† Community Development Employment Project, 1977-2007

“We’re not about giving people what they want, we’re about providing some leadership.”
–Nigel Scullion, Federal Minister for Community Services and CLP Senator for the Northern Territory

Fifty years ago and more, Aboriginal stockmen worked cattle stations for clothing and rations, not wages. The rationale was that Aboriginal people weren’t “ready” to participate in a cash economy, as Tim Rowse detailed in White Flour, White Power: from rations to citizenship in Central Australia (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Today, Mal Brough is saying that Aboriginal people still aren’t ready for the cash economy: whatever money can’t be quarantined to pay rent, mortgages, or grocery bills, has to be outright taken away before people gamble or booze it away. And thus tolls the bell for the Community Development Employment Project (CDEP). The demise of CDEP in towns and urban areas was announced back in February. Now it’s to be demolished in remote communities as well.

The ironies are sickening. Back in the 1960s, it was finally recognized that feeding and clothing workers, providing them with no money, and chasing after them if they ran away and refused to provide labor under those circumstances was a peculiar institution. Laws were passed to insure equal pay for equal work, and large numbers of Aboriginal stockmen found themselves unemployed, bereft now not only of cash but of food and clothing as well. In 1977, then, to provide employment and as an alternative to simple “sit-down money,” CDEP was born.

As noted on the CDEP website, the program was instituted “at the request of several remote Communities as an alternative to receiving unemployment benefits (‘the dole’). ” Indiviudals [articipate in CDEP on a voluntary basis: it’s the opposite of passive welfare. Until the Federal Government saw fit to undo its benefits, CDEP accounted for a quarter of indigenous employment in Australia.

The best treatment of the current state of affairs is the excellent work Jane Simpson has been doing at Transient Languages and Cultures. Jane provides a succint introduction in her post from last Monday (“CDEP Changes” ) She then turns the reins over to Bob Gosford, whose “Ploughing salt into the ruins of the NT – Brough’s end game with CDEP and the little children” exposes the hypocrisy of Brough’s plan to promote “better” conditions in Aboriginal communities by taking away unregulated access to cash. The comments on this latter post have been exceptionally thoughtful and are essential reading as well.

Jon Altman’s piece, “Scrapping CDEP is just plain dumb,” appeared on the ABC News Opinion site on Thursday. Altman is the Director of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research. Among other salient numbers, he points out that “most of the 5,000 Indigenous artists in the NT, as well as 400 community-based rangers in the Top End, are all CDEP participants.” 

And not just artists: six of the ten employees of Maningrida Arts and Culture, for example, are CDEP employees, as reported by Apolline Kohen in her submission to the recent Senate Inquiry. In his submission to the Inquiry, John Oster similarly noted, “Most Indigenous artworkers are employed under CDEP on low level wages and in temporary employment. Art Centres often do not have the cash flow required to cover additional wages for people in genuine paid positions.” The abolition of CDEP will have serious consequences for the only viable economy in many remote communities.

But, as each passing week makes increasingly clear, the destruction of remote communities is the real agenda that the Howard government is pursuing. Once the economic basis of remote community life has been dismantled–and the abolition of CDEP won’t be the last salvo in that battle–Brough expects people will have to abandon their homelands to find employment. And what can they expect once they’ve moved to the fringe camps? 

The quotation from Nigel Scullion that I opened this piece with came from the Alice Springs News for June 14, 2007. The context was the Tangentyere Council refusal of Brough’s $60 million “offer” to the Council to suburbanize the Alice Town Camps. Speaking with a frankness that Howard and Brough dare not venture, Scullion said in the same interview, “We want a normalisation process, so people can own their own homes or there can be a rental process, and have ordinary services so the place looks like the rest of Alice Springs” (my emphasis). In other words, this is a return to a program of assimilation. 

There is nothing on the table that looks anything like a constructive agenda. It is instead the sheerest hypocrisy, much like Brough’s assertions that the long term cost of the Federal government’s reforms must be borne by the Territory, when he knows full well that the Territory absolutely does not have the economic base to support those programs. 

Only by abolishing land rights for the benefit of mining companies can the Territory hope to achieve a viable economy, and you can bet your last dollar that such wealth would never be used to pay for services for its indigenous residents. Because Brough has made it clear that indigenous people can’t be trusted with money, can they? Here are the man’s own words, from an interview with Leon Compton on Darwin ABC Radio from July 23, quoted on Transient Languages and Cultures:

Compton: Are you saying that money from CDEP is the problem in child sexual abuse and alcoholism and violence?

Brough: Absolutely, there is no doubt that there is a contributing factor beyond the CDEP payments and because for all intents and purposes they are a welfare payment – it is the cash that is being used to buy the drugs and alcohol that have caused so many … so much of the pain for these children. There is just no doubt about that.

Jesus wept.

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