A coalition of peak organisations in the Northern Territory have condemned comments made by the Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion that consigning Aboriginal people to work for the dole for 30 years is not “a bad thing” and would improve living conditions in communities where people “live on the floor… like a cave”.
Scullion made the comments in an interview with the Australian newspaper when questioned on his proposal to toughen the already strict provisions of the Remote Jobs and Communities Program (RJCP).
The program has been slammed as a return to the days before equal wages.
Under the changes to RJCP, Aboriginal workers in remote areas will be forced to work for the dole for 25 hours a day, 5 days a week for 52 weeks a year. If they don’t, they will have their Newstart payments docked.
In the Northern Territory, Aboriginal workers will also have their income quarantined under the Stronger Futures legislation, which means they will end up working for $5 cash an hour, with the rest restricted to their BasicsCards.
The proposal was slammed by prominent Indigenous policy expert Prof Jon Altman, who told New Matilda earlier this year that in the absence of jobs in these communities, Aboriginal people will be placed “onto welfare year-in, year-out, and by the time they get to measure how badly their policies are going, they will be out of government anyway”.
But Senator Scullion told the Australian a life of working for welfare wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“They are engaged in purposeful activities in their communities, where they choose to live, and they are choosing to live in an area where there is no economy and a growing population,” he told The Australian.
“And while people may say, ‘How can you possibly do this to people?’, there are no alternatives.”
Scullion’s comments were condemned by the Aboriginal Peak Organisations of the NT, which is made up of the Central Land Council (CLC), the Northern Land Council (NLC), the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (CAALAS), the Northern Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) and Aboriginal Medical Services of the NT (AMSANT) who labelled it a “life sentence”.
CLC head David Ross said in the statement that it was “soul-destroying” for “unemployed Aboriginal people to learn that the government is relaxed and comfortable about them serving ‘work-for-the-dole’ life sentences and never getting a job”.
“How is this demoralising prospect going to inspire children to go to school?” he said.
Raising Indigenous school attendance has been a key focus of the Abbott government, with a new school attendance target added onto the other Closing the Gap targets alongside aims to close the education, health and employment gaps.
There is little evidence whether its school attendance strategies, like its proposals to host school attendance officers in selected communities, is effective in combatting truancy.
Mr Ross said that the government’s opposition to the Aboriginal-controlled and devised Community Development Employment Program (CDEP) was inconsistent with its promotion of the stricter rules to RJCP.
RJCP replaced CDEP in remote areas under Labor, after being scrapped around the country under the Howard government.
According to the latest Closing the Gap report, the removal of CDEP resulted in a 60 percent decline in Indigenous employment rates.
But governments have continually failed to view CDEP jobs as real employment, even though they kept Aboriginal people active and engaged, and paid real wages through ‘top up’.
“Not so long ago the government claimed that the Community Development Employment Program had to go because it had become a destination rather than a conduit to a real job. Now it is content with a scheme that really entrenches low expectations of Aboriginal people,” Mr Ross said.
“CDEP, for all its shortcomings, was a lot more real than the dead end of ‘work for the dole’ because it rewarded personal effort with subsidised wages.”
Senator Scullion told The Australian the RJCP would improve living standards in communities.
“Many of my communities live on the floor, it is like a cave,’’ he said. “I think that one of the characteristics of civilisation must be that you don’t have to eat at the same level as your animals, it must be something like that. I feel very strongly that we should try to provide furniture.”
He said that in these communities there would be no alternative but to work for the dole.
But it’s a view rejected by Mr Ross and the APO NT who said both sides of politics refused to consider an Aboriginal-devised alternative that preserved some of the successful elements of CDEP.
"The Aboriginal Peak Organisations of the NT strongly disagree with the Minister's lazy claim that 'there are no alternatives' to his disturbing vision and would like to help him out," Mr Ross said.
"When we sought bi-partisan support for our comprehensive remote employment and enterprise development proposal in 2011 we were ignored, as are most solutions that are informed by on-the-ground evidence and experience." he said.
"Our proposal retains the successful features of the CDEP while overcoming its limitations," he said. "Yet it continues to languish while the Minister resigns himself to eternal unemployment out bush.
"We warned four years ago that the removal of the CDEP would decimate local community initiatives, such as the successful tourism enterprise at Titjikala community near Alice Springs", Mr Ross said.
The RJCP was also condemned by the peak body for Australia workers – the ACTU – earlier this year.
“Work for the Dole is not a pathway to on-going jobs”, ACTU President Ged Kearney said.
“Unemployed people who are placed into work experience must be paid the legal minimum wage with all the usual conditions of employment – these programs do nothing to tackle unemployment.
“Whether in Indigenous or non-Indigenous communities – we know work for the dole doesn’t work.”
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