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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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The second review process began in November 2006 with a discussion paper entitled Indigenous Potential meets Economic Opportunity which proposed to cease funding CDEPs in ‘urban and major regional centres’ and instead fund ‘enhanced Structured Training and Employment Projects’ (DEWR 2006b). The acronym ‘enhanced STEP’ neatly captured DEWR’s idea that what was needed was to transition CDEP participants to some other labor-market status and this, they argued, could surely be done in geographic areas with ‘strong labor markets’ (DEWR 2006b: 2). Figures were quoted about how the number of Indigenous people moving ‘out of CDEP into employment’ had been growing rapidly since 2004-05 (DEWR 2006b: 5). DEWR thought that the proposed

geographic restriction:

would affect about 40 of the current 210 CDEP providers and approximately 7000 CDEP places out of a total of around 35000 CDEP places (DEWR 2006b: 8).

In February 2007, after the receipt of ‘more than seventy submissions’ and ‘feedback sessions in 37 locations’, the minister (a new one since November) announced that CDEP would indeed cease in around 70 listed urban areas in ‘strong labour markets with genuine access to real jobs’ and that STEP would be expanded. ‘Our only success measure’, the minister argued, ‘should be if we get someone into a real job – not a position funded by welfare’ and to that end even the remaining CDEP providers from July 2007 would ‘receive an incentive for getting people into real work for 26 weeks’ (Hockey 2007). DEWR was gradually matching CDEP to its preferred outcomes-payment, time-limitedsupport approach to employment services, while also restricting CDEP back to the remote geographic areas in which it had started 30 years before.

This relatively orderly process of changing CDEP in line with the approach of its new primary administering organisation and in line with perceptions of geographic differences in labor markets was suddenly upset in July 2007 with the Commonwealth intervention into Northern Territory Aboriginal CDEP participants became eligible for ABSTUDY in the mid 1990s when the Department of Education started treating them as ordinary wage earners, in line with the Race Discrimination Commissioner’s suggestion but in opposition to the way in which Centrelink and ATSIC then moved.

communities. To tell that story would take another lecture/paper. Suffice to say here that, in the last months of the Howard Coalition government, CDEP began to be closed in some remote areas of the Northern Territory and the Rudd Labor Opposition promised to stop this process if elected at the end of 2007. Rudd was as good as his word and when elected also transferred CDEP out of the employment and workplace relations portfolio into the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA). This did not, however, remove the pressure to reform CDEP. It may indeed even have enhanced it, as staff transferred from one Commonwealth department with one set of concerns were put together with staff from another department with others.

In May 2008, under the names of three ministers, the Rudd government brought out another discussion paper proposing changes to CDEP and the related Indigenous Employment Program. Entitled Increasing Indigenous Economic

Opportunity, this discussion paper asked how CDEP could be:

better linked to the Government’s new universal employment services model to be implemented from July 2009 (Gillard, Macklin and O’Connor 2008a: 1).

Geographically, the paper distinguished between ‘established’ ‘emerging’ and ‘limited’ economies, with the last being equated with ‘remote and very remote communities and outstations’ (Gillard, Macklin and O’Connor 2008a: 8). One idea seemed to be to restrict CDEP to this last geographic category of economy.

But another, even more clearly enunciated ‘reform principle’ was to get rid of ‘unequal treatment’ between CDEP participants and income support recipients.

A table in this discussion paper set out three instances of such unequal treatment, two of which were presented as in favour of CDEP participants; they were ‘not required to look for off-CDEP work’ and they could ‘earn up to $5166 a quarter from outside CDEP’ without it affecting ‘their CDEP payments’ (Gillard, Macklin and O’Connor 2008a: 4). These sorts of concerns showed that CDEP was now being administered from the heart of the social security system, where inequalities in entitlements and conditions between categories of recipients are the focus of much debate. The presumption is that such inequalities need to be justifiable, or else be eliminated, and in this

instance the suggestion was made that:

One way of fixing these inequalities would be to move away from the system of CDEP wages and move participants into the income support system (Gillard, Macklin and O’Connor 2008a: 5).

In October 2008, when this review process had progressed to ‘proposed reforms’, the change from a wages to an income support basis of CDEP was

more fully embraced. From July 2009:

New participants in reformed CDEP would access the program while on relevant income support payments rather than be paid CDEP wages (Gillard, Macklin and O’Connor 2008b: 7).

For existing CDEP participants, however, there would be an ability to stay on CDEP wages for ‘an adjustment period’ which was initially envisaged as running till March 2010. On the geographic dimension of change, from July 2009 CDEP would indeed only be available in ‘Remote Australia’. In ‘Nonremote Australia’, including small regional centres, there would be Universal Employment Services, the Indigenous Employment Program and a new Community Support Program (Gillard, Macklin and O’Connor 2008b: 7). Both FaHCSIA and the new Commonwealth Department of Employment, Education and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) were clearly having an input to this third policy reform process in as many years.

The fate of CDEP was now very clear. The geographic and organisational dimensions of Commonwealth Indigenous affairs policy were, together, reducing CDEP to a shadow of its former self. The first geographic cut under DEWR in mid-2007 had reduced CDEP from places for 35,000 to 28,000 participants and the second under FaHCSIA in mid-2009 would take it down to around 17,000. From there, the rate of shrinkage would depend on the tenacity of the remaining, remote-area, wages participants and their provider organisations – plus government responses to that tenacity in extending the adjustment period. New three year provider contracts and new CDEP participants from mid-2009 could give the illusion of a still healthy program and there was even some extra money being thrown around, some of which ironically depended on numbers of wages CDEP participants falling more quickly than had been budgeted for. But new CDEP participants were, in essence, just income support recipients for whom the CDEP organisation was an ‘activity’ provider. They were no longer seen as employed, which was the central idea of the scheme devised by Nugget Coombs and DAA back in 1977.

As it has turned out, the contracts for CDEP in remote areas that started in 2009 have been extended from three to four years. But rather than a sign of health and life, this is better seen as just the full alignment of CDEP with the universal employment services overseen by DEEWR. CDEP provider organisations are now being given the opportunity to be part of a brave new world called the Remote Jobs and Communities Program to begin in July 2013.

As for CDEP participants, those who have stayed on wages are now down to less than 5000, concentrated in a few tenacious providers in remote areas. They have been rewarded with a further extension of the ‘adjustment period’ in which they can stay on wages beyond July 2013. But they will all eventually disappear. New CDEP participants on income support payments do not seem to be easily identifiable within the social security database. They are indistinguishable from other income support recipients meeting various ‘activity test’ conditions of entitlement and to call them CDEP participants is, to me, a misuse of the term.

CDEP will die, in my mind, in June 2013. What will remain beyond that time will certainly not be worthy of the title of program or scheme. It will be just a few ‘grandfathered’ individuals holding on briefly to some former status. This long lingering death has been painful to watch for those of us who have held CDEP dear. 8 In retrospect it was inevitable not just from the time when ATSIC was dismantled in 2004 but from when the general Work for Dole scheme was born in 1997 and the Department of Families and Community Services could start to take an interest in CDEP without fearing accusations of discrimination.

Indeed, comparing CDEP with Work for the Dole allowed that Department to deal with accusations of discrimination that the social security system had already been facing with CDEP’s move to the cities from the late 1980s.

To go even further back, CDEP in its lingering old age merely reaped the rewards of its illegitimate birth back in the 1970s, without the support of the DSS. As a very experienced and senior public administrator, perhaps Nugget Coombs knew back in 1977 that in ignoring the concerns of DSS and teaming up with DAA he was, in CDEP, creating a program which would forever suffer claims of illegitimacy and discrimination. But Nugget’s illegitimate child did enjoy popularity and success for three decades before the ignominy of decline and death. Nugget should be well pleased with the consequences of his ignoring the Department of Social Security back in 1977.

Generations and the Moral Structure of Indigenous Affairs The


for this lecture identified generations, as well as organisations and geography, as the third theme to be explored in this history of CDEP. Also I asked at the beginning of the lecture whether a government program could possibly live forever, suggesting that we should not necessarily accept the implication of the life metaphor that government programs will inevitably progress through life stages and eventually die. There are Australian government programs that, even if they may not live forever have already lasted a lot longer than CDEP’s 36 years. The Aged Pension is now, fittingly, over 100 years old. Unemployment benefit, though it had a name change 20 years ago, is now 70 years old as a program. Both these social security programs are adapting to changing circumstances and likely to continue for a long time to come. So in comparison to these general social security programs, the Indigenous-specific My last attempt to contribute publically to the defence of CDEP was at a CAEPR Seminar in August 2008 entitled ‘Saving and Strengthening CDEP: A Remote Australia Policy Treasure’. Once the three ministers within the Rudd government had made their announcement in October 2008, I judged CDEP a lost cause. My colleague Jon Altman has continued to fight for CDEP in the years since. See for example Altman and Jordan 2009.

CDEP scheme did indeed have a short lifespan. I want in this last section of the lecture to suggest that this relates to generational dynamics in the moral structure of Australian Indigenous affairs.

Indigenous affairs is the enduring ‘great moral challenge’ of Australian nationhood.9 The central question is: how should the expanding, powerful settler society treat the remnant, more vulnerable Indigenous society? I have in recent times suggested that there are three competing principles, or values, which are invoked in a triangular Indigenous affairs policy space when debates try to answer this question: equality, choice and guardianship (See Figure 1).

The dominant principle, which sits at the top of the Indigenous affairs policy space, is equality; that Indigenous people should be treated the same as settlers.

But there are at least three different interpretations of this equality principle

which also compete for attention in the top of the triangular policy space:

individualised legal equality, socio-economic equality and equality of opportunity. The even bigger philosophical debates of Indigenous affairs, in the bottom of the triangle, are about whether differences between Indigenous people and settlers can be interpreted positively as reflecting issues of culture, autonomy and choice? Or whether these differences should be interpreted negatively as requiring an invocation of the principle of guardianship and the protection of the remnant Indigenous society from adverse aspects of the more powerful, overrunning industrial society?

Figure 1

This is the phrase Kevin Rudd used as Prime Minister to describe and encourage action on climate change.

Different value-groups in Australian society tend to occupy different positions around this triangle of competing principles and, at times, certain interpretations of these principles become dominant. But the competition between the principles is never finally resolved and Indigenous affairs policy can shift quite significantly and suddenly, over time, as each principle comes up against its own limitations and different generations of Australians each have a go at rebalancing the competing principles anew. This significant sudden shifting is what I think of as the generational dynamic within the moral structure of Australian Indigenous affairs and both Nugget Coombs and CDEP occupy interesting and complex positions within it.

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