The Guardian 1 February, 2006

Aboriginal youth:
guinea pigs for dole experiment

Bob Briton

Aboriginal people will once more be the test subjects of a scheme that will seek to impose new burdens on the unemployed. In 1997 the Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) on Aboriginal communities pioneered the concept of “work for the dole” for the rest of the population. Last week, Prime Minister John Howard and Employment Minister Kevin Andrews outlined a plan that would cut the CDEP payments to Aboriginal youth and divert them to pay for TAFE courses that might help the youth to obtain what the government calls “real jobs”. The pair is trying to pass off the establishment of a lower junior rate for work for the dole and the obligation for the extremely poor to pay for their own training as steps along the road to reconciliation.

“As I’ve said before, as a government we are willing to meet the Indigenous people more than half way on this road”, the PM told The Australian. This does not mean, however, that his government is proposing to offer Aboriginal people actual jobs with wages roughly half of what the well remunerated, long-serving PM pulls down. Far from it! As the Employment Minister explains, the new super-miserly CDEP payment would be imposed so that “you don’t have a perverse kind of incentive for someone who is 16 or 17 to go on CDEP and stay there without using it as a stepping stone to a real job.” In other words, the private sector (“real”) jobs are paying wages lower than the benefit available under the government’s present work for the dole scheme.

In recent months there has been a trickle of commentary in the columns of Australia’s broadsheet newspapers about how to rectify the scandalous level of unemployment among the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It has been suggested that problems caused by decades and decades of neglect will suddenly be solved by forcing people on remote communities to migrate to the cities. The fact is that CDEP is by far the biggest employer of Aboriginal people and explains why unemployment in remote areas stands at (a ridiculously underestimated) 9.5 per cent while in the cities it is a similarly discounted, at 16.9 per cent.

“In a lot of these places, you can’t get away from the fact that you need high government support to start creative opportunities. Policymakers say people should migrate to the cities, but the reality often is that they can’t migrate, and they can’t compete if they do migrate”, Professor Jon Altman of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the ANU told The Age last week.

In the same interview, the professor suggested investment in local alternatives like arts production, land management and coastal surveillance would help alleviate the crisis. However, the government is rusted onto the idea that Aboriginal youth should be forced into McJobs at low wages and pretending that the funding-starved TAFE system can somehow turn around the legacy of historic injustices.

Last week, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released figure that show that most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of working age do not have employment. In 2004, only 47 per cent of those aged 15 to 64 had a job. In the two years leading up to 2004, while job numbers (albeit largely casual positions) grew by 400,000 in the rest of the economy, Indigenous employment actually shrank by 2000. Professor Altman estimates that if those involved with CDEP were removed from the employment figures, joblessness among Aboriginal Australians would be more like 70 per cent.

The Minister for Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs Amanda Vanstone latched onto the ABS caution that the figures were estimates and that “It also covers the period before significant reforms were put in place by the Government including the Indigenous economic development strategy last November”. No doubt, the latest “reform” designed to rob people of payments under the Aboriginal work for the dole scheme would be viewed as part of that “strategy”. On the other hand, it is doubtful that the Minister is fooling many people that the employment situation for Aboriginal people is getting better. She and her colleagues demonstrate that the spirit of the era of stolen wages is alive and well.

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