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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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Yet another interdepartmental committee initiated by DAA in late 1982 then started examining the expansion of CDEP in its existing administrative and budgetary form; no longer so clearly as an alternative to any unemployment benefit payments in communities but rather accepting a degree of parallel payment (Sanders 1988: 42-3). There had also been some other refinement of CDEP by this time, such as settling on 15-16 hours work per week, rather than the three or four days which Coombs had originally suggested. This equated to paying the equivalent of unemployment benefits at a basic hourly award rate.

This kept the Australian Council of Trade Unions on side, some of whose members had, along with members of the Labor Opposition, worried that CDEP might be a way back to paying under-award wages to Aboriginal people (Sanders 1988: 37).

By early 1983, about the time of the election of the Hawke Labor government, the various interests arrayed around CDEP, both within and outside government, had come to an agreement that it could be allowed to expand: in its existing budgetary and administrative form, alongside unemployment benefits payments rather than totally replacing them. Over the next four years the number of communities and participants involved in CDEP doubled and doubled again, up to around 60 communities, 6,000 participants and 10 per cent of the budget of the DAA. In Shakespearian terms, the infant, ‘mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms’ while failing to thrive, had become the young school child, healthy and ‘with shining morning face’, even if still a little inclined to whine while ‘creeping… unwillingly to school’ (As You Like It Act II, Scene VII) I do not propose to take this Shakespearian metaphor too far, for next comes the lover ‘sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad made to his mistress’ eyebrow’ and I don’t think CDEP was ever that. But CDEP did have a flourishing adolescence in the late 1980s and early 1990s in which it started to venture away from its home in remote areas out into the regional and urban areas of Australia. This followed a review of Aboriginal Employment and Training Programs undertaken in 1985 by a committee chaired by the prominent north Queensland Aboriginal, Mick Miller, of which Nugget Coombs was also a member (Miller et al 1985). 6 The Hawke Government’s response to this review in 1987 allowed CDEP to be expanded beyond ‘discrete Aboriginal townships and settlements in remote areas’ into ‘small multi-racial settlements in remote

areas’ and ‘town camps outside of remote areas’ (Australian Government 1987:

6). The geographic spread of CDEP was now licensed, even if somewhat provisionally. With ongoing pressure from various Aboriginal communities, this was more than enough. By 1988/89 CDEP had reached coastal towns in New South Wales and Victoria and by 1990/ 91 it had reached Redfern in the heart of Sydney. By 1992 CDEP was in no less than 220 participating locations Australia-wide, with 22,000 participants and accounted for one-third of the budget of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which had inherited the scheme from the DAA during 1990 (see Sanders 1993).

The Troubles of Big City, Adult Life Once this flourishing adolescence had taken CDEP to the cities and larger regional towns, a new form of criticism started to emerge; complaints to the Race Discrimination Commissioner within the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission from Aboriginal people in urban areas who were used to receiving concessions, rent assistance and other add-on fringe benefits as part of their status as benefit recipients within the social security system. CDEP did not allow them to qualify for these, even though it was presented to them as the equivalent of working for their social security entitlement. So the question arose; since CDEP was just for Aboriginal people, was this lack of eligibility for add-on benefits racial discrimination? (see Sanders 1997a).

CDEP had in fact, for the first 15 years of its existence, been more of a notional equivalent to social security payments rather than a formally recognised one.

This related back to the DSS’s resistance to the program in the 1976 Interdepartmental Working Party on Aboriginal Employment. Social Security’s officers were there foreshadowing precisely the sorts of accusations of discrimination that, fifteen years later, were occurring as CDEP had spread to cities and regional towns. But it was not just this geographic spread which had led to these accusations. In 1991 there had also been a change to the Social Security Act which had rather indirectly started to recognise CDEP as the formal equivalent of a social security payment; or, as I put it in another paper at the time, as falling on the welfare side of a welfare/work divide in Australian social policy (Sanders 1997b).

When the Race Discrimination Commissioner did eventually, in late 1997, publish a report on these issues, she fell short of arguing that CDEP was racially Nugget also published another work in 1983 which had more commentary on CDEP. See Coombs, HC, Brandl, MM and Snowdon WE, 1983: 255-276.

discriminatory. However she did argue that there was a significant ‘lack of consistency in the treatment of CDEP participants’ by government departments and that this required ‘urgent attention’. She ‘urged’ the government to consider treating CDEP participants consistently as ‘ordinary wage earners’ (Antonios 1997: ix). But she also noted the introduction during 1997 of a general Work for the Dole scheme, which could ‘be a source of competition for CDEP’ and on which participants clearly remained as social security recipients rather than wage earners (Antonios 1997: 22-3, 52-3). In the event it was this latter observation and development that was drawn on by ATSIC and DSS when responding to the Race Discrimination Commissioner’s report.

In the lead up to the 1998 budget these two Commonwealth organisations, ATSIC and DSS, developed the idea that CDEP participants could be paid the Work for the Dole Supplement of $20.80 per fortnight by the social security system, at the same time as receiving wages from their CDEP provider. To this tiny social security payment could also then be added any other entitlements, like rent assistance or health care cards, because CDEP participants would now have individual customer reference numbers within the social security system.

This change, announced in the 1998 budget, was a very important shift in which the social security system began taking some ownership of the CDEP scheme. It was the point at which CDEP became the legitimate recognised progeny of two Commonwealth government organisations, rather than just the bastard child of HC Coombs and one. Acknowledging parentage of the CDEP scheme had become acceptable to the DSS because it could no longer be so easily accused of discrimination; other Australians were now working for their unemployment benefits, so this was no longer an idea just being applied to Indigenous Australians.

A Changing Organisational Environment My dominant theme in this history of CDEP is that administering agency matters. Different government organisations work in very different ways and allocating programs to them has major consequences for the way in which those programs play out. The DAA predominantly worked on the world by funding Indigenous community organisations and so, in its wake, did ATSIC. This was how these two Commonwealth organisations ran CDEP because this was what they knew how to do. They did not have the capacity or the inclination to become highly involved in the individualised administration of participants within CDEP. They set some general guidelines within which the funded community organisations should work, like general rates of pay, levels of allowable additional income and other conditions. Participating community organisations needed to keep records of numbers of CDEP participants and their names, but not a lot more.

The newly interested Commonwealth administrative agencies from 1998, however, had a very different mode of working on the world. The social security system was at the time being split into a service delivery agency, Centrelink, and a new overseeing Department of Families and Community Services. Both inherited a much more precise and individualised mode of administering to clients. Precise personal details were required and so too were precise times of starting and stopping being in certain circumstances. CDEP was starting to be drawn into a very different organisational world now that the social security system had acknowledged its parentage of the scheme. From the perspective of the newly acknowledged progeny, this meeting with its finicky long-lost parent would not be entirely easy.

Emblematic of this new and very different organisational world, the 1999 brochure circulated jointly by ATSIC and Centrelink announced not changes to CDEP as a program, but rather ‘Changes for CDEP Participants from 20 September 1999 Subject to Passage of Legislation’. As well as general information, the brochure also had four individual client scenarios. Joe, Mary, Irene and Frank were all used to illustrate the precise consequences of the changes for clients in a variety of possible circumstances. If you needed more information, you were directed to ‘Your Indigenous Services Officer or local Centrelink office’ (ATSIC/ Centrelink 1999). This was the beginning of some very big changes for CDEP.

For the next five years, the extent of this change in administrative approach to CDEP was somewhat mollified by the ongoing existence of ATSIC as the more long-standing parent. This was still a community grants scheme, as ATSIC saw it, because that’s what ATSIC knew how to do. But once ATSIC was dismantled by the Howard Coalition government in 2004 and early 2005, CDEP was suddenly very fully exposed to the administrative culture of not only the social security system but also the employment services system. This was the beginning of the shrinking of CDEP during a lingering old age.

A Lingering Old Age On 1 July 2004, when ATSIC’s Indigenous-specific programs were passed to ‘line’ Commonwealth departments, it was not the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs which inherited CDEP, but rather the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR). This partly reflected the fact that, with Centrelink as the unified frontline delivery agency, some of the back-office policy work relating to the social security legislation could be moved around between departments. In 2004 some of the responsibility for working-age payments, like Newstart Allowance, the old unemployment benefit, was placed with DEWR. So it seemed a logical organisational location for CDEP as well. However, DEWR was also a rather different organisation from the central parts of the social security system and it began to shape CDEP in its own employment services mould.

Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, the heart of the employment services system was an organisation called the Commonwealth Employment Service. From the late 1990s, this system was privatised into a series of government contracts for the provision of employment services through a network of ‘job services providers’. Contracts were usually for three years and were let for different regions, though big providers could have almost a national presence by bidding for multiple regions. DEWR presided over the letting and subsequent monitoring of these contracts from the late 1990s and, in the process, developed its own rather distinctive way of working on the world, which was neither like ATSIC’s old community grants model, nor like the legislatively-directed entitlement assessment approach of the social system. DEWR made ‘outcome payments’ to job service providers for achieving certain things with individual ‘job seekers’. Get the job seeker in a job and we will pay you x. Get them enrolled in a course which might increase their job prospects and we will pay you y, as well as possibly paying you or some other organisation to provide the course. Get the job seeker to turn up for a monthly interview about what they are doing to move off social security payments and into employment and we will pay you z. The logic of the employment services system is one of timelimited assistance and economic incentives, tempered by a recognition that there are very different types of unemployed people. Job seekers get classified into different categories, from hard to easy to place in employment, and job services providers receive different outcome payments for working with them in different ways over different, but always limited, periods of time.

When the CDEP scheme was placed in organisational proximity to this employment services culture from July 2004 there were a few differences to work out. The employment services people were worried that CDEP had no time limits on participation and could, therefore, become a ‘destination’ for participants, rather than something they moved beyond. Also, where were the incentives for achieving outcomes which moved the CDEP participants beyond their current status closer to independent employment and income-earning capacity? CDEP did not fit with DEWR’s way of seeing and working on the world and this became very clear in two review processes between 2005 and 2007 in which DEWR began to change CDEP quite significantly.

The first review process began in early 2005 with the publication of a discussion paper entitled Building on Success (DEWR 2005). This led to changes in CDEP introduced from July 2006. Henceforth CDEP participants under 20 would be paid a youth rate equivalent to Independent Youth Allowance within the social security system and Indigenous students on ABSTUDY would no longer be eligible for CDEP. 7 In urban areas CDEP participants would also have to register with a job services provider and new CDEP participants would be restricted to 12 months participation (DEWR 2006a: 6). These were all changes which brought CDEP towards closer equivalence and integration with both the social security and employment services systems. There was also a move towards DEWR’s preferred model of multi-year contract funding, away from ATSIC’s model of annual grant funding (Sanders 2007).

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