«Coombs’ Bastard Child: The Troubled Life of CDEP 2012 Nugget Coombs Memorial Lecture Wednesday 3 October 2012 Mal Nairn Auditorium, Casuarina ...»
The 1950 and 1960s was in many ways, the era in which the idea of individualised legal equality was at its strongest in Australian Indigenous affairs. The legislative inclusion of Aboriginal people in the social security system in 1959 and 1966 was emblematic of this dominance; and so too was the name of Paul Hasluck a man who, born in 1905, was just one year older than Nugget Coombs. Working during a career from the 1930s to the 1960s, Hasluck was in many associated with the previous generation of effort in Indigenous affairs which moved policy from ideas of protection and guardianship to ideas of equal rights and assimilation (see Figure 2). Coming to Indigenous affairs late in his career in the 1960s, Coombs was much more a contributor to the next generation’s efforts in Indigenous affairs. Indigenous affairs in the late 1960s and early1970s was coming up against the limits of the individual legal equality idea and beginning to explore some ideas about differences between people interpreted positively through the principle of choice or autonomy, exercised on a group basis (see Figure 3). Coombs and CDEP were very much part of this shift. It was the eligibility for unemployment benefits which showed Coombs the limitations of an individualised legal equality approach and drove him to think creatively about an alternative group decision making approach which engaged much more with this principle of autonomy and choice.
Figure 2 Figure 3 Thirty years later another generation of Australians was beginning to tussle with these issues, including from 2000 in the welfare or social security space, Noel Pearson. Based on his experience as an Aboriginal person in Cape York, Pearson, like Coombs, was very sceptical of the individual legal equality approach to social security. However, he was also somewhat sceptical of CDEP which, as he saw it at the turn of the millennium, enjoyed ‘mixed success’ and, particularly in ‘larger’ communities, was ‘not very distinguishable from the dole’ (Pearson 2000: 87). Pearson recounts how in his youth in the 1980s, when CDEP was being introduced to his home town, he adopted the ‘standard’ equal rights line against it. He also retrospectively acknowledged in 2000 that his community’s decision back in the 1980s ‘to accept CDEP was correct’ (Pearson 2000: 88). However, by 2000, Pearson saw CDEP as in need of a reinvigoration of its ‘original goals of reciprocity and responsibility’ which needed to be enacted at the local community level (Pearson 2000: 88).
As it has eventuated in the twelve years since, Pearson has not been a strong fighter for CDEP. Perhaps he has sensed that, in the moral structure of Indigenous affairs across the generations, it is easier to promote new programs, like his idea of the Family Responsibility Commission, than to try to rehabilitate older ones, like CDEP. In Indigenous affairs, old programs are always tarnished by the harsh realities of practice because the working out of the relationship between settler and Indigenous society is never easy. Old programs are, I suggest, subjected to particularly rigorous applications of the high moral tone of Indigenous affairs, which tends to move on in these generational jumps. In my triangular analytic schema, I argue that in the 2000s, there has been a move away from the choice principle towards a reinvoking of the guardianship principle, which has a negative interpretation of differences between Indigenous people and settlers (see Figure 4). The guardianship principles can be seen in the imposition of income management on Indigenous people through the social security system, including since 2009 the new income support-based CDEP participants. 10 When the moral structure of Indigenous affairs leads to such major changes in the balancing of the competing principles over time, it becomes hard to see how any Indigenous –specific program can last for more than perhaps thirty or forty years. In many ways in this moral structure, CDEP has done very well just to live as long as it has.
One of the Howard government’s reasons for beginning to close CDEPs in remote areas of the Northern Territory in 2007 was so that participants could be brought within the new income management systems being established within the social security system.
Figure 4 CDEP and the Coombs Experiment: A Concluding Comment In the last Nugget Coombs Memorial lecture two years ago, entitled The Coombs Experiment, Tim Rowse argued that Indigenous affairs policy in Australia is, by its nature, always something of an open-ended process of hypothesis testing – so that rather than being a term of opprobrium, as some have recently used it, the phrase The Coombs Experiment should be seen as reflecting positively on Nugget’s open-mindedness. Nugget was tussling with difficult issues and imaginatively working out some alternative, but feasible ways to attack them. CDEP was, in Rowse’s assessment, Nugget’s clearest instance of having ‘influence’ in policy in the 1970s and of actually getting such an alternative Indigenous-specific program up and running. Rowse also recounts a dinner in Darwin in 1994 with Coombs, himself and two others who were being critical of CDEP. Coombs acknowledged the criticism of these two unnamed others at their dining table, even agreed with much of it, but asked of them what better policy option they might suggest. Coombs’ and Rowse’s dinner companions were unable to suggest any better policy options and the dinner ended in what Rowse referred to as ‘un-triumphal political consensus’ (Rowse 2012: 179). This was a dynamic which I also identified and wrote about in my first published article on CDEP back in late 1980s; would-be left-leaning critics of CDEP listing its many faults but then conceding that in the circumstances it seemed the best thing possible (Sanders 1988: 46 citing Mowbray 1986).
CDEP was, in its time, a great tribute to Coombs, the imaginative policy pragmatist. Time, however, moves on: through the geographic and generational dynamics of the moral structure of Indigenous affairs and also, within government, through the battling attrition of slowly developing departmental lines. The social security system is still highly rule oriented, but it is now no longer worried about being charged of discrimination in making Indigenous people work for their dole. That, ultimately to my mind, is why CDEP is now on its death bed. General Work for the Dole allowed CDEP to be drawn into the social security system and slowly killed. Nugget and his bastard child will soon both be resting in peace.
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