I could have told you the names of the individual members of the 1976 Interdepartmental Working Party on Aboriginal Employment. But we could then just have become lost in detail. These people were acting as members and representatives of their departments. So it seemed more important to tell how many committee members there were from each department and to relate this to the outcome of the process. For those of you whose memories are strained, there were three members of Working Party from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and one each from the departments of Social Security, Education and Employment and Industrial Relations. It seems that in crude arithmetic terms the Department of Aboriginal Affairs had three times as much interest in this Working Party as the other three departments and so the birth of a major new program for that organisation as an outcome of that Working Party should not have come as a complete surprise.

In helping the Department of Aboriginal Affairs obtain its desired new program, against the concerns and resistance of the Department of Social Security, Nugget Coombs was ironically going against his preferred administrative model Coombs published a second CRES working paper in 1977 on the application of CDEP to ‘five West Australian Aboriginal communities’, but this was not reproduced in his 1978 ANU press book (Coombs 1997).

of Commonwealth involvement in Indigenous affairs in which, to repeat an earlier quote, ‘almost all government departments’ should be involved and it was ‘undesirable’ that ‘responsibility be taken from them and entrusted to a single agency providing for all aspects of the needs of one group of Australians (Coombs 1978: 2). Perhaps CDEP was not going quite as far as providing for all the needs of Aborigines. But to the extent that it was, Coombs was showing himself once again, as in the case of Aboriginal land issues, to be the consummate policy pragmatist. Take what you can get from the circumstances within government. Don’t let your high-minded ideas and principles side-line you from the current action!

From Failure to Thrive to a Flourishing Adolescence Henceforth I will talk in much more general schematic terms about CDEP referring primarily to departments and other corporate actors, rather than individuals such as Coombs. In doing so, I move from the style of a historian more to one embraced by my home discipline of political science. I also move into the familiar governmental practice of referring to the main corporate departmental actors by their acronyms. DAA and DSS will become the players referred to initially, along with others later such as ATSIC, Centrelink, DEWR, FaHCSIA and DEEWR. Governments and oppositions associated with particular leaders may also occasionally be referred to as corporate actors to help us understand the course of events. But the idea of government in general, or worse still ‘the state’, as an actor will be studiously avoided.

Having given birth to its new program, DAA was next faced with the challenge of getting its child to thrive and grow. The dozen communities which were given CDEP during the first two years of the program’s existence seemed to like it well enough and many other communities were asking for it. But there were still some significant teething problems.

DAA did not have an open-ended annual budget for CDEP like DSS had for unemployment benefits. The CDEP budget simply allowed for a certain number of participants and if more than that turned up in the participating communities which happened virtually from day one - then DAA had a budgetary problem.

Either DAA told participating communities not to place on CDEP all those who turned up, which would encourage the parallel payment of unemployment benefits in communities, or it let communities put on more participants than budgeted for and let the money run out before the end of the financial year. The latter occurred in a number of participating communities in the first couple of years, leading late in these financial years either to some requests for additional

funding or to a phalanx of unemployment benefit applications (Sanders 1988:


Within government, DAA used this situation to argue that it should be given an open-ended budget for CDEP, like DSS had for unemployment benefits.

Another interdepartmental working party was set up at the initiative of DAA in 1980 to explore whether CDEP could be funded under the ‘special benefit’ provisions of the social security legislation. After two years of trying, this came to nought; more this time because of the objection of the Department of Finance than DSS (Sanders 1988: 41-2). As guardian of the public purse, Finance did not easily allow open-ended budget arrangements.

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