Thursday, 25 November 2021: Morrison Government too far too long to realise the failure of the CDP

25 November 2021

Senator McCARTHY (Northern Territory—Deputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (13:03): [by video link] I can't remember ever being in a position to congratulate this government, but congratulations to you for finally realising that the Community Development Program is an utter failure. Despite the expenditure of millions of dollars, the CDP has failed to deliver employment, economic development or a sustainable future to remote communities. It has taken this government six long years to realise that the CDP just isn't working—six long years of participants in remote areas pointing out to this government the fatal flaws in this program, a program that has not led to jobs, opportunity or community development. What it has led to is entrenched poverty, hopelessness, hunger and despair. It has actually caused damage to remote communities and participants, cutting people off from income support, putting additional strains and stresses on families and eroding self-respect and dignity by taking a draconian, punitive approach.

The CDP is discriminatory and it is broken. First Nations communities, individuals and organisations, along with Labor, have been saying this for six years, and it's not just us who have been continually drawing attention to the failures of CDP. This government has always known there are fundamental problems with its remote community employment model, But, instead of listening to the people on the ground and the experts, it has just fiddled around with the program for six long years, fixing nothing and further entrenching poverty in remote communities. I've been asking questions about CDP since I was first elected to this place in 2016. It was one of the first major issues raised with me by Territorians and is still one of the major issues people talk to me about as I travel across the Territory. And, in spite of all the efforts and tweaking and fiddling, the complaints and the issues are still the same: CDP is punitive and pointless and it keeps people poor.

The CDP has been a discriminatory program since its inception. The majority of participants in the scheme—more than 80 per cent—are First Nations people in remote communities. The requirements and obligations imposed on CDP participants are more onerous than those that apply to jobseekers and income support recipients outside the CDP regions. And, because the requirements were more onerous, CDP recipients were in breach of their obligations and suspended from payments for longer and more often than non-CDP participants. The federal government's own review of its remote Work for the Dole program in 2019 found that the First Nations CDP participants were three times more likely to be penalised for non-attendance and were penalised more often. They went without income for longer periods and were less likely to be exempted on medical grounds, despite a much higher burden of disease and illness in remote First Nations communities. Poor mental health or physical health, disabilities and other personal problems also meant people were more likely to be penalised. The most penalised cohort were men under 35. These are men with families—with dependants—who were cut off from income support with no other means of getting money to support themselves and their families, and many people, particularly young people, were completely disengaged from the income support system. Once breached, many did not re-engage with the social security system. Many young people did not engage from the get-go, discouraged by the onerous obligations and sometimes meaningless activities.

The 2019 government review reported that social problems had increased since the introduction of the CDP, including an increase in break and enters by children and young people, predominantly to steal food; an increase in domestic and family violence; an increase in financial coercion and family fighting; and an increase in mental health problems and feelings of shame, depression, sleep deprivation and hunger. Feelings of frustration and stress were reported when trying to deal with Centrelink from remote communities with limited online and telephone access and few opportunities to engage face to face.

The report—your report—said the CDP had the opposite of its intended effect to get people off welfare or 'sit-down money'. In fact, it said quite clearly that the research found no evidence to suggest that penalties were an effective way to generate engagement in the program. The research found that for some jobseekers, penalising them had the opposite effect—it was demotivating and disempowering for participants and so they did not engage. There was no evidence that the CDP had an effect on the number of participants obtaining a job. Remember, all of this was laid out clearly in this government's own evaluation in 2019.

I bring this back to the Senate to remind the government of all the moments you have missed to get this sorted. You had the evidence of CDP's failures well before this. In 2017 the National Audit Office said the CDP cost almost twice as much as the previous Work for the Dole scheme. It cost $10,494 per person to deliver CDP at the time, while the previous Remote Jobs and Communities Program cost $5,071 per jobseeker.

We knew from a report by the ANU Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research in 2018 that there had been a 740 per cent increase in financial penalties since the CDP replaced the previous Remote Jobs and Communities Program in 2015 and that remote workers were 25 times more likely to be penalised than non-remote jobseekers and 50 times more likely to have a serious penalty imposed, which meant up to eight weeks with no payment. This government was even under attack from its own over the CDP, with former Indigenous affairs minister Fred Chaney calling it a 'national disgrace':

Chaney said there was a "total carelessness shown for the hardship inflicted on remote Aboriginal people and the damage being done by this denial of the facts.

"In my view, this policy is a national disgrace. It is a reversion to the attitudes of the past.

"It's another assimilationist, bureaucratic, irrelevant approach that will inflict more hardship, hunger and dysfunction on Aboriginal people.

"It’s not community building, it’s the reverse. The more I see of it, the more I think we are reverting to the habits of the 1940s and 1950s."

So, Mr Chaney was very clear in his criticisms of the CDP, which were published in October 2018.

Did the government take action and dump the fundamentally flawed CDP? Did they go back to the drawing board? Did they actually work with First Nations people and communities to design a scheme that might actually work? Of course not. What they did was again fiddle around the edges, continue to allow people in offices in Canberra to design and implement a program for and about remote First Nations communities.

In 2018 the government introduced minor changes in a new compliance framework, despite every submitter to the Senate inquiry being opposed to the bill. The flawed CDP continued in remote communities. In fact, the current Minister for Indigenous Australians was quite glowing about the CDP in October 2019, describing it as delivering better results on all fronts. He was also very positive about the 1,000-jobs package brought in as part of the March 2019 CDP reforms—the fiddling-around-the-edges bit. This was the program that was supposed to support the creation of 1,000 new jobs for CDP participants in remote Australia.

As of May this year—more than two years after that multimillion-dollar program was started—it has created not 1,000 jobs but only 400 jobs. But the government is adamant that the 1,000-jobs program, which is really 400 jobs, will continue—again, just not learning from what is really wrong about this program. It's as though they don't want to listen to First Nations people who are telling them about what works and what doesn't in remote communities. And what they've been telling them from the very beginning is that this CDP is flawed to its foundations, and no amount of tempering around the edges can change that. A new First Nations led role centred on creating fair and decent jobs and treating people with respect is greatly needed. I was so proud in 2019 when Labor committed to scrapping the CDP and replacing it with a program that would co-design a program that creates real jobs, meets community needs and delivers meaningful training and economic development. I'm extremely proud that this is a policy that we will again take to the election.

This bill does not do that. It falls short in every single respect. It does not create a new employment program. What the government is doing is creating another welfare model that will pay very few participants extra income support money that will still be subject to quarantining to participate in 'job-like placements'. The focus of these placements will be on skills and vocational training only, not traineeships or apprenticeships. With no apparent pathway to employment, it's unclear how the pilot would generate jobs for a community unless that community already has economic activity and job creation capacity. This will not address the existing challenge of on-country job creation for those young people who are leaving education, and it will further entrench the status quo of the existing CDP, of paying individuals to participate in Work for the Dole activities. This policy approach reflects the government's continued failure to recognise that many people on the current CDP are already trained, have worked and will work, if work is available.

This bill sets up a two-tier system across remote communities, as those outside the employment pilot sites do not benefit at all. The detail of what happens outside the pilot sites is scant. There is no advice or detail on a time frame for the rollout of the replacement payment posts for 24 June. While the government has again squandered an opportunity to establish a real jobs program for remote Australia, the new payment offers a financial benefit, taking at least 5,200 for some participants. These participants are some of the poorest and most disadvantaged people in the country.

This government are not creating jobs in remote communities. They aren't looking at all the evidence and lessons they can learn from their past mistakes. In fact, the minister, to this day, has never owned up to the CDP being an absolute failure. He has never said, when introducing this new program, why he is dumping the CDP, what the problems have been or what lessons he has learned from sticking to a punitive scheme they knew was causing harm in remote communities. The issues with this bill and the failed CDP were put very succinctly to the Senate inquiry into this bill by Dr Josie Douglas from the Central Land Council. Dr Douglas said:

Aboriginal people are tired of the endless cycle of poverty, punitive welfare and policy changes that just come out of the blue. In the 21st century it's simply not good enough to have the bureaucracy design yet another version of a failed program. People, young people in particular, need to be able to experience having a job and getting the skills and experience that that offers; otherwise, we are condemning future generations to a pathway of misery, a pathway of nothingness.

My greatest fear is that this government continues down this pathway of misery to nothingness. Generations of young men and women in remote communities are not getting the opportunity to experience the dignity of work and proper wages.

This legislation doesn't put in place a program that will create jobs and give control to First Nations people and communities. The Morrison government had an opportunity here to make a difference in remote communities, to work with stakeholders who have been putting forward ideas and alternatives to the CDP for years, to put in place a program that will create jobs in remote communities—and that will provide people with skills and will lead to hope and opportunity—and to codesign a program that includes this legislation but that is not imposed, where First Nations people and organisations have a seat at the table. But this bill does not do that. It proves that, once again, only Labor will scrap the CDP and work in genuine partnership with First Nations organisations and communities to create a remote area program that does create job opportunities, offers community development, and provides a pathway out of the nothingness and misery that eight long years of this government have imposed on remote Australian communities.