The federal government-funded CDEP program offers Aboriginal welfare-recipients in remote communities an opportunity to be gainfully employed. Participants receive a minimum wage and then “top ups” for extra hours worked in positions such as landscaping and maintenance.
But the program is now being phased out and participants transferred on to the regular dole.
In Hermmansburg, 180 kilometres west of Alice Springs, the transition is not going smoothly.
A group of men working as rangers around Hermmansburg have not been paid since their program lost CDEP funding on 26 October — the same day they received a prestigious Northern Territory Landcare award for their work.
The Tjuwanpa Rangers were told they would have to sign up for the dole to continue receiving payments. But more than three weeks later many of the 37 men say they have still not received a cent since their last CDEP money came through on 29 October. Morale was low when New Matilda spoke to some of the rangers last week.
The co-ordinators of the program, the Central Land Council (CLC), say this problem is just the latest in the ill-managed rollout of the intervention.
Director of the CLC, David Ross, told New Matilda, "We're finding it very hard to get straight information. All that the government tells us is that CDEP will be cut, in some places it's already been cut, and that they were not ready to go with a replacement [at the time they cancelled it]."
Ross says he needs proper funding to address Aboriginal unemployment. "If the Commonwealth Government really wants to [provide jobs], we're happy to do it, but they need to fund it properly. We need proper equipment for them to get out and do their work. We don't intend employing people in some half-arsed arrangement where people aren't paid properly."
In some communities, garbage collectors, road workers, and even teachers' aides are employed as CDEP participants, despite working full time in what are otherwise regular jobs.
As the Intervention rolls out across the Northern Territory, a spokesperson for the Northern Territory Intervention Taskforce says that only around a quarter of CDEP participants will be placed in proper employment. The others will remain on welfare and be expected to undertake 30 hours of work for the dole and apply for two jobs each week or risk being "breached" and their payments reduced or stopped altogether.
The manager of the community supermarket in Hermmansburg, Charlie Fletcher, told New Matilda that he expects to be signing off on a lot of dole forms as local residents struggle to fulfil the new requirements for job seeking. "Even if 100 people want to work, there are just not 100 paid positions available," said Fletcher, who has just seven staff on his books.
Fletcher acknowledges that unemployment is a huge problem in Aboriginal communities but says that CDEP was often not working.
"I think it was perhaps a good scheme, but badly supervised in some places. The problem with these places is it's hard to recruit people to [supervisor positions]. The wages aren't that great, and not everyone is suited to this kind of life."
David Ross says the CLC has applied for federal funding to create up to 75 new full-time positions in the central desert over the next five years.
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